COMMENT:

Brian Tamaki began his Sermon on the Flat, at the "lower" Te Tii Marae by the beach at Waitangi, with a reading from the Second Book of Samuel, chapter 3, verse 1. And the house of David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker.

"So there it is," he said. "God is saying there's gonna be a transfer from one system to a new system."

Saul, he explained, was "history", although Saul didn't know that. And David was "the future".

Advertisement

David was also Brian, and Saul was the current ways of Waitangi, which in Tamaki's telling are the same as they have always been.

Brian Tamaki, self-appointed Apostle Bishop of the Destiny Church, had come to Waitangi to proclaim the dawning of a new age. What did it mean?

He'd brought his Tu Tangata Riders with him: very big men in studded black leather, on very large motorbikes, mostly Harley-Davidsons. They lined up their hogs in gleaming rows in the big paddock and every few hours a few of them would go thundering up and down the road.

Destiny Church followers and Brian Tamaki arrive at Te Tii Marae for Waitangi celebrations. Photo / Michael Craig
Destiny Church followers and Brian Tamaki arrive at Te Tii Marae for Waitangi celebrations. Photo / Michael Craig

I counted exactly 90. There'd been talk of hundreds, but who's quibbling – 90 was impressive.

There'd been talk of thousands of other followers, too, although that turned out to be maybe 1500. Still, there weren't enough chairs, enough shade, a good enough PA. Many in the crowd had to stand, hearing little, under a very hot sun.

He wore a black jacket, black jeans and an open-necked white shirt. Most of the crowd wore the official merch: T-shirts proclaiming "No young person is beyond the reach of change". Also, "Raising fathers to save our children", worn by the Tu Tangata men, and "I AM EMPOWERED", worn by women and girls.

Tamaki spoke for 45 minutes without notes and he had both a simple message and a convoluted, drifting argument.

He praised the intentions of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and condemned the confiscation of Māori land and the "atrocities" that had occurred. He's no Don Brash.

Advertisement

"Forever," he said, "Māori have had to struggle with a colonial curse." He stressed that phrase. "I'm here to tell you that that's gonna stop right now!" It would not be easy. "It took David five minutes to defeat Goliath, but 18 years of warfare to defeat King Saul. They had to fight."

He said that several times: when you're on the side of the Lord there's fighting to be done.

Good macho, not bad macho. Living the difference is the essence of the Man Up Tu Tangata programmes associated with Tamaki and the Destiny Church. There was bristling enthusiasm in the crowd.

Brian Tamaki brought his Tu Tangata Riders with him. Photo / Michael Craig
Brian Tamaki brought his Tu Tangata Riders with him. Photo / Michael Craig

Then this: "It's been 179 years for a new Word to come from Waitangi." That's a reference to the treaty being 170 years old. "God alone is the Lord, and I'm here as an Apostle to tell you this. What was birthed at Waitangi, besides the Treaty, was the Word of God!"

That was a surprise.

Next year at Waitangi, Tamaki said, would be "the game changer". History would be swept away, traditions would be broken. "Jesus smashed traditions," he said, and mentioned the breaking of Sabbath rituals.

"Any time the law keeps you bound and doesn't let you free, break the thing," Tamaki said. He paused to consider the implications of that. "I'm not saying you should just go out and break the law," he decided.

And as reported on Wednesday, he told a story, from the Muslim African-American activist Malcolm X, about how there are "two types of n******": docile "house n******" and angry "field n******".

"I'm just going to go there," he said. "When I say n***** I mean there are two types of Māori." He grinned at them. They got it.

"The white masters used the house n****** to keep the field n****** in check," he said. "You've gotta watch out for them." But, he added, "the field n****** had a dream".

Then he shouted: "Right now I tell you I'm a field n*****!" The crowd lit up.

"From this day forward there's a new breed of Māori. We're not stopping till we get our prosperity back. Till we get our children back. Our families. We're standing up, two people in unity from this day forward!"

What did he want? I met someone in Northland this week who told me about a young man in a shearing gang, a good worker and widely liked, in a job with a future.

Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki leads a sermon on the lower marae on Waitangi Day. Photo / Getty Images
Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki leads a sermon on the lower marae on Waitangi Day. Photo / Getty Images

When his family got in with Destiny, the boy was forced to leave the shearers: the church thought he should be doing better things. But he's not: now, he's a criminal with a drug problem.

Although he loves to talk, Tamaki is not a natural orator. His voice is high and light, he doesn't turn a phrase or build narrative tension, and he doesn't make you want to cry, or laugh, or feel you have been touched by something powerful. Except when he told Malcolm X's story, I didn't see any of that happening around me.

He even got the delivery of one punch line so wrong, he had to stop and tell the crowd, "That's a good place to give a little clap."

So why does he have such a big following? It's because he speaks to the lived experience of his audience. He speaks their truth.

The evidence of Tu Tangata's success was clear at Waitangi. That crowd was full of men and women, couples, children, extended whānau, infused with a sense of generosity and pride and love. It was palpable, and Tamaki has helped them get to that place.

Yes, he takes their money. Yes, he makes homophobic pronouncements. Yes, there are people like that young shearer, harmed by that church.

And yes, he's a vainglorious bombast, seemingly in thrall to the marvellous workings of his own mind. He finished his sermon and then kept going, several times: as if, each time, he'd just been overwhelmed by his own brilliance and wanted to share it some more.

But he's not David and the Waitangi organisers are not Saul. The Waitangi ceremonies aren't unchanged for 179 years: they've always evolved.

And should we really cast out the keepers of "history", like so many moneylenders in the temple, because they are not welcome in the future? It's the application of history to the future that gives culture its strength and us our identity.

As for "change starts now", what about all the years of protest, the hīkoi and kōrero and heartache and tears and triumphs? Does nothing count until he comes along?

Does he see a spotlight and think it should shine on him?

The answer's surely yes, but that's not all.

Brian Tamaki combats domestic violence, suicide, the crimes and other harms committed by broken men. Tu Tangata wouldn't work for everyone but it does work for many. Which is fine: no single way will work for everyone, so we need lots of ways.

He wants more done, far more, to help broken violent men and everyone they victimise. He wants Waitangi, with its spotlight on us, on who we are, to insist on it. And he's right about that.

He was blocked, he has said, from getting his approach into prisons, although Corrections denies it. Let's say the communications have been strained.

The solution is not that David needs to get out a sword and go to war with Saul. But you don't have to like or admire Brian Tamaki, let alone think he's a saviour, to know there's good to be nurtured in the work he does.