Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon for Social Justice Sunday: Boat People (2)

Sermon for Romsey and Lancefield Uniting Churches

September 25, 2011; Social Justice Sunday

In September, as I said last time I was here, we’re given the option to turn aside from the lectionary for a few weeks and celebrate the Season of Creation. This Season recognises that God didn’t just create humanity, and that the world Jesus entered includes more than just us. Man and woman may be at the heart of creation, but we’re not the whole of creation. We’re one part of it, and we depend upon it. So today we’re invited to think about rivers, and for most of this service that’s what we’ll do. But today is also Social Justice Sunday and the first Sunday after the 2011 meeting of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, and for both those reasons in this sermon I’m going to turn our attention from the non-human creation back to humanity. The World Student Christian Federation, which had a huge influence on my formation through the Australian Student Christian Movement, says that Christians need to approach the world with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and that’s definitely what I want to do today. I want to talk about boat people.

All Christians are boat people – just look at the logos of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches in Australia. But in Australia, the term is used to refer specifically to those asylum seekers who arrive here by boat, and over the past few decades this very small group of people has created a disproportionate amount of fear.

In August, a High Court decision held that under the Migration Act the Immigration Minister can only send asylum seekers to another country if (and here I’m quoting from the summary of the judgment) ‘the country is legally bound by international law or its own domestic law to: provide access for asylum seekers to effective procedures for assessing their need for protection; provide protection for asylum seekers pending determination of their refugee status; and provide protection for persons given refugee status pending their voluntary return to their country of origin or their resettlement in another country. In addition to these criteria, the Migration Act requires that the country meet certain human rights standards in providing that protection.’ This has caused great consternation, and we now have the situation in which the government is trying to amend the Migration Act to make it clear that the Minister doesn’t need to take human rights or natural justice into account when dealing with asylum seekers in order to revive the ‘Malaysia Solution’, while the Opposition is trying to get the country to return to the ‘Pacific Solution’ and process asylum seekers on Nauru. The one thing the two sides agree on is that asylum seekers shouldn’t be processed in Australia, even if that’s what the Refugee Convention requires of us.

This is a situation in which it’s very easy to lose faith. The facts are well-known. Most asylum seekers arrive by air, not boat; the vast majority of asylum seekers who come by boat are found to be refugees; they make up a tiny, tiny proportion of Australia’s migration intake; they have the legal right to seek asylum under the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory; there is no queue, and if there was it would take 188 years to settle all the world’s refugees. Yet despite all this, it seems that a few words and phrases are enough to make Australians lose all compassion: ‘boat people’; ‘illegals’; ‘queue jumpers’; ‘turn back the boats’ – and both sides of politics are making use of this.

The churches, of course, try to appeal to Australians’ better natures. This is because for us the question is not primarily one of law or politics, but one of faith. The Head of our church, when asked what the greatest commandment was, answered: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:37-40) When asked to elaborate, he told a story of a neighbourly Samaritan, one of the people that the Jews most despised. (Luke 10:25-37) Approaching the question of asylum seekers from the perspective of loving our neighbours, including Samaritans, as ourselves, gives us a very different angle.

And so the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has ‘called on all political parties to strive for a more humanised approach to dealing with clandestine migration’. The Anglican Primate, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, has said of the temptation to punish asylum seekers to deter people smugglers: ‘That cannot be a correct approach. It cannot be morally permissible to inflict suffering on innocent people in order to influence another group entirely to act, or not to act, in a certain way’. And this week the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania passed a resolution on asylum seekers that expressed ‘grave concern at the Federal Government’s attempts to deal with people smuggling to Australia by overriding and disregarding the human rights obligations to which Australia has committed itself … and called on the Federal Government to abandon its attempts to send asylum seekers who arrive in Australia to other countries for processing’.

This is not to say that we want people to come to Australia by boat. In doing so, they take their lives into their hands and the cases of the SIEV X in 2001 and the sinking of a boat off the coast of Christmas Island in December last year remind us of how dangerous this is. So the Synod has also asked the Federal Government to ‘continue its efforts to end people smuggling, in cooperation with other governments in the region, through law enforcement efforts aimed at those controlling people smuggling operations, rather than through measures designed to punish desperate asylum seekers exploited by people smugglers; and to help deter asylum seekers from turning to people smugglers by increasing the humanitarian intake to Australia progressively to 20,000 by the 2013-2014 financial year.’ The only good part of the so-called Malaysian Solution was that 4,000 refugees who’d been waiting for resettlement in Malaysia for years were to be welcomed to Australia. Their joy was incandescent – imagine giving that same joy to more refugees. In 2010, Australia received 8,250 asylum applications, just 2.2 per cent of the 358,840 applications received across 44 industrialised nations. Of those 44 nations, Australia was ranked 14th overall and was 17th on a per capita basis. In the 1980s, under Paul Keating, Australia hosted 20,000 refugees per year, making up 15.3% of the immigration intake in his last year in office, 1995-1996. In 2009-2010 the refugee proportion of Australia’s immigration intake was 7.5 per cent, or 13,750 people. We can do better. And so the Synod has asked congregations, faith communities and agencies to take action in support of its calls on government, which is why I’m talking about asylum seekers now, and while you’ll be asked to sign a petition over morning tea.

Given the passion and outrage that this issue raises in the community, taking this stance might be frightening. But the reason that the mainstream churches are united on this is because we believe that we are risking the way of Jesus. So we can have the faith necessary to take the unpopular stance, and disagree with our government and the opposition and our neighbours and even some of our friends. We can risk being mocked and abused, told that we’re soft on people smuggling and unAustralian. Because in the end it is as true for us as it has been true for every Christian: ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Matthew 5:11-12) Thanks be to God. Amen.


September 24, 2011 - Posted by | Ministry | , , , ,

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