Why we felt compelled to act

Prayer vigil for asylum seekers at Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's office (Credit: Kate Ausburn, CC by 2.0)

Prayer vigil for asylum seekers at Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s office (Credit: Kate Ausburn, CC by 2.0)

If you thought your government was perpetrating evil, how far would you be willing to go to stop them, ask Donna Mulhearn and Justin Whelan.

BY Donna Mulhearn and Justin Whelan*

If you thought your government was perpetrating evil, how far would you be willing to go to stop them?

We often look back to Nazi Germany, or apartheid South Africa, and ask why more people did not resist the atrocities committed in their name. These cases illustrate a basic truth: there are times when resisting your own government, even to the point of arrest, is not only justified, it is morally necessary.

The question for our group of friends was: is our government’s cruel treatment of asylum seekers one of those times? After much discussion, prayer and examination of our consciences, we decided the answer is yes.

Donna Mulhearn is arrested at the prayer vigil for asylum seekers at Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's office (Credit: Kate Ausburn, CC by 2.0)

Donna Mulhearn is arrested at the prayer vigil for asylum seekers at Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s office (Credit: Kate Ausburn, CC by 2.0)

Nine of us held a calm and peaceful prayer vigil in Scott Morrison’s electorate office [on March 21], with five refusing to leave under police instruction. Those five were charged with “trespass” and we faced court last week. The aim of this ‘symbolic’ action was to be a catalyst for conversation on the issue, particularly for the Christian community of which Scott Morrison strongly identifies.

When hearing the case [on April 10], the local Magistrate told Sutherland Court “everyone is entitled to protest” and “if ever there was a peaceful protest, this was it”.

He dismissed the charges and in doing so reflected on the ‘other’ protest in the Cronulla area in recent years, noting: “This was on the other end of the scale to the Cronulla riots…”

Whilst the Magistrate stated everyone is “entitled” to protest, we would go further and say most of us have a responsibility to do so. And not just to protest, but to resist.

There are 1,138 children in immigration detention centres: 1,138 too many. One young man killed in our care is one too many.

There is overwhelming evidence that detention beyond a limited period is a “factory for mental illness”, self-harm and suicide attempts, especially among children. The deliberate and wilful infliction of mental injury on innocent children for the purpose of deterring others from seeking our protection is bipartisan policy.

This is not only scandalous; it would also fit the definition of ‘evil’. And as Gandhi once said, “non-co-operation with evil is as much a duty as co-operation with good”.

This principle drove us to engage in non-violent civil disobedience – the purposeful and peaceful act of breaking the law and accepting the consequences in order to arouse the conscience of the nation over this injustice. History has shown that such actions can be powerful. The US civil rights movement is just one example in which civil disobedience played a key role in sparking a movement to end injustice.

Our group was made up of committed Christians from Catholic, Uniting, Quaker, Churches of Christ and Hillsong churches. Like Scott Morrison, we follow Jesus – someone who himself was a refugee. We try to heed the call to love our neighbours as ourselves, to stand up for the oppressed, and to welcome the stranger.

We drew on the long, rich tradition of Christian non-violent protest inspired by Martin Luther King Jr, the people of the Philippines, Ploughshares actions, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement.

Because of our shared faith, we decided to conduct the sit-in in the form of a prayer vigil. We prayed for Mr Morrison, we prayed for our nation. Mostly we prayed for asylum seekers locked up in conditions described as “inhumane” and “a violation of the prohibition against torture”, with a particular focus on the children who are the most vulnerable victims.

Scott Morrison spoke eloquently in his first speech to Parliament of his desire to “stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked…” Our ‘pray-in’ was an attempt to call him back to those ideals.

This is not a cause we came to yesterday. Members of our group have advocated persistently through formal channels for over a decade, under three governments and both major parties. We have visited asylum seekers in detention, protested at rallies, written letters to MPs and invited refugees into our homes.

Having witnessed first-hand the conflict and suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, places from which many asylum seekers flee, we personally felt compelled to take action to draw attention to their plight.

While our faith has played a central role in informing our views on this issue, we stand alongside many other allies in this movement in a shared vision of compassion and welcome for asylum seekers. We are stronger for standing together, each acting out of our strengths.

We encourage others to take up their responsibility in the ways they can. The plight of innocent people is too important to console ourselves with yelling at the TV. What form this action will take will depend on your life circumstances and the people you are able to influence. One person or group acting in isolation will achieve little. But thousands of people acting boldly out of a shared commitment to justice and compassion can move mountains.

We must also resist the temptation to dehumanise the evildoers. As a simple matter of consistency we cannot ourselves do what we oppose. As a matter of strategy, such hatred and vitriol only serves to push away those in the middle.

As Martin Luther King Jr wrote, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.

* Donna Mulhearn is an activist, writer and speaker who was a human shield during the war in Iraq. Inspired by the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, she describes herself as a pilgrim and storyteller. Donna is available for talks about peacemaking, social action and contemplation. Her book, Ordinary Courage, a memoir about her experience as a human shield in Iraq, can be purchased from her via donnamulhearn@yahoo.com.au

Justin Whelan has been researching and teaching about non-violent social movements for the past eight years. His Master’s thesis examined the anti-war movement in Australia in the lead up to the Iraq War. Justin works for Paddington Uniting Church, Sydney, on a project to equip the church and community for social change.

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The Good Oil, April 15, 2014. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

5 Responses to “Why we felt compelled to act”

  1. Penny Carroll says:

    Thanks Donna & Justin for your example, your passion and your commitment to stand against injustice and cruelty. You have inspired me to do more. Penny Carroll

  2. Luke Weyland says:

    Well done, and well said.
    My dad and his family fled from the Nazis and got help from strangers. Both major parties have members either who fled from torture, persecution and/or their parents did. Can’t they put themselves in the shoes of those who must seek shelter today?

  3. J P Quigley says:

    I admire Donna and Justin for what they doing but as the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer attests it is not always clear where one’s responsibility begins and ends. Take this simple quote from No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures & Notes (1928 – 1936). “The Church must continually ask the State whether its actions can be justified as legitimate.” That adverb “continually” is crucial. We Christians cannot let our leaders be the ones that decide which actions of government are questioned. By the Church I believe Bonhoeffer meant all followers of Christ. In my own life, like Bonhoeffer did, I have to work out what value I place on the various responsibilities we all have towards our own well being, that of our family, our friends, our fellow workers, our church community, our society. Would I be prepared to become a member a resistance movement within the Australian Armed forces, like Bonhoeffer did with the German Abwehr? Desperate situations call for desperate measures? On what scales can we weigh “desperation”?

  4. Gill Burrows says:

    Thanks Donna Justin and the rest of the group. Firstly thanks for your passion, courage and selflessness in taking this action which has taken so much time, energy and prayerful dleiberation. And secondly for again taking time to write this clear explanation of your reasons for taking this controversial step. As you say this action was not about drawing attention to yourselves but to bring the issue back into the public consciousness … many people may not have been aware of the plight of so many children being held in detention. Your call during this Easter season is timely: each of us is invited to do something. Our individual challenge is how will I respond?

  5. moconnor says:

    Thank you Donna and Justin and your group of friends for such a stirring example. Marie O’Connor.

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