In May 2014 I participated in a sit-in prayer vigil in the office of the Federal Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, in Melbourne with around 15 other Christian leaders. A simultaneous event was held in the office of the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, in Sydney. The sit-in included ministers, priests and nuns, lay leaders, experienced Christian activists and people engaging in non-violent direct action for the first time, from Uniting, Baptist, Catholic and Anglican churches. The aim was to meet with the leaders and ask them to make a bipartisan commitment to get all children out of Australian detention centres. At the time of those actions there were over 1000 children in detention. The groups indicated that they would not leave the premises voluntarily until satisfactory assurances were given. After warnings from police, participants were charged with trespass, some arrested. No assurances were given.
This pattern has been repeated at 24 subsequent actions involving 237 participants. 149 people have been arrested. 66 of them were ministers, priests or rabbis. To my knowledge, nobody has been fined or jailed for these actions. The events, and many similar subsequent actions, were organised by a loose ecumenical coalition who gather under the banner of #LoveMakesAWay.
Some churches rarely venture into the public sphere to express a view on social issues unless they are matters of ‘personal morality’. And it cannot be assumed that the churches share the same view on various social and political questions in Australian life. An exception to this is the challenge of how to respond to people seeking asylum in this country. Those churches that have addressed this issue appear to be on the same page: they have expressed deep concern about the current policies and their implementation.
For the most part the churches’ critique is in line with mainstream human rights organisations like Amnesty International. The most recent and comprehensive church statement is ‘Shelter from the Storm’, a report with recommendations from the Uniting Church, recently endorsed by its national Assembly. Since 2013, St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne has displayed a massive banner, which reads: ‘Let’s Fully Welcome Refugees’. The Dean of St Paul’s cited the teaching of Jesus Christ:
‘I am convinced that future generations of Australians will judge this policy for what it is: inhumane to those seeking our protection, and demeaning to Australia as a nation. These actions will not only be judged by our children and grandchildren but by God himself. Christ’s judgement will be based on a simple measure: ‘What you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done to me’ (Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 verse 40).
Perhaps one of the reasons this issue has particular resonance in the Christian community, in addition to its social justice, human rights and humanitarian dimensions, is the fact that Christ himself was a refugee. As a young child his family fled to neighbouring Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of King Herod. At various Justice for Refugees marches in which I have participated I have noticed many ‘Jesus was a refugee’ t-shirts. The churches’ participation in these events has been significant in terms of organisation, publicity and sheer numbers of marchers.
Nevertheless, many Christian politicians evidently disagree with the churches' views about asylum seekers and refugees. In 2006 I attended the Bonhoeffer Conference in Melbourne (Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the German theologian executed days before the end of WW2 for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler). The keynote speaker was Kevin Rudd who argued that Christianity “must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed”. Of course, it was under Rudd’s leadership in 2013 that the government put in place many of the punitive border protection policies to which the churches now object.
While Australian churches have addressed many dimensions of Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies, the message of the #LMAW actions is simple: children should not be in detention. The aim is to persuade Australians, including our political leaders, to respond to asylum seekers in ways consistent with our obligations as international citizens and in line with Australia’s commitments. And, more fundamentally, with the basic compassion that flows from the empathy of one human being for the suffering of another. For many Christians, the ongoing detention of children and their families represents a line that has been crossed. Silence and inaction cease to be an option.
The format of each #LMAW protest is simple, modelled on the usual pattern of Christians worshipping together: reading the Bible, singing and praying. In the event in which I participated, for example, we read a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, Leviticus 19:33-34:
‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God’.
The #LMAW direct action prayer protests take their place in the long tradition modelled by Martin Luther King, the Berrigan brothers, Desmond Tutu and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The finger prints of Ghandi’s non-violent protests are also evident in the methodology of the #LMAW actions. A prerequisite for participating in these actions is training in non-violence. I participated in the Save the Franklin campaign in Tasmania in 1982 and the training for #LMAW is very similar, albeit with an explicit religious framework and methodology.
It has to be said that within the Christian community the #LMAW approach is not uncontested. The main critique has been that #LMAW uses prayer as a weapon, and that these actions are cheap attention-seeking stunts. Perhaps those critics would use the same arguments in relation to Ghandi’s Salt March or Martin Luther King’s Freedom marches. Karl Barth (another German theologian!) described prayer as “the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world," by which he meant not a will to power, but making our own the purposes and will of another, namely, God.
It is not yet clear how effective the #LMAW actions have been. While the number of children in offshore detention has decreased significantly, it would be fanciful to attribute the decrease to these modest actions. Where politicians have responded to #LMAW it has tended to be in patronising terms: ‘they don’t understand the complexity of the issues’. Judgements will inevitably be made of the validity and efficacy of the actions, and the participants’ commitment to non-violence. The #LMAW activists will have their own accountabilities to God for the justice of their cause and the manner in which they take their stand.
There is no denying that the churches’ influence in shaping public opinion has diminished in recent times. Australians seem, on the whole, to agree with the current hard-line approach advocated by both major parties. Perhaps the greatest impact of #LMAW then has been on church members themselves, by encouraging them to participate in public protests, to write letters or to visit their local members to express their views. Ultimately, we have been reminded of core Christian social teaching; we have challenged ourselves to take a stand; to advocate for change, and hopefully, to make a difference.
Rev Alistair Macrae is currently Minister at Wesley Uniting Church Melbourne. He is a recent past national President of the Uniting Church and Director of the Centre for Theology and Ministry in Melbourne.