Remember, Remember, The 5th of November

Remember, Remember, The 5th of November

Glynn Cardy, 6th November 2022

Jesus and the groups that after his death carried on his message had a backdrop in common: the colonisation of the physical, mental, and spiritual space by Rome.  Rome dominated their lives.  Roman ways, Roman soldiers, Roman taxes, and Roman imperial theology.  And with that colonisation came much death and much suffering.

This backdrop determines how we under the Jesus movements.  So, when we read of a young Mary singing the hope that ‘the mighty would be cast down from their thrones’ we need to hear it as sedition.  When a Jesus reads an Isaiah piece from 500 years earlier about letting ‘the oppressed go free’ we need to hear it as sedition.  When a Paul using a baptismal formula talks about slaves and free, men and women, being all one (namely equal in power and status) we need to hear it as sedition.  Mary, Jesus, and Paul, all using texts that others had coined, were pushing back against colonisation.

For Rome was built on hierarchies of power – in race, class, and gender.  It was built on obedience, and the punishment of those who dissented.  And it was built on a theology of the Emperor as God – ordaining all the actions of Rome as providential, natural, and blessed.

The Jesus movements, as they grew and spread during the first three centuries of the common era, were movements of resistance to Roman colonisation.  Beginning at the meal table.  Beginning in the mind and heart.  Beginning in how they saw themselves, how they saw their neighbours, and how they saw the nature of God.  They did not follow the ways of some who resisted with violence.  Instead, they resisted by enacting a big idea, a dream of ‘oneness’, of all humanity being one kin, one body, connected, important, and fundamentally equal under God.

My point is simply, to overlook the backdrop of Roman colonisation is to miss the meaning of much of the theology and practice of what would become Christianity.  We were born in a context of colonisation as a resistance movement.

Last Tuesday I wrote a piece on the vexed issue of closing some 48 backcountry huts in Te Urewera.  For many hunters, trampers, and conservationists, Pākehā and Māori, those huts hold memories and the promise of making more.  And so there have been protests, media, correspondence, and korero between Te Uru Taumatua (the board mandated to care for Te Urewera) and the concerned parties.  The talk has included governance, consultation, conservation, ownership, and belonging.

What hasn’t featured in the media, and what my piece was pointing out, was the backdrop of colonisation and its consequences.  In 1865 the Crown confiscated much of Tūhoe’s most productive land, even though the tribe were not in rebellion against the Crown.  In 1870 Tūhoe were forced out of Te Urewera, leading to widespread starvation and extensive loss of life.  In 1954 the Crown established Te Urewera National Park, which included most of Tūhoe’s traditional lands.  The Crown had stolen Tūhoe’s land.

And for 144 years it was so.  The tangata whenua, the nation of Tūhoe, were kept from their land, their blood (whenua), and their responsibilities to guard and care for Te Urewera.

Then in 2014 the Crown began the process of righting this great wrong, with the return of Te Urewera, an apology, and a commitment to helping resource its future wellbeing.

My point in what I wrote was simply: to understand today we cannot forget the history of yesterday.  Present day differences have a backdrop.  In the case of Tūhoe it’s a backdrop of dispossession and deprivation.

What I didn’t say in my article was that the connection of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand with Te Ao Māori (the Māori world view) is largely through our connection with Tūhoe.  We have a long history together.  Which begs the question: Is our relationship one of charity (i.e., financial assistance and other resourcing) or one of justice (redressing wrongs and empowering a future that is de-colonised)?

It is worth thinking about that word ‘decolonization’.  It’s a word that describes the move to self-governance.  It’s a word that describes trying to undo the wrongs of the past.  It involves acknowledgement, restitution, and restoration.  It’s a word that involves, for those of us who have inherited from Aotearoa’s settler times what can be called ‘pakeha privilege’, a journey of change and healing, opening ourselves to difference, and the need to not just share but to reconfigure the ideologies and structures that dominate political, economic, and social relationships in this land.  Using a computer metaphor, it’s not about loading up a new programme, it’s about developing a whole new operating system.  That we still have a way to go on this journey is evident in many ways. 

I post my Tuesday pieces on Facebook where some 1,200 people (aka ‘friends’) can access it.  But actually, it goes far wider than that.  This time someone, somewhere, somehow, passed it to members of Ngai Tūhoe, and I’ve been touched by their affirming responses.  Soberingly, the acknowledgement of the theft of the land, and the spiritual destruction that the theft brought, are seemingly seldom acknowledged by Pākehā.

Which is why Parihaka – some 521 km away on the other side of Te Ika-a-Maui (the North Island) – is important.  Simply, as has been the logic of saint’s days for centuries, we need reminders.

In the 1870s, the Parihaka settlement in Taranaki became a focal point for Māori seeking a different way to respond to the new Pākehā settlers who were taking land through dodgy deals, false promises, and force.  Resisting that violence with violence in return wasn’t achieving justice. 

Under the leadership of Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, a decision was taken to put aside practices of vengeance and revenge, and resist the land confiscations and the loss of control over their lives with non-violent means.  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.  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.

Then on 5 November 1881, te Rā o te Pāhua (the day of plunder), 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. 

Then in 2017 the process of righting this great wrong took a big step forward with the Crown offering an apology, a significant financial reparation, and a commitment to Parihaka’s future wellbeing.  There was acknowledgement, restitution, and steps toward restoration. This too is part of the Parihaka story.

The early Jesus groups were movements of resistance against the colonisation of land, body, and mind.  They developed an alternate understanding of God (an understanding that was within their ancient writings already) and then embodied it.  Their God was holy.  They too, their bodies and minds, were holy.  Thus, too were other people’s bodies and minds.  God was not up and over but here and within.  The hierarchies that the colonising mindset was built on, were not holy, but heresy.  And so, our faith forebears dreamed a different reality, grounded in justice, and then worked to make it come about.

But the forces of colonisation, and its pervasive ways, are not easily vanquished.  The radical subversive agenda was watered down as the centuries went on.  Mary was transformed from a prophetic solo mum to a complaint supporter of men in power.  Paul’s aversion to slavery was refuted other later letters alleged to be from him.  Jesus’ words about liberation were diluted to admonitions to generously give alms, rather than upset the structural hierarchies that dominated the political and social landscape.

My point is simply, we need to remember.  Remember our roots in colonisation, our roots in resistance, how they have compromised us, how they have shaped us, and how we can – on this journey of acknowledgement, restitution, and restoration – do better.  For the journey is far from over.