Refugees and Christian discipleship: an Australian perspective

By Douglas Hynd
March 13, 2019

“May we be doers of the word, and not hearers only...” The famous theologian Karl Barth urged preachers to read the Bible alongside their newspapers to help them understand the context in which they were proclaiming the Word of God. So what is the context in Australia in which we are meeting here in Refugee Week, and in opening the following scriptures: Luke 10: 25-37 and Hebrews 13: 1-6, 11-14?

The Australian government has established offshore mandatory and indefinite detention for asylum seekers. The UNHCR has described the situation on Manus Island as a humanitarian emergency, with men living in constant fear of attack. The reluctance of Border Force to bring a man from Nauru to Australia for palliative care displays no respect for the humanity of asylum seekers, even in their dying. Members of families have been kept separated despite illness. Beyond this the government is instituting a range of policies that seem to be directed at making life evermore difficult for all asylum seekers instead of treating people seeking refuge with respect and care while their claims are assessed.

Against this background it is hard for many involved in supporting refugees and asylum seekers to keep going when compassion and justice are absent from Government policy. The power of death is continuously present as people we have to come to know and regard as friends continue to be subject to psychological torture and physical abuse. The issue facing us then is not just one of working for compassion and justice. Rather we face a spiritual struggle to remain faithful to our calling as disciples to love our neighbour who may be a stranger against the grain of a government policy that encourages us to be fearful and angry that asylum seekers dare disturb us in our comfort and safety. Our struggle to be faithful will need to be sustained, by prayer and the support of the Christian community as well as by reflection on scripture. So what does the scriptures that we have just read say to us? 

The passage from Hebrews points to a tension that is at the heart of the Christian life for us both as individuals and as a community. We are called to live life as faithful followers of Jesus here and now, while remembering that we have here no abiding city but are looking for a city that is to come. 

To illustrate what this tension means I want you to share with you lines from a plaque in the First Church in Dunedin, a Presbyterian church that goes back to the founding of the city by immigrants from Scotland in 1848. I was there a year ago and the wording struck me at the time.

 A letter concerning the proposal to establishment commented:

 IF IT SHALL BE GODS WILL THAT WE SHALL SUCCEED

IN ESTABLISHING THIS COLONY

I PURSUADE MYSELF WITH HIS BLESSING ATTENDING

US WE MAY BE INSTRUMENTAL IN PLANTING DOWN IN

THESE FAVOURED ISLANDS A WELL ORDERED GOD FEARING

COMMUNITY THAT MAY STAND IN THESE REMOTE REGIONS

A SAMPLE OF THE KINGDOM OF CHRIST

WHICH LIKE A LIGHT BURNING IN A DARK PLACE

SHALL BEAR NO INDISTINCT TESTIMONY TO THE TRUTH.

(Burns to Cargill – 1844 Concerning Proposals for a Scots Church Settlement in Otago.) 

Here we have a vision for a community established by faithful Christians, a down to earth active commitment to work for the Kingdom of God. At the bottom of the plaque are lines from Hebrews 13 placed there by subsequent generations of worshipers that raises a qualification, a second thought, about what they had attempted in building Dunedin. "Yet here we have no permanent home, we are seekers after a city which is to come." 

 The city that those earnest Scots worked to establish, whose welfare and flourishing they sought has much about it that is outstanding – but these lines from Hebrews remind us that the city in which we are engaged must be tested against God’s intention for human communities and his standard of justice. Christians are people who are according to the Epistle to the Hebrews never quite settled, never quite at home. In our time this unsettledness means bringing God’s standard of justice to bear on the way asylum seekers are being treated, not accepting  government policies without question.

This text from Hebrews, with its suggestion of Christians not being settled in the city in which they find themselves, has deep roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. From its very beginning, the story of Israel was one of their being aliens, suffering oppression and persecution, or as refugees fleeing famine or enslavement. Abraham is called by God to leave his home and become a wanderer. His descendants  travelled to Egypt because of famine and later escaped from slavery there through God’s action in the Exodus. The Israelites believed themselves to be a people freed by a God who stands with the oppressed and who calls them to do likewise. The Hebrew Scriptures contain numerous injunctions to care for the stranger. "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt," – Exodus 22:21.  "Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.'' – Deuteronomy 27:19. In the closing chapter of Hebrews, there is a nod to the story of Abraham calling us to exercise hospitality to strangers, for in doing so we may entertain angels unawares.

The Gospel reading in Luke takes this Jewish teaching on hospitality to the stranger and extends it even further. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the call to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves is pushed to its limit in a way that has a clear connection with the question of how as disciples of Jesus we are called to respond to refugees and asylum seekers.

In this parable, Jesus stretches our understanding of who falls within the category of neighbour in a way that resists all our efforts to limit its application. Jesus extends our imagination about who our neighbour is, to include the enemy, the stranger, anyone who is different to us. Jesus though, does more than radically extend the scope of who our neighbour could be. He could have done that in the story by making the injured man a Samaritan and the person who cares for him a righteous Jew, a Pharisee. That would have been comforting to his Jewish listeners as it would have underlined their moral and religious superiority over the despised Samaritans. In having a Jewish layperson rather than the Samaritan as the one to take the credit for this radical extension in practice of their law, he would have taken a dig at the religious authority figures the priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side. 

But Jesus ratchets up the tension in the parable by performing the storytellers’ equivalent of a high diver’s double twist with pike in the way he tells the story. The one who demonstrates this extension of neighbour love, who is moved by compassion and extends mercy in a way which not only crosses religious and ethnic boundaries but also dips generously into his own wallet to do so, Jesus announces, is the stranger, the repugnant other, the religious and cultural outsider. The heretical Samaritan is the person who extends compassion to a Jew and demonstrates and radicalises the meaning of the Jewish Law. Jesus here completely subverts his listeners’ assumptions about the social location and identity of the one who extends our understanding of who our neighbour is. The person who acts as a neighbour is someone who is right outside the established order.

I want to connect this storytelling move by Jesus back to that phrase from Hebrews that we seek a city that is to come. In our exercise of compassion, it is not just a matter of responding to the needs of the stranger, the person who is different. The questions are raised: Who are we identified with and where are we located as we serve and extend compassion to the stranger?

In his telling of the story, Jesus  asks us to imagine that the exercise of compassion to the enemy, to those who are different, comes from a person outside the established order. The Samaritan, who exercised compassion to his enemy, was himself an outsider to Jesus and his listeners. It is from this outside position that he radically extends the range of who is to be loved and what is to be risked in that act of compassion. So it is for us. In extending compassion we will find that we are placing ourselves with the outsider, the refugee, the asylum seeker, with those who we thought we were simply trying to serve as a neighbour. In following Jesus, in seeking a city, which is to come, we are relocating ourselves with the strangers and aliens, those who are outsiders.

I hope you might be starting to get an idea of where this reading of Jesus’ parable is taking us. The Australian government has set out a refugee policy focused on tight boundaries about who is in and who is out – the stranger, the asylum seeker, is the outsider who is to be feared or viewed suspiciously. To exercise compassion to become a neighbour to such a person as a disciple of Jesus, is to reject that definition. In responding to refugees as neighbours, we are doing so as people whose loyalty is to what the Epistle of Hebrews describes as a city which is to come. The claims of our current city and its government whose good we are committed to seek, cannot override the claims of the coming city, the city of God. And it is through Jesus’ teaching, his life, death and resurrection that we know a little of what that city will look like, a city of inclusion and of open doors.

I say all this by way of encouragement to this congregation that has taken up with great generosity and faithfulness over many years the call of Jesus to demonstrate compassion for the stranger, the refugee, the asylum seeker. Following Jesus and obeying his call to be neighbours to the stranger is getting more difficult and our efforts to exercise compassion seem puny against the power of government to do harm. If we are to remain faithful to Jesus’ radical, disturbing call in responding to refugees and asylum seekers, we will need to understand who we are – that is, we are people who live in the tension of being seekers after a city that is to come, while taking an active role in loving our neighbour. 

This tension is one that Baptists have lived with over the centuries in their history of nonconformity and dissent. We now live in a time which calls for a further practice of dissent in which as disciples, our tension with the state is now coming, not over matters of theology and worship as it was in the original struggle of Baptists against the established church. It is dissent expressed in acts of compassion for a neighbour who is a stranger, ethnically and religiously. 

So what does love for our neighbour, as the refugee or asylum seekers require from us? There are people in this congregation who are already responding with imagination, generosity and compassion to the needs of asylum seekers and refugees. What I can say is that I expect the need for personal and financial support for this group of our neighbours, which has been increasing over the past year, will continue to do so for the forseeable future. Canberra Refugee Support, St Vincent de Paul and Companion House, the counselling and medical service for refugees in Canberra are meeting regularly to most effectively allocate limited resources to try and ensure that refugee families are not forced into homelessness and are not left isolated and alone. 

The call of Jesus to love our neighbour that we are unpacking in all its confronting challenge this morning is clear. The haunting phrase from the Epistle to Hebrews – we seek for a city which is to come, serves as a reminder that we may find ourselves at odds with the city in which we find ourselves resident and on the issue of treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, that is definitely the case.  The Australian poet James McCauley whom read to you in conclusion, nicely captures Jesus' call in the words of a hymn:

As children of our God we’re sisters, brothers;

But will God’s love to all the world be known

If we do not reflect his love to others?

In charity and justice God is shown.

 

Millions believe the law of life is cunning

Within a world of cruelty and greed;

How can they know God’s charity and justice

If helping hands have never reached their need?

 

Christ is at work through us who are his body;

He chooses us to witness and to teach,

To heal and raise and liberate and strengthen,

To be his hands and eyes his heart and speech.

 

There is no promise that we shall not suffer,

No promise that we shall not need to fight;

Only the word that love is our redemption 

And freedom comes by turning to the light.

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© Douglas Hynd is a theologian and recent doctoral student at Australian Catholic University. He is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, an Ekklesia associate, an Anabaptist with an interest in history and discipleship, and an activist for refugee, environment, peace and justice concerns. This sermon was preached last year at Canberra Baptist Church. More of Doug’s writing and scholarship can be accessed at: https://acu-au.academia.edu/DouglasHynd

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