Speech give at the Palm Sunday Rally in Newcastle, 29 March 2015 by The Rev’d Dr Brian Brown
In the descending darkness of the Easter story, a detained peace activist tries to explain to the leader of an occupying military force that he is not about military confrontation but about peace through justice; that his truth is worth listening to. The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate responds to Jesus, “What is Truth”?
On this Palm Sunday in 2015, with thousands of refugees in detention for seeking asylum in Australia, including hundreds of children; what IS the truth?
Palm Sunday is actually a highly appropriate day to be asking this question. Most people know that it was about Jesus’ acclaimed entry into East Jerusalem on a donkey with his followers waving palm branches. What few realize is that this was actually a peaceful yet provocative counterpoint to the annual march into Jerusalem from the west by the Roman legions- a show of force to try and keep the peace among the occupied Jews in the volatile time of Passover.
A mighty mounted force up against a seemingly weak and fragile band of Galileans. A bit one sided really!
Truth is, this is a confrontation between peace by force and peace through justice.
For us today, it is a confrontation between the competing philosophies of “We will decide who comes and goes, who suffers and who thrives, who lives and who dies”; and
“How can we be a just and compassionate society for the good of all, and especially the most vulnerable.”
One approach among many to press this latter case is that of the Interfaith movement Love Makes A Way
When eleven members of the Love Makes A Way movement entered the electoral office of PM Tony Abbott their single purpose was to elicit from him a commitment to change for the better the appalling situation of hundreds of children being held in onshore and offshore detention centres. Simultaneously another such group was entering the office of Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten.
Being from a variety of Christian denominations, these groups pray and read relevant scriptures while their leaders negotiate with the office staff for a response from whichever leader they are approaching; in our case, the Prime Minister. Our determination was to not leave until such a commitment was received and if necessary be arrested, in the strong tradition of non-violent civil disobedience.
When the staff realized that we intended to stay, the police were quickly called, and the liturgy continued as 16 police officers encircled the group and waited for orders.
A response was received from the PM, who was in Brisbane at the time, which said, in summary, that his government considered that the best way to deal with the plight of children in detention was to “Stop the Boats”. This did not meet the expectations of the Love Makes a Way group, and so eight of the group decided to remain under threat of arrest.
On our final refusal to leave we were taken one by one, each escorted by two police officers, into the elevator to the ground floor. On the way down we were advised that we had been arrested for disturbing the peace, and would be released without charge. The members of the Melbourne group were arrested and charged.
All in all there have now been about 12 such actions, with varying responses. The latest was at the office of the Foreign Minister in Perth. When this group, including nuns, were arrested and charged they were subjected to strip searches, which included being required to squat and cough.
Far from deterring others from participating in future actions, there have been increasing numbers of people offering themselves for Love Makes A Way training, which follows the strategy of the Civil Rights campaigns of Martin Luther King and others. Most of us do it in the name of that quintessential disturber of the Peace, Jesus Christ.
Truth is, this action is not about the Love Makes A Way participants, for whom the worst suffering has actually been relatively minor inconvenience.
It is about human beings, fleeing for their lives, being subjected to cruel incarceration as they try to find a place to call home.
It’s about the truth spoken by Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry when he called our detention facilities “factories of mental illness.” HOW BAD IS THAT!
It is about the truth of the Triggs report highlighting desperate circumstances of deprivation, self-harm and cruelty to people whose ‘crime’ was to flee from danger to find safety here.
It’s about the truth of the Moss report on Nauru, including testimony of Save The Children workers; of sexualized relationships between guards and young women, many under-aged girls.
It’s about the death of Reza Barati and Hamid Khazaei
It’s about what happens to people when they are left without hope, and the consequent dehumanizing of those who do it to them.
This is the suffering that Love Makes a Way and many others such as Refugee Action Network Newcastle stand against when we call on those with the power for change their minds and soften their hearts and be prepared to do the complex bipartisan regional work of sorting this out for the good of all.
Truth is, it’s not easy for our political leaders to resolve this awful situation. Like Pilate, like anyone who serves the agenda of the empire, they are caught in a cleft stick between his ethics and expediency. According to John’s Gospel, Pilate found no fault with Jesus, but still released Barabbas instead because that is what the howling mob wanted. The brutal truth is that the Federal Government’s hard line on refuges is popular with Australians. And they do what they so often do- the popular thing- the means to an end, anything to hold on to power. So the end is touted to justify the means, and truth becomes confused with lies and spin. And the innocent continue to suffer.
So it is that even professing Christians like Mr Abbott, Mr Morrison and Mr Dutton appear to act in contravention to the basic tenet of their religion ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you”. Yes gentlemen, it is hard to stand where you stand; however, truth is, “Christian is as Christian does”, at least, that is what Jesus taught.
So, in the face of claims and counterclaims, What is the truth here?
Truth is, there is no offence under Australian Law that criminalises the act of arriving in Australia or the seeking of asylum without a valid visa. To call them “Illegal” is a lie.
Truth is, the concept of an orderly queue does not accord with the reality of the asylum process.
Truth is, boat arrivals are not entitled to higher benefits than other social security recipients
Truth is, we are not being “swamped” by boat arrivals, who comprise less than 1% of new migrants.
How do I know all this to be true? It’s all here in a document of the Parliament of Australia headed “Asylum seekers and refugees. What are the facts?” February, 2013. It would make enlightening reading for some of our politicians and media commentators should they choose to honestly ask the question that Pilate asked “What is truth?”
And what about the Government’s claim that their policy is motivated by a desire to keep people from drowning? It is a difficult one to counter, cloaked as it is in a veneer of truth. QC Julian Burnside has an excellent 5-point response challenging this claim. I will just share now number 5 – “If the Coalition is so worried about people drowning, why punish the ones who don’t drown”. Furthermore, if we are so concerned about their safety at sea why are we still ‘turning back the boats’?
Truth is the downward slide towards a coldhearted Australia is proceeding apace. We are rapidly losing our generosity of spirit, and with it, our international reputation as the land of the fair go. It is as if we are saying o the needy “forget about fair- just GO”
Yet we must not lose heart. It is possible for leaders to change and we must do all we can to encourage them, even if it means praying in their offices or bombarding them with correspondence or turning up to Refugee Action Network Newcastle meeting or whatever it takes. We also need to examine our own prejudices lest we find ourselves guilty of the very things we accuse in others. We need to be part of the solution not part of the problem. And we must never lose sight of the main reason for our being here tonight- human beings, children, women and men who are suffering terribly at our hands and in our name.
The truth is, we are better than this.
The organisers suggested that I might say a prayer at this point. I do so mindful that we represent different faiths and philosophies, but also that we can also recognize that for love to make a way we have to move to a deeper level of consciousness and spiritual power.
My prayer is that the hearts of our leaders will be softened by the witness of the way of love, and start to repair the damage already done to those we hold in immigration detention; that our leaders will take bipartisan action to restore our reputation as a great and fair-minded, warm hearted nation by being more open and generous of spirit to refugees.
My prayer is that those who are suffering in our detention centres and in the community will be offered new hope by our change of heart
My prayer is that we will all be changed for the better, and by our witness will bring about change in others also.
Brian Brown, Palm Sunday 2015 (Revd Dr Brian Brown is past Moderator, Uniting Church Synod of NSW/ACT)