Asylum Seekers: “Pastor, Shouldn’t We Celebrate Stopping the Boats?”
So far this year 38 Christian leaders have been arrested in a call for the release of these children in detention. And there are no signs of us pesky pastors letting up, with over a hundred Christian leaders on their way, willing to be carried off in paddy wagons. Evidently, this Love Makes A Way movement is just getting started.
Some of us have been trained by the civil rights leaders hand-picked by Martin Luther King to lead his movement. People like Dr. Vincent Harding, who told me, “Your work [with Love Makes A Way] is not only influenced by, but a continuation of, Martin [Luther] King’s Freedom Movement.”
And in the words of the Freedom Movement Song, “We who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.”
Columnists – please do your homework. We are not the “loony left” (in fact, some of us are to the right). The rights of children and the rights of refugees we are convinced of are not about “right and left,” but rather “right and wrong.”
We are Pentecostal pastors in mega-churches and Catholic nuns.
We are Reformed Presbyterians and Anabaptist charismatics.
We are local Church of Christ worship leaders and national moderators of the Uniting Church.
We are tongue-talking, Vineyard ministers and contemplative Baptist reverends.
We are Perth Anglo-Catholic priests and Sydney Anglican evangelicals.
In short, it’s a miracle we agree on anything. But by the grace of God, we are all clear on this: As Christians, a “solution” that comes at the cost of the most vulnerable is no solution at all.
Children must be released from detention.
“But Pastor,” many say to us, “This is politics. Your talk of love is fine for the pulpit, but keep it out of the public square. Besides, shouldn’t we celebrate stopping the boats?”
Celebrating stopping the boats is like celebrating people not jumping from burning buildings because we’ve boarded up the windows.
I’ll let my good friends Akram Azimi and Mick Sheldrick extend my metaphor:
Imagine that you live in a building with 100 individual apartments – each housing a family. Suddenly, a fire engulfs the whole building, blocking the exit. You open your windows and call for help. The fire fighters come, but they only have one truck with only one ladder. This means that only one family can descend safely through their window via the lifesaving ladder. This leaves the other 99 families in an unenviable dilemma. Do they stay and wait for the fire to consume them or do they – knowing they have nothing to lose – risk it all by jumping out the window? What would you do?
This is the situation facing seeking asylum. Currently less than one per cent of all refugees are resettled through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). With no real choice at all for the remaining 99 percent, many jump and risk it all, not for a better life but for a chance at life.
People fleeing persecution get on boats for the same reason that people jump from burning buildings – if they stay, they will die. There is no other way. The Government’s “no way” campaign tells desperate people not to jump from burning buildings without providing safety from the flames.
That’s not humane, it’s horrific.
“Stopping the Boats” doesn’t save lives. Stopping the boats saves us from seeing the suffering of those running for their lives. Just because we can see people drowning here doesn’t mean they aren’t dying elsewhere. Shouldn’t we stop people from drowning? Of course! But saving lives is much harder than usstopping boats. It will mean us going to help. We must ask ourselves, as a nation, are we looking for a response that relieves our guilt or responds to the suffering of others?
“But Pastor,” many continue, “Are you saying we should open the borders? What is your solution?”
Of course this isn’t about “open borders.” This is about real leadership and safe, efficient processing. Before I suggest some possible responses, I want to name what I mean by “real leadership.”
Hillsong’s Senior Pastor Brian Houston earlier this week and at their annual Megaprayer Night, showed the real leadership that is lacking.
What we want to pray for is real human beings, real people who are in desperate straits, and are hurting, and are [in] so much pain, children in detention. All sorts of things, that I don’t even pretend to have the answers for or understand. But I tell you though; we have the power of prayer.
–Pastor Brian Houston
Why is this the real leadership that’s needed?
In the first instance, Pastor Brian Houston humanised those who are suffering without qualifiers. Daring not to refer to these desperate people as “queue jumpers” or “boat people” has become a radical thing. Pastor Brian asked us to open our heart without qualifications. He didn’t ask Hillsong to pray just for Christian refugees, or African refugees, or for heterosexual refugees but for all people – regardless of religion, race or orientation – because God loves them. While God’s love won’t be the reason for recognising the humanity of others shared by all, all real leadership insists that we fight to recover the humanity of vulnerable people in public debate and policy response.
Secondly, Pastor Brian also called us in prayer to stand with those who suffer. I realise many reading this might regard prayer as quaint, at best, (and completely daft, at worst,) but Pastor Brian asked us to emotionally and imaginatively empathise with those who are suffering to an extent that we could articulate their longings for freedom with them. If our atheist friends have practices that imitate this process, real leadership calls for us to practice them too, so we might respond to these people with the dignity we all deserve.
And finally, Pastor Brian humbly said he didn’t have the answers. This is what no politician has been willing to say – that there are no simple solutions to human suffering. The search for the simple solution (such as “stop the boats” as ex-One Nation’s Pauline Hanson first suggested and that has since been taken up by both major parties due to its popularity) has become part of the problem. As is the problem of fundamentalism of any form, a simple solution forces easy answers over the complexity of reality. In this case, the reality is that persecution and war are not going away any time soon, which means neither are the refugees running from those realities. Whilst Australia might be thoroughly secular, popular public opinion has fallen for a form of policy fundamentalism that wants quick fixes over complex long-term responses. But three-word phrases can’t deliver what has been asked of us. One hundred and forty characters can’t contain what our response needs to be. What’s been asked of us is a response to real and complex human suffering. Real leadership, the kind shown by Pastor Brian, has the humility to admit that we don’t have all the answers, but that our response must be one that connects to the suffering of others.
“So Pastor, you are saying you don’t have any answers?”
No. I am saying that I don’t have any easy answers. But I’m trying to “live” into some important questions.
For over two years my family of three have been living with 17 recently arrived refugees at First Home Project. Out of the daily reality of responding to recently arrived people, here are my questions – some of which we asked former-PM Kevin Rudd:
- Why couldn’t this government, like Fraser’s Liberal government in the 70s, lead a regional response that upholds international law written to say “never again” after the Holocaust? This would mean Australia becoming a regional leader in putting up more ladders out of the burning building.
- Why couldn’t Australia’s navy, like Italy’s, help asylum seekers find safe passage here and to other regional centres to be processed efficiently?
- Why couldn’t this government do what John Howard’s Liberal government did in 2005 and release all children and their families from detention to be processed in the community?
- Why couldn’t this government establish a more humane solution of community processing (that would also save $4.5 billion dollars a year) and boost regional economies by processing refugees in regional centres?
- Why couldn’t this government do more to address the flames of the building? We have just cut foreign aid, development and relief by $7.6 billion, whilst increasing the cost of imprisoning asylum seekers to $8.3 billion in the last budget. Increasing aid, increasing spending in peace building initiatives, rather than war machines, is what’s needed.
These are the questions I’m seeking to live. I find it unacceptable that the rhetoric of politicians reflects such a low opinion of the Australian public that it has lacked the creativity to live into these questions and respond to these vulnerable people with the dignity they deserve.
Australia could become a leader in a regional response by providing safe ladders out of these “burning buildings.”
Instead of saying “no way,” we must provide “safe ways” for people to seek asylum without risking their lives or being imprisoned for trying.
I believe love makes a way. Jarrod McKenna
Featured Images by Attila Shia: https://www.flickr.com/photos/77967821@N00/sets/