Theophilus

Theophilus

Asylum seekers: praying for change

Church leaders join a sit-in prayer vigil in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Manly electorate office, Sydney. AAP/ Newzulu/ Kate Ausburn

Yesterday around 20 Christian activists staged sit-ins in Sydney at the office of the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and in Melbourne at that of Federal Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten. The protesters included priests, pastors and nuns, young and old, from the Uniting, Catholic, Baptist, Anglican, and independent churches.

In relatively undramatic scenes, they were eventually arrested at the end of the day.

The peaceful sit-ins were a protest against the Australian government’s continuing detention of children seeking asylum. For as at April 30 2014, Australia has 1023 children in detention.

This was the third prayer protest this year, following sit-ins at the offices of Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop. Several of these protesters are now due to face court.

The format of each protest has been simple. It reflects what Christians do when they meet together in public or in private: reading the Bible and singing and praying together in public.

The scriptures read at the protest yesterday included Leviticus 19:33-34,

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

It’s pretty difficult to explain away that text, even if the alien is called an “illegal maritime arrival”. If Christians take their sacred text seriously, it’s not hard to see why what has been dubbed the #LoveMakesAWay movement is gathering momentum.

The protesters' message to Australia’s leaders is simple. Why are kids in detention?

Their aim is also simple: to convert the hearts and minds of Australians and their political leaders so that “asylum seekers” are viewed as fellow humans. Their hope is that Australians will then respond to asylum seekers with the compassion that flows from the empathy of one human being for the suffering of another.

This simple motivation avoids the usual accusation by politicians that religious groups do not or will not understand the complexity of the issues at hand, in this case border protection or people smuggling operations. The call is simply for a compassionate response, which at the very least might mean providing a safe environment in offshore detention centres.

The #LoveMakesAWay protesters are not alone. Recent rallies lamenting the death of Reza Barati have included large numbers from the churches. These two issues - the death of a man seeking asylum while under Australia’s protection on Manus Island, and the ongoing detention of more than a thousand children - have crossed a line in the minds of many Christians such that silence ceases to be an option.

This line in the sand has been powerfully illustrated at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, which since August 2013 has displayed the message ‘Let’s Fully Welcome Refugees’ on its spires. The Dean of St Paul’s has stated that the banner will remain in place until there is a major change of direction in the government’s policy. He cited the teaching of Jesus Christ in his statement:

I am convinced that future generations of Australians will judge this policy for what it is: inhumane to those seeking our protection, and demeaning to Australia as a nation. These actions will not only be judged by our children and grandchildren but by God himself. Christ’s judgement will be based on a simple measure: ‘What you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done to me’ (St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 verse 40).

For years church leaders have called for change in both Coalition and Labor policies: the joint statement of Anglican, Catholic and Uniting leaders in 2012 was a notable example. So far these statements have been rejected by the federal government.

The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, rejected the recent call of Uniting Church leaders for a change on asylum seeker policy in this manner. The Uniting Church had suggested its members could provide accommodation for unaccompanied children in detention on Christmas Island. The Minister’s response indicated his willingness to use this mechanism to house the tens of thousands of asylum seekers already resident in the Australian community.

Moreover, many Christian politicians evidently disagree with the churches' views about asylum seekers and refugees while not discounting the broader Christian pursuit of justice.

It was Kevin Rudd, after all, who famously wrote of his admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Monthly in 2006 prior to his election as Prime Minister. Echoing Bonhoeffer, Rudd argued that Christianity “must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed”. Yet it was under Rudd’s very leadership in 2013 that the government put in place many of the punitive border protection policies to which the churches now object.

Likewise, Scott Morrison’s first speech in Parliament in 2008 committed him to the pursuit of the biblical values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, and cited Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu as his role models.

The churches are clearly committed to their repeated calls for a change in hearts and minds, and a change in policy and practice. Yet they cannot escape the need to put forward credible alternatives to current policy. They will also need to commit their considerable human and physical resources to supporting the compassionate alternatives they advocate. As the Bible says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:18).

The prayer protesters are responding to the failure of politicians to heed statements by religious groups over several years. They are now turning instead to direct action. One of their leaders, pastor Jarrod McKenna, has explicitly placed their protests in the tradition of the great twentieth-century Christian activists Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu. By implication, this identification suggests the protesters believe Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in the last twelve months has turned down a road that could lead to apartheid, discrimination, and murder.

So far the methods of #LoveMakesAWay reflect the forms of non-violent protest advocated by Gandhi. Yesterday ended without violence, and the protesters went to considerable lengths to treat the staff of the offices they occupied with respect. There is no sign, however, that policy is about to change, nor that this movement is going to end soon.

The question, then, is this: what will happen to the asylum seeker prayer protests if love cannot make a way?

What if the politics of the refugee debate are so entrenched that more radical action is proposed by these religious leaders? At what point will federal politicians lose patience with the occupation of their offices? What sacrifices are people of faith willing to make to secure the freedom of children in detention?

Watch this space carefully.