The Big Sick: a film with much more appeal than its name

(Originally published on Ethos Blog)

I’m just going to put it out there: The Big Sick is my favourite rom-com in years, and I’m not alone. While I’m always up for a cheesy chick flick, I can probably count on one hand the number of romantic comedies I would actually rate as films in their own right.

So what do I like about it? First, it’s based on a true story, pretty rare for its genre, which means the relationship depicted is actually rather realistic in its ups and downs. Second, it’s part of an emerging body of work led by non-white actors and comedians (think Aziz Ansari’s Master of None on Netflix and Benjamin Law’s The Family Law on SBS) that is bringing much needed diversity to our screens. Finally, it deals with some pretty serious subjects – racism, unemployment, relational breakdown, major illness – with a perfect balance of humour and compassion. You laugh, you cry, you laugh again, and, at the end, you just feel generally good about life.

Written by, and starring, American-Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick recounts the ups and downs of a couple negotiating cultural differences and health problems in modern day Chicago. It has a pleasantly gritty, indie feel, despite featuring some big names (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). Overall, it just feels satisfyingly contemporary, and manages to be relatable for a millennial like myself while also engaging for my parents’ generation. My husband and I went to see it with my dad, aunt and uncle, all of whom have completely different tastes in film. We all adored it.

Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, a struggling stand-up comedian and part-time Uber driver whose traditional Pakistani parents are working overtime to find him the perfect match. When a white girl called Emily heckles him at a gig, it is love at first sight, even though Kumail knows his parents will never accept her. After engaging in the awkward to-and-fro of modern dating for a while, the parent issue becomes too much. Enter ‘the big sick’, a sudden onset of serious illness that completely changes the course of their relationship. While Emily’s life hangs in the balance, Kumail sticks around and befriends her distraught parents, both realising, and proving, his genuine love for her.

It’s pretty hard to find a romantic comedy with a decent message, but this one takes the cake. It condones honesty, tenacity and love through thick and thin. I really resonated with Kumail’s fraught relationship with his family’s cultural heritage, not because of my own experience, but because of the many friends I have who, like Kumail, are second generation migrants and who have grappled for years with split loyalties, somewhat resenting the cultural expectations of their parents and community, while feeling more at home in Western society where they are still considered ‘other’. I also feel for Kumail and Emily – as someone who also has a partner from another cultural background to my own, and who has experienced the pain of disapproval from some relatives. In a multicultural society like Australia, cross-cultural relationships are becoming increasingly common, so it’s timely to see them explored and normalised in film.

Kumail’s support of Emily throughout her illness also highlights the importance of sticking by loved ones through the hard times, ‘in sickness and in health’. It’s not a glamorous picture, but it’s one of the only times I can recall this aspect of a relationship depicted realistically on screen, complete with all the ups and downs, the hopes and doubts. Throughout the film, it is clear that Kumail and Emily’s relationship, while by no means perfect (there is a lot of arguing, swearing and general selfishness), is not just about the excitement of sexual attraction, not just about warm and fuzzy feelings, but about genuine connection and commitment to each other, to the point of sacrifice. It’s rare to see this kind of model of relationship in a romantic comedy.

I, for one, hope this refreshingly honest, multicultural comedy will pave the way for many others like it.

Why I oppose a postal vote

Let’s face it, a postal vote regarding same sex marriage is just a cheaper, non-compulsory version of a plebiscite that will therefore deliver inferior information.

Like its more expensive, mandatory predecessor, a postal vote will not result in a binding decision, but will simply enable a free vote to take place in Parliament. Determining the (not particularly reliable) ‘will of the public’ could therefore be a complete waste of time and money, if the Parliament votes the other way.

I would like to publicly address some common arguments in favour of a plebiscite/postal vote that I have been contesting lately in the comments sections of friends’ Facebook posts.

1. ‘Why let politicians vote on such an important issue and not voters?’

Because that’s what a democratically elected Parliament is for. I don’t consider myself a political expert, however I understand our system enough to appreciate that we freely elect individuals and parties (through, albeit, an imperfect process) to represent our views and interests. Our resulting Parliament keeps the ruling party to account through a range of checks and balances. If the public aren’t happy with their representation, they can use their vote to change things at the next election, or seek influence through other democratic methods – eg. protest, petition, appeal, meeting with or writing to a local member or Minister, or simple free speech via media or social media.

Our parliamentary system may not be perfect, but it does have a degree of accountability regarding its role in representing the populace, and generally has more access to information, evidence and stakeholder views than the general public. In my opinion Parliament is therefore better placed to make such a significant and sensitive decision as legalising same sex marriage.

2. ‘But plebiscites and referendums have been used before, so what’s the problem?’

Yes, plebiscites and referendums have been used in the past to make state and national decisions. However, to my knowledge, the only precedent for a plebiscite or referendum on such a sensitive social issue affecting an historically vulnerable population was the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights, which had some key differences. Firstly, constitutional changes require a referendum, so a national vote was a necessity, not a choice. Secondly, as far as I understand, it was more or less a formlity, as a landslide ‘Yes’ vote was expected.

Unnecessarily putting the decision regarding same sex marriage to a costly public vote indicates that everyday Australians should have the power to determine the basic civil rights of individuals who may have nothing to do with them. Simply put, this is an inappropriate use of such a tool.

3. ‘Denying a public vote prevents an open, public discussion about the issue’.

Actually, I think this topic has been discussed to death. News and social media have constantly addressed that full range of views on same sex marriage for a long time now, especially since the plan for plebiscite began. There have also been a number of polls establishing strong national support. What else could a postal vote, costing millions of dollars, really offer? I agree that open and respectful conversation is critical, however I don’t think a postal vote (or plebiscite) is necessary to gague and express public opinion. We have had enough opportunity to do this already.

4. ‘This Government was elected on the promise of a plebiscite. Don’t we always criticise governments for backing down on their promises? Why would we encourage them to do so in this case?’

Australian politicians (not only Australian ones, I’m guessing!) are well known to regularly break promises, especially election promises. As a result, the voting public has developed a healthy scepticism about any kind of promise, especially when it is made before an election. Obviously, this is not ideal, but it is a feature of our political system. On the one hand, politicians and parties with the best intentions can face a range financial and political pressures and changes while in government, along with competing demands and interests, and therefore be forced to back down from their promises. On the other (admittedly more cynical) hand, parties have to compete for voter support and will use their words strategically to gain or hold power. So broken promises are unavoidable, especially on a rapidly developing social issues like same sex marriage.

Finally, if you voted for the current Government on the basis of their promise to hold a plebiscite on this issue, it is certainly your prerogative to hold them to account. However, we are faced with imperfect choices come elections, and there will be many people who voted for this current Government but disagree on the plebiscite. Further, many more people explicitly voted against the current Government for this reason and/or another. Why should the latter two groups be expected to hold the Government to promises they never endorsed in the first place?

Can a Christian support same sex marriage?

Many of you will have clicked on this article because for you, this question is a no brainer. For some, the answer will be “Of course!” For others, “Of course not!” Such is the controversial nature of this debate.

My hope is that other readers will have found the title of this post appealing because they are genuinely not sure of the answer, either as Christians (of any sexual orientation) working through their own views, or as members of the LGBTIQ community who don’t profess a faith but would like to know whether they have the support and acceptance of people of faith.

While the answer to this fraught question could just as easily be ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or anything in between, depending on who you ask, after writing looooong comments on many Christian posts regarding this issue, I have decided to put some thoughts together on my answer.

This is not a comprehensive manifesto explaining why I, as a Christian, support same sex marriage – that should probably be another article in itself. Rather, I simply want to challenge the idea that Christians must subscribe to the dominant public position of many church leaders for their view to be legitimately ‘Christian.’

When it comes to the question, ‘Can a Christian support same sex marriage?’ I am firmly of the ‘Yes’ camp. Firstly, because I myself am Exhibit A: a Christian who supports same sex marriage. When I express this view to some Christians, an assumption follows that I am simply subscribing to a liberal agenda based on feelings and have not done due diligence considering the question through the lens of my faith. This is incorrect and rather offensive. In fact, I grappled with my position on same sex marriage over many years, prayerfully, in light of Scripture and in consultation with trusted peers on both ends of the spectrum. For me, supporting same sex marriage and posting about it here are a result of my Christian faith, not in conflict with it.

Any judgement about what a Christian ‘can or cannot’ support in relation to social issues should not be answered within a theological vacuum. Regardless of your interpretation of Scripture, if there are genuine, heartfelt Christians who have arrived at their position as a result of their faith, engaging in prayer and with Scripture, who is anyone to say they ‘can’t’ hold this view? So yes, Christians can support same sex marriage – first of all, because many do. Even most, depending on how you define ‘Christian’, and if you believe the results of the recent Galaxy poll on this topic or consider the trends reflected in the recently released finding of the rigorous national HILDA survey.

A second reason I would answer ‘yes’ to the question posed in this article is that I believe that marriage is essentially a civil and legal concept. This does NOT mean that, as a Christian, I do not see the institution of marriage as God-ordrained. I am simply not convinced by the frequent argument that marriage is essentially a religious institution. Of course, it may be for those within faith communities. However, for years now ABS data has indicated that the majority of Australian marriages have taken place outside of a religious context. Further, marriage exists – and is differently defined – throughout history and culture. I am no ancient historian, but I think I can safely assume that it pre-dates the birth of Judeo-Christian culture. Christian marriage as we practice it today differs vastly according to culture and denomination, and looks very different to what it did in biblical times as a result. This is not to say that there is not a place for a religious definition of marriage; to the contrary. I just do not believe that ‘place’ is in the legislation and civil procedures of a nation that necessarily separates church and state.

I don’t believe that those who subscribe to a religious conception of marriage should assume that this is the only definition of marriage, especially when, in our society, even religious marriages must be authorised by the state according to law. In my opinion, separating religious and civil marriage ceremonies completely, as they do in France and some other countries, would make this whole discussion a lot easier. To impose a religiously defined concept of marriage on people who do not share one’s religious views makes no sense to me.

I have many more thoughts on this matter, but I trust that the points I have put forward here will already result in enough opposition from my Christian readers to respond to in a given week!

More than anything else, I hope it has acted as food for thought and leaves you with the impression that Christians CAN reasonably support same sex marriage, even if certain Christians disagree with their conclusion.

The Handmaid’s Tale: A timely indictment of conservative religion

(Originally published by Ethos Engage.Mail)

When I heard The Handmaid’s Tale was headed for the small screen, I dived afresh into the novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, which I had first attempted to read in high school but never finished. Probably not the wisest decision just months out from the launch of the series, which, like all literary adaptations, was bound to suffer from comparison.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Offred (Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men) is a handmaid, a glorified sex slave in the dystopian, totalitarian theocracy of Gilead. Handmaids are captive mothers, forcibly separated from their families and ‘re-educated’ to become subservient vessels of reproduction for the infertile ruling class. They are robbed of their identities and freedoms and brutalised in the name of God.

The adaptation

Diehard Atwood fans may be disappointed at how much creative licence is taken with regard to the plot. Whole episodes diverge almost completely from the novel, mostly to flesh out the experiences of key characters whose fates were previously shrouded in mystery. While I was initially frustrated by these new storylines, they do serve to update the original 80s narrative for a contemporary audience. Unlike the book, the screen interpretation features a number of African-American characters and a deeper exploration of the plight of the so-called ‘gender traitors’.

The expansion of these characters’ journeys also makes the series more thrilling and dramatic, a necessity for the audio-visual format. The solitary unknowing and inner drama of the novel would perhaps not have translated so well to screen. To their credit, the creators have compensated for this loss with an expert rendering of the ‘feel’ of the novel; the bleak colouring, sombre soundtrack and use of slow motion faithfully portray the sense of chronic terror and despair that underlies the narrative.

What I found most compelling about the series, however, was its message. Some viewers have labelled it ‘anti-Christian’ or ‘anti-religious’, but I don’t think this is the case at all. I think the series – like the novel – is an insightful, prophetic warning about the dangers of taking conservative doctrines too far. The Handmaid’s Tale series warns against three key dangers for the church: graceless religion, tolerating abuse and engaging in moral hypocrisy.

Graceless religion

Convinced that a major fertility crisis is the result of immorality, the Sons of Jacob seize control of the United States in order to enforce a return to ‘traditional’ values. They set up a rigid, hierarchical class system and use Biblical language and references to justify control, harsh punishment and ritualised rape. Gilead is an extreme case, however it is a stark example of the dangers of Old Testament-inspired legalism.

The training and treatment of Offred and the other handmaids is strongly reminiscent of the strict discipline, emphasis on modesty and conformity, and harsh punishment often associated with religious boarding schools and other institutions. People who are subject to such conditions often walk away from God because the experience makes faith seem so unappealing. Many wind up scarred for life.

Rules-based forms of Christianity bind adherents to an endless cycle of striving, guilt and inadequacy, leaving no room for error or even individuality. They give people a warped view of God, such that they may never truly experience his unconditional love and acceptance.

Tolerating abuse

Many Christians are quick to point the finger at Muslims for oppressing women and promoting violence. However, few Christians will admit that Christianity has the propensity to be misused in this way. We need only look at history to see countless examples of Christian individuals, groups and institutions perpetrating oppression and violence in God’s name.

Recent revelations about Christian doctrines being used by perpetrators to justify domestic violence, and the legacy of shame unearthed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, are two pertinent, local examples of Christian principles being misapplied to bring about considerable harm.

In his book, Less than Human, David Livingstone Smith argues that dehumanisation is usually a precursor to unjust treatment and atrocity. In the Handmaid’s Tale, fertile women are reduced to walking wombs and are treated cruelly as a result. Infidels who cannot bear children – such as doctors performing abortions and people of other Christian denominations and religions – are dehumanised completely and often put to death. As the Commander says, ‘Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.’

Engaging in moral hypocrisy

One of the most concerning things for Christians opposed to Donald Trump has been the religious right’s willingness to overlook his many indiscretions regarding women in favour of their ‘pro-life’ agenda. The propensity for religious conservatives to tolerate private moral indiscretions, especially of the sexual variety, is explored in the Handmaid’s Tale, where the moralistic leadership is more than happy to remove someone’s limb for committing adultery, later to be found cavorting with prostitutes in a secret and illegal bar.

This kind of hypocrisy is reminiscent of the kind of religion peddled by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness… You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!…You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. (Matthew 23:23-28)

Where to from here?

The Handmaid’s Tale is a stark and bitter-tasting portrayal of bad religion, the kind that lurks in the shadows of our own hearts and histories and that can insidiously pollute our churches and communities. How will we respond when we see graceless religion being taught and practiced, oppression and violence being tolerated, and leaders engaging in moral hypocrisy?

Will we be like the Commander and his wife, who started off as dynamic idealists but were sucked into a brutal system that left them joyless, harsh and hypocritical? Will we be like Aunt Lydia, so convinced of her black and white doctrine that she is willing to harm others in its name? Will we be like Offred, who sees the system for what it is and risks her life to fight for freedom? Or will we be like Christine, the nun we meet briefly in episode seven, who dedicates her life to freeing others as part of the resistance?

The choice is ours.

In defence of millennials

Millennials get a pretty bad rap.

We’re accused of being lazy, narcissistic, non-committal clicktivists with short attention spans and a tendency to stay at home leeching off our parents FOR EVER.

While any commentary about generations involves massive, unsubstantiated generalisation (spoilers: this one included!) I find this assessment of myself and my peers offensive and plain wrong. Yes, I know a handful of people in my age group who tick all of those boxes, but hey. There are deadbeats in every generation.

It’s high time we balanced out the endless criticism of millennials with some positive generalisations. So here’s my attempt.

TEN THINGS I LOVE ABOUT MILLENNIALS (Millennial pop culture reference to boot!)

1. We are tech savvy

My generation was the first to grow up with personal computing built into our curriculum from an early age. The first generation to have mobile phones in high school. The first to set up embarrassing email addresses and spend every weekday afternoon instant messaging their friends. In short, the first to have the Internet, one of the most revolutionary technological advancements in modern history.

This lifetime of tech-familiarity has enabled us digital natives to develop two important skills that preceding generations generally lack: cynicism about what we read online and an intuitive ability to find our way around new software and digital devices.

When we were at school, we had to learn about which sources of online information were reliable and which were not. In this era of clickbait, fake news and Dr Google, my generation is best placed to choose which ‘facts’ to laugh at and ignore.

Our brains basically ARE computers; our devices an extension of ourselves. Most of us can pick up a smart phone of a completely different brand and model to our own and work it out in under five minutes. Software tutorials? We don’t need those. If we click around enough, we’ll have it sorted in no time. Or we’ll have Googled the answer and identified a reliable solution before you can say the words “tech support”.

2. We are health conscious

Now I don’t mean to say that we are the first or only generation to care about fitness and healthy eating. But you’d have to agree that we have more access than anyone ever before about what’s happening inside our bodies and what food and exercise can achieve. With activewear-clad yogis and paleo food-porn filling our social media feeds, it has never been so fashionable to have a healthy lifestyle.

What is your average millennial eating of a weekend? Likely an overpriced, gluten free superfood concoction for brunch, accompanied by a hot beverage containing ‘milk’ (or ‘mylk’) from any other source than a cow. I’m not necessarily condoning these as healthier choices (I also think my generation has much to answer for in the area of fad diets) but health is without doubt a foremost factor in our eating decisions. Of all the stereotypes about millennials, the smashed avo toast one is probably the most accurate (although this does NOT signify that we are bad with money).

3. We are innovative

Other generations may not understand just how difficult it is for millennials to get a job in their chosen field. With Baby Boomers refusing to retire, a glut of university graduates digested and spat out by greedy institutions, an impossibly competitive recruitment culture and a rapidly casualising workforce, we have to be creative about making money.

Practically every millennial I know has a side business, or is thinking about developing one. We love our hobbies, we millennials, and are clever at turning them into moneymakers with the help of the cyber marketplace. In addition to our main job (or jobs….) we sell stuff on gumtree, write freelance, sell arts and crafts on Etsy, drive for Uber on the weekends, join skincare pyramid schemes, work as personal trainers, offer life coaching – all manner of entrepreneurial wonders. Why? Because we can. And because we have to.

4. We are adaptable

As well as being innovative, we are adaptable. The insecure private rental market and pipe dream of owning a home mean that we have to move often. So we get used to new environments. In this, we are also helped by our propensity to travel overseas – a lot. Most of us have worked or studied outside of Australia, done a gap year, or taken a few months off work to see the world. We have a lifelong mobility that our predecessors only dreamed of. As a result, we are less afraid of change than other generations. Bring it on.

5. We are socially conscious

Despite our reputation as chronic whingers, narcissistic social media posters, selfie-addicts and shallow clicktivists, I personally think millennials are the most socially aware generation since the Baby Boomers. We were kids or teenagers when 9/11 happened, we’ve seen Australia’s harsh asylum seeker policies develop before our eyes, we have personally witnessed climate change develop from a theory to a reality, and we have more instantaneous access to international news than anyone ever before.

Sure, we tend to be across a lot of issues, rather than dedicating our lives to one, but we are constantly signing online petitions, donating to causes, commenting on news articles and sharing content we are passionate about. We too, want to change the world. And you know what? We probably will.

6. We are inclusive

We Millennials will be the first to tell you that many of our parents and grandparents are racist. Sure, some of them have their reasons – many of our grandparents, for example, watched with baited breath as Japan almost invaded our nation. One thing we certainly have on previous generations is our comfort with difference. Be it ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, sexuality – we are surrounded by diversity, and we love it. We simply don’t understand how our elders can be so bigoted.

Our generation is at the forefront of the marriage equality movement, the new wave of feminism, the disability rights movement. We are the least likely to buy into Islamophobia and anti-migration sentiments. Our children will grow up with the conviction that all people are equally valuable and deserve to be treated as such. What a proud legacy that will be.

7. We are friendly

I am constantly struck by the manner with which millennial salespeople interact with me. They are chatty and informal, we share a laugh, use slang, make pop culture references. The other day I complained to my bank about receiving 18 letters in place of one, and the guy I spoke to described a similar scene from Harry Potter. The same day, I bought something at my local pharmacy, and a girl I’d never met danced crazily to the song that was playing, that we both loved. This would NEVER happen in other age groups.

In the workplace, we are direct yet colloquial, we treat people as friends, and yet remain professional. We are used to expanding our networks through Facebook, so are open to friendship with everyone we meet. We see no need for stuffy language and titles. We see ourselves as equal to our superiors. This can be perceived as cocky, but I think it can take us far.

8. We are connected

This year most of us are celebrating ten years on Facebook. Social media enables us to keep up with friends and family overseas, and keep up to date with the engagements, weddings and babies of our school friends. We can share with our network our passions, our joys and our heartaches. Within moments we can chat, Skype or share photos with anyone, anywhere.

This connection makes us stronger. If you ever studied sociology like me, you will probably be familiar with the concepts of bridging and bonding social capital. While insular communities (producing bonding capital) can be comfortingly tight-knit and loyal, they can also be suffocating. Broad rather than deep connections (producing bridging capital) may be shallower but strengthen unity and connectedness within the wider community. In a time of increasing fear of difference, bridging capital is exactly what we need more of.

9. We are good communicators

Millennials are used to multiple lines of communication. Each mode and context brings its own social rules, and usually its own language. Older generations often miss these nuances, causing us to roll our eyes and have and patronising giggle. We can be blunt and succinct via text, express an array of emotions without words via emojis online, represent our feelings clearly in a pithy meme or well timed photo on Instagram or Snap Chat. We can express our disagreement or solidarity in the click of a button.

Every generation has its lingo, but online platforms for common interest communities have brought on more linguistic diversity than in any previous generations. The captions on dog and cat memes literally have their own complex linguistic structure and consistent vocabulary.  Acronyms are so much a part of our lives that we sometimes accidentally say them out loud (or is that just me?) OMG, LOL, embarrassing AF. We have expression down to a fine art. And our language is inclusive in that, if we don’t understand it, we can just ask Google. Or Siri.

10. We are self aware

Some may say TOO self aware. We are constantly sharing our lives and our faces with the world. We definitely see ourselves at the centre. And while this brings definite problems, it also means we are hyper aware of our issues. I would be willing to bet that more of us would be open to counselling and self-help literature than any other generation. We do personality tests and online quizzes, share memes and watch TED talks about our traits, and devour self-help articles.

While you may or may not agree with the strengths I have described, I hope this post goes some way to show that millennials aren’t all bad. In fact, we have a lot to offer. And TBH, anyone that complains about us can only blame themselves; they shaped our world and raised us this way!

And personally, I think they did a pretty good job.


Post script: Some of my readers have questioned whether they fall into the millennial category. Of all generation labels, millennials is perhaps the most vague and contested. However in common usage it generally includes anyone born in the early to mid 80s onward.

Yassmin’s story holds a sinister message for young women of faith

Earlier this week, controversial Australian activist and writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied announced her move to London. Although she cited the move as ‘partaking in an Aussie rite of passage’, one wouldn’t blame her for wanting to get out of the country for a while.

In an article published by the Guardian Australia today, Abdel-Magied referred to the daily abuse and harassment she has experienced since her now infamous Anzac Day post. No human being should be subject to such horrific treatment; at times these days I feel ashamed to call myself an Australian.

Rather than delve into what she said when, or anything about her cultural background or religion, I want to focus on Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s experience as a young woman of faith with a message to share, and what this experience conveys to other young women who match that description, myself included.

Despite having a different faith, cultural background and skin colour, as I see it, I have more in common with Yassmin Abdel-Magied than most of her critics. I, too, am a young woman of faith who wants to challenge the dominant discourse associated with her religion and advocate for social justice through the medium of writing.

What Abdel-Magied’s treatment says to me, and the many other young, intelligent women who want to change the world, inspired by their faith, is this:

“Be silent.

Don’t dare speak up about injustice or you will cop abuse.

Continue letting old men speak on your behalf, even if you disagree with them.

Tow the line or your personal integrity will be questioned.

If you offend people, you deserve vitriol and violence. Suffer silently.

How dare you have a voice!”

Many young women receiving this message from current events will be intimidated. They will stay quiet, they will tow the line. And public life will miss out on their valuable insight.

Is this the future we want for our daughters?

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, you are much maligned, but you are also our pioneer. May the voices of young women of faith remain strong.

God is our refuge, we are theirs

(Originally published by Common Grace.)

In the fifteen years since the sinking of the SIEV X, known as the ‘children overboard’ incident, people smugglers have facilitated the unauthorised arrival in Australia by boat of tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Phrases like ‘stop the boats’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘deaths at sea’ have become a fixture of the political cycle, with human rights reports, whistleblower leaks and increasingly tough ‘border protection’ policies regularly dominating electoral campaigns and political media coverage.

While ‘boat people’ are not a new phenomenon in Australia, the concurrent international rise of Islamic terrorism since 9/11, coupled with an increase in displaced persons from wars in the Middle East, has brought a new edge of fear and loathing to the public perception of asylum seekers. This unease has been expressed in increasingly harsh policy responses, from temporary protection visas and mandatory detention, to offshore processing, and more recently, an arbitrary deadline for the lodgement of protection claims.

All this despite overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of asylum seekers are genuine refugees, that Australia’s number of unauthorised maritime arrivals is significantly lower than the influx overseas, and that our country’s policy approach is in violation of human rights.

Concerningly, many of the politicians known for their hard-line stance on asylum seekers identify as Christians, including John Howard, Philip Ruddock, and more recently Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison. This trend brings into question what a Christian response to asylum seekers should be, and to what extent this should influence both our political views and our practice of faith.

As we celebrate Refugee Week this week, let us reflect on what the Bible and church history can teach us about offering refuge and welcoming foreigners.

Looking to the Scriptures

The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. (Psalm 9:9)

The theme of refuge runs richly throughout the Old Testament. The word ‘refuge’ is used in the Psalms alone more than forty times, with David continually characterising God as a refuge from his foes, pursuers and oppressors (e.g. Psalm 7:1-2; 9:9; 17:7; 46:1; 61:3; 62:8). As children of God, shouldn’t our Father’s compassion inform our own response to those who seek refuge from war, famine and political and religious persecution?

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

Offering refuge to those fleeing hardship abroad is not only modelled by God, but expected of his people. The Israelites were given numerous stern warnings not to marginalise or oppress foreigners. God’s reasoning? His people should remember what it felt like to be mistreated in an unfamiliar land (Ex 22:21, 23:9; Deut 10:19, 24:17; 27:19). From Abraham to Egypt, exile in Babylon to Roman occupation, the nation of Israel was repeatedly in this position, as were the early church, who were frequently harassed and persecuted for their difference.

Peter even refers to Christians as foreigners by nature, living only temporarily in a hostile world (1 Pet 1:17, 2:11). And while those of us living in English speaking countries like Australia have enjoyed a few hundred years of relative peace and cultural dominance, we are increasingly becoming a maligned minority due to declining religious affiliation and the church’s controversial stance on various moral and social issues. Of course, our brothers and sisters in other nations of the world have experienced oppression much more keenly; the cultural unease Christians are currently feeling in Australia is just the tip of the iceberg. Shouldn’t this undeniable legacy of exclusion cause us to empathise with other marginalised groups facing mistreatment at home and abroad?

Looking to church history

I was a stranger and you invited me in…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:35,40)

Our Christian forebears were by no means perfect at translating their faith to action. Christians have sadly been responsible for a range of atrocities against people of different nationalities, cultures and religions. However, there are many examples throughout church history of Christians taking Jesus at his word when he identified with the stranger to whom we show hospitality (Matt 25:35,40).

All who arrive as guests are to be welcomed like Christ (Rule of Saint Benedict 53:1)

For centuries, Benedictine monasteries have been known as places of physical and spiritual sanctuary, offering hospitality to all manner of travellers, no questions asked. The Scriptures indicate that the practice of sharing resources with the needy was also a strong feature of the early church (Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9), which we know included people of many cultural and religious backgrounds.Calvin and Luther were also strong proponents of being hospitable to persecuted Christians during the Reformation period. These examples reflect a strong legacy of compassion towards the unfamiliar and bereft.

These principles were never more strongly demonstrated than during the Holocaust, when many Christian families and communities were compelled to harbour Jews whose very lives were in danger. Although Christians were not the only ‘righteous Gentiles’ of this period, the stories of Christians who were involved in this social resistance indicate that their actions were a direct outcome of their faith.

For example, famous Christian author Corrie Ten Boom’s family provided sanctuary and practical assistance to many of their Jewish brothers and sisters in their own home, later paying the ultimate price for their compassion. They were so convinced of God’s love for these people that they risked their own lives to act out their faith. Another lesser known instance of Christian hospitality during this period is that of the French Huguenot community in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Well acquainted with religious persecution, this community worked tirelessly to provide shelter and safe passage to more than 3,000 Jews.

These poignant examples of sacrificial hospitality to strangers show how physical and spiritual refuge can be a powerful witness of God’s love to the persecuted. The fact that our nation’s current policies regarding asylum seekers are so opposite in spirit to these compassionate responses should be very concerning to Australian Christians.

The church today

Thankfully, many Christian individuals, churches and communities are taking decisive action to welcome refugees in spite of the hostile policy environment. Media articles, letter writing campaigns, petitions, rallies and protests have often been used by Australian Christians to raise awareness of the injustices experienced by asylum seekers in Australia, and to call for policy change. Grassroots movements have also been at the forefront of offering accommodation, financial help and practical support to refugees and asylum seekers in the community and in detention. Common Grace, Love Makes A Way, the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce and Christian NGOs such as Anglicare and the St Vincent de Paul Society are just some of the many initiatives putting Christian faith into practice in this area.

This Refugee Week, let us reflect on the practical actions we can take in our own lives to welcome those in our midst, and offshore, who are seeking shelter and support in our peaceful and prosperous nation. Whether through prayer, social media, hospitality or advocacy, we can all do our part to welcome our Lord through helping a stranger.