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Sitting in the doors of the powerful


'No Way' Immigration Department Campaign

When the Federal Government put out a cartoon saying ‘No Way’ to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, it struck a gong that reverberated around the nation. Some church leaders gathered together to begin a movement, playing off the government’s slogan. They began calling themselves ‘Love Makes A Way’. Here were people who would seek to use nonviolent actions to call attention to the injustices in our asylum seeker system, notably the close to 1000 children in immigration detention.

Drawing upon the inspiration of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, this was an ecumenical coming together of Christians with the backing of ‘Pace e Bene Australia,’ a group dedicated to a spirituality of nonviolence. With leaders across the nation like Perth’s Jarrod McKenna and Sydney’s Justin Whelan, they began training in the kinds of actions they would seek to perform. Their strategy started to take shape: sit-ins in the electorate offices of federal parliamentarians, asking that justice may ‘roll down like waters’. 

The movement would hold simultaneous sit-ins at the electorate offices of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, calling on both sides of politics to make a way for the vulnerable at our door. In a sense they were joining themselves with the prophetic tradition, crying out that society may welcome the stranger, care for the orphan and make space for the widow. In each case the electorate office staff called the police, with each person involved in the protest making a choice whether to stay put. Protestors who remained were then charged with ‘trespass’, meaning they would have their day in court. They would trust that words be given them.

When an Adelaide sit-in eventuated in the electorate office of Jamie Briggs MP, included among those sitting-in was Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky of Beit Shalom Synagogue. She went on to say ‘I am risking arrest today because the most-repeated teaching in the Hebrew Bible is to treat the stranger with kindness. We Jews trace our roots back to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt 3000 years ago and re-enact the agony of slavery each year at the festival of Passover. The International Refugee law that our government is undermining was written to say ‘never again’ after the Holocaust. I cannot stand idly by and watch my government keep some of the world's most vulnerable children in detention when my faith commands me to act.’

The movement had reached beyond the confines of group boundaries, gaining momentum with an online sharing of the campaign on Facebook and Twitter. But what are the roots of these nonviolent actions? Pace e Bene says it draws on ‘the vision of Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Shelley Douglass, John Dear and many others.’ As Gandhi said ‘An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.’ Nonviolence in the pursuit of peace recognises that our world is beset by such violence that the only strategy we have is to resist the very strategies of the violent. When our State sanctions draconian policies and actively carries them out, not to act is to be compliant and even perhaps complicit. As Love Makes A Way is fond of quoting King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, ‘Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored.’

So we as a community are forced to confront the uncomfortable truths that sanction the use of power to keep the vulnerable at bay. We are encouraged to confront the words that are given precedence in our community. We hear words from our Prime Minister, Mr Abbott: ‘I don't think it's a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door... I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way… If you pay a people-smuggler, if you jump the queue, if you take yourself and your family on a leaky boat, that's doing the wrong thing, not the right thing, and we shouldn't encourage it.’ Then we see faith leaders spending a whole day in a politician’s electorate office and we wonder.

One key passage for Christians is the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks a question of Jesus regarding the dual commandment to love God and neighbour. He asks ‘who is my neighbour?” Jesus goes on to tell the story of a man mortally wounded, stripped and beaten by a band of robbers. Both priest and levite see him on their way, and yet they each decide to pass by on the other side. The Samaritan stops. He engages. He is ‘moved with pity’. 

This movement of the heart leads him to tend the wounds of the man, taking him to an inn where he will be cared for. Jesus concludes that the one who shows mercy is the one who behaves like a neighbour.

In a globalised world of forced migration because of war, discrimination, violence and repression, our response to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ needs an expansive imagination. In order to to stop and consider, to let ourselves be ‘moved with pity’, we need the prophetic witness of the Love Makes A Way movement. We need the witness of people with an ability to bring the needs of the distressed to the doors of the powerful. 

There is at this place of encounter the possibility of transformation. For as with the levite and the priest, what looks like the greed of the strong could be the fear of being too involved, the fear of being changed by the other and their needs. In one direct action by the movement, police officers were moved by the integrity of the group’s actions. With nonviolent action led by the heart, the powers that be are shown a liberating authority and spirit at work. The State is encouraged to imagine a new way of behaving.

As the lawyer in the parable is told ‘Go and do likewise’, so the politician whose office is prayed in is invited to consider the ways they respond to the needs of our asylum seeker neighbours. 

Maybe then they too may look to Martin Luther King Jr. writing in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ This is the significance of action and inaction. He went on, ’We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.’ What we do matters. The people involved in King’s nonviolent movement went through training in purification of motives, and what they would accept themselves. They asked these questions: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ‘Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?’ King saw nonviolent direct action as helping his brothers and sisters ‘rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.’ It is in this tradition that Love Makes A Way stands. These actions are to help end the monologue from those in power, and begin society’s considered dialogue on the question being put. Why children in detention? Why punishment without crime?

Over fifty years ago, one prophet of peace Thomas Merton wrote to another, his friend Dan Berrigan SJ. ‘The real job is to lay the groundwork for a deep change of heart on the part of the whole nation so that one day it can really go through the metanoia we need for a peaceful world.’ This change of heart will only come if we stop and consider. If we are moved by the faces, the names, and the stories such that our action brings on the kind of crisis King believes will force the community to confront the issue. What is being done in our name?

King in his time was disappointed with the white moderate who says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’ He responds that ‘shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.’ Dan Berrigan writes, ‘We want the peace; but most of us do not want to pay the price of peace. We still dream of a peace that has no cost attached.’

The federal government has created a limbo situation for our asylum seekers, particularly children. Nonviolent direct action through movements such as Love Makes A Way has the effect of helping people stop, and thus it changes hearts. As Dan Berrigan says ‘Every slavery is an invitation to another exodus; every exodus is guided by a dark promise.’ For every asylum seeker we send back on the open seas, we lose a potential teacher, cricketer or Australian of the Year. Love Makes A Way for asylum seekers.

James O'BrienJames O'Brien is currently enrolled in a Diploma in English Literature at Sydney University and enjoys writing, football and the cello. This essay is the first prize winner in the 2014 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers. Twitter: @jpeob.

Topic tags: James O'Brien, asylum seekers, nonviolence, protest, direct action, Thomas Merton, Dan Berrigan



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Existing comments

Maybe the current border security policy does actually strike a discord with the Australian populace but, to paraphrase Dan Berrigan, not enough to prod anyone to pay the price to see it changed: "I'm so outraged by your 'Stop The Boats' policy Mr Abbott that I am prepared to patiently wait a few years until the next election when I will vent my displeasure at the polls!" quoth the indifferent. Perhaps the masses sense that both the means and ends are both justifiable when it comes to stemming the flow of refugees, asylum seekers or illegal immigrants?

Jacque | 12 August 2014  

An eloquent plea for inclusion and non-violence, thanks James. Over the last few months, with significant interruptions, I've been reading that very grown-up novel, "Middlemarch", written by a woman who felt the necessity of adopting a male pseudonym. Middlemarch tells the story of the good samaritan in a small context. And the 'samaritan' is a bit of a surprise. Priests and levites don't come out of it particularly well.

Pam | 13 August 2014  

Great story and the expression of great values. But aren't Abbott, Hockey, (Jesuit educated), Andrews, Turnbull and on it goes, all good catholic men who are supposed to have the same values. Why aren't the cardinals and bishops on radio and TV condemning these people. That I am sure would get these same politicians attention.

Richard Cronin | 13 August 2014  

I hope you've all seen Michael Leunig's Good Samaritan cartoon . . best 'interpretation' of the parable in a l-o-n-g time! (Google to find it)

glen avard | 13 August 2014  

Well argued James, and with the heart as well. I share your passion for justice for asylum-seekers, and deep concern for all those children in detention centres. For years, I had a chance to work for refugees, as the broader group, as a member of a Refugee and Migrant Support Group to which I belonged, at the NSW Ecumenical Council. Some of the people whom we supported were those visiting families at Sydney's Detention Centre, and they were horrified at the impact it was having on young family members, and others helped those being released from detention begin to become part of a welcoming community. We so need to keep that, as an active reality, starting with the release of those 1,000 still cut off and demonised. in the Villawoods and Darwins of this world. Let's open our hearts and minds - even loosen the purse strings! And become part of a 'love [r]evolution', like the one you engage in., so eloquently, James Like you, I also had a chance, back then, to write about this and similar concerns in a weekly Catholic 'rag', with a column called 'Better Together' - which we can and need to be. Thanks. Lynne

Lynne Green | 13 August 2014  

Thanks James. Congratulations on winning the Margaret Dooley award. Couldn't, help but notice your list of hobbies viz. writing, football and cello. Wondering if the Bach cello suites are part of your repertoire? And does playing cello give you reflection time and sustain you in fighting the good fight. You have made my day with your fine writing and sentiments.

Celia | 13 August 2014  

Congratulations on being awarded the first place in the 2014 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers, James. A well-deserved award for a beautifully written essay on an important topic.

Maureen Helen | 13 August 2014  

Thank you James O'Brien. This essay has come at a timely moment for some of us on the Central Coast. We are having a gathering at Terrigal Beach on 4 following Saturdays at 3 pm for 15 minutes with 1 minute silence, in solidarity with the plight of refugees in our country.This Sat. 15th Aug will be our 3rd gathering. All are welcome to stand with us. I have not heard of Love Makes a Way , but it encourages us in our small effort to try to peacefully ''right a wrong''

bernie Introna | 13 August 2014  

In Islam the concept of aman encompasses the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers and the duties incumbent upon their hosts . Aman also refers to the refuge and safeguard offered to non-Muslims, even if they are in conflict with Muslims, and requires that host populations facilitate the voluntary return of refugees to their places of origin when considered safe. Such refuge remains inviolate even if the person who is being offered protection is in a conflict with Muslims [9: 6]. The Qur’anic verses show that migration can become a necessity for anyone in times of trouble or when one’s life and beliefs are in danger. Some verses go as far as to require the faithful to choose migration in such circumstances (if they are able to do so) [4: 97-99]. The Holy Qur’an praises those who go to the assistance of people in distress and requires the faithful to protect refugees [9: 100 and 117]. It entitles refugees and internally displaced persons to certain rights and to humane treatment [8: 72-75, 16: 41] and it condemns people whose actions prompt mass migration, viewing them as lacking faith in God’s words [2: 84-86]. (UNHCR Dialogue 20 November 2012)

Bilal Cleland | 13 August 2014  

From an 'oldie' to a 'youngie', thank you James. A fine article - one that I hope will inspire others to speak, and more especially, act, to change this destructive policy of government. The denial of humanity and dignity of asylum people is demonstrably a crime against humanity. And in due course those responsible will be held accountable - at the very least, by God.

Brian Larsson | 13 August 2014  

Thanks all. Jacque: Hopefully this movement and others like it will help wake us up from the sleep of indifference and invite us to considered action. Pam: Thanks for the book recommendation! Richard: Mssrs Abbott and Hockey have each had sit ins from Love Makes A Way occur in their offices. The one in Mr Hockey's office was yesterday. (http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/08/12/police-scene-protest-hockeys-office) Glen: Cheers for the heads up. Lynne: Thank you, I look forward to seeing you soon. Celia: Isn't Bach special! Yes, I am preparing Bach's Suite No. 2 at the moment. It's an instrument that connects me with how I am & who I am, and so yes it does give sustenance! Maureen: Thank you for your kind words. Bernie: What a worthy initiative!

James O'Brien | 13 August 2014  

Ok,for all supporters to "Love Makes A Way" to support, people smugglers, Economic illegal immigrants. Rubbish and attack Tony Abbott for stopping the boats and give genuine refugees, especially persecuted Christians the chance to find safety in our beautiful country

Ron Cini | 13 August 2014  

Great article. Also great decision when the Adelaide people faced the magistrate. Unfortunately we can't just wait for the next election to protest because both sides have the same policy and attitude!

John Goonan | 14 August 2014  

Thank you for this inspiring story James. How can one get in contact with the Love Makes a Way organisation? It is something many more of us could do if we had the guidance of those who have already made a mark for Christian conscience acting peacefully, and calmly when the loud and often ugly protests are often counter productive and actually entrance the half truths of why people do need to flee however they can. Having been involved with Hazara asylum seekers for 14 years, I know only too well how desperate the plight can be of those who have no refugee camps or orderly processing to line up for to find a safe haven from ongoing genocide of their ethnic group in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan. God bless Love Makes a Way - very Christ like. Camilla

Camilla | 14 August 2014  

‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ It would have been magnificent if love had made a way to act on behalf of 439 Palestinian children exterminated in Gaza over the past month.

Dr Vacy Vlazna | 14 August 2014  

Commentators who embrace fashionable causes such as those regarding asylum-seekers will get many pats on the back from the like-minded. And it’s especially nice for them when they win essay prizes for espousing such causes and calling for Martin-Luther-like civil disobedience tactics to publicise them. But they should also understand that supporting the asylum-seeker cause has had very negative consequences for both asylum-seekers and Australia. The dismantling of the Howard Government’s system for excluding all but genuine asylum-seekers, as opposed to self-selecting economic migrants, has caused: 1) 1200 deaths of asylum-seekers, including many children 2) cost Australia $12 billion to deal with them (about $6 billion of that would have provided enough accommodation for Australia’s homeless – about 105,000 with about 6500 sleeping rough) 3) Reduced the numbers of genuine refugees that Australia can take such as the Syrians and now the Yezidis in Iraq. 4) Made Australia a laughing stock with our Asian neighbours for our pathetic half-baked efforts to deal with our self-created asylum-seeker mess. Compassion is admirable but it should cover everyone in need, especially those whose need is greatest. The “selective compassion” of the AS lobby with its “cause de jour” mentality fails to do this. Perhaps James should talk to refugees who have come in legally. If he did he would discover they have little time for those who have entered Australia illegally. Because the latter have taken up much of Australia’s refugee quota they delay the former’s chances of bringing in family members still stranded in refugee camps. .

Dennis | 15 August 2014  

Dennis, I think it would be wise for you to actually read the essay that James has written and then respond to the arguments presented there, rather than simply referring to it once and then talking about costings. If you would like to write an essay on such a topic I'm sure you can publish it elsewhere.

Alex | 20 August 2014  

Alex, I think it would be wise if you actually read my posting. If you did you would see that I’m also talking about the loss of 1200 lives and of asylum-seekers taking places that would have gone to genuine refugees in Australia - as well as the billions spent on the latter. In 2012/13, of 20,000 people granted residence in Australia under our humanitarian program, 12,000 were refugees (mainly through the UNHCR), 500 were special offshore humanitarian cases and 7500 were onshore asylum-seekers. Google the Immigration Department’s “Fact Sheet 60 - Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Programme” if you wish. Under the terms of this program 7500 more people rotting in refugee camps would have been given sanctuary by us if no asylum-seekers had managed to get residency in Australia. James should understand that the consequences of the pro-asylum-seeker policies he supports though sit-ins etc have had some pretty grievous consequences when implemented. Were these policies to be reinstated more asylum-seekers would start drowning again while trying to get into Australia, including more children!

Dennis | 22 August 2014