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Manus Island and spiritual warfare

Monday, 6 November 2017  | Paul Tyson

As I write, a horrifying humanitarian disaster, entirely made by successive Australian governments, is looming on Manus Island.

As a child I came into political awareness in the 1970s. The Fraser government’s open-armed response to the plight of Vietnamese boat people – with the full support of the ALP – is etched in my experience as a defining feature of who we then aspired to be as a people. We were leaving the white Australia policy permanently behind. We were strongly adhering to our UNHCR obligations and had a profoundly humane and compassionate immigration policy towards boat arrival asylum seekers. Growing up in cosmopolitan Melbourne, we were a people open to the world and most of my best friends were – and remain – from migrant families. What happened to those cosmopolitan, human-rights-upholding, warm and welcoming values? What changed to make us a people fearfully protective of our (apparently threatened) ‘national sovereignty’?

In all the analysis of what has changed and how we should respond to this deep shift backwards towards the politics of prejudicial fear and a disregard for our UNHCR obligations, I have not seen anything written about spiritual warfare. But I think this is central.

Spiritual warfare is the ongoing battle for communally assumed first loyalties – public worship. What our highest collective object of worth is, is our god. Crudely put, our god is now “the economy, stupid.” Well, it’s not the economy, actually; it’s the pursuit of personal wealth – what the New Testament calls Mammon. The post-war boom came to an end when Nixon dropped the gold standard and sent the 1970s into a global economic tailspin. But at that time we had grown accustomed to a steady rise in living standards, which was remarkably evenly shared due to some hard-headed restraints on high financial and corporate power. Yet stagflation was no fun, and the need to recover the standard of rising prosperity that we were accustomed to became a key feature of the political landscape.

The unshackling of Wall Street and the City of London from tight regulation, the revitalisation of global financial secrecy jurisdictions, and the flourishing of transnational corporate power in a race to exploit the resources and labour of what was then called the third world, did indeed steady our prosperity ship in the 1980s (whatever it did to Australian manufacturing and work place expectations). At this point – hardly noticeable by most – we were quietly dropping collective core values defined by post-war universal human rights, commonwealth and common-man wellbeing, and we were moving towards the relentless and increasingly unrestrained pursuit of competitive personal advancement. The hedonism of the 1960s also produced a profound demographic collapse in Australian churches. God, humanity and commonwealth became old hat as common value definers.

Far be it from me to suggest that John Howard’s golden 1950s of respectable white bread “Christian” decency – so called “Australian values” – was anything other than a convenient cloak for the self enhancement of an upwardly mobile status quo set on very material comforts and ambitions. But I don’t think the swing to Mammon happened in the 1980s, so it’s the post-war Boomers - the children of the 40s and 50s - who have defined the present neoliberal era. But, however it happened, we have lost a transcendent and intrinsic moral horizon to our common objects of value, and the result is, amongst other things, the disaster on Manus Island.

It goes like this. Mammon permits no transcendent or intrinsic horizon. This god gives its acolytes a flat vision of reality where money is power, and power gives the freedom of self-actualisation and the means of procuring tangible physical benefits. To this outlook, money, power and political rhetoric are all interchangeable tools that serve the purpose of amoral self-advancement. If you have read Plato’s Republic, Thraysmacus is a wonderfully sketched exponent of this metaphysically flat politically pragmatic outlook. When these values define the collective power environment, then all intrinsically moral commitments and all essential values become relativised and pragmatised, which is to say they become unrealistic in substance and of purely rhetorical and manipulative use. Astonishing incongruities become normalised as a result. Hence, out of a merely rhetorical concern (saving people from drowning and being exploited by people smugglers) we can pursue a policy of unbending inhumane deterrence, defined by the complete abrogation of our UNHCR signed commitments. This works in the public arena because substantive moral truths essential values, and any transcendent conception of the highest universal good are now functionally meaningless notions.

There is a bipartisan commitment to astonishingly incongruent moral rhetoric that has no substantive commitment to anything other than the management of electorally significant fear and greed nerves in the body politic, as stimulated by our pragmatic political party machines. Ironically, the appeal of Hanson and Trump is based on their maverick status as regards those machines, but not on any substantive moral or metaphysical difference to the flat pursuit of personal advantage.

The ‘real’ game of power is now defined by mere electoral victory, as produced by a ruthlessly pragmatic political ‘realism.’ This ‘realism’ manufactures PR technologies for manipulating electoral fears and desires centred around an entirely instrumental and spiritually flat conception of self-advancement. In this context there can be no genuine moral courage or humanity expressed by our political class. This situation does not illustrate a sharp divide between ‘us the people’ and ‘them the politicians’; to the contrary. What this illustrates is the common frame of civic worship shared by both our politicians and our people. That is, there is always a deeply embedded spiritual dynamic to politics and public life, but we functionally secular materialists (whatever our ‘religious’ convictions may be) are so daft in our articulation of the religious dynamics in which we actually live that we can’t even see spiritual dynamics when we are smashing the vulnerable – and ourselves – with the mother of all idolatrous sledge hammers.

The people who get this and the people who don’t is highly instructive. There are conviction atheists – such as Phillip Adams – who are profoundly morally outraged by the violations of intrinsic human dignity done in the name of national sovereignty, and who are flabbergasted by the inhumanity expressed in the bipartisan support shown by our central political parties to offshore deterrence. Phillip has not bowed the knee to Mammon; he has higher gods. And then there are card-carrying right-wing Christians – such as Scott Morrison – who do whatever humiliating and soul destroying antics his party asks in inhumane and secretive power games with vulnerable men, women and children in Australian-funded indefinite offshore detention.

Worshiping at the altar of political pragmatism, at whatever cost to the globally marginalised, is, alas, mainstream in both our political parties and in the Australian electorate. Things are not going to change for the better without some sort of national repentance and the casting off of our hideous idols. We need to change our gods if we are going to get a more morally adequate approach to the vulnerable and displaced peoples of the deeply troubled globe. We are going to need more than a flat metaphysical immanence if we are to build a commonwealth and a shared way of life that has dignity and genuinely humane purpose to it. This won’t happen without sustained, courageous and intelligent spiritual warfare. But… do we even have the first clue as to how we might go about engaging in such a struggle for The Good?

Paul Tyson is the Director of the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion and Society at Emmanuel College, University of Queensland. Views expressed in this article are Paul's own opinion and do not represent any official position endorsed by Emmanuel College.


Tom mayne
November 8, 2017, 10:13AM
If Sydney diocese can put up $1 million for the NO campaign (whatever you may think of it), why not all the churches put up a $1 million to put ads in every media outlet in condemnation of both major parties' policies on refugees?
john yates
November 10, 2017, 3:13PM
This is a fine piece, descriptively.

I am not sure, however, to whom it is directed. Surely something on spiritual warfare needs to be grounded beyond the language of metaphysics and human rights, and grounded in Christ, incarnation and the work of the cross. The spiritual rulers and authorities who hold people in bondage to Mammon are exposed only by Christ's blood (Col. 2:15). Without a revival of the presence of this sort of power I fear these sorts of writings will prove to be largely in vain
Andrew Kulikovsky
November 11, 2017, 10:38AM
I think this piece is overly simplistic. Not only does it contain an ad hominem attack on Scott Morrison; it does deal with the difficult and very real policy issues.

Are these people genuine refugees? Do they satisfy the character requirements of immigrants? Will they integrate into Australian community?

From today's The Australian:

"Australian government officials were informed last month that asylum-seekers and refugees at the Manus Island processing centre had regularly travelled into town to allegedly have sex with underage girls and buy or sell drugs.

Several children were born from the alleged sexual relations.

Papua New Guinea police and community leaders told the Australian government in mid-­October of 161 incidents of various offences ­involving residents at the centre recorded over four years from October 2013.

The alleged offences referred to the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary have included ­assault, sexual assault, aggressive behaviour, unlawful entry, property damage and contraband.

The Weekend Australian understands that some refugees, who receive $100 a fortnight, were allegedly using small items such as cigarettes and chocolates bought at the centre to lure ­underage girls into engaging in sexual acts."
November 11, 2017, 11:32PM
Dear Andrew, thanks for your comment.

I have considered your about the comment regarding Scott Morrison and do not consider this to be an ad hominem attack.

Kind regards,
Paul Tyson
November 15, 2017, 12:29PM
Dear Andrew,

Australia has signed the UNHCR convention for the rights of refugees, and yet we pursue deterrent policies that explicitly abrogate the international rights of asylum seekers.

According to our signed obligations it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia via 'unlawful boat arrival'. Manus Island was funded and set up by the Australian government to ensure that asylum claimants who do not arrive in Australia via plane with papers will never come to Australia, whether they are found to be refugees or not. This is not complex, it is a straightforward abrogation of our UNHCR responsibilities.

Then Scott Morrison made the conditions under which offshore detainees are held a matter of national security. He militarized this issue such that it is an act of sedition to whistle blow on how degrading our deterrent policy is, unless this message is given out by our own government in a way that de-personalizes and demonizes detainees.

What you have cited from The Australian is provided to the paper by the Australian government when the Australian government has a very clear interest in defaming the detainees and preparing us for righteous disinterest should they be slaughtered by the PNG military.
Andrew Kulikovsky
November 24, 2017, 5:40PM
Paul, you wrote:

'Australia has signed the UNHCR convention for the rights of refugees...According to our signed obligations it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia via "unlawful boat arrival" ... This is not complex, it is a straightforward abrogation of our UNHCR responsibilities.'

No, Paul, it's not straightforward. International Conventions that we have signed and/or ratified have no binding legal effect in Australia UNLESS the provisions in them have been explicitly enacted in Commonwealth legislation. This is well-established Australian law.

The extent to which the provisions of the UNHCR have been incorporated into Australian law is defined by the Commonwealth Migration Act, which also includes the provisions that you find objectionable.

In any case, it is factually incorrect to say that Australia has failed to meet its UNHCR obligations because the only obligations we have are encoded in the Migration Act. You may well object to Australia's exclusion of certain provisions, but you cannot assert we have failed or violated our international obligations.

BTW, the information reported in The Australian came from PNG authorities, not the Australian government - not that it matters, unless you are claiming that the Aus govt authorities are lying... If so, I hope you have some evidence because otherwise that would slander and a violation of the 9th commandment.

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