This month as we begin the Lenten road through sacrifice and suffering towards the Easter celebration of Christ’s glorious resurrection, there are several examples of suffering to illustrate the gulf between the reign of God that Jesus preached and the reality of life in this sometimes greedy and punitive world.
The stories of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador 30 years ago and of the current struggle of one man against the military junta that has ruled Burma, now Myanmar, for the past 40 years, show how ephemeral democracy is. Nyi Nyi Aung grew up under Burma’s repressive regime and soon began leading student demonstrations and nonviolent protests against the regime. These days the face of Burmese democracy is Aung San Suu Kyi, the first political prisoner to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while still incarcerated. As leader of the National League for Democracy, she is the one the junta fears will have the greatest impact in inciting uprising against the regime. She remains under house arrest until after the ‘democratic’ elections tipped for October. Alongside her though, there are more than 2,000 prisoners similarly detained on pro-democracy charges.
Aotearoa New Zealand is not above criticism either.
Rachel Buchanan, author of the latest account of the nonviolent protest movement at Parihaka in the 1870s, speaks of the ‘dementia wing of history’ in the selective celebration of heroes.
In an article in the Dominion Post on February 24, Rachel Buchanan contrasted Wellington’s willingness to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi in a bronze statue outside the railway station with the silence over Te Whiti-o-Rongomai’s leadership against the crown’s illegal acquisition of Taranaki land in the 1860s and 1870s.
‘The year 2007 marked the 100th anniversary of the deaths of Te Whiti and Tohu Kakahi, the two men who established the nonviolent community of Parihaka in the 1860s, as a refuge for Maori from Taranaki and further afield who had become homeless after the confiscation of their land.’
Yet, she says, there is no memorial anywhere in Wellington or in Taranaki to these heroes and to the men who died defending their land despite a ‘gorgeous bicultural monument to Maori and Pakeha men who died overseas in 20th century wars’.
The land wars of the 19th century threatened the crown’s mana just as Burmese leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi and Nyi Nyi Aung undermine the control the military junta is trying to maintain over the people of Myanmar and as Oscar Romero challenged the Salvadorean military’s iron-fist rule of that country’s people.
On January 16, the 18th anniversary of the ending of civil war in El Salvador, President Mauricio Funes made a historic speech, recognising the role of the Salvadorean state in the human rights atrocities of the past and asking the victims for forgiveness.
There’s not a great deal a small South Pacific nation can do against the might of the US which supported the military in El Salvador in the 1980s and is now holding back on negotiating with the junta in Myanmar. But we can raise the issues and discuss them with our friends and we can probe our own history for human rights abuses that need acknowledging and victims that should be honoured. Jesus did not promise that working for the reign of God would be easy.