Last week, churches and church leaders around Australia intervened in the issue of sending asylum seekers, including children, to Nauru, following the High Court decision upholding the government's legal power to do so.
Beginning with St John's Cathedral in Brisbane, churches of many denominations across Australia offered sanctuary to these asylum-seekers, most of whom were brought to Australia for medical treatment. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights has urged Australia not to return them to Nauru, saying their physical and mental condition is fragile.
Sanctuary is an idea that apparently finds no place in modern Australian law, but it has a long history stretching back to Old Testament times.
The word 'asylum' comes from the Greek asylos -- inviolable -- and refers to the idea that a sacred place could not be entered and that someone who sought refuge there was safe. So if a person accidentally killed someone, a temple or 'city of refuge' could save them from blood vengeance. This not only conforms to the Christian idea of mercy but also upheld the social fabric by providing a mechanism that could break the cycle of violence and revenge. It provided a solution in circumstances where people had seemingly run out of options.
I think the concept of sanctuary is as relevant and important today as ever, and the churches are absolutely right to have raised this idea at this time.
To begin with, the 267 people affected by the High Court's ruling have committed no crime, simply sought refuge from persecution and danger. The group includes more than a dozen women and at least one child who have allegedly suffered sexual assault or harassment on Nauru. It includes 37 babies born in Australia to asylum-seeking mothers, and 54 children. Using them as pawns in a political game is cynical and cruel. It is unconscionable.
As a political and humanitarian concept rather than a legal one, sanctuary has played an important role in fighting oppression and evil in modern history as well as ancient times.
The 'underground railway' not only protected escaped slaves in pre-Civil War America, it also contributed to the political momentum for emancipation. In almost every country of Europe, people took massive personal risks to provide sanctuary for Jews during the Nazi genocide.
Today we face the appalling truth of family violence here in Australia. Refuge for women dealing with violent situations is an essential part of the community's response.
People in vulnerable situations need sanctuary, and governments that proclaim adherence to liberal and democratic values ought to provide it. Clearly conditions in Nauru and Manus fail to do this. People in Nauru and Manus are at risk of serious physical and psychological harm.
But if governments choose pragmatic political advantage at the cost of the safety of vulnerable human beings, it falls to people of conscience to do what is within their power. For churches, this must mean speaking truth to power, and where possible it should also include deeds.
Some politicians responded predictably with threats and warnings that the law will not be defied. But in fact the churches had never said they would break the law. What they were doing was putting the political and moral ball into the government's court. This was not so much civil disobedience, but a timely provocation that had the effect of questioning the government's flawed moral logic and forcing any decision to be taken in the public square.
Churches are not a department of state, and much as people in power might curse meddlesome priests, the churches have both a right and a duty to speak and act from conscience. Even those who disagree with any particular policy position should value this. There is a very fine line between pragmatism and surrendering to indifference to suffering.
We are at risk of boiled frog syndrome, where we slide towards surrender by degrees and not realising what is really happening or just how much is being lost.
Sometimes, unpopular and counter-cultural thoughts and deeds are the necessary preventive agent against a degeneration of our liberal and democratic values. So someone needs to act like the canary in the coalmine, sounding a warning before it becomes too late.
Fewer Australians attend church today that in the past, but I think there's a powerful streak in our national character that affirms the uncomplicated notions of justice and compassion that Jesus proposed.
In standing up against a slide into cruelty and indifference, the churches are both staying true to their timeless beliefs, and performing a valuable role in upholding liberal and democratic values.
Eventually someone has to say, "If not us, who?" and "If not now, when?" Thank God the churches have found their voice at the right time.