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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Refugee policy - a defining issue for Christians and to live beyond anger

Browsing through some columns that I wrote for Zadok Perspectives back in 2002, I came across a column on refugees. It was written after the events surrounding the Tampa. Though some things have changed since then, some critical things haven't.

I have therefore reproduced it in its original form. What is truly sobering is that it would take very few editorial changes to bring it up to deal with current issues. The pastoral issues as to how we can live faithfully in such a time as this remain as does the anger that I need to deal with.

Prophetic Patience - Active Waiting -  Refugee policy as a defining issue

Despite the inescapable impact of the terrorist attacks on September 11, for many Australians the treatment of refugees became the defining issue of public policy in the year just past. The divisions in Australian society revealed by the Coalition Government’s handling of the “Tampa” event, the “Pacific solution” and mandatory detention seem likely to be with us for some time.

The issues raised by the current government policy stance on refugees are complex and ramify out to include questions of church state relations, indigenous reconciliation and the atrophy of public debate on political issues. They will have to wait for another time. What I want to engage with in this column is the reality that I find myself called to live out my discipleship in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in the wider Australian community toward the stranger and the refugee.

I have been shocked at the depth of my own anger at the events that have unfolded over the past year and the cynical willingness of the government to demonise the stranger in the form of refugees for their own political ends. Overlaying this has been a deep frustration and helplessness that almost no one was speaking for me in the public realm. Their was no debate during the election. The two major parties were trying to out macho each other over border protection and were quick to silence dissident voices amongst their candidates.

While I know that many Christians do not share this interpretation of  what has happened, I am also aware of a significant number who share my state of mind. There is a significant issue of pastoral care and witness at stake here and I can only ask those for whom this is not an issue to stay and listen.

What resources do we have to live as disciples, to live humanly in a time of fear in our community and anger within ourselves? How can we avoid becoming conformed in our reaction to the violence which we are called as Christians to overcome? For many this has been a moment when the automatic and unquestioning identity between being a Christian and being an Australian has been jolted.  We have been made aware of the possibility that there might have to be a gap between the two identities if we are to be faithful to the Gospel.

What Isaiah has to say

Biblical reflection seems an appropriate first step. During the election campaign, in which the appeal to a variety of fears seemed to have become the staple fare of both major political parties, I found myself reading through the prophet Isaiah. The following passages from Isaiah 8 snagged my attention like a woolen jumper on an obtruding nail.

Do not call conspiracy
All that these people call conspiracy;
Do not fear what they fear,
do not be afraid of them.
It is Yahweh Sabaoth,
 you must hold in veneration,
him you must fear,
him you must dread.
I bind up this testimony,
I seal this revelation,
In the heart of my disciples.
I wait for Yahweh
Who hides his face from the House of Jacob;

in him I hope

Distressed and starving he will wander through the country
and, starving, he will become frenzied,
Blaspheming his king and his God
Turning his gaze upward,
then down to the earth,
He will find only distress and darkness,
the blackness of anguish,
and will see nothing but night.
Is not all blackness where anguish is.

There is a passion in the prophet’s message which makes most of the preaching in our churches sound anaemic. The recovery of such passion and an honesty about our emotions and the violence within us and around us is an important step within the Christian community if we are to overcome violence.

The passage quoted above from Isaiah though it is honest and unsparing in its account of the darkness of the prophet’s time offer us some clues about the virtues and spirituality that we need to embody if we are to be faithful to God’s calling.


The prophet calls us to truthfulness. We need to find the words to truly describe what is happening, which is to say that we need to learn how to speak truthfully.  do not call conspiracy all that they call conspiracy… For the prophet to speak truthfully is to draw out clearly the dimensions of the tragedy while opening himself to the reality of the pain of those who are entangled in lies. The virtue of truthfulness will be as much a public and political activity as it is a spiritual discipline. It requires us in this context to research the reality of refugee policy and the experiences of those who have been refugees and not accept without question the official definitions and language.

That will be hard enough. But Isaiah pushes us further. We need to learn how to fear appropriately, that is we need to learn how to fear rightly. In our case we need to learn not to fear the stranger and the refugee but to fear God. The God that we are called to fear is not the god of violence and destruction but the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We are to fear the God who comes to us in the form of the servant and the powerless.


We will also need to learn how to wait, how to be patient. Isaiah announces that he will wait for the right time for his message and for God’s action. The prophet is committed to a patience and a waiting in which he shares the pain and the darkness of his community.  The prophet speaks not from a position of moral superiority and distance but as someone who allows the darkness to reverberate within his own being.  The kind of patience Isaiah is called to has its analogue in the New Testament embedded in the Lord’s prayer.

Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in their wonderful account of the Christian life Lord Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life (Abingdon, 1996) highlight the importance of patience.

We have just prayed ‘your kingdom come”, a petition full of hope. Now we are taught to say “your will be done” a petition for patience…. Indeed our hopes as Christians can make us dangerous if they are not schooled by patience. Without patience we are tempted to storm the walls of injustice, destroying our enemy and thus betraying God’s way of forgiveness. Instead we are called to be a patient people schooled as we are by the patience of our crucified God so that the world might know that love not violence rules this world. God’s way of dealing with us and our evil is called the cross, the unlimited suffering patience of God. We are called to take up our cross and follow God’s patience. (p.65)

The patience that is called for here in the Lord’s prayer has nothing to do with passivity. It is an active waiting which is expressed in service. For my wife and myself that active waiting has taken the form of joining a local community refugee support group. The group has no formal church connections but the vast majority of the members are active in a number of local Catholic and Anglican parishes.

While the group works with the immigration authorities in the resettlement of refugees under the humanitarian resettlement program it has also committed itself to providing active support for refugees with Temporary Protection visas: that is to say refugees who have arrived in Australia and whose claim on arrival to refugee status has been accepted by the government, but who receive little assistance from the government to access their entitlements.

Christmas Eve found me as part of a group of over a dozen people helping shift furniture into a flat for an Afghani refugee family on a temporary protection visa, and in the process committing myself in a small way to learning the patience called for in the Lord’s prayer and something of the truth of the refugee’s experience. The first English words learnt by their two year old daughter after 11 months in Port Headland detention camp were ‘Hullo officer.’ That says a lot. As we manoeuvred the furniture up the stairs it occurred to me what a highly appropriate way it was to commence my Christmas celebration.

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