Border worship has produced an inhumane people trade

‘Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’ (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Australian Christians across denominational boundaries (and many others) are grieving the loss of a moral heart in our country. I have heard expressions of disillusionment, sadness, and shame. Many are angry and may well be inclined to join the ancient chorus shouting “Amen” to the curse on those who would deny justice to vulnerable people.

Under the cover of one of the most aggressive ‘on message’ slogans Australian politics has seen—“smashing the people smugglers’ business model” (a shockingly crass economically utilitarian alternative to “stop the boats”)—the Gillard Government has brought us to a new and shameful low, for on Monday 25 July 2011 it became official – Australia now trades in people.

We have used ‘an ends justifies the means’ ethic to justifying a people ‘swap’. There are, unfortunately, numerous examples in Australia’s history of our governments mistreating people, ignoring or abusing people’s human rights and stripping already vulnerable people of their dignity. But the deal with Malaysia commodifies people in a way many of us could not have previously imagined.

The Government responds harshly and defensively to this criticism that they are trading people or treating people like commodities. The Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister are desperate for us to believe that taking 1000 refugees a year for four years from Malaysia, more than balances out those 800 we will send (and more in the future – already we are hearing the language ‘pilot program’). They talk up all the safeguards that have been built into the arrangement for our asylum seekers. Many times already we have heard that this deal could be the start of a conversation that may see Malaysia increasingly more committed to the international human rights regime.

The Government is most desperate however, for us to believe that the motivation for this ‘people swap’ is to keep people safe from the smugglers. Of course Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen were horrified and appalled by the loss of life on Christmas Island last year. It is hard, however, to ignore what lies just beneath the surface of their public comments – that this action will serve to redirect the response of the more compassionate Australians in their favour, and thus serve as cover for the base political motivation of one of Australia’s darkest moments.

Here is some of what we know:

  • People put their lives in the hand of people smugglers out of a desperation that most of us who live so comfortably in Australia can barely imagine, let alone understand.
  • People smugglers do take advantage of vulnerable people and people end up dying in tragic circumstances.
  • Australians do not want people to die at sea.
  • The Government has taken a political beating over asylum seekers who arrive by boat and they believe they have to neutralise it by beating the Opposition at its own game.
  • The Gillard Government has made a deal with a country which has an appalling human rights record in order to steralise a weeping political sore.
  • Too many Australians would much rather believe that there is an orderly queue of well-behaved refugees out there somewhere, than have to imagine the brutality, poverty and chaos that millions of others have experience every day.

Whatever special treatment it has managed to secure for our 800 asylum seekers and despite all the Malaysian Government’s guarantees, at the end of the day, the Australian Government (supported by what I can only imagine is a beyond desperate UNHCR in Malaysia) has decided to engage in people trading for base political gain.

Well, the end does not justify the means. Not for nothing have many people been comparing this deal with the issue of our ‘Australian’ cattle being sent to brutal deaths in Indonesia. Treating 800 people like they are ‘ours’ to ship to a better behaving Malaysia, is not a decent or humane act and is not justification for the potential of better behaviour in future.

In the online magazine, Eureka Street, in July, Frank Brennan wrote, “Why would a church group publicly endorse something it knew to be either unworkable or immoral?”. He also recommended that once the deal was done, “church groups or agencies as ever should work hard and pragmatically to make it work as best it can, minimising the adverse impacts on the most vulnerable including unaccompanied minors”. Of course those of us who can, will. But the churches must not keep silent about a policy and a deal between two nations that required the abandonment of our leaders’ moral compasses.

In the face of a few thousand desperate people turning up on our doorstep uninvited, we are the ones lost in a sea of political expediencies, failed responsibilities and moral impoverishment.

I believe that Julia Gillard, Chris Bowen and every member of Cabinet who gave their assent to proceed with this ‘solution’, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and every member of federal parliamentary Liberal Party who indulged in the xenophobic dog-whistling of “stop the boats”, have now stripped themselves of any right they thought they previously had to refer to the importance of ‘basic Christian values’ in their upbringing or in their current world view.

Christianity must always own its history and continuing involvement in the slave trade, in apartheid, colonialism, oppressive imperialism and too many other acts of brutality on populations and individuals. These are expressions of a faith that has lost its way many times and whose followers must always remain vigilant to the evil that lies within us. But at the heart of Christianity lies God’s love for the creation and God’s call on the faithful to demonstrate that love with acts of compassion, generosity and hospitality. This call demands that we bestow on others the dignity which is inherent in everyone’s being as beloved children of the Creator. God’s will for the world is for justice, peace and reconciliation for all and for everything, and we have been invited to be God’s partners in this mission.

Those of us who claim to motivated by such values, by the Judeo-Christian tradition which places such central value on the practice of hospitality to the stranger in need, and by the Christian story of the man who ate with the outcasts, even if we do not claim the faith itself, cannot engage in acts that strip away people’s dignity, deny their agency and dehumanise their very being, and continue to make those claims with any integrity.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets speak many times of God’s self-identification as the one who cares for the exiled and the stranger and the one who calls the Hebrews to a continual remembering of their own slavery and exile.

Christian faith teaches that each of us, created in the image of God (however we understand it) is precious and valued by God. Our responsibility as human beings is to recognise this in each other. Christian faith also teaches that those who have much in this life have a special responsibility towards those who suffer poverty, violence, illness, oppression and dispossession and who hunger and thirst (for justice and for sustenance).

These responsibilities are antithetical to punishing one group of vulnerable people to send a message to another group. They are antithetical to turning people in need away from our door because it is not convenient for us. They are antithetical to judging those who would take desperate risks to find safety and security. They are antithetical to shifting our burden on to others. They are antithetical to making deals to trade people, whether they are citizens or not.

Christians believe that we are made to be in healthy, vibrant, robust, grace-filled, forgiving, hope-full relationships with each other. When these relationships break down we have a responsibility to work for justice and peace that they may be restored. A broken world is not made better by further breaking.

As many others have written over the last few weeks, we are certainly failing to meet our international obligations under the spirit and the terms of the Refugees Convention and we are failing to meet our obligations as one of the wealthiest, most secure, democratic countries in the world. We have a tiny, tiny problem by world standards and we keep coming up with new and increasingly morally regressive deals with our less secure, less democratic and more impoverished neighbours to take that small burden from us.

Asylum seekers didn’t create a problem for us, we manufactured our own problem. The people with the problem are in fact the very asylum seekers who have had to flee their homelands in fear for their lives.

Daniel L. Smith Christopher is a Quaker theologian in the United States. His latest book is titled Jonah, Jesus and Other Good Coyotes. He is writing from Southern California and the ‘coyote’ in the title refers to those who smuggle people across the US-Mexican border. He has come to the conclusion that we have turned borders, especially national borders, but all the borders that separate us from each other, into idols – objects of false worship.

While Australia’s situation is quite different to that of the US-Mexican border, there can be no doubt that our ‘border’ has become an idol. We spend billions protecting it from the threat of invasion (although we’re not sure who would be interested in invading us right now) and from those who are not invited (even though we know they pose no threat and are only asking for help). We watch reality television shows about the protection of our border – for excitement and assurance; we watch television dramas set on the boats that patrol our island’s coastlines to keep us all safe. Our border is a sacred place that must be protected from incursion.

Smith-Christopher writes that because Christians are called to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation, they are therefore called to violate those borders we have constructed which serve to keep us at odds with each other. He challenges us to follow in the footsteps of the Bible’s good coyotes – Jonah, Ruth, Jesus and others – who challenged and crossed the borders that had become excuses for prejudice and violence and which kept people from the exchange of the gift of God’s love.

Many Christians and non-Christians alike have written about the loss of compassion in the heat of the debate about asylum seekers. They are often derided in the scary stream of comments on blogs and opinion pieces as do-gooders, bleeding-heart lefties who have the luxury of not having to make hard decisions, who over-simplifying and exaggerate. These would be the polite responses.

I can only hope that I deserve to be called a ‘do-gooder’ because as a Christian, it is exactly who I am called to be. I dream that every Sunday churches all over Australia are sending forth thousands upon thousands of ‘do-gooders’ in our society. As for the charge of being a ‘lefty’, it is a reflection of the sad and impoverished state of public political debate in this country that ‘doing good’, believing in compassion, seeking public policy that causes no harm and holding a commitment to human rights or the environment are commitments which have become so readily politicised. It is true I don’t have to make hard decisions on behalf of the country, but God help me if I was ever to believe that the dehumanising trading of people was ever an acceptable option.

An edited version of this article was first published in ABC Religion & Ethics Online, 27 July 2011.