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Gospel stories of the security state

  • 17 December 2015

The images accompanying the news stories at Christmas always seem discordant with those of the Christmas stories.

This year the dissonance is particularly striking. The riot shields and special forces in Paris, the wall dwarfing Bethlehem, the bombers preying on Syria, the electronic surveillance everywhere, all suggest a dystopian world of mistrust and fear.

The Christmas stories of the birth of a child in the fields speak of hope and trust; the angels sing of peace and harmony.

Of course the pastel coloured domesticity of the images of Jesus' birth does not do justice to its context. Herod's sending out first his spies to find where the Messiah was to be born, and then his soldiers to eradicate the threat the child posed to national security, may not appear on Christmas cards, but they frame the story of Jesus' birth.

The disjunction between the tenderness of the Christmas stories and the brutality of their public context is mirrored in the conflict between the humane values of the Gospel and the harsh instrumental values of the public world in any age. The spirit of Christ's birth and the spirit of Herod's security sweep continue to coexist.

A small but telling example of this dissonance was a decision by the Australian Border Force. It banned the longstanding practice by which the Brigidine Sisters took children held in a Melbourne Detention Centre out on picnics. These outings have been much enjoyed by children, whose mental health is seriously at risk through detention. They can enjoy the smells and sights of animals at the children's farm and taste a world unconfined by fences.

One of the sisters involved explained, 'It is essential to give these kids some normality away from people who are scared, anxious and depressed all the time.' As one might expect in events organised by sisters with a life-time's experience in teaching, the outings have been entirely safe. They embody the humane spirit of the Christmas stories.

The response of the Australian Border Force ignored the children and emphasised the demands of security. These outings, a spokesperson said, were not 'appropriate' to the security of detainees and staff, and offered only limited supervision.

But, we were assured, the officers would offer excursions. How children would find normality in excursions in which the guards were focused on providing unlimited security was not explained. To the cynical outsider it all sounded like Herod sending out his soldiers after the security cull