The Australian Government currently has a very strong policy to deter people seeking asylum in Australia. This policy has generated huge debate in Australia, both for and against it. Part of this policy is holding asylum seekers in camps in Nauru and Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea). I can only imagine how hot, uncomfortable and basic these camps are.
Over 250 asylum seekers have been brought from Nauru and Manus Islands to Australia for medical treatment. The Australian Government has mandated these asylum seekers be returned to Nauru or Manus Island on completion of their medical treatment. In response to this, there was a challenge put before the High Court, questioning the constitutional validity for the Australian Government to make laws allowing the return of the asylum seekers to Nauru or Manus Island. The High Court affirmed that these laws were constitutionally valid.
In response to this, the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT), an initiative of the National Council of Churches in Australia have offered to open up a number of churches and cathedrals as a ‘sanctuary’ for asylum seekers who are facing deportation back to Nauru. A press release from the ACRT asserts that the concept of ‘sanctuary’ is an ancient principle that goes back to the Old Testament.
The concept of a city of refuge (or sanctuary, as the ACRT dubs it) is not a feel-good ancient principle. It is a very important, very significant part of Jewish law (also called the Torah). The Old Testament references to this can be found in Deuteronomy 4:41 and Numbers 35. This important law relates specifically to an individual who has unintentionally killed another. You see, the family of the killed could legally avenge the death, regardless if it was intentional or carelessly unintentional. The killer could go to a city of refuge and plead his case. If the elders or judges of that city find that the death was carelessly unintentional, then that person would be permitted to live in that city. They could only leave the city once the High Priest had died, and during their stay, they were obligated to learn, study and live the Law. There were serious obligations placed on the city of refuge, and serious obligations placed on the person who had sought refuge. For example, the city couldn’t hold the killer to ransom and demand a price from the family of the killed. The killer similarly would fall outside the protection of the city if they stepped outside the walls of the city. The legal principle of cities of refuge has many very significant implications both physically and spiritually for Jews, and Christians.
History is littered with examples of churches and Christians defying unjust and inequitable laws. History is littered with examples of Christians rallying, protesting and petitioning against unjust and inequitable laws. History is littered with Christians speaking out against injustice. One only needs to look at the likes of William Wilberforce, the English MP who was instrumental in ending the slave trade in Britain. There were countless of Christians during WW2 in Europe who literally risked their lives hiding Jews from Hitler’s evil reach. Martin Luther King Junior was a fearless preacher who stood up against segregation and racism in America.
Without a doubt, the ACRT, along with many fellow Australians, are showing kindness and compassion to asylum seekers. I know of a number of churches and Christians who go about their way quietly supporting newly arrived refugees, supporting them practically, helping with English and being welcoming, kind Australians. There’s no doubt in my mind that places like Manus and Nauru are horrible places at best. Can I understand the rational of the Australian government’s policies? Yes, I can. Is the outworking of these policies harsh? Yes, definitely.
What I don’t understand is why the ACRT is taking a very important, very significant Biblical law that offers legal protection (and obligations) to a killer and truncating it to speak out against the policies of the Australian Government. To me, it’s a complete misrepresentation of the intent of that particular law. I don’t understand why the ACRT is wilfully misrepresenting Biblical law, especially when there are other precepts that relate specifically to ‘strangers’ or ‘aliens’ in the land .
The ACRT have acknowledged that their campaign is against Australian law (which it is). Why doesn’t the ACRT simply say that they are choosing to be kind and compassionate (which they are doing) and elect to defy the law because they think the law is unjust? Why water down and trivialise a significant Biblical law and adapt it to a political cause (however good or proper the cause is?), especially when there are many other more appropriate and specific references that could be used?
Groups like the ACRT play an important part in our democratic process. They play an important part in supporting refugees and asylum seekers. I just wonder why an inappropriate Biblical reference is used to justify breaking the law, when they should just simply breaking a law they believe is unjust and inequitable.