Book Review: Saints and Stirrers: Christianity, Conflict and Peacemaking in New Zealand, 1814-1945.
The religious and theological underpinning of New Zealand’s involvement in conflict, anti-war and peace-building experiences has not been explored in depth in our national historical narrative. Geoffrey Troughton begins to correct this omission in a provocative and thoughtful edited collection of essays, Saints and Stirrers. Through a series of peacemaking stories beginning with Samuel Marsden to the end of World War Two, Troughton aims for a fresh perspective and analysis. In the “Introduction” he reminds us of the narrow space we have available to question the ethics of war today. The politicisation of the great sacrifice made in past wars is perceived now as a “national unifier and a peace-bringer” that conveys war as of necessity even if it is considered lamentable. This myth of redemptive violence that creates the “Saints” and/or “Stirrers” described in these pages underscores the increasing fragility of a Jesus peace ethic in our time. Troughton offers us an opportunity to explore and question our responses to the ethics of war and peace.
Geoff Troughton’s opening chapter, clarifies the Church Missionary Society’s (CMS) evangelical missionary message to New Zealand Māori. His focus on Samuel Marsden, gives a softer more humanitarian side of Marsden and the mission’s message than past histories suggest. The emphasis on Māori partnership provides Marsden with the opportunity of seeking reconciliation in conflict situations, in a message that stressed “a gospel of peace with God through the atoning death of Christ” (38).
Troughton’s chapter provides a contextual lens for both Peter Lineham’s chapter on “Te Waharoa’s War and the Missionary Visions of Peace” in the Waikato and Stuart Lange’s chapter, “Te Mānihera, Kereopa and Christian Peace Making among Māori” in Taranaki. Both writers continue to unpack the CMS efforts of missionary engagement with Māori as they follow the rise and fall of the newly established mission stations. Peace and peacemaking emerged slowly and painfully. What proved vital was the Māori missionaries cultural input and Christian vision. Later Māori Prophets, such as, Rua Kenana (Tuhoe) and Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi (Parihaka) would reflect the development of their peacemaking efforts.
The chapters that follow, debate the practical tensions and complexities of conscience that exist between Christian peacemaking, gospel injunctions, organised Christianity, State intervention and the more prophetic role of justice. In “A Peaceable Puritan? Rutherford Waddell and God’s Own Country,” John Stenhouse draws out this tension when he compares Waddell’s writings on the Boer War and World War One. The principles for a just war following the Belgium massacre became a focus for Waddell, but the consequences of War continued to be an anathema to him, and a freedom of conscience remained important. This pushed Stenhouse to reason for a more nuanced debate of who is the patriotic crusader versus the pacifist resister. The question in the title of Stenhouse’s chapter is apposite. Where does Waddell sit on this controversial spectrum?
The World War One articles from the Salvation Army journal War Cry, is a fascinating read. Contrary to the anti-German rhetoric of the day, Harold Hill highlights the journal’s sympathetic editorial approach found in reports of German Salvationists and importance of Christian respect for the common humanity shared with New Zealand Germans. Hill concludes that the Salvation Army’s international connections and social ministry provided space to “gently stir peace” within an atmosphere of pacific ambiguity.
Peter Lineham and Peter H. Ballis recover the voices of a number of sectarian groups. The literal interpretation of scripture led to rising tensions, mixed responses, and dissident reactions among Lineham’s Brethren groups and Christian Assemblies. The internal and the public struggles of the Seventh Day Adventists non-combatant focus eventually caused schism. In contrast, the Jehovah Witnesses attempts at a more compliant approach, which saw them gain respect in Detention Centres and camps, makes a fascinating read from Peter Ballis.
The refusal of the young Alun Richards to participate in the continuing compulsory military training (CMT) after World War One resulted in heated debate within the Presbyterian Church until 1930. Allan Davidson’s in-depth discussion shows the clash of rights of conscientious objection within a faith community and the demands of the State. The Church’s decision to support Richards against the heavy sentencing by the State drew other mainstream churches into the protest. Their vocal demands saw Government remove CMT requirement, other than at secondary school level.
It is the haunting tales of the conscientious objectors, Archibald Baxter in World War One by David Tombs, and Ormond Burton, a Methodist minister, in World War Two, by David Grant, that makes today’s readers most uncomfortable. Although the heavy hand of the State and judiciary had lessened somewhat by World War Two it continued to mete out its punishment to those they considered most dangerous.
The tension, for the state authorities in Baxter’s case lay with the issue of his apparent lack of religious and denominational affiliation on which the measure for a genuine appeal rested. Tomb’s suggests that non-Church affiliation should not be the sole measure for a person’s genuine moral right to protest. Evidence suggests that Baxter’s reticence in espousing his faith did not mean it was unimportant to him.
Not only did Ormond Burton’s pacifist activities irk the State authorities but he also created a highly emotive and antagonist climate within his own Methodist Church and the general populace. His commitment to Christian peacemaking never faltered. The statement he made when before Judge Blair sums up what the dissenters in this volume no doubt considered crucial, “I ask you to acquit me – not that I may be saved from imprisonment, but that something more important than myself shall live – the real freedom to think and to speak as conscience dictates” (215).
The absence of women’s voices, both as anti-war activists and authors, is disappointing. New Zealand women of faith appear in myriad and vibrant forms of peacemaking during the years of war. The story of Connie Jones comes to mind. When she declared at a Wellington meeting, in 1922, “[t]he Lord Jesus Christ tells us to love one another,” her immediate arrest saw her receive three months hard labour alongside her male counterparts. Millicent Baxter was a pacifist before she married Archibald, and who kept the Burton family together during Ormond Burton’s journey?
Despite this one regret, I strongly recommend Saints and Stirrers. It speaks of and to our unsettled times and brings to the surface the contradictions and decisions that we confront as peoples of faith. Saints and Stirrers portrays the lonely, unsupported and difficult journey for those who upheld a Jesus-centred ideal of peace during WW1 and WW2. How do we today balance the role of peacemaking to facilitate harmony? How do we prophetically confront the underlying injustices and inequality that creates conflict and violence in the first place? How do we instil a wider commitment towards peacemaking and peace-building? As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “For it isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”
Yvonne Wilkie recently retired as Archives Director of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa Research Centre.