Gospel Brutality Reborn In Our Harrowing of Refugee Children

Consulting editor of Eureka Street, Andrew Hamilton sj, places current issues concerning detainees in a wider perspective.

The High Court decision on detention in Nauru was brought down just before the Christian season of Lent. It left the government free and determined to deport many young mothers and children to Nauru.

For the mothers and children, deportation will bring new trauma with renewed threat to their already precarious mental health. For the Australian public it again makes us ask what brutality, even to children, we are ready to tolerate.

The pain of the children and the savagery of their treatment are suitable subjects for Lenten reflection.

Religious feasts, like Lent and Ash Wednesday which introduces it, are often linked to significant public events, particularly those which are catastrophic, violent or shameful. We speak, for example, of the Tet offensive, of the Easter Uprising and Bloody Sunday in Ireland, of the Yom Kippur War, of the Ash Wednesday bushfires.

Such seasons of reflection also encourage us to be more sensitive to the large public events which form their context. This year violence in the Middle East and the vast number of people forced from their own nations to seek protection where they can find it are a sombre background to Lent.

They also fit: Lent begins with the ashes of illusory hopes, leads to the cynical torture and execution of Jesus and the apparent failure of his movement, and ends in the new hope of Easter day.

Australia's harrowing of refugees and their children fits uncomfortably well with Lent's universal evocation of suffering and torment.

Their flight from persecution and violence in their own nations, their incarceration on Nauru and Christmas Island, their brief hope when brought to Australia to bear and rear their children, and the snuffing out of that hope with a return to Nauru where their children will find no flourishing of life, echo the journey of Jesus in Passion Week when, too, the crowd applauded each new humiliation.

We might hope with powerless sympathy that those brutally treated will find in their experience and their own religious traditions intimations of the hope and strength associated with the Christian Easter.

The association between public life and the foundational religious stories is not merely descriptive. The stories and their characters also map an ethical framework for interpreting public events.

Brutal Herod, doubting Thomas, vacillating Pilate, treacherous Judas, scheming Caiaphas and enduring Mary enshrine for Christians ways in which people should and should not act. They are images that help us evaluate what is done in our times and also assess our own prejudices, actions or failure to act. They represent a call to personal judgment.

But the naming of events can also shape the capacity of a society to respond to new challenges. The events of Bloody Sunday, for example, made it difficult to promote just and harmonious relationships between Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Island. Naming it Bloody Sunday, with its religious reference and ethical weight, made it even more difficult.

For the deportation of children and their mothers to Nauru, the story with most resonance is that of Herod's murder of the children around Bethlehem for dynastic, and so security, reasons.

The story gave rise to a feast remembering the children killed — the Holy Innocents. Story and feast stand as an assertion of the dignity of each human being, especially the smallest and most vulnerable, and as a condemnation of political brutality.

The story also warns the government of unintended consequences. If public outrage at the brutality involved in the deportation of children to Nauru leads government leaders and ministers to be identified with King Herod or similar monsters, they may lose the moral authority and respect they will need to carry through difficult decisions.

In times favourable to them this may not be a disaster. But at a time when the challenges facing Australia demand strong leadership and policies that will inevitably anger powerful interests, government leaders will need strong moral capital and support from across society.

The obloquy that may follow from pursuing mothers and children to despair and diminishment could strip the government of its moral authority and so of its capacity to lead change. On the other hand, of course, government leaders may be right in their judgment that no one will care.

Either way Lent invites reflection, even on what is in the government's self-interest. But for those who enter Lent on its own terms, it invites us to hold in our hearts and cry out for the people, particularly children, who are dragged along the way of the cross.

This article was originally published in Eureka Street.

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