I was driving along a road that I had understood would take me from one part of Sydney’s north-west to another area. I had looked it up and all was good. I found the road and was happily driving along – until I came a barrier, a fence that blocked my way. The road, it seemed was incomplete. A long section at one end and another long section at the other but the middle was incomplete. I couldn’t find my way around and had to back track and find an alternative route. I felt frustrated, angry, annoyed and would now be late for a meeting I needed to be at. This barrier was ultimately just an annoyance and my frustration built upon incomplete maps and information. Other barriers are not so simple nor fair. They are not straightforward and are used to divide and separate people.
I am reading the very sobering autobiography of Aboriginal singer/songwriter, Archie Roach. It is called ‘Tell me why.’ This phrase is a refrain throughout the story so far. Tell me why all this happened to me and my family. Please explain why government people came and took me, my brothers and sisters away from our parents, separated us and crushed the spirits of our parents. Tell me why I was placed with an abusive family and experienced pain before receiving love and kindness from another. Tell me why I don’t know who I am or where I belong; why people looked at me differently and called me racist names when I was young – and still do now I’m older. Tell me why the police looked at me differently than they did white boys my age. Tell me why.
There have been sad and awful barriers across the varied paths of Archie’s life in the story I’ve read so far. It is heart-wenching and I feel the shame of our society who have treated Aboriginal people with such disdain and broken their spirits. Much of Archie’s pain was borne on white laws that reached out and condemned people of colour as being lesser than white people. Archie spent 7 months imprisoned though he was innocent – the fellow he was riding with was guilty but ran from the scene when police showed up. Archie was asleep and had no clue what was happening. He was hauled off to the Police station and charged without any legal representation. He was black and different expectations applied. The laws could be used however those in power wanted and they could be, and were, used against people of colour.
The law is used to define who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Laws and rules are applied to keep people in boxes and are often barriers to people, whether these be the laws of the land or the rules we apply, formally and informally, to groups and organisations and to our ordinary life. Whether it is the rules of the game in the playground that often exclude specific people who we want don’t like, or the rules of establishments that exclude people they don’t like. I once worked for a very prominent doctor who contributed much to the well-being of society but he was excluded from elite clubs because he was of a particular religious faith. We have created and used rules and laws in the past (and often the present) to keep women from particular positions or the young or old. Different levels of scrutiny are applied to people of different faiths, cultures and ethnicities and we create, in our own minds, rules of inclusion and exclusion. The law is also used as a harsh tool to deal with people who exhibit social patterns of behaviour that are disturbing, as if we can beat poor behaviour out of people. Perhaps it is thought that all people have an equal background and ‘act out’ purely due to personal choice?
There is no doubt, that so far in the story, Archie is acting out. He is a young lost soul who doesn’t know his story, his family, his background. He and his real family that he finally discovers are lost in a world that is confusing. Most of the children can’t remember their parents and never saw them again. They don’t know their clan and can’t connect with their ancestors, their people and they are lost. But the law treats them as lepers who do not belong and looks with suspicion upon them. There are barriers created through laws, rules and ideology that restrict Aboriginal people in ways their white cousins never have to contend with.
I have been reading this confronting story with the words of Jesus echoing in my mind – especially the words of the Sermon on the Mount and the passage for this week (Matthew 5:13-20). In it Jesus speaks of law and of him not coming to abolish but fulfil law. His mission is to help people to love more deeply and compassionately because that is the essence of what law is and does. In the passage he speaks of Pharisees and Scribes, religious people who hold the law as sacred and study and live it with zeal and passion, so much so that they build fences around the law restricting and even excluding people. Anyone who they sense transgresses the law or for whatever reason finds themselves on the other side of law, are excluded from participating in the life of the community, which is a religious community at its heart.
Jesus, in effect, urges that we do not reduce the law to a set of rules that define people and proper behaviour. He never uses law to beat people over the head but understands that law is grounded in attitudes of love, compassion and justice, whether the 10 Commandments or the laws provided through the prophets or himself or Paul in the New Testament. In the subsequent passages of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus radicalises the law from a set of definitive behaviours to a way of living and being before God and others. The provides structures to ensure safety and inclusion of people into society, the proper sharing of resources and the maintenance of justice. He has a typical formula: ‘You have heard it said…, but I tell you…’ The first bit states laws the religious people articulate such as ‘Do not kill.’ Jesus takes this and goes deeper – ‘…but I tell you that if you harbour hatred then you have already committed murder in your heart.’ He moves us from final actions back into the attitudes and processes of thought that get us there. If we harbour anger and hatred towards others, we will act violently towards them, whether that is physical, emotional, relational or spiritual. Deal with your anger and let it go. Learn to love people and respond to actions and attitudes that are harmful or hurtful. Seek to restore or maintain an openness of relationship because this is the demand of love and the pattern of God.
I wonder how the lives of people like Archie Roach and many others may have been different had the laws and belief systems of people been different – loving, understanding, compassionate and gracious rather than judgemental and abusive? I wonder what it means for us to give up our legalistic ways that exclude and define people and act with love, inclusion, compassion and gracious acceptance, helping people to become all they can be in God’s deep and wondrous grace?