One day, while our Māori Anglican dad was at work, our Pākehā Catholic mum rushed her brood off to the local priest and had us baptised.

Dad clammed up for a bit, but came around. He reckoned it was good we were “something.” Next minute, we were off to weekly Catechism classes in preparation for our first Holy Communion. I didn’t really get the Sacraments.

I was busy trying to avoid a hiding from two bigger girls who obviously didn’t get it either.

There was a lot about religion I liked. Storytelling. Singing. Some of the nuns and priests. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That stuck with me.

Confession was stressful for me and my mates as 12-year-olds. We’d agonise over trying to conjure up a couple of sins so we could at least hold a half-decent conversation with the mysterious man in the dark booth. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” I’d tremble after the tiny window slid back. I’d peer into the darkness at a pair of moving lips, wondering which priest it was.

“Um, I had some … bad thoughts?”

The poor priest must have been catatonic with excitement. Ten Hail Marys, a couple of Our Fathers, then I was good to go. You gotta love that about the Catholics.

After I left the convent school, I started at Auckland University. My mates and I would trot along dutifully to Te Unga Waka for Sunday mass. We were well programmed — for a while, anyway. Late night parties in our garage tended to bugger up that sort of stuff. Jesus was gradually eased out by Bob Marley on high rotate. But we tried to hang in there.

During our big OE, my mate Erana and I bought some fragrant pink rosary beads in Barcelona, handmade by local nuns. I remember approaching a couple of priests in the Vatican: “Excuse me, Father, can you please … ” The first priest visibly recoiled. The second brushed my outstretched hand away. They both rushed off, jabbering away in Italian.

“… bless these beads?” I mumbled into dead air left in their wake.

Standing there clutching my Spanish rosary beads, I looked down at my clothes and turned to my mate, “They thought I was a beggar.” We surveyed a cacophony of stalls selling tea towels, T-shirts and coffee cups emblazoned with mugshots of the pope, and wondered why priests wouldn’t be kind to a beggar anyway.

My little bubble of religious fervour started to deflate right there on the steps of the world’s most famous Catholic cathedral.

Auckland also proved an intoxicating distraction to the Blessed Virgin. Things accelerated on the party front, until one day I stopped going to mass.

A lot more air hissed out as my law professors described how religion and law were such important tools in the colonisation of Aotearoa. The professors put me off both. Decolonisation was underway. I was slowly being de-programmed.

Meanwhile, some of the most influential people in my life were hard out social justice activists, and two happened to be ministers. Reverend Rua Rakena (Methodist) and Canon Hone Kaa (Anglican), along with their Catholic friend Rob Cooper. They despatched me to Manila the day after a coup to join a human rights programme for lawyers. What an eye-opener.

But religion is tough to lose.

My cousin Max Takuira Mariu was the first ordained Māori Catholic bishop. The pope referred to him as the Bambino Bishop because of his relative youth. Max and I wrote long letters to each other. I’d challenge church tikanga, he would send me cassettes and lyrics of old waiata tawhito. Occasionally, I’d ‘fess up to stuff that would’ve made the priest’s ears perk up back in the day. Nothing seemed to throw the bishop. He was that kind of guy.

The last time I was actively involved in Catholicism was when I asked Max to baptise my first child in the little Anglican church at Waitetoko marae. I remember hearing him recite the Prayer of Exorcism to “cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil” over my baby boy.

Yeah, nah, I thought. My relationship to Jesus continued to unravel inside that most lovely of churches.

With my second child, our kaumātua Te Kanawa Pitiroi performed a tohi on the shores of Lake Taupō. There was no Christian influence in this dedication ceremony. It was karakia tūturu, all about balance. And that made perfect sense. My daughter has grown up learning karakia that acknowledges the ancestors, our relationship with the land, the environment, the cosmos — and our place in it.

It’s hard being brown sometimes.

Israel Folau is a perfect example. Folau’s response to a question around his religious beliefs proves how successful religion has been as a tool of colonisation. The star rugby player has been slammed for sharing archaic religious views, the kind that hark back to those early missionary days.

His particular brand of religion believes that gays will go to hell. And drunkards, adulterers, thieves, the sexually immoral, and idolaters. Oh, and revilers. I had to look up the definition of that.

It sure does sound like hell is where the party is.

If you believe in heaven and hell, fall into any one of these camps, and care about what Israel Folau says, then of course it would be disturbing. Even if you don’t believe in the hereafter, such thinking reinforces the narrow, conservative prescription of what constitutes a good and worthy person.

The enlightened among us, particularly descendants of those original colonisers, have moved on. Many Pākehā accept that the fundamentalist Christian worldview their ancestors exported into Polynesia is seriously flawed. Bigoted. Dangerous. Many Christians condemn Old Testament thinking, describing their own faith as loving and inclusive.

As a kid, Milton’s Paradise Lost used to scare the bejesus out of me. Now I look at it as a highly colourful piece of fiction. My kaumātua at Waihi Village, on the shores of Lake Taupō, saw no conflict between their religious and tikanga beliefs. The Māori afterlife involves soaring across the mountain ranges towards Hawaiki to hang with the tūpuna. Way less stressful than heaven or hell.

Who knows what really happens, if anything at all?

One thing I certainly don’t expect is bits of my incinerated body floating across a public stage, despite music being very much a part of my own identity. That’s what also happened this week when the Headless Chickens “spontaneously” decided to pay tribute to the much loved Grant Fell by sprinkling a vial of his ashes on to the Wintergarden stage.

“I understand it’s not in line with tikanga,” said his wife. “But we all come from different places and we don’t adhere to every tradition.”

All good and true if people rub the remains of their dead friend on to their clothing in the privacy of their own home. But, by exercising their tikanga in a public space, with no consideration for those present, the band violated the tikanga of other musicians.

What was most interesting were the discussions around religion and spirituality that followed. There were a number of Pākehā who were thrown by the action. And many others, both Pākehā and Māori, who cheered it on. Some comments were nothing more than veiled attacks on Māori belief systems.

Some critics — including Māori — assumed that Māori beliefs around human remains is a Christian throwback. No. Our people actually had a complex system of beliefs before the arrival of the missionaries. The ritual around tangihanga may have changed, but basic values and beliefs around tapu and death haven’t.

Others condemned Māori thinking as “superstition.” That smacks of the same racism and arrogance represented by those first colonising missionaries.

And then there was this reaction: “Why should Māori beliefs be any more important than anyone else’s?”

Surely, the question is why, in 2018, tikanga Māori should be any less important than anyone else’s?

All these responses serve to minimise the authenticity of Māori beliefs, dismissing them as an irrelevant sideshow to the main act, whether it’s the evangelical fervour of organised religion or an ever-growing secular society.

For Māori, few things are more tapu than death. And that tapu, whether it’s attached to the corpse, bones, ashes, clothing or whatever, extends to anything or anyone who comes into contact with it.

Iwi have been battling for many years to prevent human remains from being tossed into the sea or rivers, our food baskets. This has nothing to do with Christian religion. It’s part of a rich and ornate ancestral worldview that acknowledges the place of humans within the natural environment — and our relationship to each other, as well as ancestors past and descendants to come.

Just because it’s not the perspective of the dominant colonising culture, doesn’t make it any less worthy.

© e-tangata, 2018

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.