29 Mar 2018
By Stephen Pickard, Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. He walks with the Faith Based Working Group of the Refugee Action Committee Canberra at the recent march for refugees. Photo by Werner Padarin.
Last Sunday was Palm Sunday. About 2000 people gathered in the Canberra CBD to protest the continued inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Naru. The marchers came from all walks of life and organizations; including religious traditions, trade unions, universities, schools. And even some politicians. They shared a common purpose: to protest the enslavement of people off shore; to protest a cruel system blessed by the major political parties; to call out the offensive rhetoric of leaders who privilege some but scorn the weakest and least powerful. But who cares? Evidently it’s not news anymore. Not one TV station covered the annual event, not a word from radio or newspaper. We appear to live in the twilight of compassion for the outsider, the stranger beyond our immediate concern and interest.
But it’s not all bad news. The terrible fires of the last fortnight that consumed so many homes and years of hard labour and care; all gone in a matter of hours. Up north the floods ruined homes and livelihoods. And in its wake communities came together; families, neighbours, friends, and strangers. They pulled together, helped one another, shared what they had with those who lost everything. Compassion is alive and well; at least if you’re on the inside. It seems we are pro compassion when it comes to our own kith and kin; but anti-compassion towards those beyond the borders of our existence and self-interest.
But compassion has its limits even among our own kith and kin. Woe betide those who disturb the sacred order of life; who expose its dark side to the bright light of cameras and media. Of course I’m talking about our cricketers; those high priests of the game that embodies the highest values of decency and good order in the rough and tumble of competition. No compassion for those who dishonour the sacred sport; but large dollops of self-righteous condemnation; selected sacrificial victims and frenzied activity to restore pride, credibility and funding. ‘Offenses must be punished’ everybody crows from the loftiest places of power; but not so much as to risk the great game’s funding from corporate sponsors.
On Tuesday of Holy Week the Centre hosted a public forum on slavery today. We joined with Stop the Traffik; Anti-Slavery Australia and the United Nations Information Centre in Canberra. Australia will soon have a Slavery Act and begin to play its part in responding to a global problem. But it is challenging to secure legislation that will adequately cover the main offenders at both the supply end and client end of modern slavery. Vested interests fear the loss of cheap labour and profits. The slavery of the past has not been abolished it has simply migrated into new and virulent forms that resist exposure.
It seems that as a society our values are often quite confused and incoherent. On the one hand compassion for those in need; adulation, even worship for the high achievers in the sacred game; admiration for those whose business acumen has brought great wealth and prosperity. Yet on the other hand disdain for the outsider in desperate need; scapegoating of the code breakers in order to restore honour and income; ambivalence to the plight of those kept in bondage for the sake of dollars.
Through Easter eyes we have a glimpse of a coherent, clear and wholesome set of values that nourish and create resilient lives and society. They are embodied in one who rides on a lowly beast of burden; who washes the feet of his betrayers; who extends a blessing to a criminal; whose suffers the disgrace and mocking of the crowd and the powers that be. And all for the sake of those in need of the compassion and mercy of God. Here is one who lives a true life, who bears witness to life beyond self-interest; who is given wholly to the common good. The empty tomb on Easter day is a real and potent sign that the compassion and mercy of God has an abiding and indestructible value. The Spirit that raised Jesus of Nazareth is the same Spirit that opens our eyes to the values that are worth living and dying for. Easter Day is the resurrection of the wisdom of God. May you be blessed with such a wisdom this Easter.