A number of Christian ministers, pastors and laypeople demonstrated in Parliament House this Refugee Week and called for the release of children in detention. This movement, titled Love Makes A Way, seeks an end to Australia's inhumane asylum seeker policies through prayer and nonviolent demonstrations. Love Makes A Way organises events, including civil disobedience actions, to protest the injustice of Australia's policies and to advocate for a better response to refugees. While some demonstrations were quiet and relatively benign, others have involved increasing force on the part of the police and even strip searches conducted on the demonstrators solely for the purpose of intimidation. The spokesperson for this week’s demonstration is Salvation Army minister Craig Farrell, who was arrested at a similar event last year. I spoke to Craig earlier this year about the movement and its methods and asked about the challenges of working to see children released from detention.
Many in conservative or religious circles aren’t inclined to acts of civil disobedience. How do handcuffs fit a man of the cloth?
Well, when I decided to become a minister I never thought I’d end up on the police system…
Are you in the clear yet or might you still end up behind bars? Do I need to start baking cakes with files in them?
I’m done with court appearances now. That process was fairly straightforward. We represented ourselves, as is the key practice in cases of civil disobedience. We made a statement admitting to our guilt but explaining our motivations. In the end we were only fined $200. The judge even offered us a payment plan. Actually, another Salvo raised the money to pay for some of our fines and the rest went to Love Makes A Way as a donation.
Since then the Government finally released The Forgotten Children report, and have since played politics with it, even though the findings revealed 233 recorded assaults, 33 sexual assaults, 207 incidents of self-harm and 436 incidents of threatened self-harm. To this day, children remain in detention. Given the politics of it all, is one of the primary challenges keeping the cause at the centre of the actions?
It’s been interesting since December, there’s been court cases but not many more actions. Many folk are still facing court. I think the time is probably now, where we need to actually be out there again. It’s my intention to be involved again. It’s a matter of time.
As in time management? You can’t find the time to get arrested again?
(laughs) Oh look, it’s so hard these days finding the time to get arrested… Actually, I was recently speaking to a friend involved in the movement about the need to keep the momentum up. The pressure the actions generate made a real difference to how some people think. I really do believe that. We’re also looking to regroup. The movement is moving forward and looking for new leaders, younger leaders who can take the reins of some of the older guys. The older guys who are well-established in civil disobedience are just going to end up in prison at some point. Realistically, that’s the cost of repeated arrests.
The challenge remains to find new forms of momentum and pressure, finding a new way or a new tactic. There are still hundreds of children in detention and it is our job to keep the pressure on until every one is released. Once all children are released, we must also make sure that further detainees are out of detention in a specified time. Getting children out of detention and keeping them out has been the aim from the beginning.
These protests mark an interesting point in Australian culture, where organised religion, typically a structure in the status quo, directly challenges the political realm and the rule of law. What have your experiences been working for a religious non-profit and ending up on the news?
Everyone’s actually been quite supportive within the organisation. You’d think an organisation like The Salvation Army would be more concerned with the legal aspects, but there’s been little pushback. I’m sure different people have different thoughts on the matter, but I’ve had absolute support from the top leadership.
The only public criticism I’ve copped has been from survivors of abuse in The Salvation Army’s institutions. Given some of the awful revelations that have come from the Royal Commission about child abuse in Salvo care institutions, it raises the question ‘do we have a right to be in that space?’ Again, it’s about being transparent. The Salvation Army is doing what it can in response to the failures and tragedies of children in care. What we do know is that children are suffering in detention now. We know it’s harming them and so we do what we can. I understand why some would be angered by seeing someone from The Salvation Army in the media right now and claiming to be defending the rights of children.
There might be an observation that these demonstrations are media stunts for the left-of-centre. If there was more considerable cost, regarding fines and the severity of the charges, do you think the demonstrations would continue? How do you see the determination of the activists involved?
We know that ‘Christian ministers breaking the law’ is a nice headline. The media that really took the story were Fairfax, the ABC and some independent radio stations. There’s a gimmick factor to it for sure, but it challenges the left-right cultural assumptions. It prompts people to ask ‘why Christian ministers doing? Aren’t they a conservative bunch?’ Some conservatives see the status quo as being something to protect rather than something that should be questioned. We do not. We’re professional clergy who aren’t all necessarily tree-hugging types. This is a considered response. We wanted to present as respectively and conservatively as we could. And it’s actually clergy and non-clergy involved in the demonstrations, with representatives of numerous faith traditions. There are lay people involved as well. It’s not all priests and nuns.
If you get nuns off side then you know you’re not on the side of the angels. I know there’s the Blues Brothers kind of nuns, but a lot of nuns are fierce operators for those on the margins.
Oh yeah, plenty of these nuns would have your back in a dark alleyway. It shouldn’t be about religious affiliations though. Wherever injustice and harm exists there is an inherent response that Christians should have. It’s a moral response and that goes to political structures and social justice. That was the ethic of Jesus, working for the poor and disenfranchised and to offer an alternative form of power in changing society.
Is there a danger with political action you might become ideological. Is there a sense in which you might begin to see allies and enemies and a place in the political system?
It’s a tightrope. Once you engage with any party there’s an element of compromise. Speaking out against abuse of power must remain the priority. That’s not to say that we can’t partner with government. We can. And that’s not to say that government is always inherently bad. But every time you engage with politics, compromise is a risk. If you do speak out you have to recognise where the loyalties lie.
I consider the professing Christians in Parliament who have worked to develop punishing policies for asylum seekers, on both sides, and think it has to be a total brainwash. It’s about political goals and utilising power. That’s the opposite of the Kingdom of God. You can’t justify that. Now there are people who work with government to advocate for better conditions for those on the margins. We see this in regards to issues of homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction. They work hard to build relationships with politicians and we’re not disparaging that. However, when it comes down to human rights abuses and children, inaction can’t be an option.
Do you go into the demonstrations knowing what the practical outcomes should be? What’s the specific endgame?
Essentially, you’re involved knowing that the goal is to provide public pressure to the issue but the result is always getting children out of detention. It’s a long road. Your actions are one part of a larger campaign. There are various methods being employed, various acts of demonstration and different levels of arrest. You also know that the consequences can vary. Those demonstrators in Western Australia were strip-searched! Ministers, pastors, there was a mother with a baby too! That whole thing was an act of intimidation and that stuff weighs on your mind as you go into the action.
This issue might seem settled for some. The Government is claiming success and has compliance from the Opposition and major arms of the media. What then is the future for the movement?
The hope is that, eventually, love makes a way for children in detention. Until that aim has been met, we don’t have a choice actually. We will keep asking ‘why are people being kept in detention for ridiculous amounts of time and suffering mental and physical abuse in those places?’ We can’t stay silent on that. The movement could easily continue for those released from detention, in regards to reforming TPVs and supporting those in the community. So many elements of this issue need attention. Until there is a response that is compassionate and recognises people’s dignity, then we cannot stay silent.
#LoveMakesAWay is a movement of Christians seeking an end to Australia's inhumane asylum seeker policies through prayer and nonviolent love in action. For more information, ‘like’ LMAW on Facebook and ‘follow’ them on Twitter
Anthony N. Castle is a writer based in Adelaide. He writes for The Salvation Army and elsewhere on the crossroads of social justice and pop culture narratives.