Ibulubulu: A theology of forgiveness understood in a rite of reconciliation in my Itaukei culture

by Deaconess Verenaisi Toga

Date added: 28/06/2017

No comments in this article yet.     Start the discussion >>     (You need to log in first.)

I BULUBULU: A Theology of forgiveness understood in a rite of reconciliation in I taukei culture.

by Deaconess Verenaisi Toga Kaukinayau, Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma


1.1 Introduction

Reconciliation in this paper will be looked at through the lens of ibulubulu. In defining ibulubulu as the terminology of choice for interpreting reconciliation, I would like to highlight three main terms in Standard Fijian for rituals or ceremonies of reconciliation - i soro, matanigasau and ibulubulu – all of which share the same ritual structure and involve reconciliation. The transliteration of these three words determines which word I prefer to use. The word isoro means to worship, or to prevent something in order to obtain life. Matanigasau is an atonement made with a reed, which is more humiliating than with a tabua, the tooth of a sperm whale. Ibulubulu is to make an offering, to seek for reconciliation, humble oneself and make atonement. I prefer to use ibulubulu because it is most appropriate through which to interpret reconciliation on the cross. It is also done by the vanua representative of the clan responsible for a crime, to clan representatives of the victim.  (Tuwere 2001, 89).

In general, Fijian perceptions of reconciliation derive from the term ibulubulu which means burial, grave, that which covers something; that which is under the earth. Ibulubulu comes from the word bulu which means to cover with the earth, to bury, and Bulu was also the pre – Christian name for the underworld of death (Coleman 2000, 198). When used in relation to forgiveness and reconciliation, metaphorically speaking, bulubulu means to bury an injury. The offering of a tabua as a token of peace is then also ibulubulu (Capell 1991, 17).

People talk of ‘bulu kina ca’- evil being buried by it (the tabua) (1991, 18). Implicit in this common understanding is that once the appropriate ritual of reconciliation has taken place between clan representatives of perpetrator and the victim, grievances are considered buried, laid to rest – forgotten. I use here the ibulubulu concept to challenge the lotu, matanitu and my own tribal context.

1.2 A role in the vanua

In a village, a role in the vanua and the lotu is ‘sauturaga’ which is next in line to the Turaga or Chief. The Sauturaga will only delegate the culture of ibulubulu when it is required by the Turaga or Chief. The fundamental values of reconciliation are truth, justice, forgiveness and repentance and for this reason, the vanua and church have a huge responsibility. Commitment to reconciliation in my culture requires two things, namely:

                                      i.            Being guided by the vision of a reconciled community.

                                    ii.            Making the vision a reality

When discussing the cross, truth clearly reveals that we should see each other as we are. Without the person of the truth, ibulubulu will never be resolved. Yet truth alone leaves us naked, vulnerable, and unworthy. It is also seen as a process of encounter and as a social space that points in that direction.

A sauturaga is to re-tell the story of our ancestors and how they accepted the lotu and moved away from witchcraft and cannibalism. A village used to be well known for dauvakatevoro or evil worshippers but when they came to know the truth, they refrained from being evil worshippers and turned to Christianity. People in the village realized that part of their experience contributed to their suffering. They came to learn that the character of God is revealed through Jesus Christ who died on the cross for their sins. Even though it was difficult to understand, nevertheless the truth opened their eyes to know God.

1.3 I Bulubulu: In the Lotu and Vanua

The perspective of ibulubulu is overall seen in the lotu[i] and the vanua[ii] as the space between the open expression of the painful past and the search for the articulation for a long term interdependent future, despite the risk. For instance it provides a place where truth and mercy meet, where concern for exposing what has happened and letting go in favor of renewed relationship are validated and embraced. What I adore in my culture is the recognition of the need to give time and place for both veivosoti (forgiveness) and ibulubulu where redressing the wrong is held together with the envisioning of a common, bright future.

The significance of performing this important rite is usually a ceremonial offering of a whale’s tooth (tabua) to the other clan. In Fijian use of tabua, Christ is like a tabua being offered to the two clans for reconciliation however; on the other hand tabua is also used for evil worshippers. Hence, the tabua is the most sacred traditional artifact (yau talei) in the Fijian culture. This presentation is for the disarming of all conflicts and differences between the two clans. Although the guests had already been assimilated into the host community, they would still not be considered free from the bondage of forgiveness. The host would then offer its second return offering. This was somewhat equivocal since it implied that the hosts were not fully controlling the situation. After this rite they freed themselves from being ritually enslaved, thus acquiring safety, freedom and gaining respect for them (Ravuvu 1987, 56).

What is so striking about this rite is the offering speech, emphasizing the need to have reverence and respect for one another, and for the relationship between the two clans to be one of fairness, love, forgiving heart and mutual care and respect. The liberation model analyses the lived experience of a people to uncover the forces of oppression, struggle, violence and power (Tuwere 2001, 39).  The theology of the cross uses the liberation model of ibulubulu as reconciliation to restore the participants’ memories so that they understand the struggles they have gone through, analyze their culture and transform it in the living word.

Facing all the challenges, the longing of all issues to be dealt with is deeply felt and it is taken care of in good faith. Sometimes the situation worsens to some extent but then it is handled with confidence and safety. The offering is meant to nullify all the dangers our family, vanua and lotu will face in the future.  Reconciliation is found in the midst of strife and hope. The reconciling power of His suffering and death is the power of the resurrection (Augsburger 1996, 31).  Its purpose is to become the basis of the new, redeemed existence which is owed to the crucified Christ.   

The guilty person has to pay his crime by the vanua by punishing him or the herald of the village. The village elders thus articulate the fear that this sort of thing will happen but praying together as a community will neutralize all the failure. The concept of ibulubulu can be a useful tool in building trust for good relationships, working together and helping each other’s needs, but not with a mischievous or manipulative purpose. It is honoring and respecting each other’s views that matters and it must come from the heart. It can only be done when we achieve mutual recognition and loyalty.

 Just as there was an empty tomb, there was an empty cross. To continue to have Christ on the cross is the sign of defeat: we continue to show a picture of weakness and suffering (Bush 2000, 21 - 27). What has been noticed in the past is that people continued to look at their weaknesses as the end of life. People could not hold back their wicked actions and immoral attitudes in the past but the rite of ibulubulu reaffirmed them occasionally to continue to live in peace and harmony. It is the ongoing responsibility of the vanua and the members of the clan to transform and empower the person through the living word.  

1.4 A story in a village: The performance of reconciliation rites or I bulubulu

A recent incident took place in my village where a great number of people gathered at the chief’s place to receive the incoming chief. The purpose of the gathering was to take part and witness the performance of the reconciliation rites or ibulubulu. They were not only performed to provide security and confidence that they were forgiven by the opposite side, but the sense of being ritually dead meant all the differences between the two clans were buried for eternity. Furthermore, both clans are now regenerated to love and unity within the community. The two clans that Christ reconciled were, ethnically, Jews and Gentiles but supremely, God and God’s people everywhere.

This brings with it great challenges. A story began in a village that reconciliation was a sentiment and a requirement which rarely troubled people until they themselves begin to suffer. At one time, prayers were offered on behalf of a certain man. Inosi, our village herald, was sure that God would hear these prayer requests. Afterwards, as the man headed for the exit along with Inosi, he was stopped and greeted by the church people and introduced to the village pastor, who asked him whether the prayers had been answered. Inosi replied that they must have been answered, since the man was truly sorry for what he had done.

The Pastor asked what it was he had actually done. Inosi thought that this request was unfairly intrusive, yet he found himself explaining the situation.  He had caused his brother to commit suicide. Inosi had told him that his wife was cheating on him, although Inosi wasn’t really sure of that. His brother, in anger and distress, drove into a wall. Not long after, his brother’s wife died from an overdose of sleeping pills. So Inosi, might have caused that too. Now it appeared that Inosi’s parents would have to raise his brother’s children. Neither Inosi nor his sister could help due to their tight schedules.

Above all, Inosi felt strongly that God must have answered his prayers, and that he was forgiven. However, the pastor did not agree with Inosi. While God forgives everything, to be sure, one cannot just say “I’m sorry’’ and expect forgiveness. There has to be some reparation. The conversation on responsibility and reparation ended with the pastor advising him that his first responsibility was to see to the children’s welfare. As a result, Inosi dropped out of college, and become a farmer in order to help his parents look after the children. It was something he had to do to be forgiven.

The truth was finally revealed about his part in his brother’s death and his sisters in law’s suicide which had made the children orphans. Though repeatedly Inosi expressed his sorrow, his parents would not utter a word. He left the table in silence. Inosi reflected that there was something hard and inhuman about religion. The family builds the vanua, the people and culture that will make up for it. Thus, it must be strengthened and affirmed. It emphasizes the importance of human beings.  Members of the clan or vanua should relate to one another if they are to continue to be united and remain as one people.

Inosi’s suffering and rejection signifies the cross. To die on the cross means to suffer and is symbolic for one whom is outcast or rejected. Mark 8:35 is relevant to Inosi’s situation in that he and the clan needed to take up the cross. Jesus suffered and died alone but those who follow Him suffer and die with Him (1993, 56). In my context, such rites must continually be reemphasized and occasionally redefined to meet the needs of the current situation. It is also imperative that the present situation should be confronted together and handled with care. To accept forgiveness, one has to forgive from the bottom of his or her heart. We should accept and partake of what is offered and commit ourselves to the totality of forgiveness and endless love. By giving up Jesus to be crucified, God has set up the cross for us. To believe in the cross of Christ does not mean to concern ourselves with a mythical process wrought outside of us and our world but rather to make the cross of Christ our own, to undergo crucifixion with him (1993, 61).

1.5 Biblical Understanding

The biblical text that is particularly suitable in the ibulubulu of the cross is Gal 3:28; “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bonded nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.  The biblical and traditional rituals of ibulubulu or reconciliation here are intended for the restoration of balanced reciprocal relations between God and people of many cultures across the Pacific Island region and elsewhere in the world (2001, 90). Christ was crucified on the cross as an ibulubulu to all Jews and Gentiles. It was to free humans from death to life. Liberating the satisfaction of the material needs of human beings for health, nourishment, clothing and a place to live is a further part of social justice which can give all members a satisfying and just share in the products they produce. Therefore, the cross of Christ, as the symbol of ibulubulu, is at the center of correcting suspicion and redeeming processes in the vanua.

These co-existence calls to mind the divine natures of Jesus Christ as they supremely co–exist as persons within the one God (Barclay 1967, 56). A central element about Christ presented in the Acts of Apostles is the affirmation of the belief of Jesus that Crucifixion happened ‘with the foreknowledge of God, according to a definite plan’. In Acts 2:23, the cross is not viewed as a humiliation for the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the lawless; it is rather viewed as the fulfillment of reconciliation or ibulubulu.

The protocol of the ibulubulu will never be abolished in my culture because mutual understanding and blessing will never stop if people sacrifice themselves to respect the veneration through the ritual being practiced. They are also given the opportunity to clear grudges among themselves: indebted, therefore, to establish love and unity. The other links facilitate mutual support and cooperation between the clan or vanua and positive relationships can be maintained today and in the future. Forgiving is not forgetting. It does not mean to ignore significant and painful history, but it is an act of liberation. Looking at the concept of ibulubulu in the light of the cross means increasing the capacity to forgive as gift and complete trust in God’s power. Forgiveness is part of the struggle for liberation and for justice.



1.6 Theological Perspective

One act of respect deserves another; it initiates ibulubulu on the cross and emphasizes it as a unifying factor, assuring continuity in productive relationships. In Col 3:16a we read “Let the word of Christ dwell in you with all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another.” It is proper that our established relationships are in order and clean. Let us interact and treat one another with affection, kindness, love and care, so that our young generation will learn from us. In Mathew 18: 21 – 22, Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother not only seven times but seventy-seven times. It challenges the life-giving presence in the human experience. Jesus clearly identified that forgiveness cannot end, whatever circumstances we go through. Forgiveness must live among us and be part of our lives as the source of building good relationships. After the process of forgiveness, repentance should occur and must be embraced individually and communally.

 It is God’s plan for God’s people in (Psalms 85:8 –10). This plan will revolve around love, truth, righteousness and peace. For that reason the vanua and the lotu have a huge responsibility. Reconciliation is indeed the common ground and good of all people living in one society. It requires commitment, perseverance and endurance. Naming Jesus in ibulubulu for bridging the gap in healthy relationships is to allow the healing process over the land and the church. With each risk to be taken, when it is honored by response and reciprocal risking; there is an increase in trust. The two; trust and risk, go hand in hand. But when the rite of reconciliation takes place, one has to know that, in the system, risk in reality comes prior to trust.

The winds of change have reached our shores and if we do not handle the forces properly our vanua is doomed to suffer in the years to come. I strongly believe that the mindset of people in a village keeps on changing and the cultural behavior has been blown away by the winds of change but the voices of the ancestors will never perish in the land.

Even though people gradually embrace new changes it will not take away respect, recognition and care for each other which are practiced in a village. I sometimes think that it is useless because in some cases, people are continuously reminded, over and over, of who they are and asked to affirm the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. One of the symbolic rituals of reconciliation is the yaqona ceremony and the tabua which symbolizes solidarity among them. It is done so that the vanua can safeguard cooperation in keeping peace and building healthy relationships.

In the process one must realize the means of acquiring forgiveness and cooperate in the regeneration and sustenance of life. The response which the head of the clan will continue to do in order to maintain good relationships is to appeal to the spirit of kindness and concern for the truth to prevail. The process is alive today and strong in restoring broken relationships and recreating right relationships. We may pause for some time to try and figure out what questions we need to ask but then we cannot ignore the fact it is also the act of liberation (Bevans 2006, 78).

One has to be released from the bondage of unforgiving sins. The capacity to forgive is a gift, trusting in God’s power. The enormous pain that the people carry and the pain Jesus carried His cross to Calvary speaks powerfully to each other. The call to bear the pain and follow Him is a call to share His suffering and to stand beneath the cross. My question is; what precisely is this suffering? Bonhoeffer has rightly pointed out that according to the proclamations of His suffering, in the context of which is the call, to follow Him incurs suffering. Jesus has to suffer and to be rejected (Moltmann 1993, 55).

Jesus came as He was. He did not worry about anything; being fed, clothes, money, shelter, etc. He was totally depended on God for survival. Through the many miracles and work He undertook, God was behind Him through His mission all the way to the cross. When confronted by ridicules, He answered with ease and contentment, asserting self – check for those who were unaware. The Lord did not come like the King where the trumpet was sound, or an army of guards were unavailable to welcome Him. He was taken into custody and interrogated; He never once gave in to the pain and suffering, Jesus quietly and humbly embraces His trial. He took the punishment, even though He was innocent and blameless. Through His death, mankind and God has been reconciled and made right with God. Through the emptying of Jesus of His holiness mankind has been forgiven and made just in the eyes of God.

In conclusion, I think that the church as an agent of reconciliation, a central mission and the nature of God. The place where trinity is found to a relational in ibulubulu concept, therefore the vanua is the mouthpiece in the church. I think that the concept of ibulubulu is interwoven in the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Naming Jesus in ibulubulu for bridging the gap in healthy relationships is to allow the healing process over the land and the church. With each risk to be taken, when it is honored by response and reciprocal risking, there is an increase in trust. The two; trust and risk, go hand in hand. But when the rite of reconciliation takes place, one has to know that, in the system, risk in reality comes prior to trust. Moreover, in the process of forgiveness, repentance should take place.



















Augsburger, David. 1996. Helping People Forgive. USA: Westminster John Knox Press.

Bakker, Solrun Wiliksen. 1984. Ceremony and Complication in an urban setting. Suva: University of the South Pacific.

Barclay, William. 1967. The Plan Man looks at the Apostle Creed. London: Collins.

Bevan, Stevan B. 2006. Models of Contextual Theology. New York: Knoll Mary, Orbis Books.

Bush, Joseph. 2000. Land and Communal Faith, Methodist and ritual in Fiji. Suva: World Christianity.

Capell, A. 1991. The Fijian Dictionary. Second reprint, Suva: Government printer.

Coleman, Simon. 2000. The Globalization of Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Moltamann, Jurgen. 1993. The Crucified God. USA: First fortress press.

Ravuravu, Asesela. 1987. The Fijian Ethos. Suva: Printed by Fiji Times.

Tuwere, Ilaitia S. 2001. Indigenous Peoples struggle for land and identity. “Pacific Journal of Theology”










[i] Church

[ii] Land

Deaconess Verenaisi Toga

Deaconess Verenaisi Toga



Currently, there are no moderated comments on this article.
Interweavings: Graham's Blog