25 Jun 2020 - by Stephen Pickard
Once upon a time there were over 70 million refugees wandering the face of the planet. But this is no fairy tale. Nor is it from long ago. It is the story of now. And in the next two decades there will be over 150 million. What’s the secret of their strength, determination and resilience? So much suffering, so much anxiety, so many hardships. Yet the truth is so many find strength through their faith and hope in a God who travels with them. Having sacrificed all for the sake of their faith in God they travel the earth enduring great hardship, uncertainty and fear. And they do this with remarkable courage. It is a courage born of hope in something greater than the reality of their present life. Christians, Muslims and many of other faiths; one common humanity following the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Ruth and Jesus Christ.
I mention Ishmael. Why? Because Ishmael is the child of Hagar in the Old Testament reading from the Book of Genesis today. This wonderful story gives us a glimpse of the secret life of the refugee and seeker of asylum. The story of Hagar and her son being banished from the presence of Abraham and Sarah is well known. It is full of pathos, jealousy, danger and ultimately full of hope. The story is recounted on two occasions in Genesis; first in chapter 16 where Hagar, the slave women of Abraham conceives a son by Abraham. This happens because Sarah is childless and fears that there will be no future for the family without progeny. She entreats Abraham to take Hagar as a means to produce an heir. The future is secured. Then as we know in her old age Sarah conceives and has a son Isaac. Then it all turns sour; goes belly up. Sarah now perceives Hagar’s son, Ishmael, as a threat to the lineage of Isaac. It becomes very messy as family business often is. Hagar is cast out of the family. Her fate seems sealed. She is sent into the desert; presumably to wander in the desert. There she will die. Out of sight out of mind as they say. The story is recounted again in chapter 21. This time Hagar is not portrayed as a courageous and powerful woman and mother of Ishmael but a woman broken and despairing of life – her life and her son’s. Cast into the desert to die with no prospect of being welcomed by anyone, let alone offered sanctuary she cannot bear to watch her child die and set’s him at a distance. The Lord hears her cry of despair; and comes to Hagar, leads her to a well to drink and survive. God promises Hagar that she and her son will indeed live and become a great nation. It is an archetypal story of a family seeking refuge and being given sanctuary by God in Egypt. And the great nation is in fact that people called Muslims of the Arab world. They trace their lineage back to the prophet Ishmael. Ishmael means ‘God hears’. Ishmael was the forerunner of the prophet Mohammed.
As I said the story of Hagar and Ishmael is an archetypal story of refugees. I want to fast forward this to Canberra today. I began my work at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in 2013. Within two months I was visited by John Minns. John is a professor of politics at ANU but more especially he’s the chairperson of the Canberra Refugee Action Committee, RAC. Many of you will know John and his wife Sophie; tireless, articulate and passionate advocates for the plight of asylum seekers and refugees. Especially those held for years in off shore detention on Manus and Naru. He asked me: will the Centre join with RAC in this work? Of course, we would. The gospel of God calls us to reach out and care for the refugee, the poor, the marginalised. We must be there.
Four months later we held a major gathering at the Chapel of the ACC&C. The topic was simple: Refugees: what would Jesus do? 350 people turned up on a balmy summer’s evening. It was a remarkable beginning for me. My guess is over a half were not church goers and the other half came for a variety of Christian and other religious backgrounds. It really didn’t matter. What mattered was being of one heart and mind in a common cause; the plight of our brothers and sisters who were seeking sanctuary on Australian shores. That meeting saw the birth of what soon became the Faith Based Working Group for refugees and asylum seekers. The Palm Sunday marches became the signal most important day of the year for the cause. How wonderful to be a part of the body of Christ joining with those of other religious traditions and none at all; bearing witness as Christians to the fact that we are all children of God; all bearers of the Divine image; all deserving of care, protection and hospitality.
The great historian of early Christianity Peter Brown has made the astute observation that the reason for the growth of the Christian church in the late 3rd and 4th centuries in the ancient world was the result of a fundamental shift in people’s thinking and perception about the poor. Those who had little, those who were beggars on the streets; those despised and regarded as lowly and of little account certainly deserved Christian charity and assistance. But something happened. Christians and especially the leaders began to see the poor and refugee through different eyes. They were more than beggars needing charity and help; they were brothers and sisters. This caused a revolution. No longer handouts; no longer mere charity to the helpless. Now it was a question of care for brothers and sisters on a common pilgrimage; a new respect for those less fortunate. This was the impact of the gospel of Jesus Christ who for our sake though rich became poor; one of us that we might be raised to newness of life, as the scripture reminds us this day. So, the church grew and expanded as the poor, the refugee was offered sanctuary and honoured as a fellow human bearing the image of God. It’s not rocket science but it requires a deep conversion of the head, heart, will and spirit.
What I have learnt more and more through my opportunities to be involved with advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers and my engagement with the history of Christianity is this: that our lives as Christian disciples hang in the balance. Hang in the balance depending on how we regard and treat those broken, poor, without home or sustenance. The measure of our discipleship will be gauged by the way we care for the least. It’s the true religion test (the pub test); not what proceeds from the mouth – words, words, words – but our acts of welcome, hospitality and care. But it’s not just our lives as individuals that hang in the balance it’s our society, our government’s integrity, our democratic system, its policies and actions. As a society our character, values and commitment to humane treatment of all people – this all hangs in the balance depending on how we as a society treat the most vulnerable, the poor, those searching for sanctuary, a home, somewhere to lay their heads.
Our treatment, attitudes and policies for refugees and asylum seekers is the litmus test of what kind of society, what kind of country, what kind of political leadership we have. We seem to care more about our reputation than our character; more about being seen to be important, successful, wealthy and powerful than risking compassion and self-denial for the sake of others. The gospel today is arresting: Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
We spend our lives trying to discover what our life is about; it’s purpose, meaning, being somebody, someone significant, successful, – sure all very important in their own way. But then we too often find that this life we’re searching for slips through our fingers like sand; or it can feel hollow inside and not amount to much. But Jesus way is radically different; it’s about giving our life away; to another, to the lord and giver of life; to the way, the truth and the life, the real life; it means taking up our cross and following in the footsteps of Christ. And the great surprise in this way of living beyond our own narrow tunnel vision is this. We actually begin to find our life; truly find it; see it for what it really is as a life beloved of God; precious to God – are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. You are of more value than many sparrows.
Refugees and asylum seekers have not had a chance to lose their life; their lives have been snatched away from them; forced to flee on a journey far from home; afraid and uncertain. They seek one thing more than any other ie to be welcomed and offered sanctuary. When they receive true welcome and care then they will find their life; then they will have a chance to discover that they are beloved of God.
Today there are many like Hagar and Ishmael wandering the earth. Many have become trapped in the most inhumane conditions under oppressive conditions informed by policies devoid of compassion and common decency. And this by countries who espouse the most laudable values of 'mateship', care and concern. But such values have a hollow ring about them when it comes to actual practice.
Hagar and her son lived under the shadow of the protection of a good and caring God and survived. They found their life when all seemed lost.
As people of the same God of Abraham, Isaac, Ruth, and Jesus Christ we have a moral and ethical imperative to care for the refugee and asylum seeker, to respond to their cries for help, to be tireless in our advocacy for the disposed and those our government’s policies have made intentionally invisible. Our lives as Christians hang in the balance; how we respond is the litmus test of real Christianity. May we this day look to our saviour Jesus Christ, a refugee from his birth, who knows the sorrows of all who wander the earth without a place to lay their heads. May our refugee God inspire us to follow his example, to take up our cross, to follow in his footsteps that we may be found worthy of bearing the name Christian.