Forgiveness Realised

Toward the end of our recent visit to Vancouver, we travelled over to the University of British Columbia campus, to see the Museum of Anthropology there. We saw lots of amazing First Nations artefacts and stories in the Multiversity Galleries there, but the exhibit that moved me most deeply was the record of a Journey of Reconciliation that took place in the Pacific. 

The island of Erromango in the New Hebrides - now Vanuatu - was in 1890 the site of an horrific murder. The nineteenth-century English missionary the Reverend John Williams  had travelled to the South Pacific with the Congregationalist London Missionary Society, intent on sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with the peoples of the Polynesian island chains. With the support of his wife and others, he had successfully established congregations in Tahiti, Rarotonga and Samoa. He translated the New Testament into Cook Island Maori, and was revered in London as a leader of missionary endeavour in the Pacific.

Williams and fellow missionary John Harris arrived at Dillon Bay on Erromango in 1839. Days before, European sandalwood traders had killed people on the island of Erromango, and when the missionaries stepped ashore at Dillons Bay the reaction was hostile. The captain of their missionary ship was an eye witness and reported that Mr Harris was clubbed down and killed on the beach, and  then John Williams  was beaten and shot with arrows as he ran towards the sea, and died in the shallows. Later when a Royal Navy ship visited the island, it was learned that the islanders had eaten both Harris and Williams.

In December 2009, after a lengthy collaboration between the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and church and cultural leaders in Vanuatu, 18 descendants of John Williams from around the world travelled to Erromango to accept the apologies of descendants of those who killed their ancestor in a ceremony of reconciliation. First the family members were dressed in bright island clothing, to signify their inclusion in the community. Then a reenactment of the murder was carried out, and I found the photos of these Bible-bearing men being clubbed down and then laid on the beach covered in (fake) blood moved me to tears. The drama aroused such weeping and wailing among the locals that the visitors felt compelled to embrace them and reassure them that they were forgiven. In the sombre ceremony of apology, dozens of descendants of those responsible for the deaths queued up to grasp hands and clear their consciences of past deeds. 

As part of the reconciliation, 170 years after Mr William was killed, his great-great grandson Charles Milner-Williams, of Hampshire, agreed to accept responsibility for the education of a seven-year-old girl who was ceremonially handed to him in exchange for the loss of his ancestor. He said: “I thought I would be dispassionate after 170 years, but the raw emotion, the genuine contrition, the heart-rending sorrow, has been hugely moving.”

Member of the Vanuatuan parliament and anthropologist Ralph Regenvanu helped to bring about the reconciliation.He said it was "very important" for the people of Erromango. "They've had a psychological guilt or complex about the fact there may be some kind of curse on the island because of the killing of the missionary John Williams here, all those years ago," he said."Cannibalism, contrary to what a lot of people think, was traditionally a very ritualistic and sacred was a way of vanquishing a threat, absorbing the power of an enemy. John Williams may have been eaten because he represented this threat, this incursion of European civilisation that was coming into Erromango at that time." This is why the apology was also enacted in a very ritualistic way and was considered to be a sacred activity. "Reconciliation is very much part of our culture. Saying sorry is part of it but all reconciliation ceremonies require something from each side, there's always that element of exchange."

The President of Vanuatu, Iolo Johnson Abbil, said it was a significant event for the country as a whole, where Christianity is now strong. To mark the 170th anniversary of the death of Williams and Harris, Dillons Bay has been renamed Williams Bay as a mark of respect and reconciliation.

The Story is memorable - and not just because people who had nothing to do with an act of murder felt a collective responsibility (pertinent to Treaty issues in NZ?). It is moving because it speaks of the importance of making forgiveness explicit, and of using words and actions as symbols of grace. And for Christians of all traditions, the gift of the child recalls the Greatest Gift of all, that of the Only Son of God to bring reconciliation to all humanity. I didn't get to church this week, but in Vancouver I heard and felt Gods word preached in a  real way.

To Chew Over: How can I "realise" forgiveness more?