Holy Saturday Vigil for Asylum Seekers – Love Makes a Way

On Holy Saturday of this year (April 19, 2014), more than 100 people came together for a peaceful, public, Christian prayer vigil for asylum seekers, outside (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) Scott Morrison’s office in Cronulla Mall.

The event—organised by a group called ‘Love Makes a Way‘—included elements of lament, confession, a statement of faith, readings from the scriptures, and prayer. Below is the text of the short sermon I delivered as part of the proceedings, reflecting on what it means to stand in solidarity with asylum seekers with a ‘Holy Saturday faith’.

Image sourced from the 'Love Makes a Way' public Facebook page.
Image sourced from the ‘Love Makes a Way’ public Facebook page.

That first Holy Saturday was a time of confusion and shattered hope. The disciples, having walked with Jesus for three years, had now seen their expectations—their dreams—come crashing down around them.

Would God—could God—still come through? Somehow? Some way?

This is what a spirituality of Holy Saturday looks like.

On Holy Saturday, there is nothing to do but wait. Holy Saturday is “…the day of waiting, without knowing what will come next.” It’s a time of waiting in patient hope for the miraculous in-breaking of God’s love and justice.

It’s when we sit—and wrestle— with unanswered, uncomfortable questions.

It’s a day when we allow ourselves to think about the situation of asylum seekers—trapped between death and life: between the death that forced them from their homes and the possibility of a new life; between the despair of a perilous journey on a leaky boat—surrounded by death on all sides—and the life that awaits them on the other side; between the hell of being indefinitely trapped in an off-shore detention centre and the possibility of life that comes with resettlement.

It’s a day for us to hear their voices; when we hear—and acknowledge—the fear, and the desperation, and the despair, and the confusion as to why they are being punished for committing no crime.

It’s a day when we ask why our political leaders seem so intent on dehumanising vulnerable people, and why we allow them to do it.

And we wait. And we pray.

But Holy Saturday is not a day when nothing is happening.

It’s the time when God takes into Godself the pain and the anger and the sadness and the violence and the godforsakenness of the world.

It’s the day when the Creator of all stands in full solidarity with broken humanity.

And so today we stand, with God, in full solidarity with asylum seekers; our brothers and sisters.

In the words of N.T. Wright, “Our part, then, is to keep Holy Saturday in faith and hope, grieving over the ruin of the world that sent Jesus to his death, trusting in the promises of God that new life will come in God’s way and in God’s time.”

Today we keep Holy Saturday in faith and hope, grieving over the ruin of a nation that sends asylum seekers away to Nauru and Manus Island, trusting in the promises of God that change can come in God’s way and in God’s time.

But in the present, there is something we can do.

We live in faith and in hope, but especially in love.

We must love. We must do love. We must be love. We must welcome the stranger. If ever there was a time for the Church in Australia to stand up and to embody an alternative, it’s now.

And we cannot fall into the trap of dehumanising those who dehumanise, for to do so is already to have lost.

Though we stand today in Holy Saturday, we look back to Good Friday and Jesus’ magnificent words on the cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Forgive us all, Father, for we do not know what we are doing!

We seek redemption, then, for all; for Scott Morrison (who is responsible for the current policy measures) and our other political leaders (of both sides—this is not a partisan issue!), as well as for asylum seekers…and for ourselves.

We seek to recover our own humanity, which is being marred in this process of dehumanising the other.

 

So we need to remind ourselves today that it’s ok to live in the tension, as we seek to be faithful as we wait for our faithful God to break-in to the current situation.

We can’t run ahead to Easter Sunday and the fullness of the resurrection, but rather we need to embrace what it means to live in the unresolved reality of Holy Saturday. Like the confused disciples running to the tomb of Jesus (but not yet having encountered the risen Lord) on that first Easter Sunday morning, we’re not quite sure what it all means, what God is up to.

But, as Christians, we do live on the other side of Easter Sunday. And so we allow ourselves a sliver of hope. We look back to the ways in which God has been faithful in history, and we dare to believe that somehow, some way, God will come through once more.

We urge ourselves to believe that, though it looks hopeless right now, it’s not the end of the story. We dare to believe that the broken rose can give bloom through the cracks of the concrete.

Help us, faithful Father, to wait for your victory, and in the meantime to serve you—and all those made in your image—in faith, hope, and love. Amen.

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There are a couple of direct quotes in this short sermon that I need to go back and reference correctly. I apologise for any unreferenced quotes in the meantime.

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Asylum Seeker Policy and Christian Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

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.

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* Often attributed to Mother Teresa.

The Nonviolence of the Strong: Responding to Scott Morrison

I have been genuinely struggling of late in regards to how to engage with (or respond to) Scott Morrison MP. For those who don’t know, Mr Morrison is the Liberal Party’s Federal Member for Cook, in Sydney’s South, and, with his party being elected to Government in September, is now Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

Mr Morrison also claims a strong Christian faith, which he has suggested plays an important role in every aspect of his life (including, obviously, his politics).

The basis of my struggle with Mr Morrison, in a nut shell, is because I think what he has done and continues to do in regards to asylum seeker policy (and public discourse on the matter) is evil (and, yes; I chose those words very carefully, in case you were wondering). It seems to me that he has deliberately been fostering an attitude that seeks to dehumanise those people who come to Australia by boat, and that this has been something of a central focus of his for some time now. I find his politics disgusting and, to be perfectly honest, it sickens me when he then claims a Christian faith.

I feel quite a bit of anger towards Mr Morrison. At some level, I want to make him feel what he makes other people feel (I recognise that I am not a recipient of Mr Morrison’s inhumane policy and rhetoric, though I feel that the humanity of us all is tarnished in the process of dehumanising asylum seekers). I want him to feel just some of the fear and trauma that his rhetoric and his harsh policies inflict on vulnerable people. But most of all, I feel quite a bit of resentment towards his church for staying silent on this issue and, therefore (as far as I am concerned), sharing in his evil works.

It’s at this point in my thinking that I am then gripped by the unmistakable rebuke of the Spirit.

I am still convinced that Mr Morrison’s actions are, in fact, evil. I am still convinced that we—that I—must respond (and this certainly includes his church!). But I am also convinced that the means by which we respond to Mr Morrison must be consistent with the message, for to buy in to the cycle of retribution and ungrace achieves nothing but the perpetuation of hate. As Gandhi noted, this sort of ‘eye for an eye’ mentality leaves the whole world blind.

I have been reading Walter Wink’s excellent short book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, and I’d like to reproduce here a rather lengthy quote which, I think, sums it all up perfectly (and which issues a hell of a challenge!):

Gandhi distinguished between the ‘nonviolence of the weak’, which uses harassment to break the opponent, and the ‘nonviolence of the strong’ (what he called ‘satyagraha’ or ‘truth force’), which seeks the opponent’s good by freeing him or her from oppressive actions.

[Martin Luther] King [Jr] so imbued this understanding of nonviolence into his followers that it became the ethos of the entire civil rights movement. One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of civil right struggle, the large crowd of black and white activists standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church was electrified by the sudden arrival of a black funeral home operator from Montgomery. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback, all escape barred, and cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. Our informant was the driver of one of those ambulances, and he had driven straight to Selma to tell us about it.

The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind us, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama State Troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” to which those who knew the song responded, “Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!” Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?”—the sheriff?! “Cer … certainly, Lord” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in, as surely as Amos’ in chapters 1 and 2: “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord!”

Rev. James Bevel then took the mic. We are not just fighting for our rights, he said, but for the good of the whole society. “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me Jim?—we want you converted. We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.”

Wink continues, a little further on:

King enabled his followers to see the white racist also as a victim of the Principalities and Powers, in this case the whole ethos of the Southern Way of Life. Southern racists also needed to be changed. This provided a space and grace for transformation. While much more remains to be done in [the United States of] America than any of us like to think, change has occurred, datable to events like these, when the tide of racial fury was channeled by the willingness of a few people to absorb its impact in their own bodies and to allow it to spread no farther.

I find these words incredibly challenging, but it doesn’t stop there. Quoting Narayan Desai, Wink affirms that

Nonviolence presupposes a level of humanness—however low it may be, in every human being.

I cannot fight against Scott Morrison’s dehumanisation of asylum seekers by dehumanising Scott Morrison. To do so is to fail from the outset. Instead, my concern for those who Mr Morrison is dehumanising needs to be coupled with a genuine desire to see Mr Morrison transformed by grace in the process.

It might help to conclude with one last quote from Walter Wink:

In the final analysis, then, love of enemies is trusting God for the miracle of divine forgiveness. If God can forgive, redeem, and transform me, I must also believe that God can work such wonders with anyone. Love of enemies is seeing…oppressors through the prism of the reign of God—not only as they now are but also as they can become: transformed by the power of God.

May it be so.