Australia21 is in the business of researching the public policy settings that would help to make the world a better place. So it’s timely to offer a few observations, in a week when the 61 percent of Australians who identified as Christian at the last census should have just renewed their faith.
For many Australians, the focus was on making the most of an unusually long weekend, free of work responsibilities – and free of religious obligation. Peter Broelman’s iconic cartoon from several years ago illustrates the point.
But Christianity has at its centre the story of Jesus being persecuted, suffering, making the ultimate self-sacrifice and being given a new life. Most Christians (though not followers of the Eastern Orthodox Church) believe the Last Supper, held the night before Jesus was tortured and executed, was a celebration of the Jewish passover that commemorates the liberation from slavery in Egypt and the exodus to freedom under the leadership of Moses (a story also told in the Qur’an and central to Islamic faith). Both offer messages of hope for oppressed people.
The parallels with modern refugee stories are obvious. They bring to mind the stream of nativity memes that hit social media platforms around Christmas time, in case anyone has missed the point (see right, and below for more).
A conservative-progressive paradox highlighted by rallies for refugees
So it’s not surprising that Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Holy Week that leads up to Easter, has become a day marked by rallies for refugees.
Christians and non-Christians concerned about social justice protested again this year, in cities and towns around Australia. Among them were members of many secular community organisations, including the Refugee Action Coalition, Mums 4 Refugees, Doctors for Refugees and various trade unions.
In Sydney, the opening speech was given by Samuel Pho, who came to Australia as a Vietnamese ‘boat person’ and is now the National Secretary of the Salvation Army. Other speakers included Dr Sue Wareham from the Medical Association for Prevention of War and Joumana Harris who is President of the Muslim Women’s Association.
‘The nation has become more secular than it has ever been, though church attendance on special occasions like Easter – close to four million people, according to one analysis – shows that Christian roots in the community should not be underestimated. That makes Easter an appropriate time for a stocktake of Christian political participation just as the political year gets seriously under way at budget time. The first thing that must never be forgotten about Christianity in Australia is that it is amazingly diverse. No one can ever claim to speak on its behalf.’
Warhurst noted the paradox often confronting Christians themselves.
‘No church or faith-based organisation is… wholly conservative or progressive but can hold varying positions across issues and policies, a picture which is often at odds with media representations and the left-right adversarial games of the main political parties. It is rarely recognised that, outside sexual-morality conservatism, the Christian churches are often more progressive than society at large.’
Warhurst pointed out that Christian advocacy is often falsely presumed to be predominantly right-wing because prime ministers and premiers are more likely to engage with the conservative, faith-based figures, particularly those from the evangelical Australian Christian Lobby and Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which have been at the forefront of the fight against same-sex marriage. But he noted those conservatives do not hold all the power.
Manus Island violence prompts further calls for change
Just days later, on Good Friday, Christians were prompted to speak out when drunk local defence personnel went on a rampage and fired shots at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, in the latest violence to rock the scandal-hit facility.
The news drew further criticism of Australian policy from activist groups, including the Australian Churches’ Refugee Taskforce. The taskforce has worked collaboratively with other agencies across Australia for four years to call for the closure of offshore detention and promote a shared vision of compassion and hospitality for asylum seekers and refugees.
The taskforce appealed to the federal government to evacuate the camp.
‘The Australian Refugee Churches Taskforce calls on the Government this Easter, to act with compassion. To lift the veil of re-traumatisation and fear for refugees and asylum seekers, and to evacuate the camps on Manus and Nauru.’
Taskforce Chair, the Very Rev’d Dr Peter Catt: ‘The darkness of betrayal and abandonment that we are familiar with, in the Jesus story, is being felt keenly by those on Manus Island this weekend… Even if the arrangement with the United States continues, we must act to create safety and security for those who have languished in offshore detention for too long. By bringing people to Australia, the US deal may continue. More importantly, the healing of those who have been damaged by our nation’s policy can begin.’
Stuart McMillan President of Uniting Church in Australia: ‘Easter is a time for new beginnings… It is also an opportunity for our nation to compassionately reframe and renew policy approaches for those in need.’
On the other side of the world, the Roman Catholic Leader, Pope Francis, prayed for forgiveness for human wrongdoings.
‘Shame for our silence before injustices; for our hands that have been lazy in giving and greedy in grabbing and conquering; for the shrill voices we use to defend our own interests and the timid ones we use to speak out for others.’
Then, in his Easter vigil homily, Pope Francis appealed to Catholics to care about ‘those who are greeted with contempt because they are immigrants, deprived of country, house and family.’
Politics at odds with evidence-based policy
Concerns over Australia’s treatment of people who are branded ‘illegal immigrants’ – even before their refugee claims have been properly considered – are not new.
Australia21’s 2013 essay collection Refugees and asylum seekers: Finding a better way showed a striking uniformity in the view that Australian policies were inhumane, uneconomic and unjustified in terms of international, national and societal obligations.
People who had been actively engaged in various aspects of asylum-seeker policy were invited to take a fresh look at the dilemma in its global, regional and national contexts, suggesting practical ways in which the Australian community might respond. Contributions were sought from a wide range of Australians – legal experts, former public servants and advisers, international and local agency representatives, ethicists, church representatives, academics and researchers, concerned members of the public, and refugees.
The editors acknowledged there was no simple solution for dealing with the ongoing problem, but noted Australia’s major political parties had been engaged in a ‘race to the bottom’ in their determination to deter asylum seekers from paying people smugglers, to take the risk of crossing the seas in leaky boats.
‘In soliciting these contributions, Australia21 did not prescribe any particular opinion or critique. However it is striking that not one of the contributors expresses support for either the Labor or the Coalition Government’s position on and treatment of asylum seekers or their response to and representation of the problem of asylum-seeking boat arrivals. Instead there is a striking uniformity of view that current policies are inhumane, uneconomic and unjustified in terms of international, national and societal obligations, and that core values of fairness and compassion have been sacrificed for political expediency. In the process there has been a demonisation of asylum seekers arriving by boat as opportunistic queue jumpers.’
That was our observation in 2013. Yet Australia is still arguing over the same definitions and issues.
The Trump administration divides American Christians
Australia21 understands there can be sharply differing views on what settings would make the world a better place. This is true not just in Australia, but around the world. It’s a point that the election of Donald Trump to the powerful position of President of the United States of America has brought home globally.
In the USA itself, the Trump administration has caused disquiet even among conservative Christian communities.
While most white Christians voted for Trump, some who have spoken out against his presidency or his policies have faced a backlash. One recent news story noted various cases of people working in Christian ministry, music, and nonprofit advocacy being pressured by their employers, seeing funds withdrawn from their mission work, or losing performing gigs because of their political beliefs.
In the run up to last year’s election Ryan ‘endorsed’ Trump, but wouldn’t campaign with him or publicly support him. After Trump was elected President, the two were allied in the unsuccessful bid to repeal and replace the Affordable (health) Care Act.
Kristoff crafted a tongue-in-cheek account of Ryan lecturing Jesus about the need for tough love. This is how it starts:
A woman who had been bleeding for 12 years came up behind Jesus and touched his clothes in hope of a cure. Jesus turned to her and said: “Fear not. Because of your faith, you are now healed.” Then spoke Pious Paul of Ryan: “But teacher, is that wise? When you cure her, she learns dependency. Then the poor won’t take care of themselves, knowing that you’ll always bail them out! You must teach them personal responsibility!”