Chris Bransdon · Politics

Prayerful Rioting & Civil Disobedience: Necessity or Nuisance?

At this very moment the highest levels of government in Australia are in a headlock over one issue: the treatment of asylum seekers. The fate of 153 people, with faces, names and stories are yet to be determined and we are watching hopefully for sanity to continue to prevail in light of the High Court injunction.

However, even if the Liberal government is forced to concede, there is a possibility that these people will be forced into detention. This would mean that they would join many others, including young children, who have been kept locked up in abominable conditions – simply for seeking safety and exercising their human rights.

For a growing group of Christian men and women across all denominations, the way the Australian government has continued to act mercilessly upon such vulnerability has become unconscionable. When meetings, petitions, letters just aren’t yielding results – is it time to explore other options? Specifically, what about the option of non-violent civil disobedience? I watched on incredulously as the first prayer vigil was led by Jarrod McKenna, ending in the arrest of various Christian leaders – I really didn’t know what to make of it. Brave? Passionate? Idiotic? I barely had time to think over for myself the place of non-violent civil disobedience in the context of current Australian politics before the next sit-ins were held, one of them involving someone I have a vague Facebook connection with. So I bugged her with some questions and some thorny ones, too. Thank you for your time and thoughtfulness Steph. I hope your answers will prove useful to a wide audience – not only to those who have been prayerful and supportive of the Love Makes Away Movement, but especially to those who have been wary of it. The thing about the media is, we rarely get to the hearts of those who feature in it.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your family, some things you are passionate about and some things you like to do in your spare time:

Hello! Well. I am an ENFP (possible INFP). My extended family is comprised mostly of clergy, teachers, and doctors. And I grew up playinglots of music and sport. Is that enough background? I have two older brothers, and we love hanging out and laughing together. My sister in law and I have exactly the same name, which is very confusing for aspiring Facebook stalkers. I’m passionate about Jesus Christ, and the freedom and fullness of life His Lordship brings. I’m passionate about people, and I think this is because relationships are the most real thing there is – an overflow of the God who is Himself ultimate reality and is inperpetually and eternally loving relationship between His three persons (try to avoid Medusa-style mental images if poss) (sorry). I am passionate about the hope that the Lordship of Jesus brings – for the restoration of all that has been broken in our lives and in our world, in our hearts and in our relationships. I have had a physical disability for 10 years, and love trying to bring concrete signs of the hope of the new creation to the people around me! Grace and the inverted order of the Kingdom have captivated me and motivate me to work for justice. I like discussing complex things with people, reading books, writing blogs, laughing like a crazy person and hiking. I’m in my 7th year of uni, and the plan is to be a lawyer next year.


What has been your personal involvement with asylum seekers? Do you have any stories you’d like to share?

I got interested in issues of migration through advocacy around human trafficking and slavery. The vulnerabilities and difficulties faced by people who are in transit or displaced broke my heart. A few years ago I started volunteering with the Red Cross and met asylum seekers who were living in community detention on a bridging visa whilst their claims were being processed. I loved spending time with them, hearing their stories and learning from them about their languages and cultures.Some of my friends went to Manus Island with the Salvation Army, and their stories upon return escalated the seriousness of the issues for me. I think the first refugee I met (that I can remember) was a uni friend called Ali Reza. I say refugee, rather than asylum seeker, because he had come to Australia four years earlier and his claim for asylum was approved and he was granted a protection Visa – he and his family are of the Hazara ethnic group in Afghanistan and had fled persecution (you know, of the “bombing houses and shooting people” variety). Ali knew no English when he arrived in Australia, but four years later, he was engaging in our second year government tutorial on theories of development better than most native speakers. As we walked from class one day, he explained to me that he was building a school. “Sorry?” “Back in my country. I have been coordinating and funding the building of a school, and it is opening this week!” Ali impressed me so very much, not just because he was the most well thought-out and articulate person in the tutebut he was so passionate about improving the lot of those back in his homeland.


What upsets you most about the current government’s policies on asylum seekers?

Conditions in detention. The utilitarianism (“the ends justify the means”) behind the rationalefor appalling conditions in detention, which deems it OK to inflict harm to some in order to achieve the ends they seek (which, prima facie, is a good one, to stop deaths at sea – although I do wonder if that is really the primary motivation behind policies of deterrence).

Secondary to that is the lack of creativity and moral leadership of our politicians who seem to be more interested in political expediencies than finding better solutions. I don’t relate to those who demonise our politicians and use highfalutin rhetoric as they impugn their motives. I don’t hate Scott Morrison. I do have serious questions over the integrity of the motivations in applying policies of deterrence.

Historically-speaking, you’re more likely to be elected by Australian constituents if you present migration policies as a means of keeping certain undesirables out – something uniquely available to Australian politicians as an island continent. When I studied migration law (what an awfully convoluted and confusing beast the Migration Act is!), I wrote an essay about an amendment to the Act which purported to excise the mainland from Australia’s migration zone (hmm…) and deemed that anyone who arrived by sea was unable to apply for a protection visa. In combination with the rhetoric used in the public debate, these policies seemed disingenuous to me. Granted, the emotionally-charged nature of this discussion sees both sides overstatingmatters, but I looked at the efficacy of policies of deterrence as instruments of affecting asylum flows, and internationally, the evidence is slim – that’s to say that asylum arrivals seem to follow the same trends no matter what country you’re in and the asylum policies that apply in that country – which is confusing to me, given the current Government’s policies do seem to have impacted on the rate of boat arrivals, but it did raise doubts for me.

But, EVEN IF they do work – at what cost?

Yes, I acknowledge the painfully difficult situation in addressing deaths at sea. But, philosophically/ethically, I do not believe we are morally exculpated for inflicting permanent mental and physical trauma on some realpeople because it deters another hypotheticalperson from risking harm by sea. The trouble I have is that stopping people dying at sea en route to Australia isn’t a trump card that justifies all over conduct.


How did you come to be involved in the Love Makes a Way movement?

Since my days volunteering with World Vision, I made a bunch of friends who are followers of Jesus and are passionate about seeking justice – a few of them started the movement and I found out about it through them. One friend opens up his family’s home to refugees – I think he has 17 living with them at the moment? Anyway, so this friend asked if I’d be willing to participate. My initial reaction was negative – or, at least, reserved. I’d been in conversation over the theology of civil disobedience for a few years but hadn’t “landed” – and I wasn’t keen to jeopardise future job prospects in law/government. So I said no.

And then I was on the train reading through Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus, and I just felt an overwhelming clarity about the damage being done to the 1,023 kids who are in detention and an overwhelming clarity about the inadequacy of me talking about how bad it is, and not actually doing anything (that seemed to be working) to get them out of there. So I prayed about it, tried to arrange a meeting with my local MP, spoke to a few people who I trusted, sussed out the ramifications, and then made a decision. I decided that I would participate, but wouldn’t put myself in an arrestable position because my local MP had been unable to meet with me before the action (and I hadn’t met with him on this particular issue), so I couldn’t in good conscience say that I had exhausted all lawful avenues of policy engagement. I think that it is important to seek genuine engagement with your local MP. Civil disobedience must always be a last resort.


Can you tell us in your own words what happened during the protest you were a part of?

Sure. A bunch of ten of us entered Mr. Abbott’s electoral office, while one of us chatted to the receptionists to let them know who we were and what we were doing there – and to reassure them that we weren’t going to cause any harm to them. We told them that we had exhausted all avenues of seeking policy change and had not felt listened to, so we were going to just sit in the waiting room and pray until we received an answer from the PM about when the 1023 kids would be released from detention. We read a liturgy together, read Bible passages, and spent time in open prayer. After ongoing (very peaceful and respectful) dialogue with the staff, they told us that they’d have to call the police if we didn’t leave. We said that we understood that, and kept on praying. Then the police came, and chatted with us very amicably. Eventually they got to the point where they asked us to leave. Myself and another left at that point, because we were not willing to risk arrest for various reasons. The others stayed, and an hour or so later they were arrested (reluctantly, might I add), casually walked out onto the street, and released without charge.


Why did you feel that this particular action was necessary? Were there any other options?

I personally believe that lawful forms of advocacy and lobbying should always have primacy. We have an outstanding democratic system by international standards, and we ought to make the most of it: be informed, meet with your local MP and speak with them about the things that concern you, write letters, attend rallies, sign petitions.

But what about when you do all that, and nothing changes? Are we meant to just watch as people are harmed? The questions here for me included: What does obedience to Jesus look like here? Which is the greater imperative: to love and defend my neighbor, or to not be disruptive to the power of the authorities? I read a lot of literature from Martin Luther King Jr and Walter Wink, and came to be persuaded that non-violent direct action, such as LMAW, can be a useful instrument to catalyse change in an environment of political inertia in which policy-setting has reached an impasse, both morally and strategically. I think that actions like this can provoke the imagination of the public and the decision-makers, and bring them to a crisis point where they realize that the things that are being done really are bad, and really cannot continue.Sometimes I feel that we’re so saturated with bad news about the state of politics domestically and internationally, that the only way we can cope is by lowering our expectations of our politicians, or we adopt a stance of something like willful blindness to the gravity of a situation that rationalizes the unthinkable, lest we become overwhelmed. I think the latter is effectively a searing of our consciences, so that we can cope with all the things we see and hear day to day.

Needless to say, I think there is a better way, and it is the way of hope, and of trust, and of crying out to God for strength to walk into the misery of the world and be His hands and feet, leaning on Him to fill us up when we are empty – of compassion, of energy, of ideas.


What do you hope that these protests will achieve? How confident are you that they will reach the intended outcome?

I’m actually currently in a discussion with a friend who is passionate about the issues around asylum seeker policies and isn’t convinced about LMAW and civil disobedience, and he raises some good points. One of them is around this very point, about what it achieves, and whether it is effective, and there are probably better ways of achieving the same outcome. I’m open to that!I don’t think LMAW is the silver bullet. It is one way which I believe has its place amongst many.

I encourage everyone to be thinking creatively about what they can be doing to create change in the way we approach this issue, such that (a) people stop dying and sea, and (b) we no longer brutalise people in offshore processing detention centres. I’d suggest there are at least three things that LMAW achieves:

1. It re-inspires and empowers the public to engage politically. This has been my experience: since my participation in the LMAW action, dozens and dozens of friends (not typically the politically-engaged type) have contacted me to say that they have written a letter to or met with their local MP. This is the most encouraging outcome for me.

2. It has the potential to make decision-makers aware that this issue is not one that will win them votes. By demonstrating that there are enough people that are unhappy enough with the asylum policies that it would be sufficient to determine their vote in the next election has real currency. It’s not enough to sign a petition, nor even to write a letter. When it comes to some entrenched policies, the impetus for change needs to come from a recognition that the public aren’t going to let this one through to the keeper. This movement has got several participants a seat at the table, in that the politicians take the policy request much more seriously when they realize that you’re not being token about this – you are willing to put yourself on the line, and that commands an attentive ear, at the very least.

3. It speaks with a prophetic voice into the public square, by calling for more creative policies that don’t involve brutalizing some people in order to save others from death at sea. It demonstrates the gospel, by showing that laying down one’s own interests for the sake of another may be costly, but love will take a hit and get some skin in the game regardless. It refuses to be complicit in structures of violence against the vulnerable. I’ve been surprised that after this action, it’s actually been mostly my non-Christian friends who have raised it with me, and it seems to have generated a greater receptivity to Jesus than previously. That said, there are some significant questions that need to be addressed about this movement around the issue of objectives and efficacy of the current strategy that are worth asking, but do not validate rejection of supporting the movement in itself.


How does your faith inform your decision to be a part of this movement?

Jesus said to ‘Go and do likewise’, so I did.


How do you respond to criticisms that these protests are a bad Christian witness because they involve, sometimes, breaking the law and ‘being a public nuisance?’

I think those criticisms are a cop out. To be frank!

It’s precisely because all those who know me know that I am a stickler for obeying authority that they have realized the gravity of the situation and have paid far more attention to the cause – which is difficult to do in a world in which we are saturated with bad news on a daily basis and it’s easy to become immune to injustice. Civil disobedience isn’t a licence for a bit of thrill seeking. It isn’t for those who want to tick off “be arrested” from their bucket list. I think that Christianity needs to reclaim its moral authority (in the wake of things like the Royal Commission). This is one easy way of doing so.


What steps can people take to support the Love Makes a Way Movement, or to support the cause of asylum seekers?

Figure out what it means for you to ‘Go and do likewise’. It doesn’t have to involve arrest! I reckon you should inform yourself. Read this blog: Read the papers. Contact your local MP and talk things over with them. Write letters. Contact the Red Cross and volunteer with their Migration Services Program, sign up with Simple Love and get your church to buy groceries for asylum seekers who can’t work because of their visa status, ask Anglicare Sydney if you can assist in anyway, think about participating in Welcome to my Place by holding a dinner. Read Martin Luther King Jr’s letter from Birmingham Jail, read Romans 12 and 13 and try to figure out what kind of conduct Paul was referring to. Examine your heart and try to figure out how and why you respond to the possibility of civil disobedience the way you do. Most of all, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, our crucified Saviour, and keep in step with His Spirit as you seek to follow the way of the Cross.

As told to Christine.


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