Tau lave!

Jione Havea

Na’e tonu pë hono ui ia [fa’ë] ko e kuli’ he na’e ‘ikai te ne fai hono fatongia ke le’ohi ‘ene tama’ mei he fili’ {It is justified that she [mother] be called a dog because she failed her responsibility to safeguard her daughter} ‘ Talo Helu, commenting on Mark 7:24-30.

‘A’ahi kakai ‘ikai koe’uhi’ ‘oku faka’ofa si’i kau paea’, vaivai’, mo e masiva’, ka koe’uhi’ ko e kupu koe ‘o ‘enau haohaoa’ {Visit not out of pity for orphans, elderly, and the poor, but because you are a part of their totality} ‘ Koloni Lolohea, commenting on James 1:17-27.

Abstract: To do theology is to be involved, to encounter and be touched, so I utter a binding plea: Tau lave! We have devoted too much time to talking about [inter]faith and the presence of the divine Being. We must also claim space for doing theology by being embraced by the human Other. Tau lave is a call for the verbal exchange of speech with an obligation to inter-[entre]-act in faith seeking realisation, the stuff of revelation.

I celebrate Sia’atoutai Theological College’s golden jubilee by urging to glance ahead toward the future that is already at hand, the beyond that is always here (cf. Havea 1995). As a liberation biblical critic I cannot dwell in the past, like the past 50 years of Sia’atoutai for instance, which requires that I direct my attention away from the present and thereby displace myself.1 I choose to look forward, an option that also threatens to displace, so that I may account for the past and the present. The present is defined by possibilities beyond and realities behind us, the two extensions that encircle us in such a way that we cannot be so sure if they guard or restrict our present realities. Critics still have to decide how to define these connections. Yet we must look forward, in hopeful anticipation of what is beyond the horizon.

I have learned from The Lion King that "we should not put our behind in the past" (Pumba) but rather, "put the past behind us" (Timon). I must therefore leave the past for historical reconstructionists as I strive forward to embrace the possibilities that are available for the "poor" at the underside of history. I am of the underside of history, so I can only do Other-wise. As a liberation critic I must look ahead because the future is still uncolonised! Future possibilities give me the courage to face past and present fractures.

Like a surfer on an abrupt wave, this paper rides on the presumption that what await us in the future has something to do with how we, you-me-and-the-other, in our sameness and differences, react to the demand, Tau lave! This glance ahead anchors our focus in the present upon an obligation, which finds paths for Pacific theologies and island hermeneutics (cf. Havea 1993, 1996). Island resources are limited, so we depend on one another. We are interdependent and codependent, obligated and responsible for each other, the locus of Tau lave!

Tau lave! is an expression borrowed from the experience of Tongan commoners. It utters an obligation: Let’s talk! It calls for dialogue between at least three agents, the speaker included.2 Tau lave! transgresses the usual uncritical assumption that "dialogue" is an exchange between two sides only, by inserting a "third positionality" signified by the "u" added to "Ta lave!" of a two party talk. The presence of third positionalities, signifying possibilities that transform the process of dialogue into an opportunity for responsibility, is an essential element of Tau lave! Without a third positionality, the talk can only be an I-Thou exchange which, as Martin Buber (1970) has shown, can easily subside into an I-It relationship where the Thou is mistreated as an It. The third positionality ("u") guards against this objectifying tendency.

Third positionalities are agents that transform mere exchange of words into interchange of deeds, from talking into doing, from the dialogue of theo-logy into the praxis of liberation. For the purpose of this paper, I propose that "the poor" are agents at the third positionality who oblige us all with Tau lave! The poor are not just objects of charity and critical reflection, but agents who demand responsibility with their presence even if only in silence. The poor oblige us to tasks more demanding than works of mercy. They demand recognition, re-cognition, for we are a part of who they are.

The obligation Tau lave! has a sublime significance also, owing to the polyvalent verb "lave." In its simplest sense, "lave" means "touch" (whether intentional or unintentional). Fisher[wo]men use the same word for "snag," applicable for fishhook and anchor both, which may be valued differently depending on the situation. If we add an "a" to "lave" in order to arrive at "lavea," we transform this verb into "hurt" or "injury" which is usually the experience of ones who are really being "touched" or "snagged." The demand of Tau lave does not go as far as "lavea." It demands the kind of talk that does not hurt. It is an obligation that obliges its own limits. We must talk and touch, but we must not injure one another.

Out of this playful listening to the expression Tau lave! we arrive at a complex obligation. The call for dialogue takes on a different sense, albeit sublime. We are called upon to do more than just "talk." We are also obliged to touch and snag, that is, to encounter and to "talk in-deed." The double obligation of Tau lave is significant at this time in our Pacific islands because we have done a lot of talking about needing to talk, we have discussed the importance and fruits of dialogue, but there is not much evidence of actually doing it. Now and then when we say that we are dialoguing, we usually "talk over" each other, to the end that some voices often go unheard. A review of two recent issues of The Pacific Journal of Theology will illustrate my point.

I was particularly touched by the interchange between female voices in issue number 15 (1996) of the journal, but Jovili Meo’s opening remarks reveal that dialogue has not broken through the gender barrier. Meo opens with, "My dear sisters, and the few brothers who are here …" (13, my emphasis). It is unfortunate, but true, that most of the "brothers" do not listen to what our "sisters" have to say. The brothers are not even present! But there is much for us brothers to learn. Take for instance the "domestic theology" which Keiti Ann Kanongata’a proposes (pp. 73-75). She offers one way of bringing God’s feet down to the dirt on which we sleep and to our life spaces which, as an expression of revelation, makes more sense than the foreign modern theological concepts we learn from Western minds. Kanongata’a offers a theological construction that echoes Tongan commoners and their demands forTau lave! It is hard to do dialogue when we are not present for the other, and harder if we do not listen. It is on the "brothers" to be responsible for Other Pacific voices. Tau lave! is not a plea, but an obligation.

While writing this paper I was puzzled further when issue no. 18 (1997) arrives with an intriguing title, "Risking to be with Uprooted People." To label our relation to the uprooted people as a "risk" is an insult to the "option for the poor" for which Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Gustavo Gutiérrez argue and live, and so has many others both before and after them. Why is it a risk? If a risk, then to what are we called? The turn from option to risk is not a good sign in my judgment. It shows that Pacific theologians now have a stake which are threatened by the presence of uprooted people. The fear of losing their stake may be seen in the differences between contributors to that issue on just what "uprooted" means. For some (Simote M. Vea et al.) "uprooted" primarily concerns islanders who have migrated from their Pacific homes. They are uprooted because they now live in foreign lands. But having visited several communities of such Pacific migrants, I find this connotation too simplistic because for such people their uprooting has a positive effect. And those who remain in the islands often boast that the best commodity that they have exported are their relatives who send money from overseas. Being uprooted for these people is very different from situations that Jean Wete calls "internal displacement" (pp. 50-54) and Peter Salamonsen calls "forced displacement" (pp. 22-24). From the latter, being uprooted is neither an option nor a risk. It is unavoidable, a part of life. So we must not make light of other uprooting experiences, like African slaves in America and persecuted Jews in Europe, as well as the poor of Latin America, by sympathizing with Pacific migrants who are uprooted by choice.

In situations of internal and forced displacements, Tau lave! must be more than just the obligation to talk. It must involve touching and snagging, without hurting. Tau lave! utters a double obligation which transforms faith seeking understanding, the stuff of speech only dialogue, with faith seeking realisation, the practice that will also benefit the uprooted poor.3 That is the task for this paper.

Since the editor invited me only to a few words in this article, I will limit my attention to something that has been missing thus far from Pacific theological discussion: the uprooted voice of the poor. Not many native theologians take the time to read works by other pacific islanders,4 and fewer care to listen to the unschooled natives. Recently, while sobering up from reading a heavy dose of Derrida, Levinas, and Lacan, it dawned on me that I may learn equally from my kava drinking buddies. I make this confession not to insult these great scholars, but in realisation of their concerns for the Other (qua uprooted poor). That is why I began this paper with the words of two high school dropouts, Talo Helu and Koloni Lolohea. To these two ordinary readers we now turn, under the obligation of Tau lave!

Talo Helu’s response to Mark 7:24-30, "It is justified that she [mother] be called a dog because she failed her responsibility to guard her daughter from trouble" (my translation), may be offensive to women because his reading victimises the female victim in the story. The Mark 7:24-30 story tells of Jesus’s refusal to cast the devil out of the daughter of a Gentile woman because Jesus believed that "it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs" (v. 27). Helu identifies the mother with the dogs in Jesus’s response, and suggests that this mother does not deserve to get her wishes. Helu’s reading should be offensive to mothers, and most professional exegetes likewise.

But there is another side to Helu’s reading that manifests the third positionality of Tau lave! Helu calls attention to the issue of responsibility in parental and interpersonal affairs. As such, if we dismiss his ordinary comments we will miss the concept of responsibility that he introduces to the story. We may rightly condemn him for overlooking the gender differences in the text and in his reading, but we must give him the right to be concerned for children. The question of responsibility transcends the question of identity (cf. Kafoa 1997), and Helu helps us realise that "dogs" too deserve attention.

The mother was persistent, she obliged Jesus to be responsible, urging him to the domestic realms of theology (cf. Kanongata’a 1996). The narrator teases us that Jesus’s initial refusal may have been because the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophenician by race. So as we entertain Helu’s gender blind blame of the mother we also receive the sublime message (to Jesus-ologians!) that the mother anchored Jesus to earth so that he may account for his ethnic blindness. In this reading, ethnicity should not be a barrier when it comes to caring for children. In the end, Jesus changed his mind and assumed responsibility for the daughter who had no choice but to be a Gentile. In Helu’s reading, if Jesus had continued to refuse the mother’s request he would be a bigger dog than the mother herself. At the sublime level of Helu’s reading, responsibility for children is important insofar as he is the father of five children. Helu too is liable of being a bigger dog than the mother!

I must also bring Helu’s concern for responsibility to bear upon his own reading. Is Helu responsible to the text? This is a tough question, and I can’t satisfy every critic. If by responsibility to the text is meant a "correct presentation" of what the text says, then I admit that Helu is not always responsible. But who among us can give the correct presentation? On whose terms? Do we not only offer "close representations" of the text with our best efforts? To venture a reading, an interpretation, is already to say more than what the text says (so J. Severino Croatto, 1987). As such, all critical exegetes too are irresponsible together with Helu.

If on the other hand responsibility to the text is an obligation to respond to the demands (response-ability) of the text, then I believe that Helu showed us one of this text’s demands. The credibility of his reading is not based on the criteria of correct or close reading, but on the basis of the responsibility to which he obliges us. In this regard, Helu did not go far enough. Helu condemns the mother for being responsible for her daughter, for doing what he wants her to do. At the very moment she utters her plea on behalf of her daughter, she is no longer a dog. She did not ask for much, and it was not necessary to take food from the children so that she may fulfill her responsibility. All that she asks for are the crumbs that children leave beneath the table. She requests the food of the poor, at the underside of the table, with which her responsibility is fulfilled. The mother’s determination to be responsible for her daughter haunts Helu’s reading, and undermines our drives for correct presentations.

Koloni Lolohea’s reading of James 1:17-27 expands our view of responsibility. The Epistle of James is a troubling text. It proclaims that one should not be content just to "listen to the word," rather one must "live by the word" also. Lolohea picks up on the praxis orientation of this epistle and proposes that we owe each other the presence of our faces: "Visit not out of pity for orphans, elderly, and the poor, but because you are a part of their totality" (my translation). To be concerned for the Other out of pity is a self-centered attitude, because one is moved to act on the basis of ones personal opinion. The practical alternative is to actualise ones concern for the Other out of an Other-centered liability, which we find in the totality that serves as the foundation for visitation in Lolohea’s reading. The two ends of the James 1:17-27 pericope fuse. We pay visits (v. 27) because we share in the totality of the Other, a gift that comes to us from above (v.17).

This reading seems idealistic, and rightly so in so far as Lolohea is an idealistic reader who happens to be a single man who believes that he shares in the totality of another (!). But it is only idealistic if we feel that it is a risk to visit and "be with" those who are vulnerable to the possibility of being uprooted, or who are actual victims of forced displacement, such as orphans, elderly, and the poor. If on the other hand we read from the point of view of uprooted people, Lolohea’s reading is realistic because we are talking about their reality. The challenge for us is to find a way to fuse these two perspectives, to bring the reality of uprooted people to bear on theological statements by critics who can only imagine it. I propose that we may begin by taking into account insights from ordinary readers like Lolohea and Helu, and we must not stop at "listening" only but we must go as far as responding to the sublime obligation of Tau lave! We must interact with them, that is, we must entre-act, act in between, the place of third positionality where we seek to realise the possibility of responsibility.

By justifying our responsibility for the Other upon the totality that we co-share, Lolohea realises the beyond that I proposed to address in this paper. Lolohea’s idea of totality is the beyond that is always already here, that which at the third positionality gives us the courage to account for present and past fractures. From the mouth of an ordinary reader comes something sweet and binding, to remind us that we share in the totality of the Other. We are not the totality in our own selves, but we are a_part of the totality of the Other. In this construction totality is not defined from our individualities, but in terms of our participation in the realm of the Other. We are obliged to face the face of the Other and make their totality, which is ours also, possible. Here lies our responsibility: We are obligated to the Other by Tau lave!

By sharing Helu’s reading of responsibility and Lolohea’s challenge of totality I force their names to scrutiny from all corners of the Pacific theological arena, and they have every right to resist my representation of their views. I am ultimately responsible for consciously sharing two eisegetical (?) readings, and charges may rightly be brought against me for subjecting Helu and Lolohea into a forum in which they cannot defend themselves. I am guilty of (mis?)using two friends for my own interests. I am also guilty of exposing Pacific theologians to the demands of Other voices. I accept all these charges and I still charge, Tau lave! Caveat emptor because if we do not respond to the obligation to talk and touch, we surrender our response-ability.

While writing this paper I stayed in touch with both of them, translating back to them what I claim to be their ideas and preparing them for the possibility of acceptance or rejection for such views. We were all transformed in the process. I helped them account for their ideological baggage, and they gave me the opportunity to realise my idiosyncrasies and face what I have only been reading in texts from scholars like Lacan, Levinas, and Derrida. My appeal to the language of Other, responsibility, and totality echo these scholars’ works. Notwithstanding the voices of Helu and Lolohea maintain their distinctiveness in my paper, now and then drowned by my narrating and critiquing voice, and together we utter the obligation of third positionality, Tau lave!

The foregoing reflection leads us to a very simple question, So what? I proposed above to look ahead, and I have done so by entertaining two ordinary readings that give me the opportunity to address some fractures in Pacific theological dialogue. In this issue of the journal which celebrates Sia’atoutai Theological College with the opportunity for contributions by "Tongans doing theology," I exposed the views of two commoners and disclosed the double obligation of Tau lave! On many accounts I feel that both Helu and Lolohea are better theologians than I. I must face my responsibility to them, and to others like them, for I am a part of their totality.

I am troubled that there is a need to introduce the voice of the Other to Pacific theologians. This suggests that we often theologise with closed eyes, and with folded arms. As a consequence we have not fully realised the presence of the Other in our midst. We must theologise with our eyes and arms, and accept our blessing with the chance to live and talk among the poor, and with the poor (so Daniel Patte, Gerald West, et al.). The poor do not threaten us with a risk but they bless us with an opportunity, and we are obliged to realise that we share in their totality. Only then can we account for the fractures in past and present theological constructions.

As I was revising this article Cyclone Ron hit Niua Fo’ou (Jan 05-06, 1998), which is at the northern end of the Tongan chain of islands, a few months after Cyclone Hina visited the same island to destroy their food crops and destabilise their dwellings. No human life was lost this time, as the burden of this "natural visit" fell upon their properties. All but one house was damaged, most of them severely, and all church buildings were destroyed. How do we do theology from such a context?5 Do we continue to talk about deliverance, or start realising it? It is not crucial where and how to begin, whether at the plantations or at family homes and church properties, but that we get started. In the end, it is not what I have said here that matters but what we do next. What counts is what happens after I/we stop talking! We must, in our response-ability, accept our obligation to the sublime voice of the uprooted poor, not out of pity but because we share in their totality: Tau lave!



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Croatto, J. Severino. 1987. Biblical Hermeneutics: Toward a Theory of Reading as the Production of Meaning. Trans. Robert R. Barr. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Havea, Jione [John]. 1993. "A reconsideration of pacificness in search of a south pacific theology." The Pacific Journal of Theology Series II No. 10:5-16.

__. 1995. "The future stands between here and there: towards an is-land(ic) hermeneutics." The Pacific Journal of Theology Series II No. 13:61-68.

__. 1996. "Shifting the boundaries: house of God and the politics of reading." At http//:www.tongatapu.net.to/tonga/convictions/christianity/shifting.html

Kafoa, Solomone. 1997. "One Gospel: Contextually Inclusive and/or Exclusive." The Pacific Journal of Theology Series II No. 17:7-23.

Kanongata’a, Keiti Ann. 1996. "Domestic Theology." The Pacific Journal of Theology Series II No. 15:73-75.

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