One nation! One people?

HOWARD GREGORY

Sunday, August 04, 2019

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At this time of year we celebrate two milestones on the pathway toward the realisation of nationhood — Emancipation and Independence. This year we do so under the theme 'One Nation. One people'. It is a theme which calls us to reflect on our national motto: Out of many, one people. Over the 57 years of our Independence we have had various themes for our annual observances and must ask the question, why the selection of this theme at this time? Is the selection of the theme suggesting that we have realised that which our motto seeks to express. Or is it suggesting that we may not be in sync with our national motto in terms of where we are as a nation today and the nurturing of the hope for tomorrow?

As we reflect on the theme, it is important that we call to mind the fact that we are not just dealing with an institution or a structure, but people and the way people share in a collective identity which coheres to create cultural, administrative, and institutional structures that make for a national identity.

It is self-evident that there are some positive indicators which have characterised the life of this nation at all of these levels since 1962. Among the indicators are the physical and material transformation which have taken place in the infrastructure of this nation; economic prosperity which has attended many, even in a context of growing disparity; the educational and social mobility which have attended many; and the impact which our small nation has been able to make in the international arena in a multiplicity of fields and disciplines. There are, however, some serious and lingering challenges which call for serious attention.

In a recent social gathering, someone declared to me, “I have no hope for this nation in my lifetime. The only hope that I see for this nation is the emergence of a strong third political party that can offer this nation leadership that can take us beyond the prevailing climate of corruption and the high level of crime and disorder which exist in our nation.”

Echoed in this statement is a clear sentiment about aspects of the current problems confronting our nation, but whether the proposed solution is the answer is another matter.

As we consider the theme for this year's celebration and its expression of our nation's motto, I am reminded of words uttered by the late Bishop Neville deSouza who, in reflecting on our motto, pointed to its adoption as an expression of our historical experience and as a metaphoric expression of our nation's hope for unity, while underscoring the disconnect between intention and reality, and which I believe must inform our engagement of the theme for this year. He offered this assessment of the national motto:

“It speaks of unity, it speaks of the creation of the shalom, it speaks of integration, mutuality and inter-dependence, but when we look at the personality of our nation, we find that the old divisions still reside within our psyche, that when we look for a centre of focus for our personality, as a people apart from the universal acknowledgement of the fact that we are very aggressive, what else is there that really unifies us?

“We are divided by our loyalty to our racial genesis. We are divided by our class structures. We are divided by the quality of education. We are divided by our economic pursuits and our lack of complementarity in this pursuit.

“Rather than being a nation with personality, it may be that we need to look at whether or not we are not a nation of multiple personalities, whether or not we are not schizoid, because a people who have lived together for longer than the United States of America is a nation, coming together out of that mutual history, to now perceive within themselves only these divisions and destinations, is a sign that we lack the sense of identity.”

This issue of identity along with that of a sense of belonging is one with which we should all be familiar as they are at the root of the most basic unit of society — the family. It is in the earliest years of our life with the experience of affection, nurture, and positive expressions of affirmation from parents that a child develops a sense of identity. Failure in this regard may lead to problems with self-identity or a sense of not belonging to the family.

For people who belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the image is a familiar one in the biblical literature. The children of Israel who were a part of the exodus from Egypt did not constitute a nation at the time, but were a series of clans. Nation-building was part of the 40-year wandering in the wilderness. When times of prosperity came, as they settled to a more urban and stable life, inequalities began to emerge along with the associated concern for social justice as some people were being left behind or excluded from sharing the prosperity of the land and nation. The prophets, as messengers of God, were constantly challenging the nation to pursue the path of justice and righteousness or face the judgement of God and the disintegration of the nation.

The prophet Amos had these very challenging words for his people in Amos 8:4-8: Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” - skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done. “Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn? The whole land will rise like the Nile; it will be stirred up and then sink like the river of Egypt.

The prophet Amos spoke at a time when there was political stability in Israel and there was economic prosperity for many who became wealthy and were able to live a life of luxury. But, as is often the case, prosperity among some of the people brought with it a collapse of moral standards. Consequently, with little sense of accountability, the rich oppressed the poor; for those in positions of privilege and authority, might was right; and generally it was an age of corruption.

The issue of identity is not just a question of the resolution of individual identity, but the issue of national identity, and its resolution as the basis for national identity and unity, cohesiveness, and patriotism. The strength of a nation is compromised if these elements are not foundational to the life of the society, and those who feel excluded from the life of the society will become agents for its destruction, whether through violence or other means. A society in which social injustice is prevalent will certainly manifest these things.

Many of us are baffled when mention is made of social injustice, especially when the prevailing language used to speak about the economic life of the nation and its successes is that of “prosperity”. So, statistics are used to indicate the decrease in unemployment within the nation, which in itself is a good development. What these strategies do not reveal is the widening gap between the rich and the poor; the low wages being paid to significant numbers of those employed in the institutions and organisations now driving the employment figures; as well as the lack of job security and basic provision of vacation and pension. Inequality and the absence of a level of economic and social justice, which are foundational for a sense of nationhood, does not generate in citizens a sense of belonging.

Richard Pandohie, president of the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA), used the occasion of the opening ceremony of the Christmas in July trade show at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel in New Kingston to speak about the inequities of society and the imperative of ensuring that there is economic and social justice for all if the future of the entire nation is to be guaranteed, using the experience of Venezuela as a case study.

“After all, that country is blessed with so much natural resources and has so much wealth, what would have gone wrong? What went wrong was that there was inequity in their society, and disparity between the haves and the have-nots was too wide. The majority of people then chose a populism path that they felt would make it more equitable for them.

“Fast-forward to today, and you can see my fear of what could potentially happen to our country without proper collaboration. To avoid this slippery slope, everyone in this room and across the local industry will have to accept that Jamaica is our business, whether you're a manufacturer, exporter, entertainer, hotelier, or farmer, Jamaica is where we have all planted our roots, made significant investment, and are raising our families.

“Jamaica is our shared enterprise and, like any enterprise, collaboration is key.”

The country is currently caught up in a culture of corruption which stymies the development of the nation as national resources are channelled into the hands of private citizens and people are appointed to positions and receive benefits for which they are not qualified. The exposure of corruption serves to create a culture of malaise and indifference among many citizens who believe that they can have no confidence in the system of governance in our land to change and make things better.

I am concerned that there is something fundamentally wrong with the institutional framework which currently exists for investigating and prosecuting those involved in corruption, and am still waiting, after many months to see what will be the outcome of the prolonged investigative process related to the scandals of Petrojam and Caribbean Maritime University, and whether any credible action will be pursued. The nation is still left to wonder about the ability of our regulatory body to do anything positive to demonstrate that the tide of corruption is being cauterised.

Perhaps the number one concern on the mind of every Jamaican is that of crime and violence, especially the high murder rate. In a recent reading of Psalm 55, my attention was drawn to the inherent connection between crime and corruption, and the prevailing false notion that if we get crime under control the vision for this nation will be realised.

Psalm 55:11-12 reads: Day and night the watchmen make their rounds upon her walls, but trouble and misery are in the midst of her. There is corruption at her heart, her streets are never free of oppression and deceit.

It is a picture of the security apparatus being in place while moral decay eats at the heart of the society making a mockery of its confidence in its security system. I will only add at this point, likewise if we get the economy to its strongest level yet, and ignore the moral underbelly of our society, we will one day come to see the futility of such a strategy.

The dynamics at work in our nation that are generating this sense of alienation and of not belonging are many and varied. Among these are the ways in which citizens and communities are excluded from the decision-making process which affect their communities and presented with what is a fait accompli, as in the disrespect regarding the issue of mining in the Cockpit Country or the development of tourism in Port Royal. The craft vendors surrounding our tourist centres have repeatedly expressed their frustration at being left out of avenues for interaction with tourist while they are being shuttled to locations operated by big business. But it is not just a case of certain socio-economic and demographic groups being ignored in the decision-making process which affects their communities and, ultimately, the lives of all of us. Those living in high-income communities are now discovering that they are faced with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude as changes are made to the zoning of their communities, construction gets underway, and citizens receive no information about such plans, the limits to working hours each day, and on Sundays and public holidays are not observed, but there is no one to whom to appeal and get action at the level of oversight and governance.

The signs of the disconnect between our motto and the theme for this year's celebrations are evident for those who are discerning. It is evident in the way we treat the environment and the culture of indiscipline which surround us today. Notwithstanding all of the problems we have with garbage collection, it seems that many have lost any sense of cleanliness and responsibility for the environment. Every bit of garbage is thrown through the window of our vehicles or on the sidewalk by individuals, while business places deposit their garbage to block drainage facilities, as was in evidence in Montego Bay. When citizens lose a sense of responsibility for their own health and the environment then it is clear that they have no sense of investment in it and its well-being.

Indiscipline stalks the land and is no more in evidence than on our roads, led by the taxi drivers. Within the city of Kingston there is a licensing regime which has allowed for an abundance of taxis to compete with the bus service and to operate, for the most part, with impunity. Indiscipline is not a new phenomenon created by Jamaicans. It was present in the Old Testament within the life of the people of Israel.

Thus, in Judges 17:6 we read: In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

We may note where responsibility for order is deemed to reside. It is the responsibility of leadership to maintain order and to bring about the change to the situation of disorder as is necessary. We cannot continue to think that a two-pronged approach that is concerned with reducing the number of murders and the pursuit of a path of economic prosperity will address the current challenge which we face as a nation in the pursuit of national identity and unity of purpose.

In envisioning the future of this nation in a way that can give meaningful expression to the theme 'One People. One Nation', we must begin with the articulation of some common values which can inform the institutions of governance and unify and give citizens a sense of belonging to the body politic; empower our people by the way governance is exercised so that citizens can feel that they have a voice and a place in this society and are being taken seriously; and there needs to be a commitment at every level to a common journey towards the building of unity and the achievement of the common good.

We will only be able to talk about 'One People. One Nation' when there is a national commitment to the common good that reaches beyond private interests, short-term benefits, transcends sectional commitments, and offers human solidarity. This is a pilgrimage always being pursued under the providential care of God, but certainly not a destination to which we arrive in 57 years, as there are still “many rivers to cross”.

Howard K Gregory is Anglican bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands and archbishop of the West Indies.


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