Onward Christian Soldier: The Salvation Army’s Ronji Tanielu talks to The AM Show’s Duncan Garner about “The State of Our Communities” 2018 report.
THE LATEST “State of Our Communities” report from the Salvation Army exposes a worrying fragility in New Zealand’s social relationships. Behind the happy multicultural façade so beloved of politicians and bureaucrats, racial animosities fester and tensions between competing ethnic communities multiply.
The report (based on hundreds of face-to-face interviews in Kaitaia, Whangarei, Manurewa in Auckland, New Plymouth, Hornby in Christchurch and Timaru) describes rising resentment at the manifest economic inequalities afflicting the Maori population of Northland; tensions between old and new immigrant communities in Auckland; and a South Island Pakeha monoculture struggling to comprehend the meaning and purpose of diversity.
That this racial dimension to the state of our communities has been explicitly recognised in the Army’s report is itself exceptional. The preferred response of New Zealand’s core institutions is to insist that, thankfully, inter-ethnic conflict is a phenomenon alien to our society.
The wonder is, however, that an explosion of racial violence has not already torn Northland apart. Immigrants from South Africa marvel at the province’s apparently effortless separation of the races. What the apartheid system struggled to effect in their homeland, Pakeha Northlanders have achieved without recourse to anything so crude as Pass Laws. Kaikohe is poor and brown. Kerikeri is rich and white. And never the twain shall meet.
What the Army’s interviews reveal, however, is an unwillingness on the part of younger Maori to accept this state of voluntary apartheid. After all, the nation’s official ideology attributes huge value to New Zealand’s indigenous heritage. Unsurprising, then, that the impoverished Maori communities of the North are requiring these Wellington-based bi-culturalists to back their positive rhetoric with tangible resources. Upon the speed and fulsomeness of their response, the maintenance of racial harmony in Northland largely depends.
The arrival of new immigrants from East and South Asia in Auckland suburbs hitherto the preserve of immigrants from the Pacific Islands is similarly testing New Zealand’s multicultural assumptions. Cook Islanders, Niueans, Samoans and Tongans were brought to New Zealand as factory workers and labourers. The entrepreneurial traditions of immigrants arriving from India and China have not always fitted easily into communities hitherto dominated by wage workers.
Compounding these economic divergences are the sharp religious differences between the devoutly Christian Pasifika and the followers of the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim religious traditions. The rigorous secularism of official New Zealand is singularly ill-equipped to deal with the strong feelings that arise when different religious communities are required to practice their faiths in close proximity.
Pakeha living in the South Island are often bemused at North Islanders’ preoccupation with bi- and multiculturalism. In communities of overwhelmingly pale complexion, which most South Island towns and cities tend to be, it all comes across as vaguely obsessional. The racial homogeneity of provincial centres like Timaru encourages all manner of easy assumptions about what constitutes a “real” New Zealander – along with some potentially dangerous misapprehensions about how easy it is (or should be) for outsiders to “fit in”.
Southern Man’s obtuseness on matters cultural largely explains his preoccupation with the malign effects of inadequate and/or unaffordable housing in his community. There is no clearer manifestation of poverty than homelessness, and nothing breeds fear, anger and resentment faster than the obvious sufferings of the poor.
Overlay that economic distress with the even more terrifying effects of drug-dealing, and the addictions upon which the drug suppliers’ business model depends, and you have a sure-fire recipe for continuously escalating social anxieties revealing themselves in periodic outbreaks of moral panic.
The severity of these panics is accentuated by the tendency of racially and/or economically homogenous middle-class communities (in both islands) to give the manufacture, distribution and sale of illegal drugs a luridly racial cast. If it’s not the shadowy members of Chinese triads and Mexican drug cartels, it’s the scary bros from Black Power and the Mongrel Mob doing the business. That the organised criminals controlling the New Zealand drug trade – especially the scourge of methamphetamine – are, overwhelmingly, wealthy Pakeha, is a fact too frightening for their middle-class neighbours to acknowledge.
In its essence, the Salvation Army’s report contributes yet another collection of personal testimonies to the multitude already enumerating the unrelenting social cruelties of capitalism. Not that the Army couches its analysis in such godlessly Marxist terms. This is, after all, a Christian denomination determined to demonstrate the redemptive power of faith in action. “Thy Kingdom come”, enjoins the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” The Sallies try to do good one family, one person, one soul, at a time.
Yet even these Good Samaritans in uniform cannot ignore entirely the systemic character of the sins they are pledged to wage war against. The correlation of high numbers of Maori with high levels of poverty; of high levels of poverty with high levels of homelessness and drug abuse; is difficult to miss.
The hardest test for any Christian is to locate the source of human wickedness. Attributing the ills of society to the moral weakness of their victims is always easier than fighting those who made the wrong too strong to resist. Though they call themselves an army, the Sallies have, historically, tended to go to war against the symptoms of sin. Vanquishing the causes of human distress: imperialism, racism, economic exploitation; poverty and social despair; they prefer to leave to God.
To date, not a conspicuously successful strategy for replicating Heaven on Earth.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 14 December 2018.