April 2014

Why we felt compelled to act

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.

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”.

The Good Oil

‘The Good Oil’, the free, monthly e-journal of the Good Samaritan Sisters, publishes news, feature and opinion articles and reflective content which aims to nourish the spirit, stimulate thinking and encourage reflection and dialogue about contemporary issues from a Good Samaritan perspective.

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