Honouring the Prophets : John Miller – A Passion for Justice

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 40, Lent 2007

In the biblical tradition, there are major and minor prophets. Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel are among the majors, Micah, Zephaniah and Malachi among the minors. And so it is true in our own time. ‘Major’ prophets of our time include Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Phillip and Daniel Berrigan, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Yunus (of Gareen Bank fame), Helen Prejean, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Joan Chittister These are world moral leaders who cut across race, gender and religion to point the way towards a better future based on justice which gives birth to lasting peace.

There are also thousands of ‘minor’ prophets, often unknown outside their immediate circle, who don’t make the same impact necessarily but who also respond to the consistent call of the heart to speak out in the face of injustice and wrong-doing and promote the ways of God. Disciples of Jesus are called to be ‘prophets’ as is recognised in the baptismal liturgy of the Church.

Such a one is John Miller. The Christchurch Catholic Worker would like to honour one of its own ‘minor’ prophets who has consistently over 60 years agitated and campaigned for social justice and peace in this country and the wider world.

John Miller was born in 1929 in Christchurch to Anglican parents. Upon shifting to Invercargill as a youth, he joined his parents and four sisters at the local Methodist Church which at that stage had a very strong social justice dimension to the point where several of its leaders like Ormond Burton were gaoled for conscientious objection during World War II. Others went on to form the pacifist Riverside Community in Upper Moutere. While totally ecumenical, John has remained a Methodist to this day despite some years ago joining the Catholic Worker.

Upon leaving school, John took up an apprenticeship as a joiner and this remained his trade throughout his life. His love of wood and its possibilities has always been an abiding passion and the beautiful timber furniture John makes is a tribute to his training and skill.

Shortly after the war, John had a conversion experience when Les Clemens, one of the prominent pacifists of his day and a founder of Riverside Community, came to preach at his local church. ‘It was the most dramatic Sunday of my life,’ is how John describes it, and it left him convinced of the absolute centrality of pacifism as a vital tenet of Christian faith. Eventually John himself found his way to the Riverside Community where he stayed for a year, because ‘I was attracted by the idea.’ However, as he put it, ‘it didn’t work out for me’. About this time he married and helped raise two children. The marriage didn’t last and his two sons now live overseas.

Later John became a lay missionary in the (British) Solomon Islands for three years, building churches and learning the skills of lay preaching. In 1957 he cadged a ride on a scrap metal ship to Japan and while there found himself in Hiroshima on the 12th anniversary of the first nuclear holocaust. There he addressed the 3rd World Conference ‘Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and for Disarmament.’ He recognised how devastated the country had been by the war generally and especially by the nuclear bombings. He was greatly moved by the poverty affecting so many resulting from the war. His vocation to pacifism and voluntary poverty was re-enforced. He returned to Invercargill and the workbench.

In 1983 he travelled throughout the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country then under martial law. This trip had a huge impact on him as he saw the poverty of millions sitting cheek-to-jowl with the opulence of the rich, ‘all of them claiming to be Christian.’ For a year prior to his trip, he had been corresponding with Leonida (Leony) Sevillano. They later married and together returned to Southland where their only daughter Corry was born in 1986. Two years later as a family, they travelled for five months in the US, spending time at the Koinonia Community and the Open Door CW in Atlanta City, the only ‘protestant’ Catholic Worker in the US. John was deeply affected by his experiences in the southern states, especially the poverty and racism he encountered. He was marked forever by the heroism of those who engaged in the struggle to confront these evils.

Back in New Zealand, John’s involvement with progressive causes and his militant stance on pacifism became well known throughout the churches. His writings on war, peace, disarmament and development were prominent in Christian circles and took on new life when he built a house in Auckland and shifted there with his family. There he linked with both the Pitt Street Methodist Church and St Benedict’s. For more than a decade the Miller family attended Pitt Street in the mornings and St Benedict’s for Mass in the evenings, a dual practice they transferred when they later shifted in 2001 to Christchurch to join the Catholic Worker.

If one characteristic stands out in John’s long life of commitment to Christ and to social justice, it has been his consistency. His heart rages against injustice. Speak to him of the Philippines, of the Iraq war, of the abuse of the environment, of the oil wars – and he launches immediately into an analysis of what is happening, why it is wrong and what he perceives needs to be done. He has never let up. At hundreds of meetings, through thousands of letters to newspapers, in eye-balling the authorities, John has never let an opportunity escape when he might get a hearing for an idea which might better effect justice. ‘In the beginning was the idea’, he is fond of saying.

His health is failing now but the passion is still there, the spark in the eye still bright, the huge desire to leave the world a better place still animates his every waking moment. He indeed has been a ‘light in the darkness’ and a bright one at that. Long may his message reverberate. May ‘the idea’ become flesh in our time.

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