So Destiny Church has finally found a new home. But is that any reason we should help fund it? On the other hand, if other faiths get a go, why not them?
The Destiny Church's plan to build a new "city" in Wiri, South Auckland is following what's become a tried and true path for any stories involving Brian Tamaki's controversial movement – Tamaki utters hyperbole aimed at believers, media report said hyperbole to wider audience, and that mostly secular audience instantly expresses strong but divided opinions – either horror and suspicion at his weird beliefs or support for his social work.
Tamaki, whose self-stylings as a "bishop" tell you much about where he's coming from in terms of ego and self-centred interpretation of Christian faith, is good copy.
Yet while he's unique in New Zealand these days, he's really just a combo of two archetypes – the late 20th Century US mega church leader and the 19th Century Maori prophet. There's a long tradition of pentecostal Christian pastors who both prey on and nurture their followers and an even older tradition of Maori prophetic movements offering hope and glory to those who feel oppressed or out of kilter with modern trends.
I'm not saying Tamaki has anything like the Mana of a Te Whiti, Te Kooti or Wiremu Ratana, just that that's the local tradition he stems from.
The latest news is that Destiny has won Auckland Council consent to build what he calls a new "town" in South Auckland. Drawing on more biblical language he describes it as the church's "promised land"; in 2008 he spoke about building a "kingdom" in Manukau before an earlier proposed property deal fell through.
Cue public outrage and debate. But let's step back a moment. This "town" is really a school, offices, gym, hair salon and, well, not much more. Presumably it involves a number of homes, but no-one has reported how many. That's a key question, but let's not forget this is on all of three hectares.
Reports say Tamaki is talking of building a university. That ain't gonna happen; some private training establishment offering tertiary papers is of course possible, but the red tape is extensive and the thresholds very clear and high. The Education Act 1989 has clear guidelines for what a university must be, including these characteristics:
(i) They are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:
(ii) Their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:
(iii) They meet international standards of research and teaching:
(iv) They are a repository of knowledge and expertise: and
(v) They accept a role as critic and conscience of society.
Ultimately government has to support the accreditation, something even Unitec failed to achieve despite years of lobbying.
So while the language for his congregation is typically grandiose, let's not get trapped by that.
Last night One News reported Tamaki reckons he could do with some government money and Dr Pita Sharples said that may not be a bad idea. Cue further outrage.
But again, let's step back. Catholics get state money for schools, the Salvation Army for social work. Neither of those are perfect institutions with perfect track records. Indeed, Destiny already receives government money for its (reportedly effective) social services.
And heck, some Pacific churches can be just about as all-inclusive as Tamaki proposes (as the ever-wise Dr Peter Lineham points out here).
Sharples, as a founder of the Kura Kaupapa movement, could hardly credibly argue against schools that do something different but still get government funding. And as co-leader of the Maori Party he could hardly rail against a movement that has significant support amongst his core voters.
But that's a long way from winning over the government and sundry bureaucrats.
Still, politicians should beware involvement with Destiny and its leadership; they march to a different beat. Their values are less negotiable than most in the political world, their goals very different and their language and method devoutly faith-based.
Should our leaders and our taxes head off to Destiny Town as well?
Dr Sharples said:
"It's far more positive if you can keep people out of going to prison. That's where we've got a start, not try and reform them after."
Which is all well and good, but is there any evidence that a school, gym and a few homes keep anyone out of prison?
Destiny Church is a very mixed bag. I've had too many people tell me of the good work it does with the down-trodden to dismiss them out of hand; spiritual discipline of any kind can be a good thing (yet, of course, can become a very bad thing as well). And I'm not convinced that "cult" is quite the best word to describe the church. Have no doubt that Destiny has changed many lives for the better and is full of decent, committed people with a sincere faith.
Still, that doesn't give it a free pass. Tamaki also distorts the faith he claims to represent – the extent (and manner) to which he profits from his followers is disgraceful and at odds with the gospel, his theology is bigoted – in some cases frankly bizarre and unhealthy, and the congregations' commitment to him over Christ and the bible is verging on dangerous.
It's too long a bow to assume that any Destiny "town" will turn into a Waco-style compound with terrible ends, but politicians should consider where this community may end up, for good or ill. Right now some politicians may be tempted to see Tamaki as a nutty guy who nevertheless does portions of their hard work for them, and therefore deserves a shot. It's true that you don't have to agree with or like everyone you fund – it comes down to evidence of what the agency in question can do and how it does it.
But is his work thus far sufficient? Is there any proof Tamaki can deliver on any of his promises to build healthy families? And can he do it better than other organisations already working in the field? How tightly are the services bound up with accepting the theology?
Is Tamaki, as a man who manipulates money from his followers, a fit and proper partner? Should public money go to a community where its leader cannot be challenged? Or is that no different from the Pope? Is Destiny willing to make the concession to secularism that the other independent religious schools do? Is it good for the South Auckland community to have an island for this unhealthy community in its midst? Or is it no different from any gated community?
While Destiny's good works cannot be ignored, our leaders need to be careful not to be taken in by false prophets in any form.