I had the opportunity recently to see the documentary “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” http://deepblueseafilm.com on its recent National Tour. I found viewing it a confronting experience, with its interviews with asylum seekers in Indonesia, because I had to watch the faces and listen to the voices of real people, whose fate I was to learn at the end of the documentary. At the end of the documentary I wandered out into the sunshine, wiping the moisture from my eyes reflecting on the meaning and moral significance of the term “border protection” in current political debate. Why aren’t we concerned with protecting people rather than borders? Why do “borders” need “protecting” anyway?
There is I know a verbal ambiguity in the phrase “border protection”. In current political rhetoric it carries the connotation that borders protect us, the citizens of Australia, though exactly what we are being protected from is never made explicit. The phrasing suggests that if borders are crossed by people without our prior permission, the border is therefore violated, and we as Australian citizens are vulnerable to some unspecified threat. What damage is done, or threatened by the crossing of the border is never clearly explained, merely hinted at.
This ambiguity in the usage of the term “border protection” has a whiff of the sacred surrounding the phrase. The “border” offers “protection” and at the same time must not be violated and therefore stands in need of protection. The ambiguity is consistent with the attachment of a sacral character. You can’t define the sacred or it will no longer be sacred and lose its power. How are then to ‘protect’ the “border’, and at the same time ourselves?
Lo we have solved the problem, and protected the sacredness of the border from profanation by redefining what counts as the border of Australia for certain categories of persons, specifically those seeking asylum. It has been decreed by the passing of a law that the borders for certain purposes cannot be crossed by asylum seekers, because the map has been drawn to exclude Australia from having a border that asylum seekers could cross, while at the same time the border for all other purposes remains in existence, and is therefore “protected”. Ye verily this is as great a magic as ever has been exercised by the wizards, the defenders of the sacred character of the state, known as lawyers. The border is protected and its sacred character is saved from profanation by those who might seek to cross it in search of asylum from persecution.
Borders are clearly of human invention, though attracting the character of the sacred in political rhetoric, and media commentary. They are without feelings, passions and bodies. Asylum seekers on the other hand are of flesh and blood, capable of being killed, tortured, starved, made to feel fear and pressed to act against conscience with respect to matters of political belief, faith commitment and practice.
Why do we wish to “protect” borders, or be protected by borders, which are when stripped of their sacral character simply legal creations set up to assist human flourishing and well being at the expense of causing suffering to actual human beings by not welcoming those in search of freedom from persecution?
Christians and church communities need to answer this question with reference to the life and teaching of Jesus if they wish to give substance to their identification as his followers.
Who or what would Jesus “protect”? A reading of the Gospels with an eye for this theme makes it abundantly clear that Jesus did not have much time for ‘borders’ whether they were of geographical, legal, or religious character where they were inimical to human well being and healing. Jesus had much to say, of a critical character about the privileging of laws at the expense of human beings under the cover of religion. The Sabbath he observed was made for humanity not humanity for the Sabbath. He commented pungently on the use of legal definitions by the well off to enable them to reinforce that privilege and he regularly transgressed the borders that that were used to keep society “safe” from “dangerous” and “different” people.
For Christians to take a stand on this issue will probably result in our coming put into conflict with a majority of Australians for whom the sacredness of borders overrides other moral claims that arise for Christians from their commitment to following Jesus. The call to discipleship means that we cannot get out of difficult situations by ignoring his teaching.
There is another consideration here that reinforces the point I am trying to make that can be expressed in terms of the primary identity for Christians that arises from their baptism. Baptism inducts us into a community broader than the nation state. The borders of the community into which we enter through baptism are not coterminous with those however legally defined and manipulated of the Australian state. Immigration and refugees admit of no policy package that will solve the problem. The issues are structural and rooted deeply in the dynamics of global capitalism and the exercise of neo-imperial power by a range of nations.
The Christian church has little choice, I would argue, as to what its priority should be if it is to take its transnational character and the expansion of its borders through baptism seriously. People need protection not borders. Baptism, properly understood is a subversion of the borders of the nation state. Christians should be prepared to live out that subversion in refusing to acknowledge the claim to the sacredness of borders at the cost of the lives and wellbeing of flesh and blood people. People need protection, not borders.
PS. My thanks to Jessie Taylor, those responsible for the documentary particularly the asylum seekers who shared their stories and to Michael Budde for his collection of essays reflecting theologically on the Christian Church and globalisation, The Borders of Baptism: Identities, Allegiance and the Church (Cascade Books, 2011).