The tragic race incidents in the US in recent weeks, which began with the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and now the campaign, Black Lives Matter, make us all reflect on what we can do. I will today draw attention to a Norwegian poet, Arnulf Øverland (1889-1968), who was the country’s topmost political poet before and during WWII. In 1941, he was sent to a German concentration camp till the end of the war in 1945. After the war, his books became the most sold poetry books ever in the country. From 1946, he lived in the State Honorary Residence, ‘The Cave’, on the outskirts of the Royal Palace Gardens, originally having been built by the eminent writer Henrik Wergeland (1808-1845), who was so important in creating a Norwegian national identity when the country was young in the first half of the 19th century, having been part of Denmark for four hundred years, and a junior partner in a union with Sweden for another close to one hundred years.

Arnulf Øverland’s poems ‘You must not sleep!’ (In Norwegian, Du må ikke sove), which had first been published in 1936, became one of the most relevant resistance movement poems and a major cause for his imprisonment. Many of his poems had biblical and prophetic symbols, warnings about war and injustice, and tall orders to people to see and do what is right. The mentioned poem is a warning against racism, discrimination, and inequality. That is again on the public agenda at the present time, in every nation and globally, following the police murder of the Afro-American George Floyd in USA just a few weeks ago in 2020, and other police violence and a heavy-handed culture in other fields in that country – and also elsewhere.

One verse in Øverland’s poem ‘You must not sleep’ reads like this: “You must not endure so very well the injustice that does not affect yourself. Crying out with my very last breath; you must not sleep. You must not forgive!” (The whole poem is available on Internet in English, and, of course, in the original Norwegian version, even read by the poet himself in his conservative standard Norwegian language with distinct Bergen accent. But Øverland was not a conservative; he was actually a declared communist and he was radical in so many fields of politics, social and religious issues, and he was always with his weapon of words on the side of the oppressed so that they could gain independence from foreign rules and oppression, and reach justice and respect. That means that Arnulf Øverland’s words are as topical and relevant today, and at all times, as when they were written.

I mentioned that many of Øverland’s poems have a religious atmosphere and language, yet, at the time, he was not a religious man, but he was throughout his life concerned about the importance of religion in society, for good and for bad, and placing moral issues in the centre. We know that all religions focus on justice, and are all equal before God.

As we work for justice and equality – if we indeed do – it helps our cause to give reference to eternal values and religious texts. For example, Apostle Paul’s advice to the early Christian communities in Galatia, which we can read about in Galatians 3:28 in the Bible’s New Testament: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female (...)”. Indeed, it is a basic requirement for all human beings that we love one another. Apostle John says in 1 John 4:21: “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”

Religion has a stronger place in many people’s life in USA than in most other Western societies today. Charity is important to Christians, but religion is less often transferred to politics and structural fairness in society, as Muslims would do. When the legendary pastor and human rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) took all Americans on their journey to create greater civil rights for blacks in the 1960s, I believe it was indeed essential that he had religion as a foundation for his mission. In my article last week, I said that the great leader also saved USA from becoming a pariah caste country, like South Africa under apartheid. Much good work has been done in the decades after the civil rights movement, but far from enough, as the recent tragic incidents have shown. Sadly, they are only the top of the iceberg, and they don’t only have to do with race and ethnicity, but are interwoven with class and other vertical difference. USA, often being seen as more democratic than many other countries, must now prove to their own people and internationally, that there is truth to that. Inequality has grown more there than elsewhere in recent decades, and super-capitalism with multinationals has not been regulated.

In America, the heavy-handed and authoritarian behaviour of the police can also be found in many other institutions and structures of society. For example, how can the world’s richest country allow a large proportion of its people go without health insurance, including proper mother and child care? At the same time, the country spends more per capita on health than other countries. Today, people who get treated for corona, if at all admitted, may get out of hospital with higher debt than they can ever repay. Also, how can USA have an education system that is not equal and open for all, knowing that talent and intelligence are equally distributed among races, genders, ethnic backgrounds, and so on? A poor black American boy or girl can do as well or even better than a rich child, and they are all worth the same – if nothing else, at least in God’s eyes. Isn’t it time that religious and secular leaders everywhere pay more attention to justice and equality?

Let me end my article today by again drawing attention to Arnulf Øverland and his reminder that we must all stay awake, that we must not accept so easily injustice that affects others, but not ourselves. A typical excuse is to say that poverty, crime, substance abuse, even joblessness, are one’s own fault, not mainly caused by circumstances and society.

The first step is to open our eyes so we can see and analyse injustice and inequality; the next step is to talk about it, write about it and discuss it with others; and the third step is to work deliberately for helping people establish and take part in organisations, unions, political parties, NGOs, and so on, in order to implement change – in USA, in my home country Norway, and in my beloved Pakistan – easy and rewarding for all, including the oppressors, who can also not be free unless the oppressed are free.

Atle Hetland

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid. Email:

atlehetland@yahoo.com