Today we were arrested in Julie Bishop’s office. We are Christian leaders who peacefully refused to leave without an answer to a vital question. The question is about little Roma. Roma is 11 years old. She has a wound on her arm that will not heal. The wound on her heart may never heal. According to Gillian Triggs at the Australian Human Rights Commission, Roma has only been to school for 10 days in the last 8 months. She is one of 1138 children currently held by the Australian government in indefinite detention.
Our deep concern for these children is grounded in our Christian faith. How can we worship a refugee Jesus on Sunday, and then not care about refugees on Monday? You don’t need a doctorate in theology to see that’s a little hypocritical. Of course, many Australians don’t share our faith, or even care about it. But most Australians care enough about human decency to think that what is happening to Roma and the other children in detention is wrong.
If you are reading this, and you’re not convinced by our reasoning, maybe you will care about what it is costing you. According to Julian Burnside QC, our cruelty comes at a cost of $5 billion per year. Burnside suggests a ‘regional town solution’ to boost struggling regional areas:
Let us make some bold assumptions. Let’s assume that the spike in arrivals that we saw in 2012 became the new norm (highly unlikely); and let’s assume that every asylum seeker remained on Centrelink benefits (also highly unlikely: they are highly motivated). It would cost us about $500 million a year. We would save $4.5 billion a year by treating them decently. And the $500 million would be spent in the struggling economies of regional towns and cities.
The Uniting Church in Australia has offered to care for all the children currently in detention on Christmas Island. The Baptist Churches in NSW have offered hospitality to over 80 people being transferred from Villawood. The reality is that churches in Australia have more than sufficient resources to facilitate community-based care for all the children currently behind bars. Our elected leaders only need to respond to our invitation. Australian people of all faiths and none will respond with creativity and compassion.
It is the beginning of Holy Week. This week we will contemplate the arrest, trial and execution of a refugee cum rabbi who shows us what God is really like: love. At Easter 51 years ago a preacher found himself behind bars due to a peaceful protest action to highlight injustice. From a prison cell, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. penned the now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Some of his fellow religious leaders thought his nonviolent actions and over 30 arrests were too extreme. To them he wrote:
“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.”
Along with other people of compassion, we want to ensure that children in detention can no longer be ignored.
Those of us who participated in the ‘sit-in’ at the office of Julie Bishop are Christian leaders with an unconditional commitment to Christ’s nonviolent love. We did not restrict the coming and going from Ms Bishop’s electorate office. We simply refused to leave without an answer to the question ‘when will these 1138 children be released from detention?’ We did not come in a spirit of self-righteousness or condemnation. We do not judge the Minister or her staff. In fact, we pray for our Foreign Minister in her difficult role. The friendly police officers were just doing their job, so we did not resist arrest. Our ‘sit-in’ was a way of humbly acknowledging our own failure to speak up for children like Roma – more than 1100 children imprisoned with no release date in sight.
So what motivates us? At Riverview Church in Perth, Children’s Pastor Peter Barney knows more than 1000 children who participate in the life of the church. He visualised all of those children locked up indefinitely for no good reason, and knew he had to act. At First Home Project in suburban Perth, WestCity Church Teaching Pastor Jarrod McKenna lives with his family and 17 recently arrived refugees, 12 of whom are children. This week, as he often does, he spoke to a large private school about compassion. As he spoke, he was disturbed to realise that our government can lock up the equivalent of a whole large school without any charge. In his years as a priest and comedian, Father Chris Bedding from the Anglican Church in Darlington has laughed alongside thousands of children. He knows that if even one of them was treated like the children in detention, he would do anything to free them. This concern for children is the motivation for our whole group of pastors and parents.
The Royal Commission is rightly exposing how religious institutions have horrifically failed children. What if the church repented of the acts of the past by actively protecting and championing the rights of children right now? Or will their abuse be the subject of Royal Commissions in the future? The silence and cover-up by religious leaders must never be repeated.
You may have questions about our nonviolent actions, regardless of how loving our intentions are. We too value the discussion about the most effective nonviolent ways of freeing children from detention. But we also know that our grandchildren will ask ‘What did you do when those children were locked up?’ We could tell them that we preached a sermon or signed a petition. We could tell them that we went to some rallies or met with our local MP. But we also feel called to put love into action using nonviolent protest.
You may be troubled by our actions. But ask yourself which is more troubling – the peaceful tradition of Christian civil disobedience, or the 1138 children like Roma who are in prison indefinitely?
If you are as troubled as we are about how we are ignoring these children, we invite you to do one thing. We invite you to start a conversation. Talk with people at home, at work, at the football club or on Facebook. You may be surprised just how many people are troubled too. Let’s make sure that children in our detention centres can no longer be ignored. Will you join us?
The Reverend Chris Bedding (Darlington Anglican), Pastor Jarrod McKenna (Westcity Church) and Pastor Peter Barney (Riverview) on behalf of,
Names of Participants
Pastor Phil Stevenson (Westcity Church), Worship Leader Simone Stuart, Paul Montague (Uniting Church in WA), Julia Devereux (Lake Joondalup Baptist Church), Scott Vawser, Miik Green, Kris Kingswell, Alex Holmes-Brown, Laura May, Michael Devereux (Lake Joondalup Baptist Church)
Editor’s Note: This Article Originally Appeared at WA Today
Photo Credit: Aaron Bunch