TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Voting for justice and mercy for Australia

Election fever is upon us, which means our news is filled with the election trail. The Australian Bishops have issued a statement titled A Vote for the Voiceless. This statement can be found on the Church’s national website www.catholic.org.au/election.

I thought I would share with you the list included in this statement in an attempt to give a voice to the voiceless. The Bishops say:

Among the people discarded in this throwaway culture are these:

  • Refugees and asylum seekers who are often seen as a problem to be solved rather than as human beings in need of our help.
  • Indigenous peoples whose cry for recognition has barely been heard and who suffer injustice at the hands of our justice system.
  • The survivors of sexual abuse who have emerged from the shadows and whose voice is not being heard, crying out for redress and healing.
  • Those who suffer family violence who are often unseen and unheard, behind closed doors with nowhere to go and no-one to turn to.
  • Those in the womb who are among the most defenceless, at risk of being deprived of the most basic of all human rights, the right to live.
  • The elderly who are seen at times as an economic burden now that they are unable to “produce” or consume in the way the economy demands.
  • Those suffering mental illness who seem not to fit in with accepted patterns of social behaviour and are often presumed to contribute nothing to society, thus ending up in the too hard basket.
  • Those suffering addiction who can see no way out of the destructive grasp of alcohol or other drugs, gambling or pornography.
  • Those entrapped in new forms of slavery who are the victims of sexual or workplace enslavement.
  • The desperately poor beyond our shores who look to wealthy Australians for the help they need – often simply to survive – but find our nation less and less generous.

We are blessed to live in a wonderful country with a stable democracy. The narrative that we convince ourselves is true is around equality and a fair go, and yet I know that the list of the voiceless people given to us by our Bishops is real and of grave concern.

In the past month I have attended talks given by Fr Aloysious Mowe SJ, the Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia; David Manne, a lawyer and migration agent and Executive Director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre (RILC), Phil Glendenning, Director of the Edmund Rice Centre and John Sandy, a refugee who works with our CatholicCare Refugee Service.

Refugees are welcome

What has become apparent to me is the need for a change to our social policy platform. Those who seek protection, the vulnerable − either in our country or beyond our borders − are people who need our care and mercy. Our narrative has changed from one of concern for our fellow human beings to one of protecting our borders, the language of fear and emotion. The loudest cries at this stage are – stop the boats, sovereign borders, stop the drownings, stop the people smugglers, protect our jobs and way of life, terrorists……. We do not seem to be able to take part in a morally serious discourse. We know there is a major global problem with about six million displaced people seeking a place to call home. It seems that our geographical isolation removes us from the global issue, yet true mercy demands our attention and justice.

Fr Aloysious Mowe used the phrase, “refugees are the face of God and the flesh of Christ”. I think the list produced by the Australian Bishops includes some of the groups of people who are the flesh of Christ. On this Trinity Sunday we are reminded about our being in intimate relationship with our God, ourselves and each other, as well as our environment. Such relationships call us to a change of heart, a conversion, a change of attitude. It also impels us to speak out prophetically with others so that all people may experience hope and dignity. The world turned its back on the plight of the Jewish people during World War II and we run the same risk of ignoring the real plight of those who need to flee their homelands.

We cannot depersonalise the present situation and scapegoat those who are seeking to find a safe place to call home. I am sure they do not wish to leave their homeland and risk all and yet they have no real choice other than to flee and seek the protection and generosity of strangers. The flesh of the refugee is the flesh of Christ. Certainly those who have presented these talks are doing so in order to disturb the dominant societal attitude. I know at some stage the critical mass will change and our politicians will be forced to hear the voice of the people who cry out for those with no voice. I wish it were sooner.

One of the issues raised in these forums was our lack of a Bill of Rights. Evidently we are the only Western country without such a Bill, because of our belief that Common Law is enough. It seems that a Bill of Rights would give us the checks and balances needed for a just and fair society. It would mean that any legislative changes would be placed against a measure of ‘goodness’ for the majority. I think it is worth pondering. It may be what we need to have a social conscience based on the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

I am not naive enough to think that there is a simple solution to this conversation. In nonviolent leadership, this problem is given the term a ‘wicked’ problem which therefore requires many voices around the table to propose a possible solution. We are certainly aware that Australia does not exist in this region in isolation and the challenge is to mobilise the people of this region to dialogue and discern a regional solution.

In one of these talks Frederick Douglass was quoted.  He was a former slave, an abolitionist and a social reformer who was one of Abraham Lincoln’s friends. He said:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. (August 3 1857)

What are we demanding individually, as a church and as a community?

Mary and JesusSo on this day, May 24, the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, we are reminded of the power of prayer, not a power of supremacy or a power over, but the collective power of those who seek God’s help to bring about the change we wish to imagine. It was under the title of Help of Christians that Mary was chosen as Patroness of Australasia by the First Provincial Synod, convened by Archbishop John Bede Polding in Sydney in 1844. The fledgling colonies needed Mary’s help at that time, as the nation does today. We are helped through Mary’s powerful intercession, and through the example of her life we find in the Gospels. She was the first true disciple who believed and followed by continually saying ‘yes’ to the unknown. She provides us with the feminine face of God who walks with us and desires what is best for all her children.

I conclude this message with the Collect from the Mass of Our Lady Help of Christians:

Almighty ever-living God,
who placed the love of Our Lady, Help of Christians
in the hearts of those
who brought the Catholic faith to these shores,
grant, through her intercession,
wisdom to our leaders and integrity to our citizens,
so that, under her protection,
Australia may know harmony, justice and peace.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is the Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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