Richard Randerson: Appreciating our diversity means finding a place for everybody

A colourful procession to mark the recent opening of the Sikh temple in Manurewa was temporarily marred by a passing motorist who shouted: "Why don't you go back to where you came from?"

Conveniently forgetting that for most of us in this country our ancestors came from somewhere else, the motorist did not accurately describe the diverse society New Zealand is today.

To affirm a place for oneself is legitimate. To deny a place to others is not. The 19th century English theologian, F. D. Maurice, wrote: "We are mostly right in what we affirm, but wrong in what we deny". His point was that in affirming the things we believe in ourselves, we generally affirm good things. But when we move on to deny the convictions or rights of others, we go astray.

Maurice's comments are relevant in the multicultural and multi-faith age in which we live. The treatment of minorities was a central theme at a recent Unesco-sponsored conference on religion, conflict and peace in Melbourne. The conference brought together government and religious leaders from more than a dozen nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Common to the analysis of civil unrest in several countries was the element of minority oppression. Fijian delegates, for example, outlined the post-coup tensions of their nation stemming from the perception of Fijian Indians that their economic well-being and political freedoms are compromised by post-coup structures. Lack of provision for minorities was also cited as the cause of conflicts in Thailand and the Philippines.

In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York journalist Thomas Friedman offers two contrasting symbols of the modern world. He chooses the Lexus (automobile) to represent the forces of globalisation, and as an icon of worldwide consumer aspirations. But the olive tree represents the deep-seated human desire for a place we can call our own - some land, trees and crops and a home where our own culture and identity is based.

Friedman suggests that when the forces of globalisation sweep populations up into a one-size-fits-all society, and unique features of individual cultures are lost, conflict erupts as marginalised minority groups resort to violence and armed resistance.

Rolling back the impact of international economic and political realities is well nigh impossible, but the preservation of individual cultures lies within our capacity to achieve. The future of today's multicultural society depends on it.

One of Unesco's projects is the promotion of shared values that cross the boundaries of creed and culture. Many lists of shared values exist, typically including peace, equality, justice, dignity, unity, freedom, tolerance, compassion and truth. A holistic approach that integrates such values into curriculum topics such as history, science or economics is all-important.

What value to the community is science that does not consider the ends to which scientific discoveries might be directed? What use is economics that knows how to control inflation or maximise growth but does not consider how economic benefits might accrue to the well-being of the whole community? Is history helpful if it does not enable us to reflect on the issues of justice and peace in our own generation?

The role of religion as a contributor to peaceful communities was addressed by several speakers. In an age when secular activists seek to restrict religion to the private world of the individual, the rationale for religious involvement requires careful examination. The exercise of theocratic power whereby religious leaders directly control or influence political decision-making is not appropriate.

But in a civil society all groups have a right to contribute, the value of the contribution being measured by the outcome of the contribution. Extremist religious viewpoints usually produce negative outcomes. But the mainstream values of all faith communities lay the foundation for communities where social cohesion can flourish. Good religion undergirds the politics of inclusion.

The value of religion is perceived also by sections of the business community. The Melbourne-based Global Foundation brings together representatives from governments, business and civil society.

Chaired by Sir James Gobbo, a former Governor of Victoria, the foundation seeks to integrate the streams of politics, business and community interests to achieve an environment where strong regional trading relationships may emerge to the mutual benefit of peoples. As one member of the foundation said: "Without peace there can be no business." Ethically-based business can also contribute to the building of peace.

The last word went to Lillian Holt, an aboriginal woman and former director of Melbourne University's centre for indigenous education. She said the future critical dividing point in society would not be economy or ideology but culture. If minority cultures perceived themselves to be at the mercy of malevolent global forces, they would rise up and foment strife.

Lillian Holt said there was a danger of turning out skilled barbarians who possessed knowledge but little wisdom. Like other indigenous cultures, aboriginal Australians have learned to tell the stories of their own ancestral history, the stories conveying the crucial ingredients of identity and belonging, of meaning and security.

She urged the practice of tolerance, seeing tolerance not just as passive acceptance or apathetic disregard of others but as an active outreach that builds relationships through understanding the stories of others, and sharing the stories that provide the basis of our own culture and beliefs.

"What diminishes you," she said, "diminishes me. Mutual diminishment can be changed to mutual enrichment."

Diversity is a fact of today's world. In such a world it lies within our hands to build a society where people live peaceably because they perceive themselves to have a place. Religious, cultural, social and economic well-being for all ensures that the marginalised become stakeholders, be they new migrants or long-term citizens.

* Richard Randerson is Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell, and Assistant Anglican Bishop of Auckland.

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