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We’re all Boat People: A Biblical View of Refugees

Dr Gordon Preece

‘Imagine you are 29 years old, born and grew up in Kuwait. Your parents are immigrant workers there. You have few rights and no citizenship. Next you are in a detention camp in far flung Australia for 3 years being told when to eat, sleep, come to the office etc.You go to the office when you are called over the loud speaker and you are then seized and taken to Perth. No goodbyes to friends, no collecting your few treasured possessions. Next you are on a plane with two guards on the way to South Africa. There you will be placed in a cell at the airport. No one will be permitted to see you. There alone and frightened you will be wondering what is to happen next. After that you will be sent to Sudan. You have never been there before and don’t know anyone there. Kuwait refused to take you back because you are not a Kuwaiti citizen. But because your parents are born in Sudan, Australia has done a deal and is sending you to the Sudan.

If you were an Australian citizen you would be told not to go to Sudan because “Although peace talks are being undertaken between the Government and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army, Australians are advised to avoid all travel to southern Sudan and the region bordering Eritrea as the situation remains unstable. Australians intending to visit the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, are advised to seek the latest information from the Australian Embassy in Egypt. ” (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [DFAT] ). Further, you would have no chance of a safe bed for the night if you had no money because you had just been thrown out of Australia and were unlikely to have some US dollars to see you right. Imagine how you might feel. But then you should not be surprised at this treatment because as you saw in the High Court last week, the Judges determined that Australia has the power to send people back to their deaths or to be tortured imprisoned or whatever and that the Australian Government intend to exercise that power. You know that it will do so unless the Australian people may it very clear that they will not tolerate such an abuse of power and that they will not be party to such a denial of human rights. If you had read Pastor Neimoller, “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out -because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me -and by then there was no one left to speak out for me”, you might be tempted to remind Australians that oppression travels on a continuum until stopped. (Pamela Curr, Greens National Refugee Spokesperson email bulletin 16/12/03).

Biblical Boat People

At a time of daily despair at our treatment of asylum seekers it is vital that we remember such refugee stories, the stories behind the statistics. Yet at a time of hope for the world at Advent and Christmas it is also vital that we remember our own story, that both biblically (all creation, Israel and Jesus) and historically in Australia – ‘we’re all boat people’. Because of this common origin and identity we ought to treat boat people as those we can in some ways identify with, and not merely as the threatening ‘other’. We should therefore develop far more welcoming and hospitable policies towards asylum seekers.

It is fundamentally in the light of Noah’s Ark that we are all boat people, or at least descendents of them. We are refugees from a raging tide of violence in the world. This began with Adam’s vertical violence, his fist in the face of God. Sin snowballed so that the earth was ‘filled’, not with a God-centred culture, according to the creation mandate (Gen 1:26-28), but with violence (6:11, 13). Domination, not mutual dominion, was the order of the day. So God determined to make an end of all flesh, except Noah, a blameless man, because the earth was full of violence. Noah’s world is in many ways still our world. A world of violence and evil, of boat people or refugees, who flee it seeking freedom and safety. Most refugeees today are fleeing situations like that, a world of wars and rumours of wars (Mt 24/Mk 13). Vietnam, Kampuchea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan. It is a litany of misery and mayhem repeated ad nauseum till compassion fatigue sets in.

Yet for all the fierceness of God’s judgment we can be thankful that God was not like Mark Twain who said once that it was a shame that they couldn’t close the door of the Ark before the humans got in. The rainbow covenant with Noah, applies to all of creation and humanity made in God’s image (Gen 9), not just Jews or Christians. The minimal morality of the covenant with Noah became the basis of the multicultural, inter-racial church of Jews and Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). It is a standard of ‘relative Natural Law’ (Troeltsch), adapted to a world of sin and violence, applying to everyone, a basis for a minimally humane and international public policy that transcends national sovereignty and provides the basis for international law and rights.

Australian Boat People

When we want to retreat from a world of tragedy and terror into our island fortress, to the attitudes of the White Australia Policy, we need to remember that not only are we all biblically refugees from a violent and chaotic world and God’s judgement, but also historically in Australia. Many of us were picked by the best judges in England, as they say. Earlier, 30,000 year old rock paintings in the Kimberleys show boat people arriving here. Post war immigrants arrived largely by ship.

An Australian movie, No Worries, makes the point that all Australians are boat people. It is about a farming family, Ben and Ella Bell and their eleven year old daughter Matilda. They are hit hard by the early ’90s recession and drought and dust storms. Facing their own and creation’s fragility they finally sell up and move to Sydney. Marickville, little Vietnam, to be colloquial, with all its racial tensions. One of Matilda’s Anglo-Aussie classmates is caught by the teacher graffitti-ing ‘Boat People Go Home’ on a wall. The teacher says ‘what’s your name son. He says something like ‘O’Flannery, Sir’. Sir says: ‘your great-grandfather was Irish wasn’t he, came out in the mid 19th century. How do you think he got out here? Embarrassed silence. Sir asks the class -‘by boat Sir.’ And the point’s made – we’re all boat people.

Israel’s Laws of Hospitality

In the great Leviticus 19 passage from which we get the love commandment we’re told quite concretely what it means: ‘when refugees settle in your land with you, you are not to harm them. Refugees who live with you must be treated just as if they were native-born like yourselves, and you are to love them as you love yourselves, for you were refugees in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Lev 19:33-34)

or 23:9 ‘you shall not oppress the refugee, you know what it feels like to be a refugee’. In Deut 10:17-19 God’s own example is also cited: ‘The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, he shows no partiality, . . . and loves the alien.’ For Jeremiah God’s blessing upon Israel, depended upon real and radical repentance, at least partly defined in terms of their treatment of refugees. ‘If you really change your ways and your actions, and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the refugee, the fatherless or the widow …then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave to your forefathers for ever and ever (Jeremiah 7:6-7).

No Room in the Island

There is much more to be said: about the nature of the ‘habiru’ or Hebrew as a refugee people who welcomed and made room for the stranger because they had been strangers in Egypt; about Jesus the Christmas babe for whom there is ‘no room in the inn’ during a time of imperially legislated movement in an occupied territory; about Jesus recapitulating Israel’s refugee and Exodus history in Egypt in Mt 2; and about Jesus of Advent, the Judge of all the nations in Mt 25:31-46 who comes to us incognito as the stranger awaiting welcome and the prisoner awaiting visitation – ‘for inasmuch as you did it to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters you did it to me.’ From Genesis to the Gospels there is a profound creation and christologically based reason for just, merciful and hospitable treatment of refugees. We are called to make room for refugees. How then does our nation’s ‘No room in the Island’ stance look in God’s eyes this Advent and Christmas. How does it look in the light of the attempted excision of hundred of islands from our immigration zone and international responsibilities every time a handful of refugees comes ashore. How does it look to our 29 year old friend or to the children still in custody and not lucky enough to be photographed in a hug with the PM and then reunited with their father? Or the hunger-strikers who have sewn their lips in Nauru about to be returned to Afghanistan where US troops have recently waged their largest ground operation to try to restore order to this anarchic country (see John Pilger’s SBS documentary last week). Think of the irony in the way ‘Christmas’ Island has become the front line in the war against refugees in recent years. Or when we sing our national anthem ‘For those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share’ (Advance Australia Fair,’ Words by P. D. McCormick).

Summary and Conclusion

I’ve argued that because of this common origin and identity as ‘boat people’ that therefore we ought to treat current boat people with love and justice, and not merely as ‘the other’, and that we should therefore develop far more welcoming and hospitable policies towards asylum seekers. I supported this argument: firstly, theologically, in terms of the narrative of Noah’s Ark and the biblical application of the Noachide commands to all humanity; secondly, historically in terms of the Australian history of mainly marine immigration; thirdly, in terms of Israel’s history as refugees and compassionate and hospitable laws concerning them; fourthly, in terms of the history of Jesus Christ the true Israelite and his broadening of neighbourly concern and hospitality beyond the borders of Israel or the Church to the point that the way we treat refugees is symptomatic of the way we treat him and we will be treated at the Advent of Christ in all his glory as Judge.


1. Is it true that biblically and historically we’re all boat people. If so what do you think are the implications? Will we be judged on the basis of how we treated Jesus the refugee? 2. What ways could we as a church and as a nation be more hospitable to refugees this Christmas and New Year? 3. In the light of the above what do you think of Senator Brown’s Greens motion on 4/12 ‘That the (a) immediately close the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and bring all detainees to mainland Australia; (b) immediately release children and their families from asylum-seeker detention centres in Australia; (c) end the temporary protection visa system, and instead provide permanent protection for proven refugees; and (d) introduce a process involving humanitarian visa solutions for those stuck in limbo in long-term detention.

References: G.R. Preece, ‘We are All Boat People’ in ‘Refugees: Justice or Compassion’ Interface ATF Press, 5/2 Oct 2002.


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