A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference headlined by Miroslav Volf.
The man is extraordinary.
It’s not only his piercing insight and profound wisdom, but also the way he models the message that’s so impressive. The conference, in particular, was about public faith, and I have never before seen someone so fully articulate and embody the art of speaking in an ‘authentic voice’ from a faith perspective in the public domain.
Professor Volf is, I believe, one of the most important theologians of our time. His book Exclusion & Embrace, I would argue, is possibly the most important theological work in the past 100 years.
I don’t say that lightly.
In that book, Volf outlines a profound vision for true reconciliation, which he pictures as ‘embrace’. I want to pick up on just a couple of aspects of that vision in this post and the next, specifically in regards to how it might be useful for Australian Christians—and, indeed, Australians in general—when thinking about the political process and specific public policy.
In this first post, I want to focus specifically on Volf’s articulation of the will to embrace, and to think about what it could look like in regards to Australian policy towards asylum seekers.
In Exclusion & Embrace, Volf suggests that:
The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. (p. 29)
This is, no doubt, a challenging thought.
For Christians, however, I can’t see any way in which we can get around the idea. The essential core of Christian belief is that this is precisely what God has done, and indeed is central to who God is. The Christian God, as demonstrated most fully in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, is a self-giving God who always makes the first move towards reconciliation. It is God who makes space in God-self for humanity, long before humanity makes room for God. It is God who extends an eternal ‘welcome’ to broken humanity as a prior act to any movement of humanity towards God.
As such, if Christians are to make the claim that they are truly following the God of Jesus, this must be a central element.
For Australian Christians, then, the question needs to be asked what this might look like in regards to issues like policy towards asylum seekers.
Asylum seeker policy in Australia is a complex, disputed area. Both major parties seem to have concluded (admittedly rightly) that the majority of the Australian public are willing to allow—and even to vote for—harsh, punitive measures designed to ‘deter’ asylum seekers coming to Australia.* As I’ve previously argued, Australian political leaders have even callously co-opted the language of compassion, arguing that ‘stopping the boats’ is the truly compassionate response as it stops people dying at sea on the dangerous journey. It is conveniently ignored, however, that our policy measures do nothing at all in regards to dealing with the ‘push’ factors, which see many people without any other viable option but to flee their countries of origin. Current Australian policy simply pushes the ‘problem’ out of sight, out of mind, and cares not whether these vulnerable human beings die somewhere else, as long as they do so quietly, or at least out of our view.
I want to ask the question, then, as to whether or not this view is compatible in any way with a Christian understanding of the world. The issues are complex, to be sure, but I believe the question needs to be asked whether ‘deterrence’ measures, on their own, have any redemptive qualities whatsoever.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am not convinced that it is possible for a Christian truly to support a policy of ‘deterrence’ alone—without a significant level of cognitive dissonance, at any rate.
Some may argue that this is precisely why ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ should be kept separate (in the interests of keeping religious belief from meddling in ‘necessary’ policy measures). I would suggest, however, that it is not possible for a Christian to approach the political process in any other way than as who they truly are (in precisely the same way as any other person—religious or otherwise—approaches the whole of their life from a certain philosophical frame of reference, whether they are conscious of it or not). The focus should not be the impossible task of trying to divorce one’s ‘religious’ outlook from their political decision-making, but rather to learn to speak in one’s own voice in the task of working towards true and full human flourishing in the context of multiple other voices (with each having the same right to speak into the public space and truly to be heard).
For Christians, then, as Volf notes:
A genuinely Christian reflection on social issues must be rooted in the self-giving love of the divine Trinity as manifested on the cross of Christ. (p. 25)
As such, there is no (authentic) way that I can see of escaping from a theology of embrace—even when it comes to such tricky issues as asylum seeker policy. Whatever specific policy measures Australian Christians decide to support in regards to asylum seekers, this point simply cannot be ignored.
Once asylum seekers are recognised as human,** Australian Christians have no other choice but to ‘welcome’ them, and “to readjust our identities to make space for them”. This is necessarily prior to any form of judgment, whether it be in regards to reasons why someone is seeking asylum in the first place, or in regards to certain social or cultural issues which could be viewed as ‘threatening’.
But this is not the end of the story.
Some may be convinced, at this point, that I am arguing for a naïve policy of ‘open borders’. While it is true that I have significant problems with the idea of hard nationalistic boundaries (in light of the Gospel message that seems to subordinate ‘identity markers’ of every kind to the idea of the fullness of humanity made ‘in the image of God’), I am not arguing here for Australia simply to accept any arrivals uncritically.
As Volf notes, though the will to embrace is necessarily prior to everything else, the fullness of embrace is a little more complex. The will to embrace is unconditional; the embrace itself (full reconciliation) is conditional on truth and justice (p. 29).
As such, I believe that there does need to be some clear process of determining the refugee status of asylum seekers, as well as measures to ensure the health and security both of asylum seekers themselves, and of the Australian public. In addition to this, a certain consistency is necessary in regards to responding to asylum seekers and other displaced peoples around the world, not just those who are able to make it Australian territory for the processing of their claim.
For what it’s worth, this is why I personally back increasing funding to UNHCR facilities throughout our region, which would help create some sense of order and the possibility of a safe pathway for asylum seekers to attain refugee status in a reasonable timeframe, and for claims for asylum to be reasonably (and impartially) assessed. I also argue, in the interests of justice, for Australia to increase its asylum seeker intake, both from our region and from refugee camps around the world, to ensure that asylum seekers can see that there are other viable (and much safer) options than getting on a leaky boat and setting out on the perilous journey to Australia. Finally, it’s why I also back a limit of 1 month for reasonable on-shore detention of irregular maritime arrivals who do make it to Australian territory (to determine security and health status), before being released into the community while their request for asylum is processed.**
The specific policy measures are not so much the point, however, as the framework that underpins it. That framework, I have suggested, must include the will to embrace as an essential initial step, and then a pathway of truth and justice towards the fullness of embrace. None of these steps may be ignored.
In Volf’s words:
There can be no justice without the will to embrace. It is, however, equally true that there can be no genuine and lasting embrace without justice. (p. 216)
In summary, then, I would suggest that, for Australian Christians, the constant and necessary stance towards asylum seekers must always begin with the will to embrace. This sort of ‘welcome’ is precisely the sort of thing that is embodied so well by Welcome to Australia. This initial stance doesn’t deny the necessity for truth and justice to follow, however it always precedes them.
The fullness of embrace, however, follows the necessary process of truth and justice. There does need to be ‘right judgement’ in regards to the determining of refugee status. Once that process is completed, the fullness of embrace is made possible (and, perhaps, required).
This, I would argue, must be the necessary basis for Christian reflection on asylum seeker policy in Australia. Whatever the final form of the policy measures might look like, this framework is non-negotiable. If Christians in Australia implemented such a framework, it is my belief that public discourse concerning asylum seekers would be changed dramatically. Australian Christians, by embodying these principles, could substantially alter the sickening course of asylum seeker policy in this country.
But I don’t think the framework is only applicable for Christians.
The framework itself is rooted in what it means to be human. Human flourishing is best and most fully achieved in healthy relationship with the other, rather than the fragmentation of society, the enforcement of arbitrary markers of exclusive group identity, and the victory of self-interest above everything else.
As Volf notes:
We are who we are not because we are separate from the others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges. (p. 66)
There is not only the possibility of humans finding the fullness of their own identity in the other, indeed the fullness of one’s own identity can only be found in the self-giving (and other-receiving) of relationality. It is worth noting that this fullness is not found in the erasing of all difference (and the assimilation of all into a faceless nothing), but rather in the receiving of the (distinct) other in embrace, and the growth that comes from making room in oneself for the other, and vice versa.
It is my belief that Volf’s articulation of this framework could lie at the heart of significant reform of asylum seeker policy in Australia and the tone of discussion about these issues, and that the framework is workable for Christians and non-Christians alike. It is my prayer that this would be so.
* It’s worth noting that this is not some passive recognition of the mood of the Australian public. I would argue that there has been a deliberate attempt by Australian political leaders to manipulate precisely this situation.
** This sounds like a silly point, but the deliberate dehumanisation of asylum seekers has reached extraordinary levels. This is precisely why, I would argue, the majority of Australians currently support not only harsh policy measures towards asylum seekers, but many are in favour of even harsher measures(!).
*** I can’t understand, though, why it is seemingly only those who arrive by boat who need to be ‘locked up’, rather than the tens of thousands of visa over-stayers each year (who usually arrive by plane). I would suggest that it is largely an issue of blatant racism, but I’m not sure that it would be helpful for the discussion at this point.