The Government’s “traffic light” announcement came in the midst of the craziness and chaos of what was a regular Friday morning working in the youth housing and homelessness space.
As I took a moment to pause and listen to our Prime Minister lay out the plan to bring us out of Lockdown my first thought was for our unhoused whānau. A largely māori community, a community who have been historically neglected by the Government and society at large, a community who have been so focused on simply fighting to survive, that many are still trying to come to grips with Covid, the vaccine, and what all this means for them.
When we open up, when Covid gets into our communities, it will be our street whānau who will bear the highest cost of any uncontained spread. Homelessness is extremally harmful to a person’s body, many of our whānau, including our rangatahi have underlying health conditions, they don’t have to die. We could still house them, support them, get them medical care, and they could heal, live, and thrive.
But without the time to support them to be vaccinated, with the restrictions opening whether our marginalized communities hit 90% or not, their lives will be at risk.
My first thoughts were with them.
But, my second was with my faith whānau.
I know this has been hard period for our community, we have been divided, and though the majority of the Christian community have been in support of the Government’s health restrictions and have seen their participation in them as practices and rhythms of Love for our most vulnerable neighbours, there are those within our whānau who have viewed this differently. Who believe that the Government is using the cover of a pandemic to take control of our nation and oppress our people.
As I listened to the Prime Minister give her announcement, I knew that for some, this would only intensify that feeling. And I was right. In the last 48+ hours since the Prime Minister’s announcement a small, but vocal, collection of faith leaders have made comparisons with Nazi Germany, apartheid, slavery era America, and called the church to resist and “hold the line” against this “oppressive regime”. In my previous article (which you can find here) I addressed some of these concerns and discussed how I believe (at least from where I’m standing) that these comparisons are over done, and don’t really fit the context of what is happening, here, in Aotearoa.
But, as I’ve been reflecting on all this, the feelings of oppression, the comparisons with marginalized groups, and use of imagery and phrases historically employed by Liberation and resistance movements, I just can’t help but wonder. Why do we feel that we are being oppressed?
I want to clarify that from here on I am addressing my pākehā brothers and sisters. As I’ve begun to allude to above, as much as I can, I get that for communities that have historically been marginalized and oppressed by both our society and our government, trusting them in this space, after generations of neglect and in some cases intentional oppression, is a hard ask.
I’ve looked into the eyes of whānau who’ve been denied the right to housing, who’ve been neglected by our government, who’ve been denied their basic human rights, and on a level I get why they struggle to believe the Government has their best interests at heart.
But, for those of us who are pākehā, the reasoning here is more challenging to see.
Because, to put it bluntly, most of us have never expierenced genuine oppression.
And perhaps that is why we struggle to identify it.
But, if we did want to get a glimpse of what an oppressive regime looks like we only need to look as far as our own history.
And when we look there, we see that oppression looks like using power and force to steal land from indigenous peoples, it looks like using that power to establish a government that than creates laws that marginalize and oppress the people of the land, while privileging and enriching the colonizing people.
It looks like telling that same indigenous people that they cannot speak their own Reo (language), and beating their kids if they do. It looks like denying this group of people access to their basic human rights, depriving them of sovereignty, and then generations later, having left them homeless on their own whenua, blaming them for continuing to experience the consequences of the colonizer’s actions.
It looks like inviting whānau from the Islands to come to Aotearoa to do the labour no Pākehā wanted to do, and then when you know longer needed, or wanted them, racially profiling them and sending squads of Police to drag their kids out of bed at dawn.
It looks like telling a community of people that their sexuality is perverse, wrong, and unacceptable within society. And when they are unable to conform with the heterosexual norm imposed upon them, imprisoning and persecuting them for the crime of existing.
The reason the pākehā church cannot discern between what are essentially health restrictions, put in place to protect our most vulnerable whānau, and oppression, is because most of us have never truly expierenced it before.
The cold, hard, uncomfortable reality is, we are used to being in control.
We are used to being the one’s who dictate, not those who are dictated to.
And as society has moved on, as our culture has become more secular, and as previously marginalized voices, have begun to lift our boot from their necks just enough to speak their truth, we have become increasingly uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable, because the narrative of our own superiority is fading away.
We are not who we thought we were.
We are not the boundlessly loving, inclusive, caring, and compassionate community we have allowed ourselves to believe we are.
We are beginning to hear from those who have been harmed by the complicated history of our faith, and that has led us to a crisis of identity.
And in the strangest of ironies, instead of facing this crisis head on, some of us have tried to make sense of it by redefining ourselves as the oppressed and marginalized group. We employ phrases like “we the people”, chuck our fist in the air, and share Martin Luther King quotes on our newsfeed’s, co-opting images and phrases that ironically find their whakapapa in resistance movements that arose to challenge the very oppressive power structures that our ancestors built.
What we fail to realize, and what we might see if we opened our own scriptures, is that we are not the poor or the oppressed. We are not the marginalized or cast down.
We are not the people.
Our ancestors built the Empire.
And though we may be tempted to see ourselves in the stories of the poor and oppressed Jewish community that fill our scriptures, this is a poor reading of these ancient texts. Our privilege blinding us to the reality that we have more in common with the Roman Empire, than we will ever have with the poor, oppressed and marginalized Jew.
And yet, within these same scriptures, there the colonizer can also find hope.
For Jesus came to set the captive free, to Liberate the poor and oppressed, to realize the Divine’s Dream on earth as it is in Heaven.
And though, we may not be expierencing tangible, physical oppression, or be under the thumb of a ruling dictator, many of us are still bound by the chains of white superiority and supremacy that our ancestors made for us.
The good news is that we can be free.
Jesus has called us into solidarity with the poor. Into solidarity with the marginalized.
To lay down our position of privilege and comfort, to give up on holding the line, and instead to cross it, to become one with those who have been marginalized, oppressed, and abused.
As I’ve discussed in the past, the freedom we have as followers of Jesus, is to become slaves to Love.
And in this moment, in this context, I believe this means that we are being invited to lay down our own rights, to sacrifice our own individual freedoms, to give it all up for the sake of those who have the most to lose.
You may be frustrated that your choice is not the most popular one.
You may be frustrated that your choice comes with consequence that have an impact on your life.
But, you still have a choice.
You can choose whether you can get vaccinated.
You can choose to trust your immune system and hope you don’t get sick.
You can choose to ignore the health advice provided by our medical consensus.
But, whatever choice you make will have consequences. Not just for yourself. But, for others as well.
Like it or not, we now live in a world where Delta is not going away.
We either accept that restrictions on our personal freedoms are necessary in order to keep our community as safe as possible for our most vulnerable whānau, or we choose individual freedom, needlessly, leaving the poor and marginalized to fend for themselves.
We all have a choice here.
Ihu Karaiti stands before us inviting us to follow.
Only one question remains.
Which path will we choose?
A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.