The Dilemma of a Christian Pacifist: Kathleen Hall

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 20, Pentecost 2001

by Tom Newnham

‘She left her footprints in every corner of Quyang land

Through cruel blockade she brought medicine to save soldiers’ lives

She visited the homes of sick farmers and treated them,

She is a nurse-angel in their hearts

To heal the wounded and rescue the dying

She worked with selfless dedication.

Her deeds in support of the War of Resistance

Will go down in the annals of history’

There is a paradox in these lines which reflects the dilemma confronting all pacifists throughout their lives in peace and war. They were written five years ago by a class of Chinese high school students and recited by them at the graveside of New Zealand missionary nurse Kathleen Hall on the occasion of the centennial of her birth in 1896. Kathleen was a dedicated Christian pacifist who served in China from 1922-40 . In later life she was a foundation member of the Anglican Christian Pacifist fellowship in Auckland.

Although little known in her native land, she is certainly well-remembered in China, especially in the Hebei prefecture of Baoding (population 18 million) where her story is taught in schools. That is how the poem came to be written. Here is the final verse

‘She embodies great internationalism and humanity,

Although she has passed away her bright deeds are in our hearts.

Let us learn from her spirit and fulfil her wishes

That China and New Zealand thrive and prosper

And develop good friendship between our peoples.

Study Hard and Work Well!’

For the first 15 years of her life in China, Kathleen’s vocation was clear and unequivocal – she wanted to spread the Gospel and she knew that she must minister to the health and welfare of the people before she could help with what she saw as their spiritual needs. She obtained permission from her bishop to establish a village clinic in the poorest part of Hebei province , the Taihang Mountains , and she took with her one male and one female Chinese nurse. She worked tirelessly and in one particular way that the older generation of New Zealanders can appreciate, she pioneered house visits to peasant cottages — something quite unheard of before. In fact the local people assert that she was forerunner of the ‘barefoot doctors’ who were sent out by the new Communist regime across the countryside to bring basic health care.

Then came the Japanese invasion which for Kathleen was to bring a heart-rending crisis of conscience. The Japanese rapidly over-ran the North China Plain, especially securing the lines of communication such as the railways. The Chinese Communists were able to hold on to the mountains to the west. Kathleen’s little clinic was near the edge of the mountains in ‘no-man’s land’.

There was a Canadian communist , a brilliant surgeon , Dr. Norman Bethune, who took himself to China and offered his services to Mao Ze Dong. He was placed in charge of the Medical Corps of the 8th Route Army. Chinese army medical services in those days were probably worse than in the British army during the Crimean War. We know of these through the story of Florence Nightingale. Furthermore, this Chinese army was completely encircled by the Japanese. Bethune was in charge of medical services which were non-existent and had no practicable way of obtaining supplies.

He was told about Kathleen and he went to see her in person. The meeting is described in the book The Scalpel, The Sword which has made use of Bethune’s diary and in which he wrote

‘I have met an angel….Kathleen Hall, of the Anglican Church Mission here….she will go to Peking, buy up medical supplies, and bring them back to her mission-for us! If she isn’t an angel, what does the word mean?’

The book also describes the soul-searching endured by Kathleen before she made her decision.

She said she was a neutral , and a pacifist and could not take part in war. Bethune understood well her dilemma for his own mother had been a missionary. Finally she agreed to accept the task and made no fewer than 30 dangerous journeys through Japanese-held territory before she was caught and steps were taken to deport her. However she simply disembarked at Hong Kong , resigned from her mission and joined the Chinese Red Cross. She then set out on the long and dangerous journey through inland China to rejoin the struggle but eventually succumbed to beriberi and was invalided home.

For Bethune and Kathleen, the decision to be made was ‘writ large’ but nevertheless it is one that every human being must make in their own lives in war and in peace . So long as we live in a society we share responsibility for the actions of our social group. The struggle for peace and justice will never cease to inspire.

Kathleen Hall is a true New Zealand heroine, a saint in Christian terms. Her life of selfless dedication to the needy gives her a special place in our history. Her pacifism in the face of war and daily violence is an inspiration to those who seek to follow Christ’s teaching.

She died in Hamilton in 1970, after having worked in New Zealand for Corso and helping form the New Zealand-China Friendship Society.

Tom Newnham, a personal friend of the late Rewi Alley, is a retired Auckland teacher and long-term member of the NZ-China Friendship Society. His new 74-page booklet Kathleen Hall—Kiwi Heroine in China is available from Graphic Publications, 514 Dominion Rd, Auckland NZ, price $10.

Comments are closed.