Pioneers of bicultural spirituality, Paul Morris

Ratana: The Prophet 
Keith Newman
Raupo, $40.00,
ISBN 978014310972

Double Rainbow: James Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune 
John Newton
Victoria University Press, $40.00, 
ISBN 9780864736037

Pakeha and Maori find themselves in Martin Heidegger’s phrase “thrown” together in our shared land, cultures still clashing and only ever the future prospect of bicultural harmony, or, at least, some serious accommodation of each other’s integrity, wisdom and history. A small number of charismatic individuals, however, have developed visions of this peaceful, bicultural world to come, and even fewer have established communities that have incorporated these visions and impacted on the country as a whole.

Two such individuals are Wiremu Ratana and James K Baxter. The Maori prophet and the Pakeha poet, albeit in their very different ways, recognised that the tensions between peoples could be resolved only by religious means, by innovative forms of collective life governed by nothing less than a new spirituality. Both men record being called by God to their appointed task – the construction of the Hiruharama Hau, the New Jerusalem, at Ratana Pa or on the banks of the Whanganui River. Theirs was not a choice but an inner response to an external call to bring people to live and worship together and to turn their backs on aspects of their former lives. Both Baxter and Ratana wrestled with the relationships between Maori and Pakeha cultures in their quest for a new community, and both left legacies that continue to inform and guide us. Two new books, both biographies that go beyond the person to the spirit of the communities that they founded, shed new light on these legacies by bringing these 20th century bicultural visions to the surface for a new generation.

Keith Newman’s book is a more tightly focused and much edited version of his earlier and lengthier study of Ratana (2006). Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana’s legacy is his arresting architecture; a following that continues to increase, ensuring the continuity of his teachings; a new model of national political involvement; putting the Treaty of Waitangi back on the national agenda, and his envisaging of a positive future for Maori and Pakeha together in Aotearoa. His followers presented him as in the lineage of Maori prophets that had both prepared the way and prophesised his coming. Ratana was an extraordinary preacher, healer and inspirational leader whose reputation as a spiritual healer attracted Maori from all over the country to participate in and witness his miracle cures. His practices included what appears to have been a form of counter-makutu whereby he took possession of fetish objects, neutralising their effects, while denouncing all such traditional practices. His national tours, including an entourage of 300 persons and more than 30 motor vehicles in convoy, called for Maori unity and for Maori to renew their Christianity. Ratana, the new religious movement, based on the Treaty of Waitangi and the Bible, grew out of the huge audiences that came for healing and the appeal of his version of a new solidarity. Ratana collected 34,000 signatures for a national petition, out of a total Maori population of 57,000, from many iwi and hapu, detailing how land had been lost, acquired by others or taken.

In 1924 he went to Europe, planning to raise the issues of land and the Treaty with King George, although the intervention and undermining of his mission by New Zealand officials resulted only in a brief meeting with the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward. He also visited Japan and, the following year, the United States, including the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. At home, the Ratana church grew rapidly so that by 1927 a third of Maori were claimed as affiliated to Ratana, some 21,500 people. Following his famed marae tours of 1933 and 1934, the movement claimed 40,000 followers of the 74,000 Maori, including 134 apostles, 245 faith healing apostles, 658 lay readers, 1028 sisters and 110 wardens. In addition, Ratana established a political movement that captured parliamentary seats and in 1936 made an agreement with the Labour Party that lasted until recently. Wiremu Ratana died in 1939 at the age of 66, having created a tradition of goodwill between Maori and Pakeha; a new form of Maori Christian spirituality; and renewed hope for Maori in New Zealand. Ratana Pa continues to be the site for an annual gathering that includes leaders of all the major political parties and tens of thousands of others who come to show their respect for Wiremu Ratana.

John Newton’s Double Rainbow is a delight to read as he captures something of those heady times when crims, nuts and hippies got stoned together and the air was thick with the promise of revolutionary change, and the limitations of bourgeois, middle- class life and values were cruelly, if a little unfairly, over-exposed. He traces the history of the Jerusalem commune from Baxter’s 1968 revelation from God to build a community of Maori and Pakeha that would “worship god, work the land” and have no money and no books, up to its demise in 1975, via Baxter’s involvement and death in 1972.

In Jerusalem Sonnets, Baxter writes of the “Pakeha marae”, that spiritual and therapeutic place where young alienated Pakeha would come to be cured of the “chronic coldness of the heart” and emotional sterility “that engulfs the nation”. Baxter’s vision of this marae became embodied in the Jerusalem commune and was a curious and unique admixture of his ascetic Roman Catholicism, the pacifist and Catholic Worker traditions of communal living and working, and his grasp of things Maori. He instituted the embrace, or hug, as something between the Christian post-communion “peace” and the hongi. There is a wonderful description of hundreds arriving at Easter and waiting in long lines to be Pakeha hongied/hugged by the guru-poet.

But Jerusalem was not simply a creative, if eccentric combination of Baxter’s trinity of Christianity, the late 60s and selected Maori elements. The community was, as Newton’s research clearly evidences, something that required the very specific historical local context of Suzanne Aubert, Sister Mary Joseph/Meri Hohepa who had established New Zealand’s only indigenous Catholic order, the Sisters of Compassion, with the blessing of local Maori, in Jerusalem, where she spent 16 years. The close relationships between the nuns, whose orphan and pregnant charges were both Maori and Pakeha, and the local Maori community, Ngati Hau, led to the Sisters being considered tangata whenua on the river marae. Father Te Awhiti, who served in Jerusalem, was the first Maori ordained a Catholic priest, in 1944. The Jerusalem community was in many ways a renewal of these relationships between Catholic and Maori and of the dependency of Pakeha on Maori, framed by Baxter’s visionary leadership and drawing on that bicultural and religious history.

Baxter was convinced that Pakeha had much to learn from the “Maori side of the fence” but that this was never going to be easy: “I wish to be embraced by them … to share their sorrows and their joys … but am aware of how delicate a thing it is to do.” What was it that Pakeha needed so urgently to learn from Maori? Love, was Baxter’s answer, in particular as taught and modelled by the elder Maori aunties, a love that he interpreted as unconditional and turned no one away and gave everyone a place to stay. This vision attracted many to the commune as visitors, tourists and those who stayed a while.

There were often gaps between the harmonics of Baxter’s vision and the reality: sexual freedom versus the nun’s acute sense of morality and propriety; the presence of dope and acid versus Baxter’s insistence on a total ban on drugs and alcohol; his long periods away, and the seemingly endless publicity that Baxter both generated and the community often suffered from.

Newton also convincingly argues that Jerusalem is not simply Baxter’s story by detailing the ways in which it outlived him, generating new communities, but more importantly how the story of Jerusalem is an essential part of what we have come to understand as the renewal, or revival, of Maori social and spiritual practices and the parallel rise in Pakeha self-consciousness – renewals that have changed Maori and all New Zealanders with a new consciousness of our bicultural reality.

Both these books have wonderful photographs by Ans Westra and others. Both contextualise two great New Zealand visionaries of a spiritual and material future for Maori and Pakeha living together in the New Jerusalem. Both men forged new paths from alienation to a returning home for those that followed them. As we continue to struggle with the Treaty and our bicultural condition, we would do well to consult these spiritual visions.


Paul Morris is Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.



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