I have an abiding sense of shame as an Australian at the way vulnerable seekers of asylum are met on arrival in my country. Fear seems to dominate, be the only voice to which the politicians listen, though there is a strong and vital pulse of love beating an alternative message of welcome.
These messages and public acts of welcome and love restore faith in my fellow Australians, and give us all something of which to be immensely proud. I have a number of friends who are involved in these movements in various ways, and when nine people sat in the office of a member of parliament in my home town earlier in the year, demanding an answer on when the children would be released from mandatory detention, and seven of them were my friends, all I could do, not what I could do, was write.
It may not, however, be only fear that is dictating our response to asylum seekers in Australia - fear of the other, of difference, of resources being stretched out of 'our' grasp. I wonder if it is also a result of our youngness as a nation, our lack of a national identity - and when you don't know who you are, your boundaries of definition are rigid between 'us' and 'them', and easily become boundaries of division.
As I dive into the depths of Paul's letter to the church in Rome for my PhD (the reason I am in Scotland), and ponder his purpose in writing this letter, I see this sort of division arising out of fear and uncertainty in the face of difference between 'us' and 'them'. Followers of Jesus (not yet calling themselves 'Christians') in the first century in Rome were both of Jewish and Gentile culture and ethnicity. Working out what it meant to be followers of Jesus meant working out your relationship to the Jewish Torah (teaching or law). Gentiles were likely to be glad at the inclusivity of the Way of Jesus, which did not require physical circumcision for men, or strict adherence to Jewish law. Jews were likely to resist letting go of the practices that had shaped their daily lives and identity, even if they welcomed the renewal of relationship with God to which Jesus points. The question becomes, then, how do we live together, all followers of Jesus, though we are in many ways so different?
Paul's argument is that the body of Christ - his profound and, I think, beautiful image of Christian community - is healthy because of the differences of its members. Whether those differences be in perspective and understanding of the law or teaching of Jesus, in the gifts bestowed by the Spirit, or in gender, status or ethnicity - these differences add texture and richness to the body, which helps it to function and live into its purpose, to tell the story of Jesus.
The central theme of focus for my PhD is the mutuality of humans in community as described, modelled and encouraged by Paul in this letter. Mutuality - the giving of ourselves to others for the sake of the other, and ourselves - is in many ways dependent on difference. Mutual implies more than one, and if the other is the same as me is there as much I can give or receive as if the other is different?
OK, getting a bit theoretical and technical, but perhaps you get the point? Humans need other humans in order to be healthy and whole. In our fearful rejection of these humans, Australia is damaging their humanity and the health and wholeness of Australia as a community. As I watch from afar, now, I do have hope because of those with the courage of their conviction about the dignity and worth of all humans.
In a country also struggling with its identity in relation to the 'other', Scotland one part of a complex whole Britain, one part also comprised of other parts with Gaelic, Scots and English speakers, not to mention the cities, highlands and islands, I am reminded that the struggle for identity is as old as humanity itself. Each time a new member enters a community, the community changes, and each person is changed by each new community to which s/he belongs.
Inevitably, this year of relocation has brought about many such changes. There has been a jostling of communities at home, as my place is vacated, in the case of my congregation, or my participation become long distance, in family and friend communities, with college and church. There has been a jostling of communities here in Edinburgh, as I find a place with new faith and learning communities. I am not sure yet how I have changed, and probably need more time for the growth to be apparent. I am immensely grateful for the hard work I put in over the past decade, to understand as best I can my sense of identity and vocation. From this (tenuous though it ever is) certainty, I have enough confidence to accept the welcome of others, and to welcome them in love - enough confidence not to be afraid in the face of all the difference relocation brings.
So as we enter another new year, many things will change, and more will stay the same. I hope the change that keeps gaining momentum in my homeland is that love's voice will silence fear.
Amidst the constant struggle with identity, then, may we remember that our differences are vital for our health together, and that each human is vital for the wholeness of our communities - for beneath the differences, we are all, after all, human.
|Michael Leunig. |
Australian poet, prophet, artist.