Social Justice, the face of God

Our vocation as human beings benefits from regular thought, reflection, and community; Just Action gathers us together to learn, to dream, and be inspired.

As Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl taught us, our hopes and dreams are vital existential motivators. They are directly correlated with access to resources. When one feels that resources are within reach—even if only notionally—and where one’s community is believed to be the locus for their distribution, one engages the social contract that promotes civic peace. In doing so, the community achieves social justice.

Conversely, Priutt and Rubin note social exclusion gives rise to anxiety, alienation, conflict and, ultimately, violence (Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement, New York, Random House, 1986). Diana Mutz’s 2018 study indicated that a central theme in the election of Donald Trump was the anxiety that accompanies such existential threats. Indeed, Frankl noticed that concentration camp prisoners who lost hope died ahead of those who had little food or protection against the harsh Polish winter.

Prime Minister Ardern was right to ‘utterly reject and condemn’ the Christchurch killer; but hard questions remain for New Zealand, indeed, the world. Has the last three decades’ relentless marketization of public welfare resulting in painful inequality, divided communities, and societal problems on a global scale generated despair of such immense proportions that the only response lies in murdering those perceived to be the cause of one’s disenfranchisement? Has the message of social justice been supplanted by sectarian one-upmanship?

White supremacy, the gunman’s motivating philosophy, seems to be growing.  Ben Elley suggested the violence of the rhetoric has expanded alongside socio-economic inequalities which the World Bank found to be a not insignificant result of neoliberal economic policies. Prof Jane Kelsey warned us of this twenty years ago (The New Zealand Experiment, Auckland University Press, 1997) and trade union researchers in the US and New Zealand have shown that declines in wages over the last twenty years have been substantial and enduring.

To Mahatma Gandhi is attributed the phrase, ‘poverty is the worst form of violence’. There is little doubt that when communities are disenfranchised, forgotten, and stripped of hope, despair emerges. Quaker author Geoffrey Durham proposes that ‘the world’s conflicts are driven by inequality, hunger and injustice’ (Being a Quaker, Quakerquest, London, 2011). President Donald Trump’s popularity has been attributed, even by the killer himself, to this phenomenon.

Gradually, the pieces of that hideous massacre will come together. No doubt, the accused’s trial, a review of legislation, and the government inquiry will help us to understand what went wrong, where the policy gaps were, and how we should hope to avoid a similar tragedy in the future. We should welcome this.

But as Christians, as those follow the one who said, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John13:35), how are we to resolve the questions that our faith demands of us? While we have rightly denounced the killings, Jesus invites us to go further: ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt 5:44).

Costly grace, Bonhoeffer called it (The Cost of Discipleship, Touchstone, New York, 1995), the idea that following  Jesus requires an unrelenting discipleship, one that positions love—even love for the enemy—at the centre. Confronting such agony, from where do we find the resource to love even the one who gunned down people as they stood silently in prayer?

For otherwise, we risk Chesterton’s searing indictment that, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’ (What’s Wrong with the World, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1994). And the message of Jesus loses the prophetic vision it should offer a despondent world. How do we balance a total rejection of the killer’s motivations with an enlargement of heart that accommodates a compassionate hope for his re-education and reintegration into the human family? In short, what do the demands of social justice demand of us?

Otherwise, like the killer, we personalise the violence he stands for, the locating of the problem in the other who looks different, or sounds different, or thinks different; that inferior other, inferior to the extent that he or she is not like “us”, that their ways of being and knowing can be supplanted by “ours’, to “their” benefit.

The historian Dame Anne Salmond reminds us that the discourse of the inferior other has haunted this beautiful country for generations and will not depart until we ‘name, it challenge it when it comes to light, and replace it with different, better ways of being Kiwi’; recognising that, in a confrontation with history, poverty and deprivation do not select for ethnicity and religion, they select for greed and power, the opposites of social justice.

As citizens, as Christians, we can other the killer to the extent that, as journalist Sean Kelly argues, he becomes so un-me that I can safely discount the structural roots of his crime. Or we can enter a deeper analysis, one which might eventually explain what drives largely young, largely male, largely poor people to kill their brothers and sisters. Even as we seek to comprehend our reaction to a horror that we can never un-know, the mandate of costly discipleship bids us answer the question that the Good Samaritan knew instinctively, even to the extent of violating tribal taboos and ritual purities: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29).

The phenomenon of sectarian conflict in New Zealand is not new. From the colonial wars that decimated Aotearoa’s indigenous people to a cursory glance at Facebook today, there is what Dame Anne calls a twisted, dark underbelly in New Zealand society.  The Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand documented five years’ worth of campaigning to bring the issue of ethnic and religious discrimination to anyone who would listen. Dame Anne, who has made it her professional business over decades to document Māori history, counsels us to remember that only by powering through a history brimming with the consequences of othering can we learn what needs to be learnt from this tragedy.

After Irish nationalists were hanged by the British in 1916, William Butler Yeats published his haunting poem, Easter, 1916. In a mood of deep pessimism, he wrote, ‘All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born’. Let us ask again, what are we to make of our tragedy. Can we be healed by a deeper scrutiny of what we have experienced?

Last winter, The Salvation Army together with Auckland Transport ran a homeless shelter in Manukau. After it closed down, the local mosque decided to host a once-a-week soup kitchen in the grounds of The Salvation Army’s premises: they purposely asked to run it here as a gesture of inter-religious solidarity. Rain or shine, they’ve turned up every week: they roll out their prayer mats, conduct the Asr (evening) prayer, and then set to work serving Styrofoam boxes of fried or biryani rice with bottles of pop.

I spent some time with them in the week after the massacre, hoping, by my presence, to share a little of their grief. They gave a short mihi, thanking the homeless people for their hospitality to them as immigrants. Families partaking of the meal shook hands with the servers in a gesture of condolence. An elderly Māori man stood up and formally offered a whaikōrero in recognition of their loss. A Pākehā lady drove up and delivered a cake she had made. New Zealanders, literally of all colours, came together in communion and service. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name,’ Jesus said (Matt 18:20).

People have often puzzled over what Yeats meant by a terrible beauty. In New Zealand today, perhaps we must oblige ourselves, without precondition or pretence, to look into the face of the other, not turning away or shielding our eyes from the glare of mutual unease. Perhaps we may not recognise or understand what we see. But we will have begun to look. And, as we engage the other kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face), we might begin to notice, not difference but sameness. The same aspirations, the same hopes, the same fears. Perhaps if we look hard enough, for long enough, we might see the face of God looking back at us. And perhaps we may come to recognise that God’s face is the face of justice.