A 2017 CBC investigation found black people were three times more likely to be street checked in Halifax than white people. Photo courtesy of Halifax Police/Twitter

Francis Campbell: Jesus has some advice about social justice

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  • March 27, 2018

Words are seldom minced from the pulpit of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax. A couple Sundays past was no different as pastor Rhonda Britton and the congregation tackled the recurring issue of racial discrimination. 

Britton spoke directly to the police chief and city mayor who were attending an annual service to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

“Disrupt the status quo,” Britton said to an engaged congregation of 140 at the wooden inner-city church that was established by the city’s black citizenry more than 180 years ago.

“If you really want violence to cease in our city, it can’t be the same old, same old, we have to speak up,” she said. “Your silence makes you complicit.”

The service was held scant weeks after a black city police officer called for the immediate end to street checks, saying such checks unfairly target black people.

“This practice is wrong, it’s not effective,” Sgt. Robyn Atwell said. “End it.”

Street checks or carding allow police to document information about a person they believe could be of significance to a future investigation by recording details such as their ethnicity, gender, age and location. Atwell said the checks continue to subject black Nova Scotians to unfair treatment. She said if the checks targeted white citizens, there would have been a moratorium on them a long time ago.

A 2017 CBC investigation found black people were three times more likely to be street checked in Halifax than white people. Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais said the force takes an ongoing human rights commission review launched last year “very seriously” and will continue to co-operate with it fully. But the police chief said he won’t consider a moratorium on street checks until the review is completed and recommendations have been presented.

In the summer of 2017, Blais announced all officers would receive training on fair and impartial policing in order to improve street check practices. He also committed to changing how long street check records are kept on file.

“It is not enough to attend cultural competency or sensitivity training if you walk out with the same attitude,” Britton told the congregation.

“Human rights must be the aim for all in our society,” she said. “The injustices that we endure as black people can no longer be overlooked. And neither can the injustices visited upon any people. 

“As those in the position of public servants, you cannot ignore such injustices. I’m calling on you today to speak up. You are on the front lines. You are the first responders. You see what happens when mercy and compassion are absent. Speak up. Speaking up is not just with your voice, it is with your actions.”

Britton urged police, public servants and ordinary citizens to lead and become part of a society that rejects all discrimination as evil.

“What is good and right and just for some is good and right and just for all,” she said. 

Disrupting the status quo in pursuit of social justice is not a novel idea. Jesus talked about the same thing 2,000 years ago. Teaching in the synagogues of Jerusalem, He echoed the words of Isaiah, saying He had been sent to proclaim good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free.

Ample examples of who constitutes the oppressed, the blind, the poor and the restrained or imprisoned in Jesus’ time and in Jesus’ mind are identified in a series of parables that include the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the widow and the unjust judge and the wicked tenants.

Easter is a good time to reflect on what we do overtly or how we are complicit in actions that lead to the oppression of others. That oppression against others can be manifested in global or societal injustices that prevent the poor from rising above their current station. As was the case in the time of Jesus, it often benefits those who hold the reins of political and economic power to sustain a status quo that supports an imbalanced power structure. Those with a social conscience have to push for change.

“Speak up for the truth, speak up for the fair and just treatment of all people,” Britton said. “Think about how you would want to be treated.”

That sounds like a Golden Rule to live by, a rule for social justice that is as relevant today as it was when coined by Jesus in His sermon on the mount.

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)

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