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Racism, Remembrance and Reality. 27 January 2006

Posted by Dr Moose in Uncategorized.
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The Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s recent embroilment in the media, particularly in relation the way certain stories achieve media coverage has done something dangerous.

It has got me thinking. Whether Sir Ian’s comments are “insensitive and shocking” is not the issue. The issue is one of preception and depiction. It cannot be denied that media coverage is selective, as is all human activity to some degree or another. The issue is how we as a society and individuals handle that selectivity.

In the areas of crime and tragedy it cannot escape comment that the stories that make the biggest impact tend to involve the death of children, whether by accident or criminal intent. We, rightly, place high value on our children. They are our future as well as our present. They represent the sum of our communal hopes, dreams, longings and also our fears. Nevertheless this means we run the risk of denigrating or marginalising other tragedies, and ultimately the value of each individual. The teenager killed in MLPK in a road accident, or the (adult) daughter of a friend killed on the motorway, the offender committing suicide after being forced return to prison for breaking his parole. Each of these events is of no lesser importance in the sight of God, and should have the also same standing in our eyes.

Similarly the point that Sir Ian was trying to raise in the first case about the issues of racial/ethnic identity determining the news. Part of the experiences of Israel was the discovery that God was “colour-blind”, that he actually paid little heed to ethnicity, that ultimately all humanity mattered, not only the “chosen” people. The choice, it would appear, was to be far more as an indicator of the blessing and concern of Almighty God for all, rather than just for one ethnic group.

Or to take another topical issue, Holocaust Memorial Day. Apart from arguably being instituted 50 years too late, when few of the survivors remain around to contribute to the collective memory, there is once again the question. Do the Jews who perished in the gas chambers in a sytematic, death “industry” have a greater value than all other victims of genocide? No – but the terms of reference place the emphasis very firmly in that one context. We, rightly, should remember and reflect, but the focus means we run the risk, once more, of denigrating and margialising other acts of genocide (whether they are formally defined or not) – against Armenians, Bosnian Muslims, Tutsi in Rwanda, Sudanese in Darfur. Each of who, again has the same standing in the eyes of God.

I suspect there are simple reasons for these biases (and I use the term without perjorative intent).

At one level there is the question of how we use models to manage our world. A model is, at its most basic, a simplification, an abstraction of reality. A map, for example, is an attempt to show the key points of the complex reality. In the same way we may exhibit bias simply to highlight an exemplar – one event that stands for something larger and encompasses the whole.

Another is our unconscious partiality, something akin to the tendency to see all others as like us – which means that in a country with a combined naturalised and recent immigration rate of well under 10% (such as the UK) it might not seem unreasonable if only 10% of stories picked up on that same “perceived non-native” group. Of course, such a bald statement can hide the fact that many of the worst cases of deprivation, for example, may be found within that group. However, the principle is understandable.

In contrast there is the positive discrimination, the making of a group far more widely visible, sometimes even to the extent of barring the majority from certain spheres. Such positive discrimination, can in my mind at least, be the only justification for the excessively-multi-cultural make-up of, for example the children featured in the BBC Children’s Programme Balamory – which is totally beyond the experience of many, if not most of those who have the (mis?)fortune to view it!

But where does this impact us though? Ultimately as a challenge to the outworking of our Christian faith. What is the call of the church? It is not to deny the reality of any of the exemplary instances cited above, or belittle them. But it is surely, to remind about the value of all cases of tragedy, murder, genocide, discrimination, whatever you like.

It is to challenge the perception that the death of an offender by his own hand in despair is somehow less tragic than any other death. It may affect fewer people, and fail to tug the heart-strings of popular culture, but that individual was loved no less by God – the God who in our sin, or offences came to seek us out and bring salvation in Christ Jesus.

It is to stir us up in our expectations and practice.

And I am no exception. The tradition of Rememberance Sunday ensures that an appropriate response happens in MLPK, and yet my oft-reused plastic Poppy shouts out my hypocrisy at not giving to support the cause of those who have served their country in the armed forces – a hollow, uncostly act of remembering. Likewise my failure to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day (at least partly because it doesn’t feature in the church diary – an interesting omission, perhaps?) While I have reservations about the margianlising of other victims and acts of genocide, still the voice of the Spirit questions why I have not done anything to include them, rather than just omitting what is there.

All of us are biased. All of us are human, and make mistakes, both accidental and deliberate.

The question, the result of my dangerous thinking, is that challenge to self, faith and society to say “words aren’t enough. What am I, and what are we, going to do about it?”

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