Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Gospel brutality reborn in our harrowing of refugee children


The High Court decision on detention in Nauru was brought down just before the Christian season of Lent. It left the government free and determined to deport many young mothers and children to Nauru.

#LetThemStay rallyFor the mothers and children deportation will bring new trauma with renewed threat to their already precarious mental health. For the Australian public it again makes us ask what brutality, even to children, we are ready to tolerate.

The pain of the children and the savagery of their treatment are suitable subjects for Lenten reflection.

Religious feasts, like Lent and Ash Wednesday which introduces it, are often linked to significant public events, particularly those which are catastrophic, violent or shameful. We speak, for example, of the Tet offensive, of the Easter Uprising and Bloody Sunday in Ireland, of the Yom Kippur War, of the Ash Wednesday bushfires.

Such seasons of reflection also encourage us to be more sensitive to the large public events which form their context. This year violence in the Middle East and the vast number of people forced from their own nations to seek protection where they can find it are a sombre background to Lent.

They also fit: Lent begins with the ashes of illusory hopes, leads to the cynical torture and execution of Jesus and the apparent failure of his movement, and ends in the new hope of Easter day.

Australia's harrowing of refugees and their children fits uncomfortably well with Lent's universal evocation of suffering and torment.

Their flight from persecution and violence in their own nations, their incarceration on Nauru and Christmas Island, their brief hope when brought to Australia to bear and rear their children, and the snuffing out of that hope with a return to Nauru where their children will find no flourishing of life, echo the journey of Jesus in Passion Week when, too, the crowd applauded each new humiliation.

We might hope with powerless sympathy that those brutally treated will find in their experience and their own religious traditions intimations of the hope and strength associated with the Christian Easter.

The association between public life and the foundational religious stories is not merely descriptive. The stories and their characters also map an ethical framework for interpreting public events.

Brutal Herod, doubting Thomas, vacillating Pilate, treacherous Judas, scheming Caiaphas and enduring Mary enshrine for Christians ways in which people should and should not act. They are images that help us evaluate what is done in our times and also assess our own prejudices, actions or failure to act. They represent a call to personal judgment.

But the naming of events can also shape the capacity of a society to respond to new challenges. The events of Bloody Sunday, for example, made it difficult to promote just and harmonious relationships between Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Island. Naming it Bloody Sunday, with its religious reference and ethical weight, made it even more difficult.

For the deportation of children and their mothers to Nauru, the story with most resonance is that of Herod's murder of the children around Bethlehem for dynastic, and so security, reasons.

The story gave rise to a feast remembering the children killed — the Holy Innocents. Story and feast stand as an assertion of the dignity of each human being, especially the smallest and most vulnerable, and as a condemnation of political brutality.

The story also warns the government of unintended consequences. If public outrage at the brutality involved in the deportation of children to Nauru leads government leaders and ministers to be identified with King Herod or similar monsters, they may lose the moral authority and respect they will need to carry through difficult decisions.

In times favourable to them this may not be a disaster. But at a time when the challenges facing Australia demand strong leadership and policies that will inevitably anger powerful interests, government leaders will need strong moral capital and support from across society.

The obloquy that may follow from pursuing mothers and children to despair and diminishment could strip the government of its moral authority and so of its capacity to lead change. On the other hand, of course, government leaders may be right in their judgment that no one will care.

Either way Lent invites reflection, even on what is in the government's self-interest. But for those who enter Lent on its own terms it invites us to hold in our hearts and cry out for the people, particularly children, who are dragged along the way of the cross.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Takver, Flickr CC

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Nauru, High Court, offshore detention, Lent



submit a comment

Existing comments

Fr. Hamilton thank you . How great it would be if the ACBC made this their message for Lent and required it to be read in all parishes. We must have our eyes opened to see what we are allowing our Government both in power and opposition to do on our behalf. I recently wrote to our local member protesting the treatment of children in detention. In the answer I was told that currently there are ONLY 7 CHILDREN IN DETENTION. How can we hope to cause minds that truly believe that to even consider a change of policy. We must start in our own backyards, our homes and our parishes.

Anne Chang | 11 February 2016  

Andrew Hamilton, yes keep writing about this, and writing about it, until the government's cruel policies change. As for moral authority, I do not think the government has any at all, so in my eyes there is nothing to lose.

Janet | 11 February 2016  

Thank you Andrew for such a challenging article. What an incredible Lenten reminder to pray and give.

Maria Weatherill | 11 February 2016  

" what brutality, even to children, we are ready to tolerate." It seems we are ready to tolerate a great deal of brutality, if it can be cloaked with even a thin veneer of self-serving spin. It is important to have secure borders, but it is even more important to have compassion on refugees fleeing war and persecution. The two are not incompatible, but when tirelessly and falsely presented as if it is a choice between drowning at sea and being locked up in hopeless and inhumane conditions, some people seem to be willing to accept it. I have been amazed how many people embraced the term 'queue-jumpers', even though there was no queue, and little realistic choice that existed for desperate and persecuted refugees.

Robert Liddy | 11 February 2016  

One of the great tragedies of Australian Christian life in the traditional churches which do observe Lent right upto the glorious celebration of Easter is the tragic disconnect between supposed belief and life. The sad moral amnesia of many regarding the Nauru situation is one of the symptoms of this disconnect. It seems to be a characteristic of many politicians to, on the one hand, confess their Christian faith, and, on the other, push ahead with harsh treatment of these unfortunate people. I hope your article may wake some of them up.

Edward Fido | 11 February 2016  

I remember well when I attended my first lecture on International Relations. The lecturer began. "First I want you all to leave your moral and ethical concerns outside the door. You can pick them up after this lecture but there is no room for moral or ethical principles in Realpolitik." Nowhere is his dictum more clear than in the current treatment of the asylum seekers exiled to Nauru and Manus Island. The rationale of the government and the opposition for their treatment of these refugees is threadbare. It is reduced to 'not giving a skerrick of advantage to the people smugglers". Both government and opposition know that if they worked harder at getting cooperation from Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka the people smugglers would not be able to ply their despicable trade and the refugees could be processed more expeditiously in those countries. I suspect both government and opposition have other motives which they dare not articulate lest they be accused of bringing back the White Australia policy under another guise.

Uncle Pat | 11 February 2016  

Thank you, Andrew. I am angry enough to substitute for "scribes and Pharisees" "Labor and Liberal politicians" in Matthew 23:27 "Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption." The principle that each human being has dignity should apply to all. It is not OK to insist that it apply to situations of domestic violence but not to those on Nauru and Manus Island. The Australian test is whether this is a "fair go". Even by that test our politicians are failing us and themselves.

Kim | 11 February 2016  

Thank you, Fr Hamilton, for this commentary/meditation. When I visit Europe these days (fairly often) the word Australia invites contempt, derision and, yes, bewilderment. There is great tragedy and suffering for asylum seekers and for this nation tragedy that we cannot ascribe to our politicians any semblance of moral authority.

John Nicholson | 11 February 2016  

Edward Fido: " the tragic disconnect between supposed belief and life."..... To understand this problem we need to look more closely at the anatomy of religion. Religion is a response to God's universal call to rise above our inherited instincts and emotions, and become more spiritual and godly. We are social beings, and unfortunately(?) our response to God's call is interpreted in terms of our culture and degree of development, and this limits and can even displace our allegiance to God. If we show greater loyalty to our vested interest in our interpretation of religion than to God, we are in danger of worshipping false gods. This seems to be the cause, among other things, of all the religious prejudice and strife in the world.

Robert Liddy | 11 February 2016  

Please !! words Savagery and Brutality !!Designed to inflame your ready made audience on this subject .The issue for Australia is difficult and challenging--cool and compassionate discussion will be needed to reach a satisfactory outcome

brian | 11 February 2016  

Father Hamilton, this time you have gone too far. Example, 1, The pain of the children and the savagery of their treatment, 2, which are catastrophic, violent or shameful, 3, Australia's harrowing refugees and their children, 4, pursuing mothers and children to despair. Reason, they came to Australia is for their benefit to give birth, married couples in Nauru lead normal lives. They are illegal migrants, paid people smugglers, they are looked after in Nauru. The vast majority of the population do not want illegal migrants. Legal migrants are welcome. This is how a Liberal government came to power to stop the boats and put an end to thousand of illegal migrants drowning. Ron Cini

Ron Cini | 11 February 2016  

Ron Cini. 1) Please get a heart. One that beats in sync with all mothers and children in distress. 2) Then you will know the truth.

AO | 12 February 2016  

Criticism of the High Court's decision has been popular but of course the Court was merely interpreting the power of the Government to enact such laws. The harsh part of such laws was making the legislation retrospective. That was a demonstration of the government's loss of moral rectitude and a compounding of the initial detention of children.

Adrian Bellemore | 13 February 2016  

NATIONAL PETITION, TABLED IN HOUSE OF REPS BEFORE EASTER 2003 with some 30 000 signatures:From the Citizens of Australia to THE PARLIAMENT OF AUSTRALIA We the undersigned Australians respectfully request the Speaker of the House and the House of Representatives as a whole, as an Act of Grace from the Parliament and people of Australia, to act in support of all asylum seekers and refugees in Australia’s care. They are people who have committed no crime and who deserve our compassion and help. We ask that, by the symbolic date of Easter 2003, this Act of Grace by the Parliament of Australia : 1 Grant permanent residence to all refugees currently on Temporary Protection Visas in our community and who have been law abiding 2 Authorise the immediate release into the community of all asylum seekers who are not a security concern __________________________________________________________________fold Appeal for an Act of Grace, LPO Box A287 ANU,Canberra ACT 2601 Affix Stamp Here ________________________________________________________________fold in Please print Name: ___________________________________________________________ Address: _________________________________ State _____ Postcode _______ Signature: _________________________________ Personal Message (optional) __________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________

FfREDERIKA STEEN AM | 14 February 2016  

Ron Cini: "married couples in Nauru lead normal lives"? "... they are looked after in Nauru"? I suggest from the words of people who have actually been to Nauru that these statements are not correct. Also, they are refugees, not illegal migrants. If you want to know about "illegal migrants", think of people of Anglo Saxon heritage who fly here and overstay their visas but blend in more easily. A bit of compassion for what the people on Nauru have come from and what they are going through now would not go astray. The Good Samaritan did not blame the victim. Then again, the Good Samaritan would have trouble getting here if he came by boat too.

Brett | 15 February 2016  

Similar Articles

#LetThemStay reveals the political capital of compassion

  • Somayra Ismailjee
  • 12 February 2016

Since the first churches offered sanctuary to the refugees facing deportation to Nauru, a steady stream of voices have joined the call for compassion. As a political language, compassion is itself a reclamation of power. Extending safety, resources, or even a mere welcome to people in need proves that we have something to give. Strength is embodied by a capacity to aid and assist, rather than in cruelty. Empathy, care and compassion appeal to us on a level of emotion that runs deeper than mere rhetoric.


Notes (in Latin) on a football scandal

  • Brian Matthews
  • 10 February 2016

Eslingadene/Isendene/Essendon was its quiet and bucolic self when Richard Green, one of its respectable citizens, farewelled it in the 1850s, migrated to Australia, settled near Melbourne and, honouring his home village, called the area Essendon. Like its northern hemisphere namesake, Essendon does not appear in the Domesday Book, but Macbeth-like vaulting ambition, disjoined from care and humanity, has enrolled it in a modern Doomsday register and stained its name ineradicably.