Friday, May 22, 2009

Racism, Crime, and the Church

One of the things I was surprised about on coming to NZ was the implicit racism among so many Kiwis who had a view of themselves as enlightened and progressive. The prevailing national attitude is that the most appropriate and effective response to crime is to increase punishments and the length of detention. The fact is that in NZ certain ethnic groups commit crime out of all proportion to the population statistics. By pinning all the blame for criminality on the individual and seeking redress for crime through punishment you are implicitly stating that all responsibility for crime rests on the individual's essential nature. As certain ethnic groups contain a higher proportion of these criminal individuals it can only follow that these ethnic groups are inherently more criminal than others. The only way out of this racist cul-de-sac is for society to accept its own responsibility for the crime as well. Middle class Kiwi's hate this suggestion. They refuse to acknowledge that the historical, cultural and social legacies of NZ have resulted in large groups of disadvantaged people who are inevitably going to make a higher proportion of bad decisions because they have inherited a legacy of bad choices.

This concept of collective guilt is very distasteful to the individual. They do not see how it can be right for them to be blamed for those things done in the past by people long since dead. But injustice is not just perpetrated by individuals but also by societies -often without even the conscious assent of individuals in that society. It is not that we who prosper in NZ should feel guilt about things in history over which we had no control, but that as a society we need to take responsibility for those members of our society who -also through no fault of their own- have inherited negative cultural legacies, and will inevitably be presented with a range of bad choices which the middle class will never face. So much crime is not actually a sign of a particular individual or group of people being inherently evil, but simply a symptom of a society in which whole groups of society are disenfranchised and dis-empowered before they are even born. Only when those imbalances have been redressed does it make sense to blame the individual alone for their bad decisions.

Part of the work of the church therefore is to bring justice to the criminal, to recognise that the one who sins has also been sinned against. It is so easy to prosecute a mugger, burglar, or murderer. It is much harder to prosecute the society that created the conditions in which that human would become a criminal. In taking responsibility for those who society has sinned against the church bears the burden of society's sins and creates a place of redemption where the criminal can find both forgiveness for what they did but also restoration for what was done to them. The church's unique demographic, composed as it is of self-confessed sinners in need of a saviour, leaves it uniquely qualified for the task. The church's Lord, the redeemer and renewer of all creation, means it is also uniquely called to that task.

If you like that, have a look at this. Either way, let me know what you think :)

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