On the Underside

Brad Coath

UNOH, Broadmeadows, Melbourne, Australia

It was a bitter winter afternoon, and I was walking out of the immigration detention centre not far from our home after visiting with some friends. It seems that after some visits my heart feels heavier than others, and this was one of those times. As I walked down the long stretch of driveway toward the bus stop, barely noticing the icy wind against my face, I was struck again with a familiar mix of outrage and sadness. That afternoon I’d heard stories of how, at 3.30am the night before, fifteen people, including a family with a young baby, were dragged from their rooms, put into white vans, and taken to Nauru. Those left behind were terribly distressed, knowing that on another night, it might be them. Some had protested. At least one had attempted suicide. As I walked, questions kept rising up within me: Why are we doing this to people? Can’t we see that they are people like us? Why can we not see that this is so wrong?

A week later, we were sitting in the home of some good friends, sharing around the stories of Matthew’s gospel. Our friends, themselves asylum seekers, helped us to see the text with new eyes. As we looked at the story of Jesus’ infancy and Herod’s maniacal attempts to kill him (Mt 2:1-23), we saw the terrible reality of evil powers at play. Like a thick, dark canopy over Judea, governmental policies animated by fear and desperate attempts to hold onto power had created a nightmarish reality for mothers and babies.

I was reminded of times when, after sharing about the desperate situations of our neighbours who are refugees and asylum seekers, well-meaning people would say something like, ‘Have faith, God is in control.’ Yes. God is in control. But that is not the same as saying that everything that happens is God’s will. It’s not God’s will that a young man would spend six years of his prime behind bars while never knowing what he was supposed to have done wrong. It is not God’s will that young mothers are in such mental anguish about the prospect of being sent back to Nauru that their babies are showing signs of psychological damage. No. Not everything that happens is God’s will. Why else would Jesus have taught us to pray for this very thing—for God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven?

But as we sat with our friends that day, we saw something else in the story of Jesus and Herod. We saw that God is moving. Far below the canopy of dark clouds, God is at work: whispering, leading, opening the way for a young boy and his parents to find refuge. God is at work, stirring the Magi to defy Herod and risk the consequences. God is at work, not in Herodian palaces and official orders, but in a peasant family and in those who would resist oppressive state policy. God is at work on the underside.

A few months on, some of our friends in MITA still live with anxiety and fear of being sent back to Nauru, but that they are still here is itself a sign that God is at work, and they may yet be able to stay. As legal channels are pursued to keep checks on the power of those who would forcibly remove them, we pray that God will make a way. Things are tough, and hope seems to hang by a thread, but it is still hanging.

How is God in control? It’s a mystery. But I do know that each time we see the way being opened for someone who has spent years in detention to begin a new life on the ‘outside’, our world is a little bit more aligned with heaven. I do know that when people are stirred to defy the voices of power, even risking the consequences, God’s reign is breaking through.

How is God in control? It’s a mystery. But to live as though, even in the midst of the dark and threatening clouds, God is making things right, is what it means to be a people who affirm that “Jesus is risen”. Because perhaps in the end, we won’t know this mystery, as though it’s an equation we can apprehend. We can only live it.

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