Book Review: Pursuing Peace in Godzone: Christianity and the Peace Tradition in New Zealand
On the morning of 9/11, I was on some long flights. Conversation naturally turned to the shocking events we had just heard about. The very first person I talked with immediately declared what was for him a self-evident truth that “religion is the cause of all conflict and war.” In reality, however, although there is religiously-inspired terrorism and communal violence, religion is not usually the primary cause of actual wars. With Christianity, themes of peace and reconciliation are obviously central. Jesus and the early church disavowed the sword. When Roman society Christianised, Christian attitudes to war shifted. Augustine argued that any war should be ethically justified and humanely conducted. In practice, most wars have been seen as defensible, and churches have not usually raised any objections. There have always been some Christians, however, who reject all war as contrary to the teachings of Jesus.
Pursuing Peace in Godzone demonstrates that Christianity has made a significant contribution to the peace tradition in New Zealand. An earlier companion book (Geoffrey Troughton, ed, Saints and Stirrers: Christianity, Conflict and Peacemaking in New Zealand, 1814-1945) covered earlier Christian peace-making in New Zealand, including that by missionaries and Māori. Taking up where that volume left off, this volume explores Christian peace-making in New Zealand through to the present. Unlike the earlier book, it is not scholarly but intended for a general audience. Many of its chapters are in narrative style, and many are from peace-making participants.
One very interesting chapter is by George Armstrong, a retired Anglican minister and former lecturer at St John’s College. In great story-telling style, Armstrong recalls the anti-nuclear Auckland Peace Squadron in the 1980s, which used a large flotilla of small boats to try and prevent nuclear-armed ships and submarines from entering the Waitemata Harbour. Armstrong led the movement and was its media spokesperson. He was inspired by a similar Quaker-led blockade in Baltimore. Many boat-owners in the Peace Squadron were from the general public. The campaign reflected widespread anti-nuclear feeling in New Zealand and helped reinforce it. Armstrong proposes that unarmed human weakness confronting the nuclear panoply and all the global injustices that lay behind it expressed something “as central to the Christian gospel as the experience of personal redemption and restoration.”
Some other chapters stood out for me. Different readers will have their own preferences. Adi Leason gives a down-to-earth and dryly humorous insider account of the sabotage attack by four Catholic peace activists on the Government’s surveillance station in Marlborough. Using agricultural tools, they deflated the canopy, as a symbolic enactment of the swords being turned into ploughshares. Leason mentions that, as a Catholic, he had been “radicalised” by the Catholic Workers Movement and had embraced justice and mercy, but more information about that would have been good. Jamie Allen writes of reconciliations being worked through by the Anglican cathedral parish in New Plymouth, in relation to artwork which commemorated the loss of Pakeha lives during the Land Wars but ignored the Māori lives lost, and in relation to Parihaka.
Pamela Welch writes about three New Zealanders who went to southern Africa as missionaries: Garfield Todd, of the Church of Christ, who worked for equality and decolonisation in Rhodesia, became Prime Minister, and was later imprisoned; Anglicans John Osmer and Michael Lapsley who spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, were badly injured by letter bombs, and who subsequently developed ministries of reconciliation. Dorcas Dennis writes about a Pentecostal church in Wellington comprised of migrant Africans where there is a pervasive emphasis on praying for peace: for families, between different migrant groups, and for New Zealand. This reflects the conflict and suffering that many have experienced back in Africa, and their deep longing for a peaceful life in New Zealand.
Tom Noakes-Duncan explores the experiences of two Christian pacifist activists during World War II, Ormond Burton and Archibald Barrington, who were often arrested and did time in prison. Karen Kemp sees the Anglican Church’s embrace of the Treaty and biculturalism in its 1992 constitution as an expression of Christian peace-making. Peter Matheson’s chapter recounts his own involvement in the peace movement in the 1970s, and that of various denominations and ecumenical bodies. He notes that the peace movement never quite reached the “evangelical and conservative heartland,” that the churches have largely ceased speaking out about international affairs and have instead been preoccupied with church growth and internal debates. Arguably, New Zealand’s foreign policy has become less controversial than in the days of ANZUS, nuclear tests, and apartheid, and more reflective of a broad consensus. Newer evangelical and Pentecostal churches often have a strong interest in humanitarian social action in New Zealand and beyond but have not seen public comment on issues of war and peace as part of their brief.
A chapter by Elizabeth Duke gives an overview of how the Quakers have positioned themselves as a “peace church,” and another piece describes the icons of peace in St Joseph's Catholic Parish in Wellington South. A chapter about the movement Te Hou Ora recounts how it works for peace among Māori youth and their families. Andrew Shepherd suggests A Rocha’s environmental pest-control work on Mt Karioi is a form of Christian peace-making, as it seeks the wellbeing of creation, and the reconciliation of all things in Christ (Col 1:20).
Pursuing Peace also has some more discursive and summative chapters. The editors discuss what attitudes to Anzac Day might say about New Zealand attitudes to war: is war being mourned, or subtly glorified? Maybe it is just nostalgia for the courage and sufferings of the past, viewed from the safe distance of the present? Interest in commemorating two world wars has been greatly promoted by Government, media, museums, and film, and Chris Marshall suggests that Anzac Day has become more “sacred” in New Zealand society than Easter or Christmas. Marshall gives a very fair overview of arguments for and against Augustine’s Just War theory, which has been so important in legitimising war by Christian nations and comes down on the side of Christian pacifism. A chapter drawing on the New Zealand Attitude and Values Study attempts to determine how important peace really is to New Zealand Christians. It notes that Christians would be more willing to go to war than religiously unaffiliated people and implies that is because of the “prevailing conservatism within New Zealand Christianity;” it does not mention other possible reasons. Another finding is that those who highly identify as Christians are more accepting of people of other religions than are secular people; in that respect, Christians are evidently more peaceable.
The basic contentions of Pursuing Peace are that Christianity is “a primary nurturing ground” for peace-making, and that there has been a strong minority peace tradition within Christianity in New Zealand which has significantly contributed to this country’s wider peace movement. This book is a reminder that, despite many Christians’ tacit acceptance of war as a necessary evil, there remain some who apply literally the peace-loving words of the Prince of Peace (e.g. Matt 5:38-39,43-44, 26:52) and other New Testament teaching (e.g. Rom 12:19-21). The volume also makes a helpful response to the common assumption that “religion is the cause of all conflict and war.”
Stuart Lange is a Presbyterian minister, an historian andSenior Research Fellow, Laidlaw College.