A couple of weeks ago our church was privileged to have a visit from Lebanese Sufi master, Sheikh Nour Kabbani, and, together with him, members of our community signed the “Charter of Compassion” – a document developed by Karen Armstrong some ten years ago that urges communities and governments to reaffirm the central importance of compassion in our common life.
Tragically, on almost the same day, Australia’s Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, (in The Weekend Australian) urged our nation to beware of the ‘danger of compassion’ when it comes to our treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees – suggesting that showing compassion to these people whom we have placed in indefinite offshore detention might undo all our good work.
The good work being referred to, of course, is the fine job we have been doing in ‘turning back the boats’ – turning back boatloads of people who come to our shores seeking shelter from danger and persecution.
We have indeed had great success in turning these boats back so that those who were seeking safety are sent back to the places of danger and persecution from which they fled. Either that or we subject them to a new form of persecution by placing them in never-ending detention in one of our country’s offshore detention centres!
Whether or not this is really a good work is made entirely clear, I believe, by the fact that we have to be urged not to show compassion in order to make this system work. Any system that requires us to deny what is most fundamentally human in us – love and compassion for our fellow creatures – in order to work, is a sick system indeed!
I had the privilege of visiting the men of Manus Island last year in their detention centre. That was last November, just before the men were forcibly moved from the compound where they had originally been confined to new compounds which, as we saw for ourselves, were very much unfinished.
At the time I was flying to Papua New Guinea and making the connection to Manus, there was a lot of discussion taking place here at home as to why these men had not moved to the new facilities that had been built for them.
Why would the men want to stay in a compound that reportedly been unfit for human habitation even before it was decommissioned, after which the electricity and water had been cut off, making it more uninhabitable. Many of us wondered whether the experience of long-term detention might have damaged the men such that they were not thinking straight.
When I reached the detention centre and had the privilege of being shown around in the early hours of the morning, it became obvious very quickly why they had chosen to stick it out where they were. They had a very well-functioning community!
They had a very well-organised leadership system, with democratic meetings held each day. They had a centralized health-care system where medications were pooled and distributed as needed, and where the mentally-ill were cared for on a rostered basis, with different people walking them around the compound. The engineers were working together as a team to keep the electricity and the water flowing! It was a very well-functioning community!
I understood right away why these men hadn’t separated and moved off to the new facilities that had supposedly been built for them. Why would these men abandon their band of brothers, who they knew they could trust, on the word of the Australian government, who they knew they could not trust?
They were a remarkably functional community, and perhaps I had forgotten that this was not a group of poorly-educated criminals. These were professional people – journalists and engineers and people with a variety of professions and skills that might truly benefit this country.
The more I talked to these men the more impressed I was with them as individuals and as a group, and the more sick I felt as an Australian, somehow connected to the torture of these men, who are being used by our country’s political leaders as an example to asylum-seekers world-wide – ‘don’t try to sneak into this country unannounced or we will do to you what we are doing to these people!’
Parallels with other inhuman regimes come to mind, but I will not mention them by name. Suffice it to say that any country that openly rejects compassion and instead tortures people who we know are innocent in order to make of them a deterrent – any country that would do that has somehow lost its soul!
The irony is that the Australian government was actually the first government in the world to recognise and affirm the Charter of Compassion back in 2010, and I don’t think that was just a political stunt. I believe the government of the time signed on to the Charter of Compassion because they recognised, rightly, that Australian people, on the whole, do value compassion. Indeed, that we are a compassionate people.
We are better than this – that’s my message today. We are not the heartless, greedy bastards our political leaders think we are. We do actually believe what our National Anthem tells us – that we have “boundless plains to share” – and we are ready to share them. We still have compassion for the vulnerable.
Let’s let our politicians know, and let the world know, that the Australian people are still capable of compassion. Let’s give the good men of Manus, and the men, women and children of Narau, a chance. For the sake of all that is still decent in this country, five years of disgrace is five years too long and the blood of the dead is on our hands! Stop the torture! Show compassion. Bring them here! Amen.