There are 1,138 children in offshore indefinite detention. We intend to stay and pray in Morrison’s office until we receive an answer as to when they will be released. I guess that’s a tweetable sized summary of why I and other committed Christians were arrested while praying in the office of professing Christian and Australian Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison.
We have yet to receive an answer from the Minister. We did, however, make some new friends with the arresting police officers, including the sergeant who, upon releasing us, said in a loud voice, “You’re the nicest group of crims we’ve ever had here, and you’re welcome back any time.” Thanks Sarge!
For the longer explanation as to why this Lenten season I found myself behind bars, thereby participating in that long Christian tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience, I can’t help but talk of Jesus. In particular I want to contemplate, from this side of the Resurrection, Christ’s Passion. Albeit with the help of Homer. Not Homer of The Odyssey fame. Homer of the “Nacho-Nacho-Man” and “You don’t make friends with Salad” fame. To quote Homer Simpson: “Oh my God, I got so swept up in the scapegoating and fun of Proposition 24 [an immigration deportation bill] I never stopped to think it might affect somebody I might care about.”
Homer’s concept of being “swept up in the scapegoating” – or, as anthropologist Rene Girard puts it, the “scapegoat mechanism” – provides a helpful way of explaining why we as Christian leaders were arrested, and why more plan to “go and do likewise.”
According to Hans Urs von Balthasar, “disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.” Christ’s murder upon the cross is likewise the unmasking of our society’s ugly, evil and illogical desire for scapegoats. Easter reveals God overcoming evil with the power of nonviolent love, seen most clearly at Calvary.
That is why we conducted the prayer vigil in the nonviolent, loving manner we did – a manner that was praised by the public, protesters and even the police arresting us, because our battle is not against flesh and blood, like brother Scott Morrison and his staff.
Easter reveals the violent shape of our society’s scapegoat mechanisms that crucify the vulnerable. That is why we willingly accepted that we would be arrested, not willing to leave without an answer to why 1,138 children were being indefinitely detained. In so doing, our prayer was that we might witness to the unmasking of the principalities and powers that animate what we all know, but our society lives like it isn’t happening: the irrational and barbaric indefinite imprisonment of some of the world’s most vulnerable people and their children whose only “crime” is fleeing death.
The How: “Think of the children!”
During last week’s Q & A, the new Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson called for an end to children in detention. While the Commissioner held up a hand-drawn picture from a child in detention, a familiar meme of Helen Lovejoy (yes, Reverend Lovejoy’s self-righteous wife from The Simpsons) pleading, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!” was shared on Twitter.
Given that it’s Lent, before drawing direct parallels between The Simpsons and the current Australian political situation, consider first the parallels with Christ’s Passion. In his brilliant new book A Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd spells out how the “religion of blame” and the “politics of power” collaborated to crucify God. History may be dictated by the victors, but “the God of history” (to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase) is revealed at Calvary to be found among the victims, as the forgiving victim. For those of us who love Jesus and want to follow him, the insight that religion and politics collaborated to kill God should be no small thing. So, with “Easter eyes” – eyes, that is, sensitive to these dynamics – watch this pseudo Passion play where Mayor Quimby will be our Pilate, Helen Lovejoy our Caiaphas and Moe will voice the cries of “Crucify!” from the mob, exposing the “how” of scapegoat dynamics: I give you “Much Apu About Nothing.”
Mayor Quimby’s response to the bear (singular) is something equivalent to “Operation Sovereign Bear-Free Boarders,” which is in full swing by the following week in the hope of returning Springfield to a state of tranquillity. Until, that is, the angry mob returns because of the tax increases due to the cost associated with policies addressing their irrational fear. (As an aside, given that it costs the Australian tax payer $4 billion a year to jail asylum seekers indefinitely, I’m surprised there aren’t similar such protests purely on economic grounds, even if you don’t particularly care for ethics, human rights or … well, other humans. If only these desperate people fleeing war were as easy to feel for as our West Australian sharks. But I digress.)
The angry mob yells outside Mayor Quimby’s office, “Down with taxes! Down with taxes!” and again, for the second time, Helen Lovejoy is heard yelling, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Like Caiaphas, the Reverend’s wife functions as an embodiment of the mob’s popular sentiment, only now she is blessing the need to blame with shrill and sanctimonious indignation – all expressed, of course, out of concern for “the children.” “Do you not realise it is better that someone else gets it than our town fall apart?”
And Mayor Quimby, blessed with the realpolitik of Pilate, senses the mob’s irrationality:
Mayor Quimby: “Are those morons getting dumber or just louder?”
Office Staff: [Pauses for a moment while checking clipboard.] “Dumber, sir.”
Mayor Quimby: “They want the bear patrol but they won’t pay taxes for it. This is a situation that calls for real leadership.”
[Opens the door to his office to address the angry mob.]
Mayor Quimby: “People, your taxes are high because of illegal immigrants!!! That’s right, illegal immigrants. We need to get rid of them.”
True, a shared identity organised around a common irrational fear of the “other” may win votes, but it also makes the most intelligent who are whipped up in the scapegoating mechanism as dumb as the glue of hatred that holds a community together. The “glue of hate” falsely holds a mythical “us” together against the “monstrous them”. Nazi Germany’s appreciation of Wagner’s symphonies, Wittgenstein’s philosophy and higher educational excellence still provided no room for what theologian James Alison would call “the Intelligence of the Victim.”
In keeping with the realpolitik of Pilate, truth becomes relativised and the desire to maintain power becomes absolute, no doubt justified with the rationale of “for the greater good” or with the sanction of the cult of a Zeus-like – certainly not not Christ-like – God. (We should not pretend that the Islamophobia of supposedly “Christian” far right political parties, like Rise Up Australia, is not animated by the same diabolical dynamic that fuelled the anti-Semitism of European “Christendom.”)
Stopping just short of yelling “Crucify! Crucify!” Moe is intoxicated, not with his tavern’s booze, but with the promise of peace and belonging that will come to the town with the scapegoating of a new “monstrous other.” Moe yells from the mob, on behalf of the mob:
Moe: “Immigants! [sic] I knew it was them! Even when it was the bears, I knew it was them.”
Moe’s mispronunciation and fervour for someone (other than himself) to be scapegoated might be bound up with what is revealed later in the episode, that Moe himself is an immigrant. Moe has confirmed Kierkegaard’s conviction that to love a neighbour is self-denial, but to love the crowd is merely to seek to gain power and worldly advantage at the cost of others. “The crowd is untruth,” Kierkegaard sharply summarises.
With “Easter eyes,” we can see unmasked this collaboration between the religion of victimisation and the politics of violence. It is now, finally, in this context we hear the final cry from our Caiaphas; Helen Lovejoy:
Helen Lovejoy: “Won’t somebody please think of the children!?!”
“Won’t somebody please think of the children” in the religious litany of blame translates as “stop thinking, and fear for your own children as we round up the children of those we have made into monsters.” And the how of the scapegoat mechanism is complete.
The Why: Ursula Le Guin and don’t think of the children
But why? If this episode of The Simpsons illustrates how the scapegoat mechanism works, Ursula Le Guin’s haunting short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” speaks to the why. Le Guin’s short story is only seven pages long, the first six of which sound like a script for Australian tourism’s next campaign. It describes a bright towering city by the sea with “not naive and happy children” and “mature, intelligent, passionate adults” who celebrate “the victory of life.” Le Guin even stops the reader from thinking of Omelas as too puritanical by inviting us to “add an orgy … if it would help,” harm-free drugs or beer for the more modest tastes.
But then, in the final pages, Le Guin brings you into the dark secret that seems to hold this utopia together. In a dark cellar there is a child – an “it” stripped of its name. But why? Le Guin writes;
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
As Rene Girard puts it, “All the rancours scattered at random among the divergent individuals, all the differing antagonisms, now converge on an isolated and unique figure, the surrogate victim.” Australia’s dark secret is that there are offshore cellars with over 1,000 children locked up. But even though we know this, to talk about it or do anything about it would threaten our utopia, our Springfield, our Omelas.
This is why we were arrested in Morrison’s office: in Slavoj Zizek’s words, “This is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything.” As ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we choose to say something. We choose to believe in an Australia that is possible without these cellars. We choose to do so because of Easter.
The Easter alternative
So that’s the bad news, how the scapegoat mechanism works. Why it is such an effective cause of social cohesion, both managing internal competition and its threat of escalating violence. And while that is illuminating, it’s totally depressing. We can now see clearly that the scapegoats are those we blame to keep us in the dark about what has shaped us – namely, the systems that demand victims. All of this is done to keep us “safe,” to maintain “order,” to protect “us,” to restore “peace” and to insure the next election “win.”
Is there any good news? Is there an alternative? How might we be saved from a way of life that demands the sacrifice of the vulnerable? I think Brian Zahnd is on the right track:
“If nations can’t hate and scapegoat their enemies, how can they cohere? If societies can’t project blame onto a hated ‘other’, how can they keep from turning on themselves? Jesus’ answer is as simple as it is revolutionary: Instead of an arrangement around hate and violence, the world is now to be arranged around love and forgiveness. The fear of our enemy and the pain of being wronged is not to be transferred through blame, but dispelled through forgiveness. Unity is not to be built around the practice of scapegoating a hated victim, but around the practice of loving your neighbour as yourself – even if your neighbour is your enemy. Jesus is trying to lead humanity into the deep truth that there is no ‘them’, there is only us.”
With “Easter eyes,” we can see that the message of the Passion of Jesus is not that some deity, like the scapegoat mechanism itself, takes out its rage on an innocent victim so he doesn’t have to take it out on all of us, eternally. Frankly, that sort of “god” needs to invite Jesus into his heart. That sort of “god” is a diabolical lie in Christian drag, reversing the Gospel by making it the same old bad news while concealing that Jesus is victorious over all evil, the scapegoat mechanism included. God doesn’t demand blood. We do.
In Jesus, God is not just on the side of the scapegoated, God is scapegoated as “the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.” The Lamb of God is not offered to God by us, but is God offered to us as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. God is reconciling the world to Godself, through Christ, by knowingly submitting to the scapegoat mechanism, exposing all blasphemous systems that promise order, safety, peace, protection and salvation at the cost of victims.
In the Resurrection, we are all confronted with the grace of our Creator in the forgiving victim who sends with the Holy Spirit hope of a new world where no more blood needs to be shed. And no more asylum seekers need to be indefinitely detained. As Michael Hardin puts it, “The fact remains that as long as we imprison the innocent, and do so in the name of justice, we find ourselves amongst the persecutory mob. We can either side with the persecutors or we can, with the woman at the Cross, side with the victim.”
The Easter event exposes our national facade behind which we hide the bodies of the vulnerable, scapegoated as monsters. Easter also announces a real alternative: grace. First we must confront the facade woven with the fabric of fear, and knitted together by the politics of power. Then we must embody the alternative. Easter means I can no longer remain silent over what is happening to asylum seekers. It is my conviction that Christian faith should look like Christ, not his crucifiers.
Easter is the reason I was arrested.
This piece was originally published by ABC Religion & Ethics.