South Sydney Uniting Church #wecandobetter A service of hope and lament for people seeking asylum
Uniting Church members and friends gathered on 27 November at Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney for a Service of Lament and Hope for people seeking asylum. The texts for the service were Psalm 137 and Matthew 25:31-46. The service was part of the Church’s Give Hope Campaign. This is my sermon.
Pitt Street Uniting Church is on the land of Gadigal People of the Eora Nation.
Lament and hope. Grief and salvation.
Whose lives do we grieve? How can we be agents hope in a broken world?
For some years now, I have held that question, ‘Whose lives do we grieve?’ as I’ve sought to understand what justice means in the context of public policy in Australia. The question was posed by the great American philosopher Judith Butler in a brilliant essay on the post-September 11 world entitled ‘Violence, Mourning and Politics’, in her book Precarious Life. Butler reflects on grief and loss and explores what basis for community we might find in our ‘vulnerability to loss and the task of mourning that follows’.
In the violent context of today’s world, she asks who is that we mourn for and who don’t we mourn. She writes, “Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives?… what makes for a grievable life?”
Australia has a long history of marking certain groups of people out as not worth mourning. It started with invasion. The first peoples of this land were not regarded as human, in fact, they were deliberately written out of existence. And when that fiction was too difficult to maintain, laws were made that defined them as fauna.
In the late 1840s, the first indentured labourers and slaves were brought from islands in the Pacific to work on farms. Over the next few decades waves of people arrived, including from China drawn by the gold rush, cameleers from Afghanistan and pearlers from Japan and Malaysia. Then, at Federation, our new political leaders decided it was time to stop the threat that these ‘coloured’ people posed to the Australian way of life and to white people’s jobs. One of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, ‘the White Australia policy’.
This xenophobic and racist dehumanisation that began when the first Europeans stepped off their boats has been experienced by First Peoples and every successive wave of immigrants since then. My father arrived by boat in 1937 when he was 13. He went to school and was placed in kindergarten because he couldn’t speak English. He left school at 15. I can tell Senator Pauline Hanson that being called a ‘wog’ over and over was not “easy to get over” as she recently claimed, and it was just one of the daily forms of racism, exclusion and discrimination that so many people suffered. It wasn’t until the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s that the White Australia Policy was finally laid to rest. I was about 8 years old.
But decades later, there is still no communal lament for the many past and continuing sufferings of the First Peoples, and those who were sent here and forced here, and those who have come seeking our protection only to be jailed. The realities of their lives have been completely hidden or grotesquely twisted by those inclined to play to people’s fear, ignorance and misunderstanding for political gain. It is deeply ingrained in our history and our national identity that there have always been some lives worth mourning and some which are not.
But for Christians, every life is worth grieving, for all are made in the image of God and all are loved by God, without distinction.
And so it is that we have gathered here this afternoon to stand in solidarity with those who have fled situations of persecution and violence that most of us could barely imagine, those children of God whose lives our so many of our political leaders refuse to grieve.
We have come because we hear their cries for justice.
We have come because we hear their grief for loved ones lost to war.
We have come because we hear their lament for homes left behind and careers abandoned.
We have come because we hear the weeping of hope long lost.
And we have also come to share our own grief at the damage that has been deliberately inflicted upon people who have done nothing more than seek our protection, for the harm and abuse perpetrated in our name and on our behalf. We lament the hardened hearts of so many of our politicians, the cruelty of so much of our media and the fear and ignorance in our communities that grows with every lie that’s told.
“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”
Psalm 137 is a lament from exile on the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire. Walter Brueggemann describes how along with grief, the Psalm expresses “a passionate Jewish commitment that could not be silenced or nullified by the imperial power of Babylon”. He writes that it “succinctly encodes the… defiant, pathos-filled resistance of Jews who continued to hold to their ‘local tradition’ in spite of the power requirements of the empire”. I’ll come back to why I think this is important for us. Now it is enough to remind us that the tradition of lament from and for those is exile is strong in the Christian faith.
In looking at the biblical stories about this era in Jewish history, the sixth century BCE, Brueggemann has identified the construction of a theological narrative designed to help the people make sense of their situation and inspire them to hold on to their identity as Jews in the midst of a culture that was so foreign. This narrative was three-fold and consisted of a case, a task and a hope. The case was that of God’s punishment for failure to live faithfully; the task was one of obedience to God by keeping the commands of the Torah in a foreign and hostile land; and the hope was that of return to home.
The reading from Matthew seems so different. This is one of the core texts for our understanding of the gospel call to justice. What I discovered in looking at these texts side-by-side is that the narrative it reflects is actually not unlike that which marked the Jewish response to exile. There’s the case – separation from God for ever; the task – obedience to Jesus by keeping his commands to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick and visit those in prison; and the hope – relationship with God forever.
Now I’m not one who sits comfortably with the idea that the reconciling God of love and life is a punishing God, but I do hold that the case being made for obedience in both texts is that there are requirements in the life of faith that cannot be ignored. And for Christians, the list of tasks in Matthew’s gospel could not be clearer.
As so it is that the Uniting Church, like other churches, has been providing care and support to asylum seekers and refugees in the community and in detention and advocating for their just and humane treatment since our foundation in 1977. Through the eyes of our chaplains who served in some of the harshest and most remote immigration centres, places like Woomera, Port Hedland, Curtin, Baxter and Christmas Island, and through the eyes of so many of our members who have been visiting the centres for years or providing support and care to asylum seekers in the community, we have seen the dehumanising and abusive treatment of vulnerable and traumatised people. We have watched as children are called by number, we have sat in cold and isolating rooms in detention centres and listened to the devastating stories of struggle and family separation, we have held cake stalls and concerts to raise money for destitute asylum seekers in the community, we have become lay experts in immigration law and administrative review.
We have come face-to-face with the truth of people’s lives. We have cried with people and celebrated with them; and as a church we have grieved when the truth of their lives is denied by the imposition of policies intended to punish so that others may be deterred from asking for care we are well able to provide.
We have done all this because this is what Jesus called us to do. This has been the task. This is the requirement of our faith.
And like the Jews in exile, we have remained true to this calling in a hostile land. We have held to the faith which declares that all people are precious and worthy of love. We have held this love in spite of the culturally prevailing narrative that these are people who should not be loved and whose lives should not be lamented. And in the midst of the grief of those we seek to love, and our grief at the violence of our world, we carry our hope in the eternal love of God.
And it is these which are the greatest gifts we offer to those who believe they are forgotten, and who know that their lives are not mourned: love and hope. The love of God that finds expression in meaningful acts of compassion and care, and the hope that comes from knowing that one is loved.
Love and hope: gifts of God; held and offered to the marginalised, the persecuted and the hungry, through the lives of Jesus’ faithful disciples. Us.
May God’s spirit of grace and life enliven us so that our eyes and ears are always open to injustice. And may we always stand ready to welcome the stranger with the love and hope of Christ in our hearts. Amen.