Nonviolence on the streets

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On Wednesday 16 April a group of 11 Christian leaders from a range of denominations were arrested in Subiaco, Perth. Their crime? Speaking up for over  1,000 children who are held in indefinite detention in Australia. Otherwise known as trespassing.

The group, including Paul Montague, First Third specialist for the Metro South Region of the Uniting Church in WA, were arrested in the office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, as they prayed and asked for a response to the question: why are kids in detention?

A similar event was also held in Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s office a few weeks prior, and just days before going to print, two nonviolent sit-ins were held resulting in  arrest, one in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s office, the other in the office of the leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten. Included in these arrests was the moderator of the New South  Wales/Australian Capital Territory Synod, Rev Dr Brian Brown, past president of the Uniting Church in Australia, Rev Alistair Macrae, and three more Uniting Church ministers.

love makes a way

Christian leaders, including the eleven who were arrested for their non-violent protest in Julie Bishop’s office in Perth asking ‘why are kids in detention?’ Photo: Aaron Bunch

Laura Vertigan, a teacher and member of the Uniting Church in WA, said that she participated in the Perth sit-in because she wanted to help change the conversation around refugees  and asylum seekers in Australia.

“We are trampling all over human rights here, and people seem to think that’s not problematic,” she said. “A whole lot of these myths have been put out there by the media and the government – all of the governments that we’ve had in the last decade or so – that these people are terrorists or they’re criminals or whatever, but the statistics show quite clearly  that is not the case,” she said. “We focused on kids because people have been listening to these lies for so long that you need to take it slow. It’s hard for decent people to argue kids should be locked up. It takes  time for people to change their opinions and they need to see different information at different times.

“We were a small part in a movement  that’s chipping away at this mountain.”

The truth is, according to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), there is no queue to jump, asylum seekers don’t receive any payments from Centrelink even though they are  not allowed to work, they are 45% less likely to commit crime and no asylum seeker who has arrived by boat has ever been found to be a threat to national security.

When ministers, priests, nuns and religious leaders start getting arrested, you know they are serious. Laura said she did have concerns about the possibility of a criminal record preventing her from teaching, but when she put it in perspective of what activists have gone through, and are going through around the world, it was an easy choice to make.

“There was a potential cost there. But then I thought, if any of the big names throughout history counted the cost to themselves, then those actions wouldn’t happen. For me to step  back and say oh it might hurt my career is such a pathetic excuse for me to not do something.”

As Revive goes to print, the Perth group are awaiting their second court hearing date. Those arrested in the sitins in the Eastern States were arrested, with some also charged with  trespass. During 2014, the Australian Human Rights Commission is holding a national inquiry into children in immigration detention. Its purpose is to look into the ways that  detention affects the health, wellbeing and development of children.

For some though, Australia needs immediate action on this issue. And agree with them or not, the campaign, dubbed ‘Love Makes a Way’ on Twitter and Facebook, has gone viral.  They’ve made national news; online, print and commercial television. The story also appeared on some Christian blogs in the United States of America, and the hashtag,  #lovemakesaway, has trended numerous times.

They got attention.

Jarrod McKenna, Pastor at Westcity Church in Wembley, and one of the arrested, said that after trying so many methods to be heard on the issue the group felt this action was the way  it needed to go.

“Christian leaders, for over a decade responding to how Australia has been not responding to asylum seekers, have reached a point where they feel it’s necessary to dramatise the   injustice in society,” he said. “These people have committed no crime. They have no parole.

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Laura Vertigan (right) and other Christian leaders during a peaceful protest in Julie Bishop’s office in Perth. Photo: Aaron Bunch

“People get on boats for the same reasons people jump from a burning building: if they stay, they die.”

Jarrod said he’s tried almost everything, from contacting politicians, signing petitions and participating in marches to Bible studies, public speaking and publishing articles.

“I almost dare you to name something else we haven’t done,” he said. “Now that we’ve exhausted normal pathways and legal pathways, it’s now necessary to take these actions.”

But what they’re doing, he said, is not a new concept.

“In 1989–1990 alone, over 1.4 billion people around the globe participated in nonviolent social protest,” Jarrod said. “There were 14 revolutions in that time alone, 12 of which  maintained their nonviolence.

“Even without a commitment to nonviolence of the cross, there is no doubt nonviolence is a strategy for change.”

Nonviolent strategies have indeed created huge change in the world. From India’s independence from Britain, led by Mahatma Gandhi; to the struggle for civil rights for African Americans led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, tells the story of Liberian women who led a movement to bring peace to their country during civil  war. These are but a few examples.

While for some, nonviolence sounds like a weak, forceless strategy, Jarrod believes that nonviolence does not mean we ignore injustice or remain passive. It means we fight back  with love.

For Christians, nonviolence is the way of Jesus.

Delivering a sermon on practicing nonviolent resistance, Jarrod said, “What Jesus invites us into is something where we stand our ground. Where we no longer let them name us as  victims ,but we demand our dignity in such ways that not only do we remember that we’re a child of God, but we create situations where they can encounter the Holy Spirit and they  can discover that they are a child of God.”

As Laura explained, nonviolent action is about a ‘double victory’. It’s about changing policy, but also about changing the way people think about the issue. Paraphrasing Dr Martin  Luther King Jr, she said, “We don’t just want to win this issue, but your hearts and minds in the process”.

Fast Facts

  • It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, even without documentation.
  • As of 30 April 2014 there are 2,373 children in Australia’s immigration detention facilities or community detention. Of these, 190 children are detained  in the Nauru Detention  Centre and 254 on Christmas Island.
  • The longer children are in detention centres, the greater the possibility that they will  suffer mental harm.
  • Australia ranks 49th on the list of countries that host refugees by total number. We rank 87th by national wealth GDP per capita.
  • Managing Australia’s onshore detention centres is projected to cost more than $2.5 billion this year.
  •  Offshore processing on Manus and Nauru Islands is projected to cost more than $2 billion.It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, even without documentation.

*source: Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC)

Inspired?

Find out more about the Love Makes a Way campaign at facebook.com/LoveMakesAWayForAsylumSeekers or on twitter@lovemakesaway

Heather Dowling

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