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Catholics face Good Samaritan dilemma on Christmas Island


Tim McDonald

One of my sons worked in the school on Christmas Island about four years ago for two years. So news about Christmas Island is always topical in our family. We pricked up our ears when we heard that the Catholic Education Office in Western Australia (CEOWA) had announced the opening of the Christmas Island Learning Centre on contract to the Department of Immigration and Border Security from term three this year.

To Catholics, the decision may seem to be a no-brainer. The parable of the 'Good Samaritan', after all, presents a simple plan for followers of Jesus. When you see a person in trouble, and when all those who should provide help avoid their responsibility, we are called to intervene, go out of our way to help. The asylum seeker children now stranded on Christmas Island are 'our injured traveller'.

In this spirit the executive director of CEOWA, Dr Tim McDonald (pictured) said at the announcement: 'I strongly support the [Catholic] Bishops' stance and believe that providing education to children in detention is a moral obligation as education is a fundamental human right and in keeping with the Church's long tradition of supporting the poor and marginalised.'

The chair of the Catholic Social Justice Council, Bishop Christopher Saunders of Broome, also commented: 'There's not much we can do to help children get out from behind the bars of detention, but we can make their time a little more pleasant and a little bit more useful.' When everyone else has crossed to the other side of the road seeking to 'not see' this seems the appropriate response.

So we should all be grateful that these helpless children will benefit from dedicated teachers. But we should also ponder deeper questions about the part church agencies should play when cooperating with government in its implementation of an unjust policy.

Should not the focus of Catholics be on ensuring these innocent children are not imprisoned? The photographs accompanying the announcement depict the children on Christmas Island behind high razor wire fences. Child psychologists have reported endlessly the harmful effects of detention for children.

There is no justification for holding innocent children behind razor wire, as the Australian Catholic Bishops have declared. We must ask whether Catholic cooperation in providing education services in places where children should not be will make the evil of imprisoning children seem more normal and acceptable to Australians.

In the terms of Catholic moral principles, will it give scandal, in the sense of making immoral behaviour on the part of the Government seem morally acceptable? Would it be better to refuse to cooperate, to denounce the internment of children, and to leave it to the Government to find others who will provide education?

Christians will naturally shrink from this conclusion because it seems in such conflict with the story of the Good Samaritan. But when looked at in closer detail the story of the Good Samaritan is about the people who did not help as much as the one who did. Jesus' story is also about the priests and Levites who were representatives of power in Judaic society, and is addressed to them.

From this perspective the story says more than that we should be kind to the desperate. It shows that those in power are not there for their own good. They are placed in positions of authority to look after others, especially the injured, the lost, the lonely, the suffering ones in the community. The story condemns those who have been given power for their lack of oversight. Their responsibility is to keep a good lookout, to anticipate need, to plan for problems, to conduct an ongoing risk assessment and be ready at all times to respond.

The implications of the story are clear on Christmas Island. There should be no children in detention. The evil of child imprisonment is of the Federal Government's own doing. It must be shamed into remedying it.

Jesus' praise for the Good Samaritan underlines this message. The Government argues that asylum seekers are not members of the community — they are not Australians, they are 'irregular maritime arrivals'. The story of the Good Samaritan says that, because we are all human, we are all members of the human community. The Samaritan, a man from a neighbouring, hostile, enemy nation acted in an ethically correct manner in caring for a stranger, while those responsible for acting justly and compassionately traded off justice for convenience.

In the modern world Jesus would address his story to those who hold power. He would call them back to the principle of justice and care for the stranger that are integral both to religion and to politics. His story would roar out Injustice! to those who walk on by.

So the Catholic response to the children on Christmas Island should amplify the distant roar of injustice. It should make the Government ministers face up to their responsibilities to their brothers and sisters in need. Catholic agencies that rightly alleviate the harm done to those imprisoned should also make clear their condemnation of the evil of that imprisonment.

As Moses said to Pharaoh in the Spiritual, 'Let my people go', so we should all say: 'set the children free'.

Mike BowdenMike Bowden has worked as a teacher and community worker in Alice Springs and Aboriginal communities in the Top End.

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, Christmas Island, Good Samaritan



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Existing comments

CEOWA would do well to ponder how the Salvos were at first used, then shafted, when, with the intent of bringing some humanising element to the detention regime, they contracted with Morrison's mob to provide services. A better strategy might be to refuse to cooperate and to blackball any and every company, NGO, and individual that helps Morrison to implement his diabolical program.

Ginger Meggs | 23 July 2014  

The reports of children behind razor wire at Christmas Island is totally incorrect. The family center gates and fencing comprise of pool fences and cyclone fencing seen at every school and sporting facility. Would it be more suitable to separate children from their families? I think not. So be very careful about what is fed by those who are anxious to portray the border policies as being inhumane. As for imprisoned or safe from the death and persecution from which they were fleeing. It would do those using such emotive and sensationalised language to stick to the facts instead of trying to incite support for their own political agenda.

Gemma Parks | 23 July 2014  

Gemma, no refugees should be in jail and especially not children who are now being jailed for years.

Marilyn | 24 July 2014  

and...with their parents...lest the children suffer a worse fate. A woman removed from her mother at 4 told me, "I would rather have died in the gutter with my mother than lived the life I had inflicted on me."

patricia bouma | 24 July 2014  

While I agree with the thrust of Mike Bowden's great article, the position is more complicated than represented. Those in power are a bit like the "Kings in Grass Castles". They hold power only at the whim of the Voters, who are those ultimately responsible, although Parliamentarians, through their Spin Doctors have a lot of influence over public attitudes. It is the people of Australia who need to see and face up to the evil outcomes of inhumane treatment of others. Perhaps we need a new Messiah, or a Mother Teresa to show the way, and demonstrate The Power of One.

Robert Liddy | 24 July 2014  

Mike, how can you shame someone like Scott Morrison whose commitment to blindness and untruth in the pursuit of political advantage seems limitless? And yesterday, in reply to a letter about Labor's asylum seekers policies I received a letter from Bill Shorten's office that was as absurd and as dishonest a self vindication as anything I have got from the present government. Shame these people? How?

Joe Castley | 24 July 2014  

Thank you for a moving and well argued assessment of the Good Samaritan and the refugee issue. It is so important that we hold governments responsible not just for the services children should receive but even more importantly for the bad strategic decisions that are causing the problem in these instances.

Marianne McLean | 24 July 2014  

This article reminded me of something I came across on the Customs and Border Protection Freedom of Information Log (2013). I was shocked to discover that the Rudd Labor Government organised to have sermons authored for both Christian and Muslim priests and Clerics in Indonesia in 2010 to preach about people smuggling being a sin and reinterpreting the parable of the Good Samaritan to deter fishermen from helping asylum seekers. See pages 46-48 of this document http://www.customs.gov.au/webdata/resources/files/2012-018673_Document07_Released.pdf

Marg Hutton | 24 July 2014  

Nice article Mike, and I have sympathy with its intent...the church must avoid hypocrisy and especially covert encouragement to awful and degrading government policy (lead be some wonderful christians!). But Jesus told us to visit the imprisoned ; presumably the innocent imprisoned as well as the guilty. And the ideal must not be made the enemy of the good...a (Green`s especially ) problem that has blighted recent Australian polity (for example the Malayasia "solution", which might have avoided all this horror and torture of poor people in perpetual detention).

Eugene | 24 July 2014  

The treatment meted out to refugee asylum seekers is an abomination. Information on their real plight is never revealed. Would not Catholic teachers be creditable witnesses to the cruelty of our government's policy, able to testify to its detestable, abominable outcomes? As Minister Morrison refuses to tell us what really happens, independent, reliable information from dedicated teachers would be believable.

Adrian J. C. | 24 July 2014  

An excellent article. A dilemma indeed! When should people respond to an immediate need and when should all efforts be concentrated on eliminating the injustice that has created the need? Interesting too that the Good Samaritan did not give "band-aid" treatment at the roadside, but took the injured person to a safer place.

Maureen O'Brien | 24 July 2014  

It's a nice dilemma and I find myself on your side ofsuch Michael. It's over two years since I was last there asssiting in the preparing of cl;ams. Less injurioush then and results in a protracted process were coming through otherwise in reasonable frequency and - as usual for "boat arrivals " - mostly positive. Now this freezing of PV grant processes and abolition of IAAAS legal advice is taking deterrent into torture territory. Harm and injury is so inevitable and apparent. I just so wonder why this policy is attractive to our population.

Peter Wearne | 24 July 2014  

The government contract under which the CEOWA will be appointed will contain severe confidentiality (that is, secrecy) clauses. Would the CEOWA be appointed if it reserved the right to publicly discuss detention conditions? I think not, and in accepting silencing the CEOWA will be complicit in this odious governmental silence.

John Ralph | 24 July 2014  

I can understand Catholics accepting the innocents being behind bars after all they used to accept that new born babies who died without baptism were sent to "limbo" I questioned that in primary 1 and was told it was because of Adam's sin therefore just punishment :the sins of the father' and all that. I do believe beliefs have changed somewhat but to what extent I don't know

Mary | 24 July 2014  

I see from media reports (SBS and SMH) that the Italian navy regularly rescues migrants (Yes, the Italians call them migrants) coming from North Africa in leaky boats. It is great to see a whole navy acting as a Good Samaritan for those who are in trouble on the high seas, well the Mediterranean anyway. How much pride those Italian sailors must have in putting their naval training and expertise to rescue their fellow human beings. They must realise that they can alleviate suffering in peace time and not inflict it on non-combatants in Indian Ocean like their Australian fellow seamen are compelled to do in the name of Sovereign Borders.

Uncle Pat | 24 July 2014  

Meanwhile, the kids stay locked up, bored out of their minds and lost in despondency. It's a dangerous thing to take a single passage of Scripture and find all wisdom summed up in it. I have long pondered the compromises made by the Church in Australia through accepting Federal and State funding for Catholic schools and how much silence that buys the powers that be. Gough Whitlam once said of the Alp's Victorian Left that are "none so pure as the impotent". We live in a morally multivalent world where most important decisions are fraught with unpleasant consequences. Can't we have a both/and rather than either/or attitude to this issue? By all means tell the deaf (on both sides) in the Federal Parliament where they're getting it profoundly wrong. But then don't leave the kids out to dry.

Michael Kelly | 24 July 2014  

An excellent article, Mike Bowden. The treatment of refugees seeking asylum in Australia is a disgrace and the policies of the Australian government and the ALP are inhumane, racist and embarrassing by keeping these unfortunate people in prison like conditions. There is a moral dilemma for the WA Catholic Education organisation, but unfortunately this organisation probably did not intellectually address this dilemma and their 'good samaritan' action in providing education services on Christmas Island could be interpreted as patronising.

Mark Doyle | 24 July 2014  

Hear! Hear! Another sly manoeuvre by this government: feeding a sweetener to a gullible public.

Kerry Bergin | 24 July 2014  

From memory ... in Victoria, in the Kennett "privatisation" era, Jesuit Social Services chose to not tender for prison services for ethical reasons. Instead, JSS focussed on re-integration into society post prison and prison prevention work. Is it possible to BOTH provide volunteer education services to children in detention AND protest and advocate on their behalf as necessary? Just a thought ...

mary | 25 July 2014  

The CEOWA will gain an opportunity to shine a light on the chidren's plight, while providing them with education - so long as they have not had to sign away their right to comment when accepting this contract!

Maxine Barry | 25 July 2014  

No security risk should be released into the Australian community to sexually abuse and terrorise innocent Australian as is in the news repeatedly. Cultural differences is no excuse for rape and sexual assault. So many given visas have proven they are suitable.

Gemma | 25 July 2014  

Thank you Mike for pointing out the need to be courageous Christians.. On that point I would like to tell about an event being organised, witnessing to the plight of refugees., seeking a safe life Australia.. On Sat. 2nd August at 3 pm, opp. the shops at Terrigal Beach there will be a public, silent , vigil opp. the shops at Terrigal Beach.on the Central Coast. We will stand for 15 mins.. with signs simply saying ''we welcome refugees''. We will gather there on the next 4 consecutive Saturdays, in solidarity with the terrible plight of refugees. seeking a life of peace in Australia.. An opportunity, to 'put your money where your mouth is''. All welcome!!

bernie introna | 25 July 2014  

Thank you for your thoughtful article, Mike. There are many questions we can reflect on about our moral obligation to asylum seekers, for example, how is it that successive governments (starting with Keating)have been so politically successful in becoming more and more strident and cruel in their determination to protect our borders from those (mostly) fleeing persecution. We may ask why the majority of Australians appear unable to put themselves in the shoes of asylum seekers and therefore denounce what is being done in our name? Apart from the usual answers, what about our social conditioning to trust authority? We have elected governments and have been taught it's their responsibility to do what is right for Australia, not ours. The Church is not exempt from this misuse or misconception of power. In the last analysis, the conscience of individual Catholics takes precedence over Catholic teaching but how many Catholics are aware of this and why not? We usually think only secular and religious dictators are guilty of brainwashing but this is patently not so. Governments and Religions are not always right. I believe children are born with a conscience that needs to be developed not repressed by powerful narratives they are unable to question.

Anna | 27 July 2014  

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