Glynn Cardy, 7th November 2021
Aotearoa in the second half of the 19th century was a place of war. Much land was taken from Māori
by new settlers through dodgy deals, false promises, and by force. Many Māori responded violently
and were met with further violence.
In the 1870s, the Parihaka settlement in Taranaki became a focal point for Māori seeking a different
response than violence. People travelled to Parihaka on the 18th and 19th of each month to talk
about the issues they were facing and to consider their response. Under the leadership of Te Whiti o
Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, a decision was taken to put aside practices of the past of vengeance
and revenge. It was realised that nothing would come of reverting to violence, but that it was still
important to resist the injustice of land confiscations and the loss of control over their lives.
On March 17th 1860 the first shots were fired in the so-called ‘Taranaki Wars’ over a disputed land
sale. In 1865 Parihaka settlement was established by Tohu and Te Whiti. In 1866 Te Whiti ordered
weapons to be put aside, never to be seen again. He said, ‘Go, put your hands to the plough. Look
not back. If any come with guns, be not afraid. If they smite you, smite not in return. If they rend you,
be not discouraged. Another will take up the good work.’
Identifying with the Hebrew Bible stories of slavery in Egypt, the people of Parihaka devised a
strategy of non-violent resistance. Instead of fighting the soldiers and surveyors who were preparing
confiscated lands for sale, the people of Parihaka sent out ploughmen to cultivate the land and
workers to build fences. The first ploughmen were arrested, but offered no resistance. Others came
to take their place. They too were arrested. More took their place. Our Parliament passed special
laws to enable the ploughmen of Parihaka to be imprisoned without charge. No trials were held.
Some of these arrested ploughmen were sent as political prisons to Dunedin and forced to work on
the construction of roads.
On 5 November 1881, government troops invaded the settlement of Parihaka with an overwhelming
show of force to arrest its leaders and many of its men. The soldiers were met by singing, dancing,
and the handing out of bread (500 loaves were baked). The invaders burnt homes and crops,
destroyed livestock, imprisoned the leaders, and raped women .
This is the story of Parihaka. Fifty years before Gandhi’s better known nonviolent resistance to British
control of India, Te Whiti o Rongomai, Tohu Kākahi and the people of Parihaka found a peaceful way
to strongly resist and protest the injustices they faced.
However, the community of Parihaka today says the lesson of their tūpuna (ancestors) is found not
only in their actions, but also in the process of empowering a community to come together to discuss
the pressures they are experiencing, and to look for a collective response to injustice. The monthly
meetings at Parihaka, begun by Te Whiti and Tohu in the 1870s, have been disrupted only during the
1880s occupation of Parihaka. The community continues to meet on the 18th and 19th of each month
to discuss the issues of the day and to consider how to respond together to them.
The commemoration date for Parihaka is November 5th
. It is the date in 1881 of the invasion, te Rā o
te Pāhua (the day of plunder). So, November 5th is a reminder of injustice close to home, and faith
and courage close to home. And that history is not past, but a call to the present to make the future
In the liturgical calendar, November 1st is All Saint’s Day. It is the day of light and hope that scatters
the darkness, suffering, and death of the night before (Halloween). It is a day of remembering the
hope and courage of our ancestors (the saints), and a day to recommit to emulating such hope and
courage in our time and place (we are the living saints).
Last week I attended a lecture in the Midwest of the United States (such are the miracles of our time!).
It was an introduction to a new book, a collective effort of many church historians over an 8-year
period re-examining the time between the death of Jesus (30 CE) and the birth of Christianity (late 2nd
Contrary to the mythic master narrative, namely that shortly following Jesus’ death there was a
resurrection and empowerment of this followers to establish the Church by passing down the truth
that Jesus taught in a correct and unified way, the evidence seems to suggest a very diverse picture.
Diverse in thought, diverse in practice, diverse in mission.
What we have in the Acts 2 reading today is a 2nd century idyllic portrait of a Jesus association/club.
They met in homes, had common meals (like a supper club), and as Jews were faithful to Jewish
traditions. But using prescribed prayers, communally sharing property, and unified in devotion to the
teaching of the apostles, is likely anachronistic.
What the new book reveals is that Jesus groups experimented. Some experimented with forms of
communal living other than the normative patriarchal model (as the Acts 2 idealization points to).
Some experimented with men and women having different roles than those prescribed in normative
society (for example some had women leaders). Some experimented with meals (what would
become ‘communion’) and bathing (what would become ‘baptism’)
The context of the Jesus groups was not dissimilar to the context of Te Whiti and Tohu, namely living
in a time of resistance to a regime’s overwhelming military force and dominant ideology. Meeting the
violence of the Empire with a violent response, while understandable, was a path not taken by the
Parihaka people or the Jesus groups. Instead, they developed counter measures. For the Jesus
groups those measures included developing a different understanding of family (the Roman Empire
was built on the patriarchal family), and encouraging leadership regardless of one’s class. Jesus
groups experimented with social organisation as a means to both subvert and resist the violence of
To give an example, in the book The Shepherd of Hermas the Jesus group calls themselves ‘the
enslaved of God’. In doing so they are taking the stigma of slave and applying it to all the believers in
their group. A kind of #metoo move.
The conclusion of this new book is that the early Jesus groups were flexible, anti-imperial, creative,
and multi-directional. They also didn’t have most of the things we today associate with church –
namely they had no church buildings, no clergy, no creeds, no orthodoxy, and almost no liturgies.
The challenge of all this today is that given continuing injustice in many forms (think prisons, poverty,
racism, sexism, etcetera), and given the structures of society that aid injustice (like the interlocking
systems that continue to keep poverty alive and well), how will we as a Jesus group respond as the
power and influence we had in the past continues to wane? What I mean by ‘power waning’ is that
the tide has gone out on the norm of Christian allegiance, Christian values being dominant in the
public sphere, and Church attendance and membership. This is the reality of our times. So how do
we respond with the experimental willingness (and the concurrent embrace of the likelihood of many
failures) that our Jesus forebears had?
Te Whiti and Tohu firstly shared leadership. I note how older history books tried to make Te Whiti the
leader and Tohu his assistant. Shared leadership is in itself a resistance strategy. What is our church
shared leadership strategy and is it working? Secondly, Te Whiti and Tohu set aside time to meet
and talk and eat. Regularly and often. Today we frequently prefer to hear from leaders (clergy) rather
than take the time to hear from each other. Maybe we should experiment with meeting for two full
days each month instead of weekly on a Sunday morning?? It is in meeting and talking and eating
those dreams and schemes of resistance are born.