Flabbergasted and angry. That's how I felt as I read a recent post by the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Martyn Iles. Here he outlines how Christians should, in his opinion, respond to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Nauru. Hint: justice and kindness have little to do with it.
Far from lobbying the Government to bring all the detainees safely to Australia and cease the ‘stop the boats’ mantra, Iles argues that pressuring the Government is wrong (a curious position to adopt for the head of a lobby group).
According to him, loving your neighbour is a purely personal act. So if a refugee moves into your street, by all means, make them a casserole. But if your Government is intent on imprisoning innocent people or driving detainees to suicide by deliberating holding up their applications, then we as Christians should remain silent.
Because apparently Government knows best. Iles backs up his views with some bewildering logic.
In a nutshell, the ACL head is arguing that citizens should stay out of politics and leave the running of the country to the experts.
Referencing the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he says, ’Jesus wasn’t telling the government what to do … His whole intent [my emphasis] was to tell me that I am personally commanded to be the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan never did his good deeds by the proxy of government. He did not outsource them to bureaucrats … He knelt and did it himself.’
This argument is based on several false premises. Let’s unpack them.
No one is suggesting we outsource loving our neighbour to the bureaucrats and leave it at that. This is a straw man argument. It’s not either/or. We can both personally care for the neighbour standing in front of us and we can hold our elected officials to account by lobbying for a more compassionate asylum seeker policy.
Jesus’ whole intent?
It seems a bit of a stretch to suggest, as Iles does, that Jesus only meant we should to love the person standing in front of us. When read in the context of Jesus’ other teachings, this narrow interpretation becomes even more unlikely.
When Jesus wasn’t subverting the laws of the day (e.g. healing people on the Sabbath), he was taking on the religious leaders and government officials, calling them vipers, white-washed tombs and hypocrites. He challenged a system that favoured the rich while disenfranchising the poor and vulnerable (Matt 23). And he told those in power to get on board with the kingdom of God (which is love) and leave behind their attachment to a system that was enabling a few to succeed at the expense of others.
So while Jesus certainly loved and cared for people in his immediate vicinity, his concept of love extended far beyond this. He challenged the privileged of the day to change their ways. In other words, he lobbied the Government. He held them to account. And as his followers, Christians are called to do the same.
Government Knows Best
Iles believes the Government has a different role from the people because, he argues, the Government is not a citizen. And since God has given citizens and governments different duties, we, the well-meaning-but-naive-citizens, should leave the authorities to take care of business.
His argument presupposes that the Government and its citizens are independent of one another, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system is designed to operate.
The Government and the people necessarily have a symbiotic relationship.
So while we all answer to God and have different responsibilities, there are times when God speaks to Government officials through its citizens. Just as Jesus and the prophets spoke truth to power (Matt 12:1-8, Matt 25: 31-46), so should we.
Cruel to be Kind
‘Well-intentioned laws can all too often lead to unintended outcomes,’ says Iles.
He goes on to argue that, ‘If a seemingly compassionate policy undermines national sovereignty, then one must pause for thought. God ordains nations … [Acts 17:26]. Christians should not simply oppose passports and borders.’
Once again, we are presented with a straw man argument. No one is suggesting we have a free-for-all at the border and let in every single person. No one is suggesting we ‘oppose passports’. The fact is, a stringent vetting process can operate without imprisoning innocent people in harsh conditions. Other countries manage it. So can we.
Does the ends justify the means?
Iles argues that, 'If a seemingly compassionate policy is known to cause a worse humanitarian problem, then it makes no sense. It’s not wise ... if people smugglers get wind of any sort of hope, they will be back in business. People will drown.'
All too often the 'ends justifies the means' argument is used to validate policies that cause great suffering. But when such policies cause harm to the most vulnerable in our world, we need to question their legitimacy.
Is locking up human beings as a deterrent really the best we can do?
Is turning boats around so the people can die outside our jurisdiction a positive outcome?
Would a loving God really require that we sacrifice the sanity of desperate people by detaining them indefinitely simply to save another group of people from drowning?
I don't pretend to have all the answers (although community detention, establishing a processing centre in Indonesia, and not supporting oppressive regimes that create asylum seekers in the first place would be a good start).
What I do know is that God is infinitely compassionate and infinitely creative, so if our solution isn't both of these, we're on the wrong track, and we need to keep searching.
I truly hope Christians can join together with others to dismantle the divisive Us and Them culture that is infecting Australia at the moment. Let’s not stoke the fears of our citizens by portraying asylum seekers as a security threat when there is no evidence any terrorist has ever tried to enter Australia via a leaky boat.
And let’s not make an idol of national sovereignty either. As Christians, we are constantly reminded that we are one in the spirit. It would be great if we started acting that way.