Yesterday (Friday, March 21, 2014), a couple of my good friends were arrested in (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) Scott Morrison’s electoral office.
As people of deep Christian faith, they held a prayer vigil in Mr Morrison’s office (as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience), praying for asylum seekers (and asylum seeker policy), and for Scott Morrison personally. When asked to leave, a number of them (peacefully and politely) refused and were subsequently removed by police officers. You can read about the action in this SBS article, or in this article from the Bible Society. Greg Lake (former Australian Immigration Officer and whistleblower) wrote an excellent blog post about the action that you can find here.
I wonder how you feel about it all.
I make no claim to speak on behalf of the group—I was not involved in the action on the day, and have not been appointed as spokesperson—but I wanted to offer a couple of reflections on what happened on Friday.
Firstly, I’ve noticed a little bit of commentary emerging asking the question as to why these protesters popped up now and not while Labor was in government.
The truth is that they didn’t just ‘pop up out of nowhere’; they’ve just not gained as much attention until now.
I know a number of people in the group very well, and I know for certain both that they opposed Labor’s harsh policy measures towards asylum seekers while Labor was in government, and that the plans for nonviolent direct action began well before the 2013 federal election. In regards to the first point, these people have been perfectly consistent in opposing bad asylum seeker policy from both major parties. They do not have a chip on their shoulder against the Coalition specifically (or Mr Abbott or Mr Morrison personally), but have consistently opposed dehumanising policy no matter from where it emerges. In regards to the second point, I know that planning for nonviolent direct action on this issue was in process well before the election because I was personally present at meetings where it was discussed. (As just one example, a group of us ran an information evening [‘From Despair to Action’] at Paddington Uniting Church in April, 2013, discussing many possible responses to attempt to fight against the ever-growing despair about asylum seeker policy, including a discussion of NVDA possibilities.) Though it could very well be argued that asylum seeker policy has hit its lowest point ever as a result of the 2013 election, it has been suggested that nonviolent direct action on this issue has been justifiable for quite some time now.
The line being run here (that they must be partisan hacks who fail all measures of consistency) is simply not true.
Secondly, I wanted to note that the action, at its core, was intended to be redemptive.
The action, from the outset, was specifically (and stringently) nonviolent , and the pray-ers/protesters were not only praying for vulnerable people caught in these harsh policy measures, but they also prayed for Scott Morrison himself. This was not done in a condemning or judgmental way, but as Christians praying for one of their elected leaders as well as praying for the redemption of their brother. Scott Morrison has consistently spoken of his Christian faith (including in an extraordinary maiden speech in parliament), and these pray-ers were praying for him too. The dehumanisation of others has the effect of dehumanising us all, and Scott Morrison is directly responsible for the dehumanising policy on this issue. As I have previously suggested, nonviolent action in this area must include a redemptive focus on Scott Morrison himself, and this action certainly included that idea as a central element.
Thirdly (and finally), I wanted to speak about the ‘success’ (or otherwise) of the action.
It is too early to tell how ‘successful’ the action has been. There has already been a few predictably negative reactions, but I have been pleasantly surprised at some of the favourable endorsement/soft endorsement of the action.
In regards to any action regarding asylum seeker policy, I guess the true measure of ‘success’ is as to whether or not it changes things for the better for the people caught up in the harsh, dehumanising measures. (This must be the goal, rather than media attention for the sake of media attention—or, worse, for nothing more than the self-seeking promotion of people involved.)
This could either be direct change (as in, making life better for asylum seekers through direct contact and/or direct measures), or indirect change (through ‘changing the conversation’ or helping move attitudes towards a more compassionate place, which ultimately leads to better treatment of asylum seekers in a ‘direct’ sense).
Obviously, the aim of Friday’s action is the latter.
As I noted above, it’s too early to tell what the outcomes will be, but there are some good early indicators that it has been reasonably well received in many quarters. This was the first act of civil disobedience on asylum seeker policy in Australia in a long time, and it has made its point in a firm but gentle way. There was no violence. There were no angry people yelling and screaming. There was no personal condemnation of Scott Morrison. In addition to this, the people involved have been consistently seeking to keep attention very much on the issue, rather than themselves.
It’s also important to note that the strategy of nonviolent action is not to convince everyone of the position. The aim is to shine a light on an unjust situation (allowing people to see the crisis for what it is, perhaps for the first time) and, hopefully, to move people from where they are to being a little bit closer to a more just position. Some people will never be convinced but, again hopefully, the majority of people of good will can recognise injustice when it is in front of them and adjust their own position, perhaps only slightly, to a more compassionate one.
Single actions on their own cannot really do this is full, but many small actions might, over time, work towards achieving this goal.
The action may have ‘succeeded’, then, at one level, simply by making space for many conversations this week about how best to resist the evil that is our current asylum seeker policy while not dehumanising those responsible for the (dehumanising) policy. There are moral and strategic questions that need to be discussed in order for change to happen, and at least some space for those conversations to happen has been created due to the action of those on Friday. Interestingly, there have been at least a few reasonably positive affirmations from people who have not previously been in the ‘NVDA camp’.
Finally, in regards to the issue of the ‘success’ of the action, I’m reminded by one of my mentors in the spirituality and practice of nonviolence that
We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.*
This in no way undercuts the fact that strategy and outcomes need to be very carefully considered, but it is good to hold the two in firm tension.
Perhaps this action has opened up (even in a small way) the possibility for more people to see that something must be done, that ‘regular’ people can do something, and that Christians (I believe) have a significant responsibility to stand alongside the vulnerable in our world. Perhaps it will ignite many more small movements towards shining a light on the current dehumanising policy and inspire creative acts of justice and human kindness towards vulnerable people. Perhaps these small movements, over time, can see policy change for the better.
This, at least, is my prayer.
If you have been inspired by this action and are wondering how you might get involved, I list just two of many opportunities here:
1) If you are interested in Christian nonviolent direct action, there is an opportunity on Easter Saturday (2014) to join with other Christians and people of goodwill for a peaceful prayer vigil outside Villawood Detention Centre (in Sydney), which will include an ‘act of prophetic witness’ which may include civil disobedience (though you certainly don’t need to be involved in the civil disobedience part to nevertheless join with the peaceful prayer vigil). You can find the details here. ***Update: Due to developments concerning the Villawood Detention Centre, it has been decided that this action will not go ahead as planned. Please see the link for more information.***
2) If you are interested in getting involved ‘directly’ with making life better for asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, see the wonderful work of Welcome to Australia. For churches, see the Welcome to My Place for Dinner website for how this might look for a church or for individual Christians during Refugee Week 2014.
* Often attributed to Mother Teresa.