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When Injustice Becomes Law

Wednesday, 28 August 2013  | Graeme Swincer

Today is Wednesday 28th August. It is a great date in history. On Wednesday 28 August 1833 royal assent was given to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 for which William Wilberforce had fought long and hard; he had died a month earlier. On Wednesday 28 August 1963, exactly 50 years ago, 250,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial national monument in Washington and heard Martin Luther King’s historic speech “I have a dream.” Dr King’s plea for freedom from legally and culturally entrenched injustice was heard around the world and it resulted in substantial changes in the United States and beyond. Significantly, the demonstration took place 100 years after Abraham Lincoln took decisive steps to eradicate slavery and confer full citizenship upon ex-slaves.

These epic events resonate with my obsession of the past several months: how should we respond to the legalised and socially ingrained injustice that exists in our nation and that is being promoted by our national leaders as a key election commitment? Of deep concern is that the majority of the electorate are considered likely to support escalating injustice towards innocent refugees who are simply fleeing for their lives and seeking protection. Blatantly misleading denigration is used to dull compassion and excuse unwarranted cruelty.    

My thoughts have been centred around the frequently quoted statement often attributed to Thomas Jefferson and used by Nelson Mandela: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”. This captures the essence of Dr King’s campaign and reflects the focus of many of the great figures of history. The line goes back through Mandela, Ghandi, Bonhoeffer, and Wilberforce, to the Old Testament prophets quoted by King. “Let justice roll on like a river” was God’s message through Amos (chapter 5) to the powerful of Israel who had forgotten the Law and indulged in shameful exploitation of the vulnerable. The other prophets were equally outspoken against injustice, and their words of resistance were rarely popular. Isaiah’s divine message was “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed…” (10:1-2).

God’s people are called upon both to act justly and to fight injustice. Jesus lived in an unjust society and his unpopularity with the leaders was in part due to his challenges to the status quo. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was appalled at the pathetic response of the German state church to the injustices visited upon Jews by the Nazi regime. Blind patriotism overrode ethical and spiritual integrity. Bonhoeffer famously enumerated three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state:

(a) question the state regarding its actions and their legitimacy

(b) aid the victims of state action, whether they are Christians or not, and

(c) take action directly against the state to stop it from perpetrating evil.

It gives me no great comfort to realise that this sums up what we are trying to do to support and advocate for asylum seekers.

I have very little inspiration about fulfilling my duty to resist injustice. My vote will not count much because both major parties are committed to injustice. The Greens have a humane and enlightened asylum seeker policy but are committed to withdrawal of support for Christian schools, and will have very little clout anyway. Awareness-raising among friends and family and others may help a bit. Challenging the churches to make a stand and lead the fight may help a bit. Participating in protests and petitions may help a bit. Putting our concerns to local politicians may help a bit. Helping asylum seekers directly may help a bit, even if this is breaking the law (a person who is not a registered migration agent must not give immigration assistance to help prepare a visa application . . . help advise a visa applicant about their application . . . or help to prepare a request to the Minister to exercise certain powers under the Act in relation to a visa applicant”).

I have decided that resistance is indeed my duty. As with the great heroes I have mentioned, civil disobedience is an option that has to be considered. Strictly speaking it has already begun.

Meanwhile, as we face the need to vote, there is a final option: prayer. In fact prayer may help more than a bit. Pray for God to touch hard hearts and callous minds that should know better. Pray for the emergence in Australia of a Wilberforce, or a Lincoln or a Martin Luther King or a Mandela whose voice will penetrate to touch the national conscience. And pray for one another, that we will be given divine wisdom and courage whenever injustice becomes law and remains instilled in our culture.

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