The intention to send all asylum seekers to PNG convinces me that the new policy is motivated by selfish national interest, and desperation for political popularity. This blog is the third in a series of blogs that seek to explain Australian refugee policy and to offer critique from culture and scripture. These blogs are prompted by the Rudd Government’s recent decision to remove all asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores by boat to Papua New Guinea, and also to deny all of these people any chance of being settled in Australia.
According to the new policy, all asylum seekers arriving by boat will be sent to PNG with the intention that they be resettled there. Yet PNG is unlikely to be a secure place for refugees. In a letter to the former Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has expressed seven serious reservations regarding PNG as a suitable place for asylum seekers (read his letter here). As refugee advocate and lawyer David Manne has said, ‘All the independent evidence points to PNG being … a place where there is widespread and pervasive violence, including against women, and serious and ongoing daily human rights abuse.’[i] Indeed PNG is a country from which people flee daily, as refugees (the author is friends with a refugee claimant from Port Moresby). Further, the Government’s own Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a series of warnings to travellers to PNG:
We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Papua New Guinea because of the high levels of serious crime.
(There’s the first of thirteen warnings). Also, the week on which Rudd announced the new regional agreement, the PNG military attacked the medical faculty of the University of PNG—displaying the unrestrained and unpredictable behaviour of the PNG military.
How can Australian Government intend to settle thousands of vulnerable people in PNG under these conditions? PNG is dangerous for many of its own citizens, not to mention the likelihood of increased violence toward refugees due to ethnic differences and so on. Resettlement in an unstable and potentially dangerous place is hardly in keeping with Rudd’s stated intention of concern for refugee safety. This selfish policy leaves me concerned that the hearts of the Australian Labour and Liberal parties, as a whole, are calloused with limited capacity for compassion. Read Maria O’Sullivan’s discussion of the suitability of PNG as a destination for refugees here.
Now let’s observe the radical welcome to which Scripture calls humanity [what follows is taken my article: Ancient Laws and Canadian Refugee Legislation: Evaluating Bill C-31 in Light of the Book of Deuteronomy[i]].
The Hebrew word behind the Old Testament words – ‘stranger’, ‘alien’ and ‘sojourner’ – is (usually) ‘ger’. The noun ‘ger’, in Deuteronomy, describes someone who is both ethnically displaced and economically vulnerable. The circumstances of the ‘ger’ in Deuteronomy may be further clarified as being in a dependant relationship with the Israelites with whom she lives. In Deuteronomy ‘ger’ (‘stranger’) occurs twenty-one times, indicating the importance of ethics concerning the stranger for this book.
There are two main narrative trajectories, so to speak, that undergird Deuteronomy’s ethic toward the stranger. The first is that God has generously given land and its produce to Israel and this gift is to be shared. Ancient Israel’s worldview begins with a gift: at the heart of reality is a God of limitless generosity. In turn Israel is to respond with thanksgiving and generosity. These three dimensions – gift, thanksgiving and generosity/inclusion – are all joyfully displayed at the seasonal harvest festivals that Israel shares – at the sanctuary. Israel is commanded:
And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you… (16:11. See also 16:14; 26:11)
Thus Deuteronomy’s social program can be summarised well with the words of Craig Blomberg: ‘God owns it all, and wants everybody to be able to enjoy some of it.’[ii]
The second ‘story’ undergirding Deuteronomy’s ethic towards the stranger is Israel’s own history of being a ‘stranger’ or ‘refugee’.[iii] This story begins with the displacement of Israel’s fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (26:5). It is exemplified with Israel as a ‘stranger’ in Egypt in the time of Jacob and Joseph (eg 26:5). When Israel was residing as a stranger in Egypt, Egypt did not offer Israel the hospitality she would have desired, but oppressed her with slavery (eg 26:6-7). The LORD her God delivered Israel from Egypt’s slavery and gave her laws that would shape a new society in which every person can thrive, as a deliberate response to Egypt’s oppression (eg 26:8-11). That history is the background for this famous passage, along with many others:
[The LORD your God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (10:18-19)
In light of these two powerful stories of the LORD’s deliverance and provision, it is no surprise that Deuteronomy’s ethic concerning the ‘stranger’ is an ethic of radical welcome.
An examination of all the details of Israel’s responsibility toward the ‘stranger’ would require a substantial book, so for now I briefly note two aspects of their responsibility: First, as Deuteronomy’s laws unfold it becomes apparent that the implications of the command to ‘love the stranger’ include welcoming the stranger into whatever town they might wish to live (23:15-16). Second, individual families in Israel have the responsibility to include the stranger in their agricultural and cultural lives, including the most joyful events on their calendar: annual journeys to the sanctuary in order to celebrate with feasting and joy (16:11, 14; 26:11).
Deuteronomy’s ethics of radical welcome are appropriated for the church through the death and resurrection of Christ. In his death Christ has demolished sin’s curse and in his resurrection Christ lives as the firstfruits of this world renewed: a future of restored relationship and of flourishing. For now the church is called to live as signs to Christ’s world-beautifying, restorative reign.
Biblical ethics regarding the stranger are radically at odds with Australian refugee policy and roundly condemn Rudd’s new policy as immoral. If the Australian church’s witness to Christ is to be authentically biblical, and if it is to be heeded in society, then the church must carefully attend to biblical ethics regarding the stranger and both advocate for, and model, the radical welcome of Christ.
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Blogs and articles in this series (Australian asylum seeker policy, Aug-Sept, 2013):
Laws of Inclusion and Strategies of Exclusion: New Australian Asylum Seeker Policy Under the Scrutiny of Deuteronomy, published with CASE magazine.
Loving the Stranger, published with the Centre for Public Christianity.
The PNG solution and Biblical Ethics, published with Eternity Newspaper.
[i] Mark Glanville, “Ancient Laws and New Canadian Refugee Legislation: Evaluating Bill C-31 in Light of the Book of Deuteronomy,” Refuge 29 (2013).
[ii] Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (Illinois: Apollos, 1999), 241.
[iii] Nathan MacDonald, Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 93f.
[i] Bianca Hall Hall and Jonathan Swan, “Rudd Slams Door on Refugees,” n.p. [cited July 23 2013]. Online: http://www.smh.com.au/national/rudd-slams-door-on-refugees-20130719-2qa5b.html#ixzz2ZcCFviuN.