A Saint or Two: Responding to Injustice and Violence

A Saint or Two: Responding to Injustice and Violence

Sun 01 Nov

The church I grew up in was called ‘All Saints’.  The founders had difficulty deciding which saint to name the church after, so ‘All Saints’ was the result of a compromise – or so one preacher told us.

Another preacher said that we were all saints, which I and my teenage mates thought was just as funny as the compromise tale.  Haloes weren’t in vogue in my ‘70s neighbourhood.

But this preacher was closer to the truth, namely that the dualistic division between saints and sinners is a false one.  Each of us is a garden containing saintly, sinful, and indecipherable sprouts, and which ones we water will probably determine how we are remembered.

This morning we have baptised Nathaniel into the company of those who try to follow Jesus.  He is loved, welcomed, ‘sanctified and redeemed’ [to use old church language], just as he is.  He belongs.  There’s no charge for admittance at the party called God.

But staying with the party metaphor is not the full story.  There is some fine print in the belonging-to-the-company-of-Jesus contract.  Like the small matter of turning the world upside down so the last are first, the poor are empowered, and justice prevails.

Such ‘small’ matters will take courage, tenacity, and love for all humanity.

Today I want to tell you about two examples, ‘saints’ if you like, who turned their world in their response to violence.

On November 5th most in this country think of Guy Fawkes.  In Taranaki though it is remembered as the day in 1881 when a force of 1,589 armed constabulary and volunteers, led by John Bryce, the minister for Native Affairs and Defence, invaded Parihaka, a community committed to non-violence, in order to arrest two men: Te Whiti and Tohu.

Their crime was resistance to the land acquisition policies of the colonial government.  The government had instigated widespread confiscation of land in Taranaki by means of the NZ Settlement Act 1863 and the Suppression of Rebellion Act 1863.  The former allowed the Governor to confiscate tribal lands if even one person had engaged in rebellion against the Crown. It was a means to boost the government’s coffers by using the land as payment to soldiers or by selling the land to settlers.  The Suppression of Rebellion Act allowed the government to accuse any Maori of being a rebel, deny them a fair trial, and detain them indefinitely.

Bryce and his force of 1,589 were greeted at the gates of Parihaka by singing, dancing children.  The rest of the village were seated, unarmed, on the ground.  What Bryce mightn’t have known was that Te Whiti and Tohu had invited members of the Press to be present.

For Te Whiti, the great orator, and his elder Tohu, drawing on the Bible, were wise in the ways of non-violent resistance.  Indeed it is said that the British media’s reporting of the events of Parihaka later had an impact upon a young Indian lawyer called Gandhi. 

Te Whiti and Tohu refused to respond to violence and injustice with retaliatory violence.  They also preached temperance.

Te Whiti and Tohu had a number of strategies.  After the government surveyors went through marking out plots and roads for settlers, the men of Parihaka would simply go out in the night and plough up what the surveyors had done.  When these men were arrested, others would take their place.  Soon the jails were full.  There was also the embarrassment for the government of arresting people under the Suppression of Rebellion Act for the crime of ploughing. Those arrested of course would have their lands confiscated.

Not that this deterred them.  Indeed Maori from all around the country came to Parihaka to support Te Whiti and Tohu.  And so, year after year, the Parihaka movement grew, as did the anger of the Pakeha residents in Taranaki and their government supporters.

In 1860 Te Whiti had been responsible for saving the lives of the crew and passengers of the ship Lord Worsely which was wrecked on the Taranaki coast 80km south of New Plymouth. He arranged food for the survivors and transport back to New Plymouth.  This was the first time the government officials knew of the existence of Te Whiti.

After Bryce and his 1,589 arrested Te Whiti and Tohu, then vandalized Parihaka on the pretext of seeking weapons, Te Whiti and Tohu were charged with ‘wickedly, maliciously, and seditiously contriving and intending to disturb the peace’.  They were detained first in New Plymouth then Christchurch then Nelson.  They frequently demanded their right to a trial, but this was denied. Te Whiti and Tohu were finally permitted to return to Taranaki in March 1883.  Back at Parihaka they continued their protest, and in 1886 Te Whiti was again imprisoned.

Another response to violence is that of Vedran Smajlović.  In the early 1990s he was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera.  Life was difficult for everyone in Sarajevo as war broke out.  Serb nationalists surrounded Sarajevo and laid siege.  For Vedran and the other residents of the city, life was a daily ordeal of trying to find food and water amid the shelling and sniper fire.

On May 27, 1992, a long line of people had queued up at one of the still-functioning bakeries.  A mortar shell fell into the middle of the line, killing 22 people.  Vedran lived close to the bakery and helped the wounded.  He felt powerless.

The next day though he took his cello to the spot where those waiting for bread had been butchered and began to plaintively play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor.  He played in a daze but in an incredibly evocative way.  In spite of the risk, people gathered to listen.  Vedran went back the next day and the next 22 days, one for each person killed.  Sniper fire continued around him and mortars still rained down in the neighbourhood, but he never stopped playing.

Then he went to other sites where shells had taken the lives of Sarajevo’s citizens.  He played there, and he played in graveyards.  He played at funerals at no charge, even though the Serbian gunners would target such gatherings.  

A reporter questioned whether he was crazy to play his cello outside in the midst of a war zone.  He countered, “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”

Vedran was crazy.  But what can a cellist do?  What madness to go out alone in the streets and address the world with a wooden box and a hair-strung bow.

What can a cellist do?  What he knows how to do.  Playing softly, one note at a time, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, calling out the rats that infest the human spirit.[i]

Vedran Smajlović, Te Whiti and Tohu, teach us to never, ever, regret or apologize for believing that when one man or one woman decides to risk addressing the world with truth, the world may stop what it is doing and hear. 

The music of courage, tenacity, integrity, and truth has the ability to cut through the cacophony of indifference and self-interest.  Though sometimes it can take a while.

When we cease believing in this music of courage, tenacity, integrity and truth, then the echoes of it in us will begin to die.

To belong to the company of Jesus is learn to play and appreciate the music of love, peace and justice.  And it is not easy.  It will demand a great deal of us.  To respond to fear and violence with integrity and peace, to respond to death and shelling with music and hope… is not easy.

Nathaniel, welcome to the company of Jesus.

[i] Adapted from R. Fulghum Maybe (Maybe Not) p.230.