The Maori word 'taura' means a rope and 'whiri' means 'to plait', the technical process used in rope making. He taura whiri is a plaited rope.[i]
He taura whiri is a metaphor used by orators to express the art of peoples – as strands in the rope - coming together, keeping their uniqueness but combining their strengths, in order that the community as a whole becomes stronger.
Making ropes the traditional way, Maori twisted and rolled strands of scraped flax together to make longer strands and then plaited as many as sixteen together to make ropes, some round, some square. The strands might vary in thickness and colour, and new ones were easily spliced in. A rope thus made was many times stronger than any of its strands alone.
Waitangi is about history and symbol. At its worst it is about the devastating effects of losing land to greed, racism, and the denial of justice. It is about ignoring the need for reparation and the need for rebuilding of justice-centred relationships. It is about blaming those oppressed for their oppression.
We need to know the history of our land, it needs to be taught in our schools, and we need to feel the pain of it just as we need to feel its promise - the hope of many of our forebears - and work towards it.
At its best Waitangi was and continues to be about bringing the strands together, without loss of mana and integrity. It is about welcoming other cultures being spliced into that rope. It challenges us to value the skills of rope-making, weaving diversity without losing identity, making decisions without the majority culture dominating. The Waitangi vision for this country is not a melting pot of races stirred into an amorphous mix. Rather it is about strong, independent cultures working together, sharing their strengths, and valuing the conciliatory art of talking and translating across difference.
While this is the vision, and we see this vision being worked for and embraced in many areas of our common social and political life, we also see that New Zealand has a persistent problem.
Last year during Maori Language Week there was a debate that featured prominently in the Waikato Times. It was around teaching school children about the Land Wars of the 1860s. The debate revealed, as Tom O’Connor put it, “the covert, subtle and damaging racism of underlying prejudice and unspoken assumption.”
The well-known Maori Hollywood director Taika Waititi used an expletive to describe how racist he finds New Zealand. Taika in July fronted a campaign for New Zealand Human Rights, helming a tongue-in-cheek video against racism in which he says “I'm calling on every one of my fellow kiwis to help support a very important cause, racism… needs your help to survive.”
More poignantly perhaps than general comments is UNICEF’s annual Innocenti Report Card, a study of rich countries, which ranked New Zealand 33rd out of 38 in terms of educational equality. UNICEF commissioned New Zealand-specific research to sit alongside the report, in order to get a better sense of why we were doing so poorly, and who was worst-affected.
The report detailed how Māori and Pasifika children were over-represented when it came to lower educational achievement. The effects of living in lower-socioeconomic households and communities, as well as racism and unconscious bias in school were factors that added to inequality. Māori and Pasifika students were more likely to be excluded, or expelled, which also exacerbated inequality.
Further analysis of the report found Māori students falling significantly behind on every measure of educational outcome. But notably those who attended Māori immersion schools did much better. While there has been a lot of focus on the impacts of coming from a low-socioeconomic community or household, research has found poverty cannot entirely account for the gap between Māori and Pākehā, rather racism and unconscious bias are significant.
As Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said the enduring legacy of colonisation was behind a lot of the long-term disadvantage, coupled with modern systemic bias, and unconscious individual bias. Andrew said he was surprised by the consistency of the message from non-Pākehā students. “Whether we like it or not, or even agree with it, that is the lived experience of some children and it is significant to them.”
Although we Pakeha don’t like to think of our country as racist, and consider our country better than the stories that emanate from the USA and Australia, there is no denying that, whether reflected in reports on education, poverty, imprisonment, or the like – racism, systematic and individual, is alive and insidious in Aotearoa.
This week I attended a lecture and seminars run by Dr Sarah Coakley who is one the leading theologians in the Western world today. You may remember that I gave a synopsis of her first volume of a systematic theology in January 2017[ii]. She is now working on her second volume.
As I engaged with her, other ministerial colleagues, and those schooled in the philosophy of science, two strands of her thinking seem applicable to what I’ve just been saying.
Firstly, from the field of science there is a strong counter-argument to the evolutionary biology ‘selfish gene’ thesis. The so-called ‘selfish gene’ argument is, in a very simplified form, that we are wired for individual preservation and the preservation of our genes into the next generation. However there are a number of scientists who would argue that there is mounting evidence that would suggest instead that we are primarily wired for cooperation. Their argument concludes that communities which flourish do things not only cooperatively and altruistically but also sacrificially.
Translating this insight into the social/political arena one could say that the health of a society is measured not by the large bank accounts and longevity of an elite few but by the wellbeing of those who are poor and marginalized – including those who suffer from racism. And improving wellbeing for the poor and marginalized is not a cynical strategy of giving the less powerful some crumbs so they don’t rebel against the more powerful, nor is it a liberation strategy simply of empowering the poor and marginalized, but is the radical idea that the wellbeing of all in the society is intricately and irrevocably linked to the wellbeing of the least. In a deeply spiritual and mysterious way we are one.
So the community of the contented, resourced, and powerful will not flourish by building a wall around itself. But, somewhat counterintuitively, the communities of the comfortable and well-off will flourish when the well-being of the communities of the least well-off are attended to and flourish. Using the metaphor of he taura whiri then, for us to be a strong rope, a strong society woven of many cultures, peoples, and classes, the flourishing of everyone is the concern of everyone. Even if we don’t experience it we can’t afford to ignore or minimalize racism.
Secondly, racism is incredibly resistant to the social science and social justice approaches to facilitating change.
One can think of the many strategies used to try to eradicate racism: legislative change, resource sharing, education, leadership change, learning and teaching Te Reo and cultural awareness, etcetera. I am not disparaging of these strategies and indeed have been part of trying to effect change in these areas in both church and wider society. And there has been in some sectors, when viewed with a long historical lens, remarkable change. Nor am I disparaging of the importance of empowering those who experience racism; and creating and working towards the creation of alternate systems where Maori and Pasifika have a real say over matters that impact upon their communities.
But when faced with the statistics, like the UNICEF report mentioned earlier, we need to ask whether something more intrinsic is wrong. This question too is being asked in the USA context after decades of civil rights consciousness-raising and attempts to bring about change through education and political and legislative reform. For racism cannot simply be explained in terms of injustice, deprivation, etcetera, with a civil rights solution.
Racism, says Coakley, is fundamentally a perceptual, spiritual problem – in Christian language “not seeing the other as I should in Christ.” Racism is a consequence of a distorted way of seeing, of mis-perception of God. Coakley calls this distortion of seeing: sin.
Many of us find the word ‘sin’ difficult because it has a history of being weaponized and thus trivialized. The Church and other centres of authority have used over the centuries the concept of sin as a key instrument of control. So, the Church has long said you were born in sin (it’s original), and any act or even thought of disobedience to any church approved authority is sin. So a woman sinned when she disagreed with her husband, or a pupil with his/her teacher. Sin was the 7 deadly ‘pizzas’: pride, lust, envy, greed, gluttony, wrath, and sloth… as well as anything that got you into conflict with authority. In the modern liberal era sin was used to describe the wrongs in the world – violence, sexism, classism, and racism. These modern era wrongs Coakley would say are the results of sin, rather than sin per se.
So sin is a loaded word to use very cautiously, and seldom. Sin is not primarily about disobedience (like some readers of Genesis 3 say), or primarily about violence (like some readers of Genesis 4 say), or primarily about blame (blaming women, snakes). Rather these are the consequences of not seeing/perceiving. So, put more positively, ‘seeing’ God aright is forever entangled with, woven into, ‘seeing’ others aright. There is a fundamental unity which Paul described with the metaphor of a body: when we ‘see’ each other as part of ourselves, inextricably joined, then we are ‘in’ God, ‘in’ the Christ understanding of God.
In Coakley’s thought then the eradication of racism requires us, in addition to [not instead of!] social, educational, and political engagement, to travel a path of disciplined contemplation where in deep, long, and corporate silence we wrestle with the pain and consequences of our distorted vision and come, via grace, to see ourselves and our neighbours as we truly are in the mystery of God. Eradicating racism needs heart as well as head change, spiritual as well as political change.
[i] I am indebted to Joan Metge for her Waitangi lecture found at http://www.waitrust.com/panui/waitangi%20doc.doc