Who is our neighbour?

Bishop McKenna

As the Federal election looms, it is easy to be dismayed at the poor quality of the political contest. Instead of remedying ignorance, the process seems to exploit it in increasingly trivial media coverage, writes Bishop Michael McKenna.

The most glaring example of this in Australia today is the debate (if that is not too kind a word) about asylum seekers. Worldwide, the vast numbers of human beings who have been displaced by war, persecution and famine is staggering. At the beginning of this year, it passed 45 million - twice the population of our own country. It is at an all-time high.

In our peaceful, well-fed life here, it is difficult to imagine the physical and emotional distress that these people have been through and continue to suffer. The sheer size of the disaster tempts us to look away, so helpless do we feel about helping its victims and amending its causes. We Catholics should listen to Pope Francis, who made his first trip outside Rome to the island of Lampedusa. That island, a part of Italy only 70km from the North African coast, has been, for a decade now, a destination of asylum seekers.

Some made it, others died at sea or had their boats turned back in a deal struck in the days of then Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi and the Libyan Leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Let me quote some of the eloquent and heartfelt words of our Pope: 'Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: "poor soul…!", and then go on our way…

'… The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalisation of indifference… We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!'

The plight of refugees is our business. We cannot lift all the suffering, or deal with its causes easily or quickly, but that does not mean we can do nothing. Australia, as a wealthy but small nation, cannot do it all alone, but we can do something. In the simple advice of Mary MacKillop: "Never see a need without doing something about it."

No reasonable person would underestimate the complexity of the task for governments who would deal with this crisis. But, in Australia, the questions have been too narrowly framed. As a citizen, I was ashamed of our current Government’s announcement of the so-called PNG Solution. I would be ashamed if a future Government adopted a ‘turn back the boats’ policy. Both are based on looking at asylum seekers not as fellow human beings but as a problem to be swept away, out of sight, out of mind.

Neither side of politics has much to be proud of in their handling of this issue these days. However, both sides can look back to days when their party leaders took a different approach. After the Second World War, and again after the war in Vietnam, Australia welcomed large numbers of refugees displaced by those conflicts and their aftermaths. Not only was it the right thing to do, our country has been blessed by the contributions of those new settlers.

This year, our nation took a great step, with the support of both major parties, in developing a National Disability Insurance Scheme. That practical concern for our fellow Australians shows that we have not given in to individualism and selfishness, that we are still capable of doing the right thing for our neighbour in need. As we reflect on the refugee crisis, we pose the old question, "Who is my neighbour?" As Christians, let’s listen to the answer Jesus gives.

- Michael McKenna is the Bishop of Bathurst

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