True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence
There is a rich source of inspiration available to us in the past. And in the long, deep well of the past there are times of particular inspiration. Those foolish enough to have spent time with me will know that I find the civil rights movement of the USA in the 1950s and the 1960s a particular time of inspiration.
When I was younger and I accidentally watched Eyes on the Prize on TV I was inspired by the heroes I found there, and moved by the passions displayed and the tragedy. I was inspired by men and women who could say things like “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Inspired by men and women who walked calmly into hatred and took the blows and then stood up again with seeming calmness, and carried on walking. That was perhaps the first time I began to understand what courage is.
It took me a long time to fully understand this lesson about courage because like a lot of boys I grew up playing with toy soldiers, and hearing about World War II, and watching the epic struggle of good and evil played out with weapons on movie screens. So it took me a long time. A long time to see that there is a reason that the man who one day stood in front of a line of tanks in China was braver than an army of men with weapons.
Well, I am older now. Balder. My back begins to hurt me. I am a father and a husband. I am a teacher. So when I watched Eyes on the Prize again yesterday, nursing my bad back on a day away from school, I suppose I saw that documentary differently: still as a deep source of inspiration, still as a time and a people that resonate through me, but differently.
Those men and women are still heroes to me, and their bravery still grips me, but I see something else now. Now I can turn my attention away from I Have a Dream towards I’ve Been to the Mountaintop. Away from the Montgomery Bus Boycott and towards A Time to Break Silence. For it is clear that once they had forced the Jim Crow signs to come down on the buses and at the lunch counters of America those people who had stood up for freedom found a deeper, harder problem to face. The problem that is made manifest in statistics about race and poverty, race and educational achievement, race and prison numbers. The problem I see when I write my detention lists and the faces of the students are mostly brown. A problem, then, that confronts more countries and more times than the United States of America in 1968.
And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the coloured peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.
I’ve Been to the Mountaintop
And so I realise now, that the end of Martin Luther Kings’ story might be more interesting and have more connection with us today than the beginning.
I do not find the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a radical document. Nor do I find Hone Harawira’s comments on that document radical. We are told that it is aspirational but I do not hear any words of aspiration from our politicians. I do not hear any fine phrases or ringing declarations. What is reported in the news is that signing the declaration was part of a deal, a part of political machinations and horse trading, that it changes nothing and that it means little.
Apparently it means little that the declaration New Zealand has signed states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
It means little that “Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”
And it also means little that “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”
It is true that it doesn’t mean much because all of these things are really saying something simple. What the declaration means is that New Zealand has agreed that the people within its borders who have had the most control taken away from them now have the right to control their present and determine their future, and that when people can do this they are likely to be happy, and fulfilled.
That a people who know themselves and feel that they set out each day from a firm foundation are not likely to be picked up by the truancy officer out of school, down at the mall trying to scab a cigarette. That people who know themselves are not likely to beat their loved ones on a Friday night, filled up with booze, and cursing the TV. That those people who feel like their hand is on the rudder of a ship they helped to build will not willingly steer that boat onto the rocks.
Why are we not willing to see this and then make it happen? To have people rebuild their boat and sail it?
It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.
Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence
Now it is the turn of fundamentalism and terror to act in judgement against our failure to make democracy real. Of course we have not only failed on the international scene, we have failed at home, we have become prone to adjust to injustice.
In thirty years it will be 200 years since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, and I hope we will finally have come the last distance towards democracy. People who do not believe that the declaration was merely a gesture will have noted what the gesture actually said. That it actually said people should make their own path and walk on it. That it is not up to one group to tell another what to do, to offer only two choices: be like us, or participate in our system as an underclass. This is not a country I want to live in, and nor do I want to live in a country that only calls things aspirational and seems to have no aspirations outside its bank account, or that signs up to ideals shamefacedly, hastily, as part of a deal for something else, undisclosed. I do not aspire to be as rich as Australia where the first people of that land remain disenfranchised, I do not aspire to be able to travel first class to luxury destinations on the back of my strong currency while the night shelter in my hometown strains to deal with demand, and the foodbank’s shelves are emptied.
Of course the old Greek story about Pandora’s Box is right about one thing. Once all the badness had been let out of that box into the world there was one little thing left. Hope.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.