Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/QJeTQTBvwUs.
Social Justice Sermon
Well here we are today, a group of ordinary Christian people- diverse in some ways and quite similar in others but all of us wanting to do the right thing, to be the people that God calls us to be. “What does the Lord require of you?” Micah (6:8) asks- and his answer you know, “Do justice, love kindness or mercy and walk humbly with your God”. Three simple statements, that lead us into all kinds of difficult waters. It is interesting that the three things are intertwined here. Justice, without mercy can be a very hard thing, and justice even with mercy requires the component of humility to keep us from becoming benevolent despots and to keep us in a real understanding of who we are in God’s scheme of things. The first question we need to consider is what is it to ‘do justice’ and thankfully both the Old Testament and the New say quite a bit about this.
The book of Isaiah when taken in its entirety, even though written over a long period and by at least three authors has a very strong message from beginning to end about not only justice but mercy as well.
The passage we read today talks about what God requires of God’s people and it is in response to the nation of Israel, returned from the Babylonian Exile who are fasting in order to make God do what they want. It is a very salutary passage for us to read often, I think.
God says that God doesn’t want the kind of fast they have chosen, that God wants a fast from injustice. But not just an absence of injustice- God requires active change. It is not enough to outwardly humble ourselves, or to look to our personal piety, which after all is all about us, but we are called to actively right the wrongs in our unequal society. So God is saying don’t NOT do something but DO something- get busy straightening out the injustices that have sprung from a lack of mercy. Does this resonate with us? And the result will be that our light will break forth like the dawn, with healing, then we will call for help and God will say “Here I Am”! What a wonderful witness that would be in our community. But this is big scale stuff and we think, well- that is the responsibility really of the legislators- let them address these issues of injustice, that’s what they are there for.
Jesus however, brings the same questions of justice, mercy and indeed humility, down to a much more personal level doesn’t he? In this incredibly challenging picture of judgement, he separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of how they have behaved towards the “least of these”. The truly frightening thing is that neither the sheep nor the goats seem to be really aware of how they have behaved- the poor goats, and I always feel very sorry for them, protest to Jesus “But Lord, when was it that we saw you thirsty, hungry, naked, a stranger?” And the truth is that if they had seen Jesus and recognized him they would, of course, have responded to him. The problem is that Jesus goes about our world disguised- sometimes he is an itinerant preacher, and in that guise, if we can look past the filthy skin, in fact maybe even coloured skin, we might recognize him, but what if he’s a starving child in an African country, or a street kid in Brazil, or a young Muslim woman deported with her baby back to Nauru- these are all, “the least of these” that the goats have failed to recognize as their Lord in human form. I have read that Mother Theresa referred to all the people she helped on the streets of Calcutta as “Jesus”. “Jesus’, leg is much worse,” she would say. I have to say for the majority of people it is easier to see Jesus in the face of Mother Theresa than in the people she helped, but that is not what Jesus is calling us to do- to love the saints and care for them- no- it is our behavior towards ‘the least of these” on which we will be judged. And do you notice that all Jesus’ criteria fit into the category of hospitality?
Is it all about welcoming and providing for people- treating them as honoured guests. And as we read the Gospels this is a constant theme in Jesus’ teachings, and indeed practice. The sharing of what we have, with those who have not is central to who we are, not just as Christians, but I believe as human beings. That is why every culture has its expectations around hospitality. But it is something that we, in our wealth and selfishness, are coming perilously close to losing.
In the early days of our colony people helped one another materially, whether they were neighbours or just passing through. Even when I was a child, nobody ever drove pass someone trudging along the road, but you stopped and picked them up. In the home I grew up in, people were invited for meals, whether we knew them or not, and after the great influx of migrants after the war, whether they spoke English or not. But in the last fifty years we have become a much more selfish society, and indeed a much more fearful society. We are encouraged to see things in terms of scarcity and want, rather than in terms of plenty that leads to generosity.
And this of course brings me to refugees. In the 1970’s the first great influx of refugees in boats- the Vietnamese Boat People, and Indochinese as well, began to pour into Australia and we responded with generosity, as we had after the war to all the displaced persons, as well as what we now refer to as “economic migrants”, many of them English, who had chosen to make Australia home. There have always been difficulties, after the Bosnian conflict, Stephen and I were helping a couple to settle. They had been separated during the conflict- the Bosnian husband and their son rounded up and placed in a camp, the Serbian wife and their daughter in a different camp. Through the efforts of the Red Cross they were reunited, quite miraculously, and came all four of them to Australia to make a new life. Unfortunately, the street they were settled in, in Wollongong was full of Macedonians, who had come a long time before and they resented them- and were not very pleasant- man’s inhumanity to man. Before we go any further, let me just say a word about, so called “economic migrants”. We have a long history of settling people who come to seek a better life, indeed many of us are the descendants of “free settlers”, who came because they thought that Australia might provide them with better opportunities and that continues right to the present day. Among those seeking asylum, are some who are very poor, and some who are more comfortably circumstanced- their economic situation is not relevant. If they are seeking asylum because they are fleeing persecution it makes no difference whatsoever. The question to ask is, ‘is their life in danger in their country of origin, whether from the government itself or some other group?’- if so, they are asylum seekers. The question of other groups, like the poor Bangladeshis is more complex- they cannot claim political persecution- however often their lives are in danger because of starvation, they are not regarded, however, as asylum seekers. The concept of referring to any of these groups as “illegals” is typical of the kind of fear campaign our government has been running. The “illegals” in this country are the far, far larger group of people who are here after their holiday or work visas have expired.
According to The Independent this week there are 60million people fleeing for their lives, from conflicts all around the world. This is a huge global problem and it requires solutions at a global level. However, we in Australia can and must deal with the people that come to our shores. Australia is a signatory to the International Refugee Convention which was established after the WWII in exactly the kind of conditions we are currently facing. And we have many times, in the past, opened our arms to both refugees coming through the regular channels and to Asylum Seekers coming by any means that they could. One thing that has changed in our world is that the gap between rich and poor is constantly growing so that right now there is inequity in our world such as we have never seen before, and it appears that we, like some other very wealthy countries, are jealous of our wealth and cannot bear to share. We hear often in the media that we are struggling, we are poor, we are disadvantaged, but we with the grey hair know that the average person walking down the street has so much more than the average person had fifty years ago. We are, as a nation, governed by our greed and steered by fear. It is time for the Christians to speak out. And thank God for such Christians as Pope Francis who has spoken about just these matters as part of his encyclical, and on other occasions.
You may or may not agree with my analysis of the reason we currently treat our fellow human beings with such harshness, but regardless of what the deep-seated causes of the situation are, with regard to the situation of refugees in our country, we must speak out.
It is very difficult to get accurate figures for the people held in mandatory detention as the government has a policy of silence, but again, the accuracy of the figures is really not very important- what is important is that we are holding in Detention Centres, on shore and off shore, men, women and children, including unaccompanied minors, in indefinite detention. We have locked people up, in appalling conditions, who have not committed any crime, have not been judged to be criminal, who have simply asked for asylum. Now the whole concept of Asylum is a biblical one, indeed if you look at the Pentateuch you will find many references to the laws that pertain to asylum- God instituted this principle, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for denying others what is a basic human right. In our community there are many other refugees who have been granted all sorts of temporary or conditional visas that place them in a state of limbo, some allow them to work, some prevent them from working, but there are thousands of people who don’t know if or when they might be deported.
Let me tell you about Reza. He is a delightful man who escaped from his country of origin after his two brothers had been killed. The secret police came knocking on his door and his wife and father both said to him to run, so he escaped over the back fence leaving his wife and two precious daughters. They made the choice as a family that it was better to be separated than for him to be dead. He finally arrived here in Australia on forged papers and was picked up at the airport and placed into mandatory detention. (this is incidentally the way the vast majority of people arrive, and all the hype about “turning back the boats” is to do with having a visible symbol for action, not to mention a neat slogan.)
Reza was held in detention in Villawood, which was extremely lucky for him, not only because the conditions are so much better than Nauru or Manus Island, but because while there he encountered a Christian woman who gave him a copy of the bible in Persian. Reza, who was Muslim, told me that he had been very uncomfortable with his Muslim faith because he had many questions, particularly relating to the treatment of women in his society. Reza read the old testament first and could understand what he read, but something kept prompting him to read the NT, and when he did, starting with Matthew which he read at a sitting, it brought him to tears, and the next night he read Mark and again it touched him deeply and profoundly and he decided that he was going to follow Christ. He was baptized when he got out of the detention centre. Reza’s first application for a Visa failed, the reason being that the translator wasn’t very helpful. The interviewer asked Reza three times “what he feared” and the translator translated this as “what are the problems”- a very different thing. Reza being an educated man began to explain the political and economic problems of his country rather than telling them what he was frightened of, which of course was death, by thuggery of the secret police. He is five years down the track, just about to be, we are hoping, given a temporary protection visa- which, of course is only temporary and gives him no hope of being reunited with his wife and two precious daughters. I won’t go into more detail of his case but it is typical of many. The only bright spot in his story is that due to the faithfulness of a Christian woman Reza has heard the Gospel and his life has been changed by it. The downside is that if he is sent back to Iran he will be Apostate and executed, quite legitimately in their system, so please pray that he might be able to stay. He incidentally is working extremely long hours just to survive and to send some money home to his wife and children. If you were to meet Reza you would meet a wonderful human who loves his family, who chose life over death, not some criminal who needs to be locked up. And every refugee has a story and each one, when you talk to them is simply a human being who is trying to survive, a human being made in God’s image.
So what as Christian people can we do? Well there are two distinct roles, one to be advocates, to speak up, to lobby, to demand, to be political activists. It is very important that firstly those in government, and indeed in opposition, understand that the people of this great nation want generosity not meaness, hospitality not selfishness in our great land. There are many groups that one can be involved with in this particular way. I represent just one of them, the RACC. Last year we began a working group for people of faith to become involved.
On a more practical level there are many groups, both secular and through the churches who are helping people on the ground. These are people who having been released from camps have enormous needs, not least to be included in our society. We in our congregation are presently helping two Sudanese families and Iranian Reza as they try to settle in to our society. If your church is not involved with any refugee families there are many other places where you can become involved.
Our diocese has just begun a series of meetings in the deaneries, which will look at what churches are doing and could do, so watch out for that coming soon.
What does the Lord require? Our great God requires us to actively love and care for others, to right the wrongs of injustice and to do it in the humility of knowing that before God we are all equal, all sinners, but all equally loved by God.