Dr George Armstrong, New Zealand renegade priest, human rights and nuclear protester, trendsetting humanitarian

Interviewed by

Tim Lynch

Dr George Armstrong, New Zealand renegade priest, human rights and nuclear protester, trendsetting humanitarian

Today here on Earth there is a ‘Civil War of the Spirit’ underway. Racial divides, religious intolerance, material avarice, martial control, and intellectual arrogance all challenge us to love and to heal our great separation from oneness and unity consciousness.

So, what is it that drives ‘a man of the cloth’ to see that the Vietnam war was wrong, that Maori of Aotearoa New Zealand were dispossessed of their land, that the South African rugby tour of NZ was racially selected, and that nuclear power and weapons brought into a country that threatened no other country, was and is morally indefensible?

Do we think to any depth of wisdom these days? Have we cast values and virtues out the window as we embrace the shallow distraction of material comforts and indulgences? This is a question that we need to engage and think deeply about. For it is obvious that George Armstrong, ably supported by his wife Jocelyn, has dwelt on many of the underlying causes that separate us all from participating and being global family.

Though George was on good terms with the local Bishop, he realised that with falling congregation attendances, the Church had lost its way. It was not engaged with the community and whatever virtues and values that the Anglicans wished to embed in the wider community basically echoed inside a vacuum. That though his Bishop also had an understanding of Liberation Theology, that in those days was making a huge impression in South America - where the priests took Christ down from the cross and instead got themselves in alongside the peasants and served and worked with a hands-on approach to share the load of the downtrodden. For George intuitively knew that there had to be a better way if we were to bring peace and justice to earth.

Hence his deep commitment to the issue of the day - on so many levels.

Early Life

Born in Dunedin in the South Island of NZ, the youngest in his family, and though somewhat spoilt it was a lonely life as his many older brothers went off to post 1945 war activities.

As a boy he joined the boy scouts and embraced the moral quality of that credo, that he eventually became a strong Anglican and then he experienced an ‘angelical’ conversion of what it was like to have an intense personal sense of God - or the Divine.

After a stint at teaching in Waitaki in the South Island he then became an Anglican Priest and to have parishes in Dunedin and Christchurch when he realised that the Church as a religious entity was basically failing - as he could see it in the dwindling numbers - and he felt that in a sense it was a moral issue in that the church was not engaged with society - ethically - and after a few run-ins, he felt that he had to stand up in what he believed in - no matter what.

He eventually ended up teaching at a Theological College becoming ordained and realised that you can only understand yourself by being active in the world, that books could not really do that, or only to a small extent. So he felt that he had to get out and become engaged and involved with the world - and that the learning comes on reflection from the action.

Especially in his opposition to the Vietnam war which was a horrific shock for him - as it took him against his Church - including some theological students against his Church too. To one time taking placards into Good Friday procession saying that ‘Christ died for the Viet Cong.' And that the Bishop wanted him to get out of the procession and yet the Bishop was also good friends with George as he was quite partial to ‘liberation’ theology.

George, also found that there was a Buddhist strain in South Vietnam that was very aligned with him - as the Buddhist had a saying “they are our brothers who we kill.” That the Buddhist Nuns were also very strong on this - and this all linked to the heart of Christianity.

George’s mother had a sense that Maori spirituality was unique and when George officiated at some burials at Karatane, he realised that Maori and Pakeha understandings were very, very different. To experience Maori oratory and how it would flow impressed him and also that the historical wrongs to Maori from the colonialisation of NZ was important for George to understand - due to the enormous dispossession of Maori from their tribal land. 

One important quality that George noticed, that even though this had happened to Maori - they had never lost their dignity.

George always felt it was a great privilege to stand alongside Maori in some way. He noticed that the young within Maori were more ‘out there’ than the elders which brought George into contact with the Harawirafamily, who he got to like as they quickly understood the nuclear threat to the Pacific ocean. However to them, the nuclear threat was just another extension of colonialism. But, it was the ultimate expression of the challenges we were facing yet on a totally different level. Especially, as it was our planet’s future at stake.

He talks of Honi Harawira’s mother Titewhai and about her astuteness and being both wonderful and frightening, plus mentioning and praising Walter Lini a theological student of George’s and an Anglican priest, whom eventually became the founding Prime Minister of Vanuatu.

Apartheid and the Springbok Tour

Then the ‘white’ South African rugby Springbok tour of NZ that traumatically divided New Zealand like never before and the acclaimed statement that ‘this was a civil war of the spirit’ - George was one of the anti-tour demonstrators to break through the outer fences to actually get onto the football playing field in Hamilton and have the game cancelled - whilst the large crowd of 10’s of thousands were enraged and incensed, that they could not watch their game of footy. This news brought world attention to the fact that NZ supposedly a bastion of racial goodwill and fair play was engaged in playing a rugby team that was selected entirely on race.

That a large percentage of NZ was still in favour of the tour that I repeat in George’s take -“this tour based on apartheid was a civil war of the spirit”.

Though the tour continued after that canceled game many anti-tour protestors were so incensed that violence was discussed - yet George could not reconcile with violence in any way. There had to be a higher virtue overlighting all his actions.

The Nuclear-Free Movement

Then came the NZ Peace Squadron or Flotilla. When in America at Princeton on a scholarship as he knew he needed a doctoral qualification to further himself, he witnessed on TV pictures a tiny canoe and inhabitant floating in front of the bow of a gigantic freighter - trying to stop it from going anywhere. As it was a ship dealing with armaments that was en route to a civil war in Pakistan.

This image stuck to George’s soul and he imagined that with many small NZ boats, launches, yachts and anything that floated if New Zealanders could get out there in front of visiting nuclear armed or powered warships and stopping them from coming into NZ, ports this would be the way. With growing media focussed on all this - any boats damaged, sunk or lives hurt in anyway would focus attention on NZ and its government and policies.

These ships ‘or creatures of death’ as George would say ‘and the image of death trying to force its way through life' was an easy concept for George to understand - so the Peace Squadron came into being.

The interview covers the Anti Nuclear Movement here in NZ and the Peace Squadron and that small boats had been sailing around to Mururoa in French Polynesia for many years to protest the French testing nuclear bombs in our backyard. So when the message went out all the crews who had sailed the thousand of kilometres there and back - showed up and they were very hardy souls, very mature, astute, committed and dedicated with excellent yacht skills as well.

Then George became a spokesperson for radio and especially TV, as TV media in those days were right on to it as it was in its infancy and wanted to get a good story so George and team received some very good coverage.

He also got very savvy to language the story so that it could not be edited out, (as media is very adept at twisting the context of most stories)

We then go on to talk about all the nearly 40 countries Navy’s who are going to bring their warships to NZ. That the NZ Navy is going to have a church service because the Navy has always had a close connection to Christianity and what type of service is there going to be as ‘thou shall not kill’ is key component to Christianity as well as the word Love.

George then mentions that the present NZ ruling National Party has lost its religious depth and are not really into Christianity because of the Church’s antagonism of how the Government economic policy is disenfranchising so many.

When asked where he gets his support other than his loving wife Jocelyn, George says he gets a lot of support from people and especially children. And in the 1980s where we were in the anti-nuclear disruption a lot of politicians from the Labour Party.

Finally:

George says that we must not enter into polarity with people on the other side of the divide - they too are human and that they have been caught up in the system - police etc are just doing their job … be courteous.

We are all caught up in the system if we like it or not.

He said time and again - we are not against flesh and blood we are against ‘principalities and powers’. This system thing that gets to us … likes the armaments race - it gets to us.

If we let the genie out of the bottle - then that’s it …

George in closing talks about ‘being born again’ that the evangelicals do not see this transformational unfoldment in its greatest expression - and that this continuance needs to happen daily as we grow and expand on this realisation and cosmic gift - he says it’s such an astonishing thing as you respond to the impulse of this religious experience and you keep this alive in your daily practice … Otherwise you can quite possibly sink down into a religious rut of some sort and you can’t see the wood for the trees.

Our challenge?

The image of the other - not understanding other peoples and cultures etc - we pre-judge and have prejudices of the other …

Dialogue is good, but working together is far better.

In future -make sure you practice what you preach - especially with all relationships.

Don’t forget your humanity - we are dealing with humans even on the other side of the divide

Get clever - we are pure GENIUS. Keep focussed and something will open up - the extraordinary will become manifest.

 

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Tim Lynch

Tim Lynch

Tim Lynch, is a New Zealander, who is fortunate in that he has whakapapa, or a bloodline that connects him to the Aotearoan Maori. He has been involved as an activist for over 40 years - within the ecological, educational, holistic, metaphysical, spiritual & nuclear free movements. He sees the urgency of the full spectrum challenges that are coming to meet us, and is putting his whole life into being an advocate for todays and tomorrows children. 'To Mobilise Consciousness.'

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