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To Love as Christ Loved.
By Laura Black in All Sorts
solving racial injustices will require all of us taking the side of those who are discriminated against as if it were our own“I give you a new commandment, that ye love one another as I have loved you.”
"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King
In August 1963, three years before I was born, Martin Luther King wrote a letter from jail in Birmingham Alabama, over 6000 words longhand, responding to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the south.
King had been jailed for protesting racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, in defiance of a judicial ruling against “parading, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing”.
Conditions in the jail were bad by a further order of the judge; King had no mattress, no light, and was denied access to his constitutionally-mandated phone call.
The racism and racial segregation King was protesting included legal requirements for discriminatory hiring, and legally mandated segregation in public and commercial organisations. Birmingham’s population was 40% black, but there were no black police officers, firefighters, sales clerks, bus drivers, bank tellers. Black secretaries were legally prohibited from working with white professionals. Black unemployment was 2.5 times that of white, and average income for white people was more than double that of black workers.
Yet despite this, eight white religious leaders came together to write a public statement of concern advising that King had acted unwisely. That his movement was untimely. That the protests he led involved outsider
agitators. And suggesting that rather than protest, his movement should seek to negotiate with the very guardians and originators of the bigotry and discrimination he sought to overcome.
King’s response is now the defining statement on the importance and value of protest:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."
Following the white supremacist shooting in Christchurch last month, Pākehā New Zealand has been presented – to an hopefully unavoidable degree – with the evidence of our own “White Citizens Councillors and Ku Klux Klanners”: the terrorist and his associates, but also the Hamilton (and other) City Councillors, that Australian Senator, and various others in our lives and in our media who have sought to blame the victims, who have blamed immigration, who have said some version of well he [the terrorist] went too far but he does have a point. And implied that he is a victim too.
Happily, in the weeks following the shooting, a significant number of Pākehā, almost all of them “moderates”, joined publicly and privately in expressing a wholehearted and utter rejection of the terrorist’s actions and philosophy.
That does not mean, however, that the repudiation of white supremacism in New Zealand is now complete, never for it to raise its head again.
Just last week the National Party killed a provision for Ngai Tahu to have a place as of right on the Canterbury Regional Council.
The Hamilton Councillor who referred to immigrants as “scum” is still in post.
Māori and Pasifika youth still have double the unemployment rate of Pākehā youth.
“Unconscious bias” by teachers against Māori and Pasifika children is still the largest contributor to their lower rates of NCEA achievement.
There is still strong public opposition to Māori getting anything more than cents in the dollar for their lost lands and other Taonga.
Newspapers still headline offenders’ ethnicity but only if they are brown.
The Prison population is still more than 50% Māori and Pasifika – double their proportion of the general population.
Rates of arrest, conviction, and imprisonment for the same crime are still much lower for Pākehā than any other racial group.
Gun control, no matter how sensible or needed, will not change any of these statistics.
So, if you attended a vigil, signed a condolence book, offered prayers of love and support for the victims of the Christchurch shootings, donated to givealittle pages, left flowers at Al Huda Mosque, well done.
But the work is not done. It will be easy for all of us to slip back into “the absence of tension” that allows the racial disparities and injustices that permeate our society to continue.
As Holy Week starts, let us remind ourselves that achieving MLK’s presence of justice will take effort, it will take Pākehā moderates continuing to stand up and continuing to demand better of ourselves, it will mean all of us taking the side of those who are discriminated against as if it were our own.
Surely, this is the very least of what means to love as Christ loved.
Have a blessed Easter.