ratana: the prophet

It seems to be the season for a binge on NZ history, particularly Maori history. After the exhilaration of Fairness & Freedom and then Keith Newman's eye-opening Bible & Treaty - I thought I'd read Newman's earlier book, Ratana: the prophet

This is the story of a Maori leader who experienced an extraordinary encounter with God which led, initially, to a spiritual ministry of healing and prophecy, inspired by the Gospels, all around the country. The case which is made for this to be an authentic ministry is compelling. Ratana himself claimed to be the fulfillment of an 1881 prophecy in which 'there is a child coming who will bear in his right hand the Holy Bible and in his left hand the Treaty of Waitangi. If the spiritual side is attended to, all will be well on the physical side' (249). This 'physical' side captures then the second half of his life as he gives himself to seeking justice for Maori: 'First unite under Ihoa (Jehovah/God), then turn your attention to the Treaty of Waitangi' (146).

In 1940, '100 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the followers of TW Ratana had grown to become New Zealand's largest and most influential Maori religious community' (210). For much of a generation, through the 1950s-1970s, the four Maori seats in Parliament were held by members of the Ratana Church and in the 2006 Census, adherents to the Ratana church were roughly comparable to the Baptist church (50,000+). Here is how the story began:
While he was fishing with his family in 1918 two large whales had surfed to the shore in an extraordinary spectacle. The first whale lay quietly on the sand resigned to its fate, representing the Ture Wairua - the spiritual works which embraced the Bible, the challenge to tohungaism (superstition) and an extraordinary healing ministry. The second whale, symbolising the Ture Tangata or physical works, had thrashed about violently before escaping back to the ocean. This represented Ratana's redoubled effort to deal with Maori land grievances through the Treaty of Waitangi. Having been rejected by politicians and royalty, he would now work towards becoming the government and creating change from within. (136)

My hunch is that signs and wonders have a particular purpose when the gospel pioneers its way into frontier areas. It is not that God is never to intervene miraculously again, but more of 'blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed' enters the equation. Maybe this is the way to view the early Ratana story. The gospel was at a frontier where things like superstition, idolatry, and revenge (utu) were rampant and the salvation that comes with enlightenment (maramatanga) desperately needed. God sent something of a spiritual revival and something of a contrast community was established at Ratana Pa (near Wanganui). A minister as theologically conservative as Joseph Kemp (Auckland Baptist Tabernacle) vouches for Ratana's ministry in a popular little booklet of the time which covers the story of the healing of Fannie Lammas (How I was Healed: a New Zealand Miracle) - which occurred through an exchange of letters with Ratana.

Some of the lessons of the story are sad. While I persisted, the wind in my sails dropped suddenly when I turned a page to discover that Ratana took a second wife (one young enough to be his daughter, 118) alongside his first one and that he had a sustained battle with binge-drinking and alcoholism (123). With the way the story was travelling at the time this took me by surprise. The story illustrates the common reality of how a lively first generation movement becomes a tired second generation institution unless there is a renewal of vision and leadership. One wonders if Ratana could have done more to minimise the way his followers ascribed almost a divine status to him as the leader. The doctrinal oddities can be portrayed as irrelevant (for example, the way angels snuggled in there with the trinity), but the trouble with doctrine is the same with laying the lino on the kitchen floor. An error of 2mm on one side has a way of becoming 2cm by the time you reach the other side. Whether it be the religious right in the USA or the Ratana movement in NZ, a Christian religious movement seeking political power as the primary means of securing social change is misguided. If the wise use of power involves a bit of each of prophet, priest and king - then this is a story where the pursuit of 'king' gradually eclipsed those of 'prophet and priest' and it is sad to read.

Newman himself is absorbed by the role of Ratana as prophet. The idea works its way into the title and is the focus of the closing pages, with some of his prophecies considered to be 'astoundingly accurate' (247):
It is difficult to dismiss a man who plants a geranium cutting from his front garden in the grounds of Parliament House in 1919, saying one day he'll be back to pluck a flower and that the pollen would be blown to the four corners of the country. Years later he returns, just ahead of capturing the first of four political seats, prophesying at the future site of the 'Beehive', that one day honey would come from the mouth of a lion. (247)
There are plenty more examples from where that comes from! It is impressive, but as with prophets like this, I suspect that the prophecies that came true are remembered and those that did not are forgotten - and a list of both is needed before a true assessment can be made.

It is a story well worth reading. Not one, but three, of Ratana's sons die very young. Surely that is too much grief for a father to bear. That will always soften me to his story. I was impacted by the tenacious and persistent way in which Ratana kept the focus on the Treaty with both the British and pakeha (in NZ). The image of such people only 'sending their legs' (149) for an engagement with the Treaty is one to remember (ie they left their head and heart and hand back home). Some interesting people emerge in the story - from Methodist Rev AJ Seamer, 'the last European missionary worthy of a chiefly position among them (Maori)' (46), to someone like the impressive current parliamentarian, Tariana Turia, whose roots lie in the Ratana movement.

This is another book from Newman which keeps the feet of the NZ scholarly community to the fire, reminding them not to forget the role played by Christian faith in the early story of this nation.

nice chatting



Anonymous said…
I read this last year and was riveted by it. Your analysis is helpful- the grief of loss of sons, the doctrine that skews, and especially I like the signs and wonders in a frontier setting idea... but I was also compelled by Newman's hope that something good would rise again from this movement.
Nice reading your chat, Paul!
Chris OTBC
Paul said…
We just need to find some way to get Newman's books on the bibliographies of courses in the formal education system. He is making such a contribution to our self-understanding. Hope to see you later in the year...
krama said…
Prophesy's take time to be fulfilled, I am sure God is not finished with Aotearoa and the people who live here.

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