The debate over New Zealand's flag has been heating up recently, as over the course of the next year, a two-stage referendum will be implemented to decide whether we keep our old flag, or choose a new one from a set range of designs submitted by the public.
In order to raise more awareness about the referendum and the issues involved, the government has launched an advertising campaign—through television, mail, and on the internet—with the tagline: What do you stand for?
The debate over the flag is rooted in the national identity of our country. As a symbol, our flag is the most commonly seen window into our identity as a nation. Because of this, it is vitally important our choice of flag (whether old or new) does a good job of representing what it means to be a New Zealander—our culture, our history, and our values as a society.
So what do we stand for?
According to the latest research there is a continuing trend: fewer and fewer New Zealanders are willing to align themselves with Christianity. Even in my lifetime there has been a major shift in Christian affiliation.
In 1991, the first census after I was born, the population identifying themselves as Christian was 69%. While I was still at high school in 2006, this number dropped to 49%. As of the 2013 census, it dipped to just under 44%. In the same timeframe, people identifying with 'no religion' doubled, going from 19% in 1991 to 38% in 2013. There is a clear and obvious trend: New Zealand is increasingly less Christian and there is no other religion filling the vacuum.
As a nation, we are changing in two main ways with regard to religion. Either people are moving from theism to atheism, or if they do retain a belief in God, it is a conviction which has become entirely private, with no communal or public voice.
What does this mean for us as a society?
Is Christianity merely an irrelevance in a modern world, an archaic social ritual which we have now outgrown? Has Christianity made any perceivable impact on our nation, and would we lose anything by its continued decline?
In a whole range of ways, the withering of Christian belief and practise will have a major impact on the way we operate as a society, both individually and corporately. Although more and more people are letting go of their Christian identity, as a collective we are still shaped by Christian values in a way that is difficult to comprehend.
Christianity provides the foundational basis for our identity and many of our shared national values. One of these is the Christian belief coming from the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis, "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them".
The idea of being made in the image of God has significant implications for humanity. It elevates the worth and dignity of human life (no other animal was made in God's image). It affects the way we relate to other people and to creation. It points us towards the way we should act as image-bearers. Although sin has corrupted this image, through the person of Jesus Christ we can see what it means to perfectly live as one who bears God's image.
A Christian foundation
It is difficult to overestimate the impact this concept has had on the values that we hold as a society today.
Politically, our inheritance from Christianity has shaped the way we govern and rule. As argued by philosophers such as John Locke (1632–1704), because as humans we have been made in the image of God, natural law dictates all men are equal and have been conferred natural rights, such as life, liberty, and possession.i
In a New Zealand context, when activists such as Kate Sheppard campaigned for woman's suffrage in the late 19th century, it was driven in large part by her belief as a Christian that all people were equal before God, regardless of race, class, creed, or sex.
Prominent Christian politician William Wilberforce was instrumental in ending slavery in the British Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Wilberforce's support of cross-cultural mission in turn influenced the first missionaries to New Zealand.
When New Zealand came into existence as a nation in 1840, it was through the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, a document guaranteeing the equal rights of all New Zealand citizens, both Maori and Pakeha. Although treaty obligations have not always been upheld, the ideals survive and continue to play a significant role.
When we think of our concern for social justice and the protection of the weak, it is important to consider the revolutionary role Christianity has played in establishing mercy as a virtue.
When Christianity came into being in the time of the Roman Empire, mercy for the weak and poor was often considered a defect rather than a virtue, as it entailed unmerited and unearned help.
Christianity has made a major impact on our national identity. Christianity is not just an attachment to our national culture and values—more than anything it has set and anchored the way we see the world.
It would be naïve to think letting go of our faith as a country will not affect the way we see the world. If we pull up the anchor which has set our civic culture and values, it is inevitable we will begin to drift away from those values.
As Christians, we cannot afford to let our faith retreat into a merely private devotion. The gospel is not confined to the private sphere, but rather impacts on every aspect of our lives. If we want to see Christianity remain the foundation of our national identity, we not only need to hold fast to the truth of our faith, but also to show our faith by what we do—the way we treat those who are made in the image of God.