Honouring the Prophets: Rod Donald (1957 – 2005)

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 36, Lent 2006

This is an article that in all probability would not have been written for some years if Rod Donald had not died suddenly in November 2005. His was a death that shocked the nation.

As co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party in parliament and the wider country, Rod had a huge impact on the whole of New Zealand and in particular on those who have a heart for justice. Rod died from viral myocarditis at 48 years of age. His dream of building a better world for all, his sense of inclusiveness, his identification with the oppressed regardless of the cause, his passion for the environment, for recycling, his love of his partner Nicola and devotion to his daughters Holly, Emma and Zöe, his loyalty to his family and friends, made him an almost larger than life figure to many. Yet he was also a humble man, politically savvy, good humoured, forgiving and compassionate to a fault.

And energetic. Rod had energy in abundance. The sight of him cycling around Christchurch with a phone strapped to his ear held by a reused rubber bike tube so he could talk and ride is one of the enduring memories for thousands. Nearly every major environmental and justice group in the country was touched and influenced by him at some point. He was always there. His several arrests at Springbok tour time back in 1981 confirmed his commitment to racial justice and his life’s desire to make a difference for those who have little or nothing. His belief in the cause of racial justice and equality never flagged. Only last August he slept out in a pup tent at a protest in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, to highlight the barbaric regime of Robert Mugabe and register his disgust at our national cricket team playing in Zimbabwe.

Thousands of tributes have flowed. We will not canvass them again. But after all the tributes have been paid, what will his legacy be?

We in the Catholic Worker, who shared so many of Rod’s beliefs and dreams, feel that he indeed was a prophet in the very best sense of that term. He was a prophet who condemned policies that were destroying our planet and its people and pointed the way to a better future. This is what prophets do. They are not necessarily religious figures. Certainly not in the conventional sense. Rod was no conventional religious person, though his great warmth of personality and all round balance reflected a strong and integrated spiritual base. Prophet indeed is a term he would probably have eschewed. Yet when one considers his lifestyle and his commitment to the cause of justice, he fits the bill. There is no need to compare him to others from prophetic traditions. His whole life was prophetic from his teenage years – and needs to be acknowledged as such. This is not to place a halo on him nor any form of plastic sainthood. That would be insulting. It is simply to recognise the almost unique call of the man to change the world for the better. Prophets are often not well dressed, nor very conventional. They usually hate pomp and ceremony. That is the nature of the vocation. We claim one who wore rainbow braces and rode a bicycle!

The danger is that we might glamourise Rod’s life of commitment to justice and try and turn him into something he was not. This is not what is intended. He had his faults and failings like everyone else. Political life can be a harsh and brutal environment and Rod undoubtedly made mistakes en route. But always he was open to the future and supporting and encouraging others. In his last weeks, his humility and good humour in the face of what seemed like a betrayal by the government after the election reflected some of his finest human qualities. Certainly something happened to entice 1500 people to take a day off work to come to his Christchurch funeral. The attendees ranged from the Governor-General and Prime Minister to members of the youngest school environment groups. It was an amazing ‘one off’ gathering, memorable and totally appropriate.

His life will live on among his friends for a long time to come. His infectious smile, his wacky sense of dress, his devotion to the cause of justice, peace and development will be a legacy which will sustain many in the future. May he rest in peace.

Common ground: CW and the Greens

In our Catholic Worker tradition, much of what we have stood for in relation to the vision of our founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, mainstream Greens have also espoused. Personalism, ‘small is beautiful’, non-violence, environmental concerns, respect and dignity for all regardless of status, a preferential option for the poor, caring for the homeless, the mentally ill, the unemployed and the prisoner, struggling for economic justice for the poor – these and many other ideas are shared by both the Catholic Worker movement throughout the world and many mainstream Greens.

In a world of unabashed greed and widespread violence dominated by global players and manipulation of the truth through the corporate media, surely Catholic Workers share with the Greens the mould of other prophetic social movements who stand for racial equality, justice and peace and which offer hope to our world. Inasmuch as the Catholic Worker is a prophetic movement seeking to follow the radical teachings of Jesus in the gospels especially the Sermon on the Mount, we share some common goals with the Green movement.

This is not to say that we concur on everything. The Catholic Worker explicitly recognise a specific source of divine life, Christ, present in all things. We differ on significant issues – the extent of our pacifism, on voluntary poverty, our commitment to a consistent ethic of life, the role of the state, our Christian anarchic roots, our houses of hospitality. Perhaps our convergence intersects around general values and beliefs, rather any strictly political programme. The Greens chose public politics and have a political arm as a movement through the Green Party. We have no political arm.

But we do share a lot in common. CW co-founder Peter Maurin’s original call in the 1930s was for a ‘green revolution’, a return to sustainable living and the promotion of small farming enterprises where labour is respected and people get a chance to make choices freely, and for a ‘marriage’ between rural and city/urban life, human rights and peacemaking. These are ideas that converge between the two movements and which we share gratefully. In the face of structural violence, war, corporate greed and political oppression, we certainly graze on the same side of the fence.

There are many things also that Catholic Workers can learn from the Greens, including their commitment to a sustainable future for all, their campaigning around issues of justice, their politics around food, transport and energy issues, their understanding of the nature of the earth itself. And their passion. We have lots in common – and lots to learn.

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