The fear of others has corrupted the Australian soul

Coracle by Teresa Jordan
Coracle by Teresa Jordan

Amnesty International has confirmed that conditions for asylum seekers that Australia has sent to Nauru are wretched. There is poor sanitation, inadequate accommodation, overcrowding, and the mental and physical health of detainees is deteriorating. Uncertainty and loss of hope breaks the hearts and spirits of people who have fled unimaginable circumstances in search of safety.

This kind of treatment is soul destroying. Not only does it crush the souls of detainees. It points to a sickness in the soul of the Australian nation.

Jesus said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). As it happens, it also “sums up” the teaching of Confucius, the Buddha, the Prophet Mohammed and even Peter Singer’s version of utilitarianism. If you want to be your best self, to live in a healthy, fair community, to achieve the best outcomes for everyone involved in a particular situation, the consensus of the world’s wisest teachers is “do to others what you would have them do to you.” When it comes to the practicalities of attending to your soul, the Golden Rule or “principle of reciprocity” is the universally acknowledged measure. So, Australia, how is it going with your soul?

For twenty years, Australians have tolerated and rewarded the introduction of policy after policy that have served only to minimise our responsibility towards those asking for our compassion and protection. We have imprisoned asylum seekers exercising their right to seek freedom from persecution. We have sentenced children to a life behind barbed wire in remote and inhospitable locations. We have ignored international condemnation from organisations such as the UNHCR, while conceitedly pointing the finger of superior righteousness at other nations who are accused of violating the human rights of their citizenry. We have sniggered at the bizarre removal of Australia from its own migration zone. We have allowed a discourse dominated by hatred, racism and misunderstanding to infect our common vernacular. We have allowed people to talk about “illegals” knowing that there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum, and “queue jumpers” knowing that there is no queue to jump. We have allowed our hearts and the heart of our nation to be hardened against those who deserve our care.

Somehow it has come to suit us to treat this particular group of vulnerable “others” as we would never want to be treated ourselves. That’s what the opinion polls seem to say. And that is deeply disturbing. Measured against the Golden Rule, it points to a neglected, enfeebled, imperilled Australian soul.

There has also been opposition to these developments, of course. Like many other denominations, the Uniting Church has passed resolutions, made public statements, and provided resources to congregations as we advocate for a more compassionate response. Our national social justice advocacy group, UnitingJustice Australia, has contributed to Parliamentary inquiries and has directly engaged our Federal politicians for change.

But we are a church of Australians. It would be self-deluding to think that we are not implicated in this shameful chapter in the life of the nation.

At a time when churches are taking stock of their history of neglect and seeking to take responsibility for the inexcusable abuse of children and young people in their care, it is difficult to stand in the civil arena and call for a more moral response to public issues. There might be backlash, we might be accused of hypocrisy, and in all likelihood we will simply not be heard or acknowledged. But we cannot be silent. This disease of the soul must be treated.

The public debate on asylum seekers has been thoroughly corrupted by misinformation and scaremongering. So we need to begin here, with the Government implementing a properly resourced community education campaign that removes the stigma that has been attached to asylum seekers and refugees and explains clearly what Australia’s obligations are under international law.

Australians are generally generous, hospitable people but have been enabled to be mean and cruel in this situation by having “the problem” kept well out of sight and beyond hearing. The detention and processing of asylum seekers offshore or in remote parts of Australia must be ended. It should be replaced by the system of community detention that the Government indicated it was moving towards a mere twelve months ago.

And we need to work out how we can become so frightened of “others” that we lash out and mistreat them in a way that we would never want to be treated ourselves. In this case, we are frightened of asylum seekers, but we have been frightened of different “others” like this before. We need to work out why we’re afraid and then do something about it. Our soul depends on it.

Political leaders know instinctively how to evoke a fear response in people. It’s been a science since the time of Aristotle. There can be very worthy reasons for arousing a fear response in the public. For example, it’s appropriate to encourage people to make proper bushfire preparations. But there are unworthy reasons too, such as scaring people so they are more likely to vote for you. The process of evoking a fear response is the same.

People won’t feel afraid while they feel in control of the things that contribute to their wellbeing. So, to evoke a fear response, the strategy is to make people feel that their wellbeing is at stake – that the Australian way of life and values that is kept safe by “border security” is being threatened by irregular boat arrivals. Then, make people feel that the event that threatens their wellbeing is imminent – keep a running tally of the number of boats and passengers, framed as a single event, the unfolding of a single coordinated plan. And make people feel that they (or those who represent them) do not have control, then introduce images such as “a peaceful invasion” into the public debate.

Once we are sufficiently afraid for our wellbeing we will welcome a plan to “stop the boats” or to “break the people smugglers’ business model” by just about any means and at just about any cost.

Meanwhile Jesus and all the world’s wisdom tells us that our wellbeing actually requires that we “do to others what you would have them do to you”.

A recent editorial in The Age put the issue very well: “Australia does not have an asylum-seeker problem; Australia has a political leadership problem.” Barbara Kellerman, in her excellent book Bad Leadership, has concluded that “If leaders are incompetent or corrupt, so are at least some of their followers.” She offers some suggestions on how “followers” can lift their game and influence the quality of their leaders:

  • “Empower yourself” – that is, recognise that you do have a certain amount of power as a person and a citizen and use it.
  • “Be loyal to the whole and not to any single individual,” or, in this case, recognise that party loyalties are unhelpful and recommit to the search for policies that are genuinely oriented towards the common good.
  • Then, “be sceptical” – “develop your own sources of information”, “find allies” and “take collective action.”

It’s all pretty obvious when you think about it. But that’s the point. When we’re afraid we don’t think well. We miss the obvious. We end up being led by the nose.

Amnesty International found “a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions creating an increasingly volatile situation on Nauru.” We have to be better than that.

First published on the ABC Religion and Ethics website 27 Nov 2012


  1. See Matthew Jack’s commentary on Zephaniah 1:14-17 in With Love to the World today. He hears Zephaniah saying there is a link between sin and fear and names that link “…the crucible of the conscience..” “If you sin, sooner or later you will fear.” Where there is lack of justice or hospitality, there is broken relationship and so if you like, sin. Australia is sitting firmly in that moras at the moment and so fear grows.

  2. Andrew, I am deeply satisfied that you as a national leader in the church put forward these reminders to us all that our deepest principles are being breached in our Government’s continuing cruelties towards asylum seekers.
    I have just finished reading Robin de Crespigny’s documentary book, The People Smuggler, which has has changed my attitude towards the hitherto demonised “people smugglers”, at least one of them.
    It seems that our politicians are in the game of stirring xenophobia for electoral advantage, a very cynical and ultimately degrading process, both for themselves and those who buy into the dog whistle messages.

    • Thank you Andrew Dutney and David Maxwell for mentioning Robin de Crespigny’s brilliant book “The People Smuggler: The true Story of Ali Al Jenabi the Oskar Schindler of Asia”.

      Balmain Uniting Church was the site of one of the first meetings with Ali Al Jenabi, Robyn de Crespigny and the Channel 9 ‘Sunday’ program reporters to work out how to get Ali a permanent visa. Ali still does not have a permanent visa to live in Australia. If those who have read or skim-read the book just write a simple letter to Chris Bowen MP, Minister forI Immigration at Parliament house and ask him to please grant Ali Al Jenabi a permanent visa – that would be wonderful.

      Frances Milne AM
      Balmain for Refugees
      Committee of Balmain Uniting Church and the Wider Community

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