Time to seek the lost?

Are there theological principles that could guide a wealthy nation's attitude towards the desperate?

In an interview late last year for the Centre for Public Christianity, Bruce Baird, Chairman of the Refugee Resettlement Advisory Council, expressed his belief that Australia is softening its heart towards refugees. In the years he has been involved with the issue, including when he famously opposed his own party on treatment of asylum seekers, the former Federal Liberal MP has sensed a gradual change as Australians have mixed with and heard the personal stories of refugee arrivals. “Certainly around the time of Tampa…there was a lot of negative feeling towards refugees”, said Baird. ”Since that time, there’s been a calming down of the issue.” ‘Even in conservative areas the attitude has changed,’ Baird said.

But it looks as if Baird’s optimism about Australian’s changing attitudes may be premature. The Herald/Neilson poll out last week suggests that nearly two-thirds of voters would be happy with a return to the days of the Howard government’s ‘Pacific Solution’ of handling those who arrive by boat seeking asylum. In other words, a return to a policy that, according to the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), does obvious harm to vulnerable children, women and men fleeing persecution, torture and violence.

Reflecting on the public reaction to boat arrivals, Baird said, “There’s a fear that comes through, and we just have to quieten everyone down and say that the numbers are relatively small.” He is quick to point out that of the 13,500 refugees coming to Australia each year, only around 20001 arrive by boat or other ‘self-propelled means’, and 90% of these are found to be genuine cases worthy of refugee status. “I’d like to see a more compassionate Australia…let’s bring out that generous spirit that is there so much in Australians.”

RCOA Vice President William Maley, writing for the Canberra Times, says:

  “Australia simply does not have a boat problem. At the current rate of boat arrivals, it would take more than 25 years before we had enough applicants to fill a decent-sized football stadium.”   

Baird’s former colleague and now opposition leader Tony Abbott clearly reads the public mood when he promises to ‘turn back the boats’ if he is elected to power. Kevin Rudd sees value in a tough stance as well. “The government's view is simple: if someone's claim for asylum is not legitimate, they'll be sent home,” he said recently. It’s obvious that both sides of politics are struggling with this complex issue.

We want to talk about the principles that might inform the discussion rather than the intricacies of policy detail. What to do with asylum seeker and boat people remain both an incendiary political issue, and a practical puzzle. But at bottom line, we wonder whether as a nation that is among the most blessed in the world, there might be more scope to come to the aid of these desperate people. Australia’s efforts in assisting refugees are solid without being spectacular and of all the asylum seeker applications made across 44 industrialised nations last year, Australia received only 1.6 per cent of applicants.

Voices have been calling for the Australian Prime Minister to live up to his theological hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when it comes to the way we handle refugees and asylum seekers. Bonhoeffer famously opposed to the Nazi regime and was involved in plots to assassinate Hitler, an action for which he paid with his life in the final months of the war. His theology stressed the love of Christ and the need for radical self-sacrifice in the service of others in need—in his case, persecuted Jews.

Even if the parallels with our current circumstances are far from exact, the principle of going out of our way to offer assistance to the most vulnerable among us was a pervasive theme in Bonhoeffer’s writing. “Mere waiting and looking is not Christian behaviour,” he wrote. “Christians are called to sympathy and action.” Bonhoeffer no doubt presents fans like Kevin Rudd with both personal inspiration and nagging self-doubt when facing the divisive political issue of asylum seekers and refugees.

But, since the Australian Prime Minister has made it clear that he is in the God-fearing camp, it seems reasonable to ask what theological principles might inform his thinking at present concerning the fate of boats heading towards Australia full of ‘the desperate and the damned.’

There are at least three principles relevant to the discussion, the first of which is justice mixed with mercy. In the Judaeo-Christian view of the world, justice and mercy have always gone together. The Good Samaritan parable often gets invoked in the discussion, with people pointing out that this is a prime example of how we should treat people from other races and places who are in need at our doorstep. The “despised Samaritan”, as the Gospel describes him, not only helps to treat the suffering man’s wounds, but he gives him a ride to a local hotel and pays for his board. Not a detention centre, a local hotel. Even small children understand and relate to this message. Living it remains more difficult.

A second principle might be— the rights of the threatened innocent. Theologians sometimes speak of the righteousness required by God as having the character of ‘a vindication of a right in favour of the threatened innocent’. This is the idea of God passionately taking the side of the lowly against the lofty; being in the corner of the widow, the orphan, the destitute and, importantly, being opposed to those whose privileged life impedes the awarding of justice for the downtrodden. This is sobering stuff for those of us living among the material abundance relative political stability of the West.

Thirdly, and perhaps more controversially, is the biblical motif, to seek and save the lost. In the Bible this is primarily about salvation, but it applies generally to God’s attitude to those in need. He doesn’t wait until they are begging; rather, he seeks them out.

What if Australia became ‘asylum-seeker seekers’? In other words, what if we actually went out looking for people whom we knew were in desperate need of help, inviting them to come here, helping to make it happen, educating them, finding employment for them, helping them set up their new lives in country towns, city suburbs, old areas that need renewing, new areas that need help, adding cultural variety, new ideas, new talents, new experiences to the great many-coloured tapestry of 21st Century Australia?

It would in fact be possible to send ships to pick up people in need of asylum—ships that wouldn’t sink! Of coursed this is a utopian dream. Yes, of course, there are too many people. Of course we cannot have everyone. But since when was that an argument for not helping any of them?

Could we become a nation that leads the way, not in being an open door to any arrival, but in actively seeking the good of those in desperate need? Proverbs 31:8-9 says, ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ When it comes to refugees, it’s a vision that can be shared by believers and non-believers alike.

Greg Clarke and Simon Smart are Directors of the Centre for Public Christianity

This article originally appeared at ABC Unleashed and The Drum.

1. That number has increased to around 4500 in the last year