The Common Good

A Crash Course: Australia, Refugees, and the Politics of Jesus

Here’s a crash course to understand what’s happening in Australia with refugees and the politics of Jesus.

Imagine for a moment that in the lead up to the next U.S. elections, a political party changed immigration policies and took the relatively small number of people seeking safety on boats from, let’s say Cuba, and locked these persecuted people up on Guantanamo like criminals — elderly, men, women, and over 1,000 children. You would expect outcry from people across the political spectrum. Indeed there was. Only the fear campaign was so effective, the blame game so seductive and the election win so decisive, that the majority of politicians on all sides sacrificed their principles on the altar of popularity. Not to mention these desperate people — tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free — … these now homeless who were literally tempest-tossed on boats sacrificed on this bloody idol of false security. Of course behind closed doors, elected officials will confess to you, as a Christian, that they personally find it abhorrent but for the sake of the party and all the good they could do when they get into power they rationalize with the logic of Caiaphas and get the same results: the sacrifice of the innocent.

Sound too far-fetched? This is the recent history of Australia. Thanks, Paul Dyson, for the Cuba analogy. When I asked others for a metaphor for what Australia is doing my mate Sam Mclean simply said,

Detaining people indefinitely and without charge on a nearby troubled island state. Oh, wait … [that’s not a metaphor].

It’s not a metaphor. That’s exactly what Australia is doing, and recently an innocent young man, Reza Barati, was murdered and 77 injured in one of these indefinite concentration camps that have been condemned by Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, Amnesty International, Australian Medical Association, Australian Psychological Society, and other expert groups. And that’s why we need to talk of the church.

Wait, isn’t that political?

Yep. And that’s why we need to talk about the church as the ground zero for the practice of the politics of Jesus.

Church in the New Testament is unquestionably political. “Messiah,” “Lord,” “King,” “Kingdom,” “church” — all political terms. What do they mean? Here’s the cheat sheet for Christian theology: they all find their definition in Jesus. Look at his nonviolent-Calvary-shaped-life-of-love and you’ll find what these terms mean and how Jesus’ politics of love are different from the politics of all sides.

Messiah: A greater miracle than Jesus changing water into wine is how he changed the meaning of the word “messiah.” Jesus transformed “messiah” from violent conqueror of enemies into Suffering Servant who loves, dies, and rises from the dead for his enemies.

Lord: Maybe as miraculous as the raising of Lazarus is the early church’s use of the word “Lord.” The New Testament radically breaks with its cultural context that used the term “Lord” for Rome’s Caesar and used it for their risen, nonviolent Messiah who was crucified on a Roman cross.  

King: The violence of kings is rejected by the King of Kings. We worship a God who is coronated as the world’s true King with a crown of thorns on a cross. This side of the Resurrection we now see clearly that God reigns with Christ-like Calvary-shaped power and love.

Kingdom: As Bonhoeffer put it, “a king who dies on the Cross must be the king of a rather strange kingdom.” The Kingdom of God is anywhere where God’s love reigns. Its people are anyone who lives that love and whose polices are the empowering love of the Holy Spirit.

And church 

The Hebrew term for church is qahal, meaning a public meeting of God’s people. But the Apostle Paul of course writes his letters in Greek and chooses a loaded term, ekklesia.

Ekklesia was the term used of political gatherings where male citizens of the ruling class would gather to take part in these early experiments in democracy and decide political matters. That is the term Paul chooses to use of the church. But even more radical, this term in the New Testament refers not to a gathering of just elite male citizens of Rome (those by grace they too are welcome), but also a gathering of women, the poor, former prostitutes, outsiders, slaves, and free, all of whom are bestowed with the same dignity and privilege of being the politics of Jesus together. Filled with the Spirit, the early ekklesia lived Christ’s Calvary-shaped love as a real political alternative.

You can’t follow Jesus without giving a damn about injustice.

But we can’t be an alternative to injustice without a people.

Grace takes others.

And those others form a people as problematic as we are, who are from places totally different than we are, who need the same grace we do, who can come alongside us as we help wean each other off addictions to civilised systems of sin and oppression and witness to the joyful alternative that Jesus calls “the Kingdom of God”. That my friends, is what God’s got in mind when he calls us to be part of the church, to be a continuation of Love’s incarnation, a sign of the world that’s on its way — a giant Jesus in the world.

So to end with a short testimony: the church in Australia is showing signs of being a Calvary-like-love political alternative when it comes to refugees.

Here are 7 examples from the last month of the church practicing the politics of grace, the politics of love, the politics of Jesus that have caused many to ask about the hope we have and reimagine what our response to asylum seekers could be:

  1. Uniting church has offered to the Australian government to house every child indefinitely detained offshore on Nauru.
  2. Leader of the fastest growing Christian movement in Australia and Lead Pastor at Kirkplace Presbyterian Steve Chong hosted a “Welcome the Stranger” night, uniting Christians across Sydney to respond biblically to asylum seekers.
  3. Over 100 churches have signed up for World Vision and Welcome to Australia’s joint initiative,Welcome to My Place, to equip Christians to meet and share a meal with refugees.
  4. Christians from churches as diverse as Hillsong, the Catholic Church, and Churches of Christ have engaged in respectful nonviolent civil disobediencerefusing to end a prayer vigil in the Immigration Ministers office until they were told when 1,138 children would be released from indefinite detention.
  5. Baptists in New South Whales have offered to open their own homes to the 100 asylum seekers who were being transferred from Villawood detention centre.
  6. Prominent Christian leaders like John Dickson of the Christian Center for Public Christianity and Tim Costello of World Vision Australia continue to speak out against human rights abuses and call for abiblical, compassionate approach to asylum seekers. 
  7. And finally, closer to home for me, my amazing wife Teresa Lee has been nominated for Western Australia Community Award of the Year for her work pioneering First Home Project, where her family of three models Christian hospitality for 17 recently arrived refugees as an alternative to the cruelty of detention while addressing issues of secondary homelessness.

Lord, by your Holy Spirit, make us your church, a sign of the world you long for that we see revealed in your Son. Amen.

Jarrod McKenna is amazed by grace. A peace award winning nonviolence trainer, activist, and pastor, Jarrod is now World Vision Australia’s National Advisor on Youth, Faith, and Activism. Jarrod ,with his amazing wife Teresa and son Tyson, are three of 17 people living at First Home Project, an innovative community welcoming, housing, and empowering refugees. Follow him on twitter here.

Illustration: Mdesignstudio/Shutterstock

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