A Time for Grace: Opening address
2020 World Day of Migrants and Refugees Webinar
27 September 2020
It is a great honour for me to open this forum as we explore ways of being a more welcoming community for migrants and refugees. In so doing we also offer a counter-narrative to the wave of sanctioned xenophobia in our society and in the world.
As you know, I am a former boat person and the issue of people seeking asylum is personal to me. I’d like to think that I am a living testament to the welcoming, daringly open and fair dinkum Australia. I consider it my vocation to share the Good News story about migrants and refugees.
The experience of the Vietnamese boat people is clear evidence that even the most traumatised group can be integrated in our multicultural society and can make a positive contribution. The fear that our social cohesion might be undermined on account of an imaginary ‘Yellow Peril’ has been proven unfounded. Today, Asian Australians have joined the mainstream in every aspect of our society. Australia has evolved to become a much more dynamic, diverse, and prosperous nation.
The Vietnamese refugees are just part of the richly textured tapestry of our nation. They were by no means the only group that were accommodated, integrated and in turn changed the face of Australia. The post-war refugees and migrants from Europe suffered no less hardship, adversity and even discrimination. They were the ground troops of the economy, often working on the massive infrastructure projects that provided the foundation for a prosperous Australia that we inherit today.
To be sure, each group presents its own challenge to Australia and yet this nation has consistently risen to the challenge and become more enriched as a result. I contend that we will have failed to live up to our best tradition as a generous and compassionate society and we demean ourselves when we adopt harsh and unprincipled policies towards people seeking asylum.
Ever since the convict era, the modern history of this country has been about the victory of the downtrodden, the triumph of the human spirit and the prevalence of justice for the oppressed. I am convinced that Australia is what it is today because our nation dares to welcome the unwelcomed. It dares to give a fair go to the underdog.
Australia rose to the challenge in the past with its generous embrace of migrants and refugees. It proved itself especially courageous during the Vietnamese exodus and accepted an unprecedented number of Asian refugees for the first time in its history. We have not done too badly since. A few of us live off the fat of the land. But most of us are well-settled and doing our bit for the country. We have practically cornered the bakery, hair salon, pedicure, manicure and waxing businesses. We have virtually infiltrated every diocese and religious order, even the echelons of the Jesuits in Australia.
All things being equal, I believe that Australia has changed for the better with each successive wave of new arrivals. Australia is what it is today because of their love of freedom and fundamental human values. Australia is what it is today because of their determination and drive for a better future. We honour the legacy of this great nation not by excessive protectionism, isolation and defence of our privilege at all costs. Rather, we make it greater by our concern and care for asylum seekers in the spirit of compassion and solidarity that has marked the history of our country from its beginning.
I personally believe that the pendulum has swung the other way not because the basic decency and fairness among Australians has disappeared. Rather, it is a result of a concerted demonisation and vilification of asylum seekers, especially in political and media circles. When political leaders exploited the Tampa affair, called boat arrivals queue jumpers and said Australia is swamped by Asians or Muslims, they emboldened the extremist elements of the society, in the same way the far-right groups in the USA are emboldened at the moment.
Pope Francis in his message marking Migrants and Refugees Sunday this year makes a passionate appeal for solidarity with those who are forced to flee like Jesus. Against the tide of anti-refugee sentiments across the world, particularly during the pandemic, the Holy Father says that it is not a time of forgetfulness. Rather, he continues, “it is a time to recognise Jesus in those faces, we will be the ones to thank him for having been able to meet, love and serve him in them.”
We are challenged to be an alternative community of mercy, inclusion and brotherhood. Instead of the label of ‘queue jumpers’, we can help the world see them as our fellow travellers who like us are in search of justice, freedom, dignity, and opportunity.
In our struggle to influence policy and decision-makers in respect of people seeking asylum, it is easy for us to give in to defeat and apathy. Significant social changes, we reason, rely on the participation and conversion of large numbers of people. But there is an alternative image to critical mass that is aptly and biblically named critical yeast. Instead of relying on an X amount of people, the question becomes who, in this situation, would have a capacity, if they were mixed and held together, to make things grow, exponentially, beyond their numbers. Each of us can become critical yeast for critical time by virtue of our commitment, dedication and shared leadership. In this way, we can create a movement and a coalition of concerned citizens that challenges the inaction of the political class from above or the apathy and compassion fatigue from below.
As Martin Luther King Jr reminded us that the arc of justice is long but it tends inescapably to justice. We must not give in to the myth of the futility of our resistance. The example of the early Christian community spurs us on. For they understood the significance of being fundamentally counter-cultural in how they lived, how they related, how they welcomed outsiders and shared resources with the disadvantaged. It was a community that supported and cared for the most vulnerable. It was a community of unity in diversity, radical equality and inclusion where old boundaries were transcended. They showed to the world that it was possible to live with fraternal concern, compassion and communion.
The Church today must honour this founding memory by its radical outreach and witness. We are inspired to be a kinder, more inclusive, more caring alternative society under God’s rule. The Kingdom Vision of Jesus guides us as we endeavour to be a community that serves as an antidote to the politics of fear and the culture of self-protection and exclusion in our society.
We must not limit our search for justice on one single issue either; for injustice anywhere or to anyone is a threat to justice everywhere and to everyone. Thus, whether it is sanctioned racism, legitimated xenophobia or sanctified patriarchy, we the Gospel people must seek fresh ways of transcending artificially constructed boundaries and embodying God’s all-embracing love.
The coronavirus crisis reveals a world that is fractured. It tells us that the dominant mode of human conquest and dominion is no longer sustainable. The planet out of sync with nature and the poor is heading to ruins. We need a radical new way of living that brings harmony and sustainability to all of life.
We need to rewire ourselves to be in communion with one another as a human family and as part of nature. The old paradigm of survival of the fittest that undergirds much of our consumerist, trickle-down economic system of buying life at any cost is obsolete. We will perish under these conditions unless we return to the roots of nature and readjust the religious, political and economic sails of our lives. The cry of the poor and the cry of the wounded earth are like a clarion call for us to act.
With the men and women of goodwill, let us build a better Australia and a better world. May our endeavour to replace the culture of fear and indifference with that of encounter and acceptance be brought to fulfilment in accordance with God’s vision of the fullness of life for all humanity.
Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta, Australia
Chair of Bishops Commission for Social Justice – Mission and Service
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference