There is no depression in New Zealand;
there are no sheep on our farms…
we have no racism…
The sentencing of five Maori for killing a 22-year old woman during a makatu (a curse-lifting ceremony, or “exorcism”) has brought out the closet (and not-so-closet) racists. MP Trevor Mallard entitled his post on the Labour Party blog, “It would have been prison if they weren’t Maori”. Mallard opines, “I am certain that a Pakeha exorcism that resulted in torture and death would result in a prison term – albeit not necessarily a long one. The fact that they weren’t sent to prison because they are Maori just doesn’t seem right to me.” With lame-duck comments like that, it makes me wonder when Mallard is going to give up politics altogether and switch to that talkback radio job that so suits his painfully shallow opinions. Kiwiblog‘s David Farrar (accompanied, unsurprisingly, by a good deal many other knee–jerk reactionists) agrees with Trevor Mallard and points out that the Korean Christian exorcist “Pastor Luke Lee got six years jail for an exorcism manslaughter in 2001.” Farrar adds, “While the cases are somewhat different it is hard to reconcile six years jail with zero years jail.”
What David Farrar has completely missed is the fact that the Court of Appeal later overturned Pastor Luke’s manslaughter conviction. Yet a manslaughter sentence was in fact imposed in the current case (although the facts are different, in that Pastor Luke’s exorcisee seems to have agreed to the procedure). And what should not be overlooked is that the court’s position on death-by-exorcism in the Pastor Luke case was never finally determined – because Pastor Luke was deported to Korea.
But more significant is the racist indignation that Maori exorcists might possibly be getting a better deal than Pakeha exorcists. All of the outcry and concern should be given a little context: the protests concern the very rare occurrence of death-by-exorcism! This is a very strange pissing contest: between claimants to Maori and Pakeha exorcists… “Oh – how dare ‘your’ exorcists get off light when ‘our’ exorcists might not!”
Another level of prejudice occurs in the attempt to distinguish between a proper makatu and an improper makatu. The sentencing required the five convicted exorcists to learn more about their culture, by taking a course in officially recognised Maori culture and religion:
“Justice Simon France today told the siblings that their understanding and knowledge of their culture was not complete.”
What? Who does have a “complete” understanding and knowledge of their (wider) culture? And which culture are we talking about? What makes the makatu-practising culture of the five convicted exorcists less legitimate that that of the ‘proper’ and ‘recognized’ authorities? At the base of this sentencing is the presupposition that ‘official religion’ is legitimate and valid and excuses actions done within it, while those of ‘popular’ and ‘unofficial’ religion are automatically illegitimate and invalid. The same prejudice was evident in the Pastor Luke case. As Pastor Luke was a member of a popular pentecostal church, not a manstream denomination, his actions were dismissed as those of a “cult” (as used in its pejorative popular sense). In the present case, the judge went so far as to deny that the practice was ‘religious’, let alone an official religious act:
“[Justice Simon France] rejected the notion that they had been acting out a religious or cultural ritual.”
Well, that’s funny: the five exorcists certainly thought they were carrying out a religious ritual (a makatu). But according to the Official Word of the New Zealand Judiciary, apparently in the absence of official backing, people cannot possibly be acting religiously. All this type of misguided prejudice in favour of ‘official religion’ comes to grief in the face of the fact that the major practitioners of Christian exorcism today come from Christianity’s very largest denomination: Roman Catholicism.
But what, if anything is the driver, the underlying power-interest that makes one aspect of culture defensible and another indefensible? Possibly only the fact that ‘mainstream’ Maori and churches may be coerced into acting in accordance with the hegemonic interests of the State and of the power-interests within tribal iwi. The State only puts up with rival power to the extent that it can be safely assimilated. That’s the crucial difference here. But an exorcism undertaken by a Catholic Bishop or a recognised tohunga has no greater intrinsic worth (or lack of worth) than one carried out by a Pentecostal or local Wainuiomata Maori family.