Activists strike back against the Empire


Activists in Julie Bishop's office

Another week, another group of Christians arrested53 Christian leaders were arrested or removed from the offices of politicians on Wednesday as part of a nationwide prayer vigil to protest the detention of asylum seeker children.

Their crime: staging a 'pray-in' at a politician's office. Under the banner of Love Makes a Way, this loose coalition of believers from a range of mainstream denominations promises to keep protesting until given a timeline for the release of children from immigration detention. 

Respectable citizens singing hymns while being bundled into divvy vans naturally recalls the civil rights movement. Indeed, Love Makes a Way spokespeople have claimed precedents for their actions in Martin Luther King, Jr, and even the Old Testament prophets.

Protest and prophecy have much in common: both seek to draw attention to what is wrong with the status quo, often through the use of symbolic action (think Ezekiel building a clay model of Jerusalem as the stage for his own 'lie-in'). And there is something to be said for seeing the Love Makes a Way activists as part of a welcome resurgence in prophetic Christianity. 

But maybe there is more to be said for seeing them as martyrs.

A martyr is normally one who dies for her or his faith. But the Greek word μ?ρτυς (martus) originally meant 'witness' — one who testifies.

Both prophets and martyrs are motivated by religious convictions to stand against untruth and injustice. Both, as the cliché goes, 'speak truth to power'. But they are characters in what we might call two very different political dramas. To interpret the Love Makes a Way participants as either prophets or martyrs is to call forth two radically contrasting conceptions of contemporary Australian public life and the place of Christianity within it.

The message of the prophets may be summarised in two words: 'Back to!' Prophets urged Israel to repent and return to a previous age when the nation did what God required. Autonomous nationhood and a tradition of justice can be seen as the two principles on which prophecy depends. 

What happens if we try to map this schema onto Australia's immigration policies, the focus of Love Makes a Way's protests?

While immigration has long been placed at the heart of Australian 'nation building', a closer examination suggests that, in the main, it exhibits more of the out-workings of colonial mimicry. Consider the White Australia Policy, which sought to 'protect' our country by making it as like that of our British imperial masters as possible. Or our present regime of 'border protection' which sees every leaky boat as a potential terrorist landing-force. 

Yes, there have been some bright spots in Australia's immigration history — our pioneering multiculturalism, the Whitlam Government's passing of the Racial Discrimination Act, the Fraser Government's resettlement of Vietnamese refugees. But it has largely been a story of injustice, not righteousness; of the imitation of empire instead of autonomous nation-building. 

The concept of empire brings us back to martyrdom, because while prophets assume a politics of nationhood, martyrs and empires have something of a symbiotic relationship. The classic cause of martyrdom in the early church was the refusal to worship the emperor.

One of the things that sets an empire apart is its claims of ultimacy. Empires present themselves as ahistorical, the way things have always been and will be. Whereas a prophet's critique is based on calling the nation back, under empire there is no back to go back to. Thus Martyrs critique the present by comparing it with their God's future, a future which is always imminent, but not contingent.

The imperial claim of ultimacy also extends to monopolising the stories a culture tells itself. It alone decrees what success or failure looks, what is praiseworthy or pathetic. But whether they're being eaten by lions in an arena or carted off by police as the TV cameras roll, martyrs' power lies in turning mockery and humiliation into an alternative and superior victory. 

So what does this mean for the future of Christian activism in Australia? If one of the most interesting protest movements of the year is modelling martyrdom, then it suggests that a shift has occurred in the understanding of the relationship between church and state. The time for mainstream denominations to be chaplains to the status quo may well be finally over, and in its place may be emerging a call to construct something new.

Sally ClokeSally Cloke is a theology PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle.

Image: Activists in Julie Bishop's office. Photo: Love Makes A Way

Topic tags: Sally Cloke, activism, Christianity, asylum seekers, protest, martyrdom, prophecy



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Existing comments

What a perceptive conclusion, the move from churches being chaplains to the status quo. About time!

Janet | 12 December 2014  

Well said. Well done!

Eugene | 12 December 2014  

Hi Sally, well done. As with Janet, I love your concluding sentence. Indeed, time to stop being "chaplains to the status quo".

John | 12 December 2014  

Wonderful witness. A beam of hope for our world. Voices in the wilderness! Thankyou.

Anne | 12 December 2014  

Excellent Sally - thank you. An interesting and insightful reflection.

Roland Ashby | 12 December 2014  

Thoughtful and perceptive comments. Perhaps there is a 'back to' call, however. These prophet/martyrs have often appealed to Morrison's maiden speech and Abbott's Catholic tradition of social justice and the common good. There non-religious supporters have recognised a loss of the Australian mythos of the 'fair go,' and see in their actions a 'back to' call. This is a different era however, and the trappings of empire are ascendant. Accordingly, we will see a growth in such martyrdom.

Dennis Ryle | 12 December 2014  

Crikey! Imagination is a wonderful thing but often produces the unbelievable. What of trespass by the "martyrs"?, parents being responsible for their children? and the damage of removing children from their parents if the parent is not released from detention? Parents who callously use their children for their own advantage often at the disadvantage of the children are seriously flawed and should not benefit from relaxation of government policy to accommodate them.

john frawley | 12 December 2014  

Yes, as Janet says, a very preceptive conclusion. Let's hope she is right. The big sign on the front of St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne gives cause for hope on this. How people like Tony Abbott, and others in his government, who profess Christian faith can behave as they do towards those desperate people who arrive here seeking asylum is incomprehensible to me. So I wrote to the Prime Minister and asked him how he justified his dealing with asylum seekers in the light of his Christian faith. He replied, but carefully avoided answering the question. Instead he sent a load of political nonsense which went straight into the rubbish bin.

Brian Finlayson | 12 December 2014  

Their crime is not staging a prayer in.. It is trespassing.. I support them fully but as a Christian police officer I am sick of being told these people were arrested for praying.

Russell | 12 December 2014  

I'm sorry John, but I don't understand your claim about parents callously "using children" to their own advantage, or "not being responsible" for them - do you mean parents fleeing their country with their children would do better to stay behind, or to leave their children behind? Surely an expression of great concern for one's children is proven where parents take great risks to remove their children to safety, and one that we would generally approve of (examples abound from the Second World War, as internally displaced Europeans especially Jews took all sorts of incredible risks to save their children.) Incidentally, Love Makes a Way has never suggested that children be released from detention without their parents, but that the whole family be allowed to live in the community while their claim is processed. This happens all the time with asylum-seekers who arrive by plane (currently 30,000 in the community), and civil war hasn't broken out yet.

Sue | 12 December 2014  

Russell sometimes one has to trespass because other people's human rights have been trespassed. Trespassing becomes a way of praying.

terry | 12 December 2014  

Let love of fellow humans be our attitude to those seeking refuge in Australia. I am shamed by both our main political parties in their attitudes to these needy people who are people of such courage.

Patricia Kennedy | 13 December 2014  

I am unsure, with members like the Rev. Bill Crews, you can typecast "mainstream denominations" (presumably including Anglicans, Catholics and the Uniting Church - some of the latter's clerical members involved in the "pray-in" you mention in Adelaide) as merely "chaplains to the status quo", Sally. In fact several mainstream religious organisations, such as the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, have criticised the current federal government's handling of the refugee issue. A public protest does certainly bring the issue to the news but I am not sure it can be compared to martyrdom. The consequences the protesters face, unlike those who opposed the Nazis, or even participated in the Civil Rights campaign in the South, are far milder. I think they would see it as part of the cost of their discipleship. There is a place for peaceful public protest, as this was, as well as the more tiring, long term behind the scenes advocacy work so many organisations, both religious and secular, do, which hardly ever hits public attention. I would see this as a sign that democracy is alive and well in Australia. The Empire died long ago.

Edward Fido | 13 December 2014  

Has anyone got a nail and a church door?

will | 13 December 2014  

John Frawley is perfectly justified in condemning the way asylum-seekers callously use their children for their own advantage. One could also condemn them for even bringing their children to Australia on very hazardous sea journeys. There was 2 per cent chance of them drowning at sea when they came from 2008-13 yet their parents would still bring them. Surely the parents could have left them with grandparents or relatives and called for them once they, the parents, had gained asylum. What is even more appalling though is the practice of asylum-seeking families sending their children unaccompanied to Australia. Sending them off on a dangerous sea voyage, where on arrival they will be interned with a whole group of adult strangers for months on end is disgraceful. But then one assumes that such a ploy is motivated by a reasonable belief that a solitary child would easily get asylum in Australia. One wonders how many unaccompanied children (presumably all boys) have their lives risked in this manner. Perhaps Australia’s media should get of its collective fat bum should find out, including the ABC and SBS. Meanwhile, the “martyrs” who occupied Julie Bishop’s office might like to consider the truly desperate plight of children in refugee camps that have not chance of going anywhere, let alone Australia. While holding kids in detention is clearly undesirable, they and their parents have taken the places in Australia’s humanitarian refugee quota that could have gone to children (and their parents) in far more dire circumstances.

Dennis | 15 December 2014  

Much of the problem comes from one simple fact: we don't believe refugees…In other words, 'the culture of disbelief' can make us deaf to the genuine cries for protection. We must allow their cries of pain to be heard. Lena Barrett, JRS Europe

Mary | 16 December 2014  

Persecuting Christians? I thought only Muslims did that. Why do I have thus disturbing image of Julie and Bronwyn Bishop in burkhas standing next to Ayatollah Abbott?

Gary Dargan | 21 December 2014  

It is time the worm turned. We have been supine far too long. In the process we have risked our integrity and sabotaged our faith's credibility. If we do not stand here and now in ur own back yard then we will never stand any where or any time.

Graham Warren | 01 January 2015  

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