Dear Church, hurting people are protesting. Don’t mess this up.

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You may have heard that there’s a protest going on. Here in Wellington, there are protestors camped outside Parliament. They are opposed to vaccine mandates, which mean that unless a person is up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines, they are restricted in terms of which business places they can go to, and in many cases they are subject to being dismissed from their job against their will. Three quarters of the protestors are not vaccinated at all and have been personally impacted by this, but everyone involved in the protest agrees that the mandates need to end. People are hurting over this.

Initially there was a strong police presence at the protest, and as was captured in some very unpleasant footage, police actions directly caused violence and a serious dent in the claims that police conducted themselves “professionally.” Now the police are ramping up their activities again (as they must), and it just doesn’t look like this is going to end well.

I have a side in this, in the sense that very basically, I agree with the protestors. Vaccination is a very good thing to do (a lot of the protestors would disagree with me there), but the mandates are a significant overreach of the state. The mandates have created a second class of citizens (something the Prime Minister openly agreed with before the mandates came into effect), extending even as far as the Church, which is now a segregated body of the welcome and the unwelcome (when the Church meets together).

Far be it from me to tell anyone what to think about this. But… Church, please think very carefully before you side with the powerful.

A war of lies

You might want to wave away this protest, dismissing them because of all the misinformation about vaccines that’s being reported. Why should anyone in Parliament listen to that rubbish? Misinformation, however, is not exclusively the domain of the anti-vaxxers. The speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard, is on record claiming that the protest in Wellington is “clearly being orchestrated by neo-nazis,” an outright and particularly nasty lie. The police have observed that one of the difficulties they are having is that there is a total “absence of leadership.” As anyone who has seen the protest up close can attest, it is a very diverse gathering (within some parameters, more on that soon).

Or take an example from my own circle of friends, in everyday conversation. Some conspiracy theorists who are involved in the protest talk about the paid media who are lying on behalf of the government, going as far as to suggest that the government really owns mainstream media, and feeds them questions to ask at press releases and the like. Some have hit back by leaping to the indefensible opposite, telling people that the government doesn’t even pay the media. But this, too, is misinformation. In 2021 the government recently set up the Public Interest Journalism Fund. In the overview report, the purpose of the fund is described: “to provide targeted, short to medium-term protection of public interest journalism and jobs.” The fund does these things in a few ways, but one of the ways it protects journalists’ jobs is “Role-based funding – supporting newsrooms for the employment of reporters, clearly tied to content outcomes,” along with other things. It’s just not controversial to say that the government is paying media organisations via a fund that can be used to pay the wages of reporters (not to be confused with the idea that the government is employing them).

For pointing this out – quite literally for supplying these links to this simple evidence and outlining some of the content of this information, I was accused of believing “conspiracy theories,” of being a “troll,” of alleging that the media are no more than “mouthpieces” of the government, and of believing that the media are “evil,” not a word of which I had suggested. Apparently it’s inconceivable that someone might simply be a moderate who doesn’t want either side spreading misinformation. To make matters worse, the person flying off the handle with such bizarre accusations was not just a friend, but an ordained minister who would go on within the next couple of days to preach a sermon about this present turmoil, in which he made reference to treating each other with… grace. Did his words sting him when he preached them? I don’t know. There is something about partisanship that infects people. It would be one thing to simply deny conspiracies about the government owning media, but it’s another to participate in the misinformation wars, filling the discourse with yet more unreliable claims and cheering on those who do because it serves the side you’ve chosen. Truth matters, whether you think you’re on the right side of history or not.

I’d describe the misinformation peddled by some at the protest, but it’s already all over the news. We saw a woman claiming that although the Prime Minister was vaccinated in front of TV cameras, it was probably fake, because she wouldn’t dare take the real, dangerous vaccine. Ridiculous! We hear repeated claims about an “experimental MRNA therapy.” We hear completely false claims about the effects of vaccine shedding, and we hear about made-up conditions like “mass formation psychosis” to describe the allegedly brainwashed masses taking the vaccine (a condition that simply doesn’t exist in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). You certainly don’t need to convince me. I know: Plenty of the anti-vaxxers among the protestors (and there are many of them) believe some real nonsense. And that nonsense is less contagious than COVID-19. Outsiders to the anti-vax movement are not persuaded. On the contrary, we find it absurd.

Allegiance to our tribe or the perspective we have already publicly declared manages to elbow truth out of the way in its own defence.

So we may as well admit that truth is not necessarily top priority when people choose sides on the issue even when we may fervently think we are doing nothing but pursuing the truth. Yes, I say that while knowing quite well that the anti-vaccination conspiracies being proclaimed by some of the protestors are, well, crazier than what most of those who have disdain for them believe. But they are not less vile than false accusations about people being neo-nazis. Allegiance to our tribe or the perspective we have already publicly declared manages to elbow truth out of the way in its own defence. But here’s the thing. Actually it’s two things, and they make most of the above irrelevant:

Firstly, being part of a group that contains members who believe and proclaim some really silly and even potentially dangerous things does not make their cause wrong. Their position that people should not be compelled to be injected with a vaccine on pain of losing their job and being ostracised from much of society does not stand or fall on the truth of the silly things some of them say about (for example) vaccine shedding. The two issues are quite separate.

Secondly, being part of a group where there are false beliefs flying around doesn’t mean that they have no right to be heard by those who are imposing oppressive rules upon them. Look, I think Islam is full of false beliefs that ultimately harm people. I love Muslim people, but that’s what I believe. Do I think the government should ignore Muslims? Of course not. The same goes for extreme left-wing feminists, atheists, hardline socialists, and all sorts of other possible groupings of people. Whether I think they’re right or not, or even if their beliefs are moderately sensible or not, this is the price we pay if we opt for democracy. People get heard. The Prime Minister said as much when she was elected, making her public promise: We will govern for all New Zealanders. Like it or lump it, but you don’t get to just forget that when it’s a group you don’t like.

If representatives of government, or better yet, the Prime Minister who seems to have made “be kind” a career slogan, had quickly made it their business to meet with representatives of the protest and to address them, who knows if this would have dragged out as long as it has, to a point that is now far more intractable and difficult to manage.

Bad Behaviour and Empathy

As well as the issue of misinformation, there are people who seem to have dismissed the protest movement in toto because of bad behaviour from some of the members of the protest movement. We hear of people calling out derisive remarks at people wearing masks (e.g. telling them to take the mask off, calling them “sheep,” in one case several people chanted at a woman wearing a mask, “Cindy’s whore,” a reference to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern). There was an account of someone spitting at a person wearing a mask. There was even an allegation that, when police were blockading the protestors’ vehicles in with concrete barricades, someone threw faeces at one of them, which is pretty darn gross, although it is also denied by the protestors who were present. There was an incident where a reporter went in to interview someone on parliament grounds, and a couple of protestors took exception to him being there and assaulted him (many of the protestors take a very dim view of how media have treated them and covered the whole issue of the virus and vaccines).

I’m not going to say that any of that is OK. It’s not. Some won’t like me saying this, and some will be resistant to it, but given the fact that there are possibly about 5,000 people now in Wellington for this protest, the number of unpleasant incidents we’re hearing about is relatively small. Does it excuse that behaviour? No, but it’s still true. And in general they’re pretty minor. What’s more… OK, so here’s a big part of why I wrote this. What’s more, some of the people who deride these uncivilised protestors lack empathy.

Who are the protestors? Forget whatever derogatory terms you might want to use to answer that question. Who are they? What are they? I’ve heard some remarks that would describe them as far-right extremists or racists who want to take the government down. But that’s a ridiculous lie. The movement consists of left-wing naturopaths as much as it consists of right-wing anything. In fact, recent survey results over at The Platform reveal that when it comes to protestors’ most recent voting record (and excluding those who did not vote in the last election), the largest group voted for Labour. The second (equal) largest group voted for the Greens. All told, about half of the people who voted did so for a party on the left. The most over-represented parties, The Maori Party and the Greens, are parties of the left. What’s more, the most over-represented ethnicity at the protest is Maori. 14.8% of the adult population is Maori, and 27.2% of those surveyed at the protest are. Women are also over-represented, making up 55% of those surveyed.

Some of you who think very little of the protestors might have a hard time [saying who they are], because you’ve only ever seen them through a screen on a device.

So think beyond your biased stereotypes. What sort of people are these protestors? Some of you who think very little of the protestors might have a hard time answering that, because you’ve only ever seen them through a screen on a device. I work just a stone’s throw from Parliament, and I’ve been down to the “camp” a few times. I see them standing at intersections holding their signs and flags. Today I saw the young people standing on the concrete blocks that had been used to barricade their area, waving flags as rush hour traffic drove past and a huge number of the drivers tooted, waved, and called out support. On my way to work the other day a couple of large Maori men were holding signs, and as a couple of white women crossed the road together, one of them hissed that the protestors were idiots and should be locked away. The men holding signs smiled and wished her a nice day. Other people who have actually gone along to see for themselves – and who actually went in an intentionally friendly manner – have reported seeing the same things I saw. It’s a community of all sorts of people who are generally pretty friendly and welcoming. Today as I walked from work to the train station there was a man with a bullhorn telling onlookers that they were all welcome to come in.

They’re… how does one say it… less refined.

They are not the sort of people who, like me, work near Parliament in Wellington – when they’re not working from home and catching up with their teams online in video calls. The great majority of them aren’t even from Wellington. These people (i.e. probably most of them) are less well-off than the people standing at a distance and observing. I mean them no disrespect, but as a rule they’re certainly less educated, I’d wager (there are exceptions to most rules, I know). More likely to have tattoos, from what I saw. Probably more likely to smoke. They’re… how does one say it… less refined. Lower socio-economic segments of New Zealand society. Working class, for the most part. A lot of them would qualify as “rougher” from a corporate Wellingtonian point of view. And they’re not unhappy about it. It’s what they are.

Walking around the tents and seeing the people there actually reminded me of the part of the country I grew up in, in the Eastern Bay of Plenty (I grew up in a little town called Kawerau). There isn’t necessarily a unifying political allegiance, just an agreement about a couple of general issues. These were already people who didn’t really think those in Parliament represented them or cared a whole lot about them, but now they’ve been put out of jobs. Their employment was terminated because they, for their own deeply held reasons, wouldn’t get a vaccination. Some of them were holding signs featuring the faces of people who died from myocarditis, a very rare but fatal side effect of the Pfizer vaccine that they chose not to receive. At the risk of generalising, we’re talking about people who are part of a less genteel culture than people who work in the Beehive, who are more likely to give you an earful if you rub them the wrong way, who feel politically disenfranchised, who have been forced to be unemployed, whose children are banned from playing sports, who think nobody cares and nobody is listening, who are sitting there watching the rest of us go about our lives enjoying many of the freedoms they are now denied (things as basic as buying a cup of coffee), many of whom quite frankly resent that, and who feel like there is nothing they can do about it.

And now there are latte-sipping liberals here in Wellington openly calling them “losers” and “no-hopers” online and in casual conversation. Well they certainly feel like they’ve been made to lose, and no doubt their hope of being treated like humans is wearing a bit thin. People thoughtlessly refer to them as “idiots,” and there are Members of parliament referring to them as a “river of filth” and as “ferals,” and a Prime Minister who refuses to condemn such language from her own Ministers.

The dehumanisation of these people is being normalised. I wouldn’t expect them to be nice. And yet, for the most part, they are! For the most part, I said. But as you might expect, people are starting to feel more ragged, they don’t want this to go on, and sure, you can expect this to escalate. The police want them gone, as does everyone in Parliament, and plenty of people in Wellington. It’s going to end badly (but it didn’t have to).

Once more, Church: think carefully before siding with the powerful

It was a significant mistake for not only the Prime Minister but all other members of Parliament to refuse to speak with Protestors. That’s part of the reason why this is still ongoing, two weeks later. When you encourage people who are already down to think that nobody is governing for them and nobody is listening, you are not going to give them much motivation to be compliant or agreeable. It was also galling to hear her reason right at the outset for not doing so. It was because the protestors represent a “small minority.”

The Anglican Bishops of New Zealand have so often said that we care about “the last, the least, and the lost.” Well here they are.

Really? The Prime Minister who said she was going to govern for all New Zealanders is happy to publicly say that she doesn’t need to engage with minorities? The idea is that these people are on the fringes of society, so their perspective doesn’t matter. How many times have we heard people within the Church – especially the “progressive” wing of the church – saying that we are called to care about the people at the fringes? But not these people, apparently. No, we mean the people who can be poster children for causes progressive Christians care about. The Anglican Bishops of New Zealand have so often said that we care about “the last, the least, and the lost.” Well here they are. Turfed out of jobs against their will, belittled by the powerful, not represented or heard by those who claim to lead us, and sitting on your doorstep.

There are some Christians among the protestors, and there have been worship services taking place there. And there are churches that also recognise the overreach of the government in dictating the level of welcome and inclusion the Church is permitted to practice. There are also some who acquiesce to it, as I’ve said recently. There have been some I’ve spoken to who have tangled themselves up in bizarre rhetorical knots when talking about the Church’s situation, trying to say that it is the excluded who somehow represent power and privilege in the situation (!). If the Church is to have any credibility in claiming that it stands with the powerless, the hurting, those who are ignored, those whose plight nobody cares about, think carefully about your public statements on this human powder keg. Rather than “you’re a bunch of misinformed miscreants, go home!” how about being the visible difference in humanising the suffering and loss these people have been compelled to endure. How about being a prophetic voice to those in power about who they regard and engage with minorities who are experiencing hardship in future? I say “in future” because, regrettably, it is now (probably) too late for anything to be done in that regard. This is going to end badly, certainly much worse than it needed to. If Jesus can take people to task by saying “I was in prison and you did not visit me,” speaking of people who had actually committed a crime, how do you think he regards the way you speak about and lift up people who are enduring this treatment from society and who have done nothing wrong? (No, holding beliefs you think are not true doesn’t count as doing something wrong.)

There are people who will remember how you responded, churches of New Zealand. Don’t mess this up.

Glenn Peoples

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One thought on “Dear Church, hurting people are protesting. Don’t mess this up.

  1. Devastating stats! 55% women 50% left voters and 27% Maoris! Thanks for that. Conspiracy theorists drive me potty but a substantial slice of the public believe these theories so you’re bound to get some in every large group. Indeed the whole claim that these movements are “astroturfed” by the far right is itself a conspiracy theory as you have amply demonstrated.

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