June 22, 2003 - Sermon Seekers: Meg Kinghorn learned about coconut theology when she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Pacific Republic of Kiribati 10 years ago

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kiribati: Peace Corps Kiribati : The Peace Corps in Kiribati: June 22, 2003 - Sermon Seekers: Meg Kinghorn learned about coconut theology when she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Pacific Republic of Kiribati 10 years ago

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Meg Kinghorn learned about coconut theology when she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Pacific Republic of Kiribati 10 years ago

Meg Kinghorn learned about coconut theology when she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Pacific Republic of Kiribati 10 years ago

Coconut Theology

I have to admit it is a bit intimidating preaching to all these theological students or graduates. Therefore, I’m going to talk this morning about coconut theology. I feel that this can be my contribution to "spice the soup", so to speak. I’m also hoping that no one studies it in seminary and I won’t get many disagreements with my interpretation.

But I’m here on Transfiguration Sunday. The readings for today are about "God sightings" - an in-breaking of the sacred. Moses visiting God to receive the commandments for the Israelites and Jesus in an intense "transformative" mystical experience resulting from prayer. Not many of us experience these. I always thought burning bushes and pillars of clouds were good ideas. They are clear, concise. Most of us experience god in very ordinary ways -- nature, relationships, etc. That is the essence of coconut theology.

I learned about coconut theology when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Pacific Republic of Kiribati 10 years ago. A small theological college called Tungintabu adopted me. I lived a few miles away in the village of Autingeanea and I would ride my bicycle to Tungintabu every evening to spend the evening with my friend Bate and his family. Through many conversations, I learned more about the I-Kiribati version of Christianity.

The Pacific islands were not always Christian, of course. The I-Kiribati had a well-developed local religion consisting of spirits and ancestors. They were very familiar with the sacred. Taboo is Pacific Island word and conveys a concept of an item or place being sacred. In Kiribati, the word is ‘tabu’; in Tongan, it is ‘tapu'.

Before Western religion, their understanding of an after life centered on the Spirit of Nakaa. Each person when he/she dies would have to walk to the place of Nakaa who sat on a rock at the very northern place of the Gilbert Islands (identified still today as the rock thrusting out of the ocean with all the flies on it). Nakaa would be mending his nets. It was responsibility of the decease’s family to make the way straight for their loved one so that she/he would be able to slip under Nakaa’s arm on an upswing and enter into the eternal botaki or feast. The alternative was to be caught on a downswing and be forever impaled on Nakaa’s mending hook.

The first missionaries arrived in Kiribati in 1850. They told of a God that would give eternal life in a beautiful place. So this eternal paradise or eternal damnation was familiar to them. But rather than the ill-tempered spirits of their worship, Christianity brought with it the appeal of a kind and loving as well as powerful God. And so the islands were Christianized. Now there is no trace of the indigenous religion on the outside. Everyone is either Catholic or Protestant, or Bahai, or Mormon, or one of the smaller denominations. If you scratch deep enough, you will find that their understanding of Christianity still has it roots in their traditional religion, with a thick veneer or Western Christianity.

The emergence of coconut theology validates this understanding by reclaiming this first-hand intimate understanding of God from their indigenous perspective. Used to say that it would be easier for the I-Kiribati to live if air disappeared more than the coconut tree. It is central to their very existence. The brilliance of Jesus as a speaker was his ability to explain theology through commonplace symbols and metaphors. There is nothing sacred about God as a sower, or a baker. The are just things people could relate to. If Jesus were born into a coconut culture, he would have used images of the coconut. So for example, coconut theology describes God’s time and wisdom. When a coconut is ready, it will fall of its own accord. You can’t force the coconut to fall before it is ready. If you do, you get lousy coconuts. Some churches are now using coconut meat and water for communion with the words, "I am the coconut of life."

But this isn’t true for everything. The foreign words and images are still dominant. For example, the Catholic churches on the islands would process statues of Mary from village to village once a year for the Annunciation. In this statue, Mary weighed all of 100 lbs., had alabaster skin and a sad melancholy temperament that wouldn’t hurt a fly. A Peace Corps friend of mine got into quite a bit of trouble one year with the church when he was asked to speak as an I-matang (European), since Mary was also an I-matang. Tom pointed out that Mary probably looked more like them than him, which really displeased the priests and villagers.

I encountered this same "europeanization" in the Gaza Strip. While visiting one of two churches in the strip, I noticed that all the icons of the Jesus and the apostles bore distinctly European features. Here of all places! In the Holy Land itself Jesus had become a European, a foreigner.

This got me thinking quite a bit about the icons and rituals I had grown up with and taken for granted. For example, the same image of Mary is also pervasive in our culture. I find little in common with this image. She doesn’t look like she is very familiar with anger, jealousy, or insecurities. This is the picture of Mary I prefer to use. This woman I can relate to. She looks like she has experienced life. This woman you would be likely to hear yelling, "Jesus, I know God is your father. But I’m you’re mother and I’m telling you to come in and get ready for dinner!"

I grew up in the Episcopal Church and had all of Rite II memorized by the time I was 10. I learned words of comfort like, "Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you." This makes me think of a God who responds to my pain by making me wash my hands before handing me a refreshing cup of tea!

For me, it makes God remote and inaccessible. I think that by tap dancing with God, I tend to compartmentalize my ugly side. Our good holy, upstanding Christian self is what I bring to church on Sunday. And if I can’t bring it to God in church, you have to hide it from Him the rest of the time. So it becomes the hidden alcove of my sole. I bring my strong knowledgeable self and leave my broken self at home locked in the closet.

All throughout his ministry, Jesus was preaching the simplicity and accessibility of the Kingdom of God and kept hammering away at this common theme. He said, "Love your God with all your heart and mind and sole -- Love Him with everything you’ve got -- and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. That is what all the laws and prophets messages boil down to." He also said that there would be a time when people would not worship on sacred mountains or holy temples. They wouldn’t need them and would be able to worship God in spirit and in truth within their own hearts. It was a message of simplicity and accessibility.

It is not the form that is important, but the message. The gospel for today very clearly says that building tents is missing the point - listening is getting it. Moses didn’t come out and say, "Wow, let me tell you what God looks like!" As a matter-of-fact, it isn’t even part of the passage. He talked about what God said. The voice on Mt. Tabor didn’t say, "This is my beloved son, notice what he is wearing," or "Notice where he is standing," but "Listen to him!"

But we humans love to argue about form. There is too much of the former and too little of the latter in my opinion, especially in the Middle East. People are so preoccupied with spaces and places and they will do all kinds of harm to others who also care about those places - ignoring the message of compassion and tolerance that was delivered there!

We have divided ourselves quite painfully over issues of transubstantiation and who can concentrate communion. Divide yourselves among who can and cannot make this holy according to gender, marital status and sexual orientation.

But what does this have to do with Seekers? This is a group that puts dolls on the altar. It makes up its own liturgy on a regular basis and has been knows to pass out cookies during the sermon. It is the bridging the secular and sacred within Seekers that I have found so valuable. Within this bridging, everything becomes sacred and non-distinct from things usually labeled ‘sacred’. Last week’s service was a perfect example of this. Sterling offered us music from Judy Garland and placed a valentine to Jesus on the altar.

And so I find I am invited to form my own ‘coconut theology’ - to claim my own intimate understanding of God based on my own experience of the sacred.

When I was an idealistic PCV watching the sunsets daily in Autingeanea, I found the ocean to be a perfect metaphor for God. It is gentle and soothing, as well as brutally violent. It is as erratic and chaotic as it is routine and watch-settingly predictably. It is a giver of live, and seemingly sense taker of the same. It is a thing to be loved, and a thing to be feared. It was just outside my house, and in places far away I knew nothing about.

I have therefore formed my own understanding of the Last Supper. It goes something like this. On the night before Jesus was crucified, he gathered together with his friends and said, "You dear, sweet, wonderful friends. I have been with you for 3 years now and shown and explained some remarkable things. But you still don’t get it. I will be leaving you soon so this is my last chance. I will try to hang this on one of the most common experiences you have - eating together. When you do this, think of me, think of how much I love you, and thing of everything I have taught you. Then try as best you can to apply it to your own lives. "

God can be found in complicated exegesis. God does reveal Gods-self in spectacular shows of power and might - such as pillars of clouds and doves. God is also revealed in everything around us. As so we are invited to meet the living God who is our God in the breaking of bread, the breaking of waves, and in the dropping of coconuts.


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The following description of Coconut Theology is given by Baranite Kirata Former Secretary General of the Kiribati Protestant Church:

Here are a few thoughts from ‘Amanaki S. Havea, a prominent Pacific theologian who has been principal of Pacific Theological College. Havea stressed that one can become Christian without being westernized. The gospel should become accessible as a "first-hand, native-rooted Good news to the Pacific." Following the example of Jesus who took symbols and metaphors from the daily lives of the Jews, Pacific theology is apt to use local ingredients for a local outlook such as the coconut, fish, fruit, and kava. I am sure that if Jesus had been born to a coconut culture, he would have used the coconut instead of bread and wine. The coconut tree features as Havea’s central theological image, and it is significantly a vertical once, with the coconut falling like water down to the lowest level; if it floats it finally lands on new soil. Guess what happens? It will set its roots to grow and bear fruit there in the soil of its newfound land.

The moveable coconut which can move with the wind (bends, also can be uprooted but it will break in strong storms) symbolizes and as such challenges the religious status quo, in some instances, has responded positively to these cultural-theological reflections. Somebody (John Garrett, former lecturer of Church History at PTC) commented in a theological consultation in Basle (Oct 1981),

Protestants and Catholics increasingly cheerfully make their communion with baked taro, or with coconut meat and with liquids from the coconut, their familiar source of life. Who will rebuke their faith that he who makes water wine meets their needs through their daily food? The risen Christ appears, a Real Presence in new places under different skies."

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Story Source: Sermon Seekers

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kiribati; Theology; Religon; Coconuts; I-Kiribati version of Christianity



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