Anger, antipathy or ambivalence toward refugees is a profound suppression of our own past. Like the nation of Israel, this is more than an unmerciful policy; it is the betrayal of national identity.
CREDIT: MOLLY SCHMIDT
As you read this, Pastor Jarrod McKenna and mental health professional Delory Bersgma are hanging from a five story building outside the Foreign Affairs Minister’s office with a banner that reads, “SOS Manus – Love Make A Way for asylum seekers.”
In a novel way, these Christian leaders are once again risking arrest by protesting the unjust and unconscionable treatment of more than 600 men on Manus Island.
Most politicians, many in the media and a few ordinary Christians feel the tactics of these pesky pastors and priest are inappropriate. What are ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ doing crossing-over into issues of human rights? It is, after all, more than three and a half years since Jarrod and others participated in the first Love Makes A Way action in Scott Morrison’s electoral office.
I participated in the second prayer vigil in (then Prime Minister) Tony Abbott’s office a couple of weeks later. What could not have been predicted then – and remains misunderstood today – is that Love Makes A Way has since become the largest nonviolent mobilization of ordinary Christians since the Vietnam War.
This Christian protest movement encompasses a wide range of faith denominations and includes an astonishingly diverse range of people (ages, background and political affiliation). As Jarrod McKenna has said, “Given we are everything from nuns, to mega-church Pentecostals, to conservative and reformed evangelicals, to high church Anglicans, it’s a miracle we agree on anything at all!”
Many intuitively understood that Luther’s symbolic protest in Wittenberg – the Quincentenary was celebrated last Thursday – requires a crossing-over. Crossing-over from obeying the law to acting in faith. Crossing-over from sending emails to sitting vigils in the offices of local MPs. Crossing-over from praying protestingly to protesting prayerfully. Crossing-over from resigned apathy to risking arrest.
The image of crossing-over is a rich and ancient metaphor. The Israelites crossed-over the Red Sea and the Jordan River to establish a promised land, just as Jesus crossed-over from death in the resurrection. Refugees cross those same waters seeking refuge from political, economic and climate instability. The symbolism of crossing-over suggests a happy ending, a safe arrival. Leaving behind danger, hunger or despair people are able to cross-over to something better: safety, plenty and hope – perhaps even salvation. It all depends on who tells the story and how.
Crossing-over a significant body of water has always been a risky endeavour, from raging rivers to flooded causeways to stormy seas. These journeys of crossing-over are profoundly symbolic as well literal. People are crossing-over from danger to safety, from war to peace, from hunger to plenty, from slavery to freedom, from despair to hope, sometimes even from death to life. Scripture teaches us to read such crossings as both deliverance stories and disturbance stories, full of both promise and peril. Finally, we must admit these stories of crossing-over as our stories.
Joshua chapter 3, read in many of our churches last Sunday, is the account of the Israelite’s crossing-over Jordan. The second story of crossing-over is compared and contrasted deliberately with the earlier account in the Exodus story when Moses leads the Israelites out of danger, hunger and slavery through the parted waters of the Red Sea. How quickly the Israelites seem to forget their liberation from Egypt! In a rush to secure for themselves a promised land they develop their own national aspirations. Emboldened by the lure of salvation and security, Israel crosses-overs from liberation to invasion, from peace back to war; from freedom back to enslaving. The Canaanites become a necessary, political sacrifice in constructing a land of safety, plenty and hope for themselves alone. This was wrong.
The law and prophets of the Israelites, always and everywhere, insist that properly remembering their slavery and liberation involved treating their own slaves and aliens differently from the way they themselves were treated in Egypt. Deuteronomy 24:17-18 reads:
“Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak from the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. This is why I give you this command.”
Their model was the redeeming God, not the oppressing Egyptians. Emulating the Egyptians was to return to Egypt even while dwelling in the land of promise. Emulating God was to enact the deliverance God had accomplished for them. For the ancient people of God to fail to imitate Yahweh was not simply to disregard wise counsel or disobey a moral command, but to betray themselves – to live in contradiction to their true identity.
Throughout Israel’s sacred writings you hear the refrain, a communal and concrete remembering: “You were slaves in Egypt.” The memory of the Exodus first is a lesson of deliverance: act in favour of the weak and oppressed just as God acted in your favour when you were weak and oppressed. The second is the lesson of opposition to injustice: oppose oppressors and punish them just as God opposed and punished those who have oppressed you. The two lessons – justice as judgment and justice as mercy – are not resolved in Scripture until Jesus himself crosses-over from death to resurrection.
The same, failed memories of the Exodus haunt our present and the current humanitarian crisis playing out on Manus Island. Australians are not acting in favour of the weak and oppressed just as God acted in our favour when we were weak and oppressed. Residents of Australia fall into one of only three categories:
- the original inhabitants of this land, who have suffered a continuing legacy of displacement and injustice;
- the refugees who were (and continue to be) forced to come here by economic and political forces such as war, famine, climate change; and
- the rest of us, whose ancestors all migrated here under a variety of conditions and in many cases, by boat, often without proper documentation.
The widespread ignorance, fear and scapegoating of those crossing-over, then, is a way of despising the deepest part of our own national story. Anger, antipathy or even ambivalence toward refugees is a profound suppression of our own past. Like the nation of Israel, this is more than an unmerciful policy – it is a betrayal of true, national identity.
If the ancient people of God needed to be reminded “you were once slaves in Egypt” to be agents of God’s mercy and judgment, then contemporary Australians need to be reminded “you also arrived by boat” – and thus to be agents of God’s mercy and judgment. To forget the lesson of our own deliverance causes despair and disgust.
More urgently, opposition to injustice is today being ignored. Some thousands took to the streets last weekend to oppose our oppressive treatment of those in limbo on Manus Island. Many others have called the Prime Minister’s office or their local member to voice their concern. Some brave friends are risking arrest in order to highlight their despair and disgust at the treatment of those vulnerable men on Manus Island. Five hundred years ago Luther began the Protestant Reformation exclaiming, “Here I stand.” These contemporary protest-ants prefer to sit, while praying.
Twelve months ago, I was in Uganda to speak to Anglican bishops, clergy and scholars at a conference on the theme of reconciliation in a broken nation. I heard stories of the tens of thousands of refugees entering northern Uganda fleeing war, hunger and almost certain death from South Sudan. During the last year, that tally has risen to more than one million. One million refugees from South Sudan crossing-over from danger to safety, from hunger to plenty (each refugee is given a plot of land in order to grow food for themselves), from death to life.
Uganda is not a wealthy country; quite to the contrary. Uganda remembers the lessons of the Exodus because they remember Idi Amin. My friend and colleague Alfred Olwa, now a bishop of the northern Ugandan diocese of Lira, has the scars on his legs from Amin’s soldiers. Twelve months ago, I struggled to explain Australia’s lack of mercy to the Ugandan bishop who asked about our widespread fear of “queue-jumpers.” I tried to explain the concept of an orderly queue for refugees to be processed in order to come to Australia. After the full-belly laugh from this large African bishop subsided, he looked intently at me and said, “the people of Australia do know there is no such queue, don’t they?”
My friend and activist Ched Myers offers these words of challenge, that, compiled with my friends’ actions right now, offer a glimmer of hope:
“the undocumented God of the Bible and the refugee Christ stand forever at our doors knocking – at the threshold of our consciousness, our homes, and our national borders – waiting for us to remember the roots of our faith and identity, and to embrace a discipleship of prophetic hospitality.”
The Ugandan practice of God’s mercy and hospitality demonstrates how scripturally shallow and morally malevolent Australian policy has become. I had no words for the bishop then, just as I have no words now for what is unfolding on Manus Island. But I am thankful for those who are calling us to remember that Exodus and Easter insist: “Love Makes A Way.”
Geoff Broughton is the Rector of Paddington Anglican Church and Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at Charles Sturt University.
From: ABC Religion and Ethics, 8 Nov 2017