How Sewn Lips Speak
Hungering for solidarity with asylum
by Dave Collis
I HAVEN'T EATEN since Sunday night and
I'm beginning to get hungry. I'm fasting in solidarity with both the asylum
seekers in Woomera and the protesters outside Woomera who are also on
a hunger strike. I finish tonight in a few hours, but they will keep fasting
for an indefinite time, especially those asylum seekers who sewed their
mouths together. I thought my hunger would be a good place to write a
theological reflection on the situation.
About eight years ago while I was at Monash Uni a guy came up to me at
Amnesty International. He was quite agitated, blurting out a story about
refugees who had come to Australia but had got locked up, and who had
their visiting rights taken away from them against the United Nations
agreement. I must confess I didn't really understand what he was saying.
It seemed like such a fringe issue. Sure if what he said was true it sounded
bad, but there was just no momentum for taking action on what he was talking
about. And let's face it, a slightly agitated leftie ain't always the
most credible source.
Eight years later he turns out to have made a good point.
Mark chapter 9 tells the story of Jesus coming down from the transfiguration
on the mountain. When he gets down to the bottom the disciples are engaged
in heated conversation with the teachers of the law.
Overwhelmed with wonder the people hurried out to Jesus as
soon as they saw him. I imagine the disciples and the crowd had become
stuck in a moment talking to the teachers of the law. I imagine that they
had got into some dispute, and that the disciples just couldn't argue
very convincingly. I imagine that the disciples weren't too sure of themselves
in the face of the arguments of the teachers of the law. Hence the joy
with which they ran to greet Jesus.
A man come from the crowd to announce to Jesus that the disciples could
not heal his son who had lost his speech by being possessed by a spirit.
I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.
Jesus sounds almost piously offended in response: O unbelieving
generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with
you? Bring the boy to me.
Jesus asks the man about the silence. When did it start? From childhood
the father responds, adding perhaps a taunt, perhaps a doubtful hope -
a plea for Jesus to heal the child if you can. Again Jesus
seems to hit a pious note: If you can? Everything is possible for
him who believes. To which the father responds with intense emotional
confusion that belongs to and is only truly understandable by those in
the midst of healing: I do believe; help me overcome my disbelief!
And the story goes on in predictable manner for us with church experience:
Jesus rebukes the spirit and the boy is healed.
What is interesting, however, is the epilogue to the incident where the
disciples took Jesus aside privately and asked why they couldn't cast
out the spirit. Jesus told them that this kind can only come out through
prayer and fasting. Jesus then spends time travelling with the disciples
throughout Galilee. Jesus travelled without revealing his identity though
because, verse 31 says, he was teaching the disciples. He
must have had something important to say.
It was during this small-group time that he tells them the heart of his
fate, that he is destined to be crucified. And the event finishes with
the words, But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid
to ask him about it.
The story described is all one literary unit. Voice is a key theme. It
begins with an argument, tells a story of a child without speech needing
healing, and it ends with disciples unable to speak. Theologians and activist
bible study participants have made the connection that the meaning o f
this story goes beyond the Sunday-school punchline 'Jesus can heal'
and in fact says things about the interplay between silence and
speech, the political silence that can sometimes descend on even the most
faithful of Christian disciples.
The asylum seekers for years have been unable to speak publicly. The first
I heard about their plight was from that one guy eight years ago, but
then silence again for a few years. Then I heard a bit about them through
Amnesty International. Then a strange thing happened. Over the last year
or two the silence has begun to break down. Letters to the editor began
to mention them being locked up in detention centres. Some fringe groups
began to pick up their cause Refugee Action Collective, Monash
University Third World Action Group among others.
And now, finally, the issue has hit the front pages! John Howard and Phillip
Ruddock are forced to defend themselves publicly. Church leaders, bless
them, have spoken out clearly against their treatment. The United Nations
representative throws his two cents worth into the pot. And newspapers
across the world are talking about our treatment of asylum seekers. The
name Tampa has become part of the Australian political landscape for future
Australian politics textbooks and historians to discuss. In the face of
the massive string of voices the government begins to back down on a few
key elements of their tough stance (interesting choice by
the media to say tough stance" rather than inhumane stance?).
In the midst of all the action the asylum seekers choose a fascinating
piece of political theatre: They sew their lips together and begin an
indefinite fast. This is striking for so many reasons:
Firstly, it is brutal. I couldn't help but try to imagine what it would
feel like to sew my lips together. I wondered how much it would hurt,
how clean the needles were, how much blood there would be. I imagined
in detail how I would remove them with the least pain and wondered whether
they would leave scars. My sister fainted from getting her ears pierced
and that just wasn't in this league. I tried to understand how strongly
the asylum seekers must be feeling to do something so brutal to themselves.
Secondly, I marvelled at how well organised this was. Crackpots usually
go in ones. But for seventy-odd people to do this at the same time with
seeming military uniformity, that is something else. That rivals the commitment
of the Kamikaze pilots in World War II. It shows a well-developed strategy
of resistance exerted from a powerful collective will. It could not have
been simply the leadings of a few ratbags or ringleaders despite what
Ruddock may say (if you were at the MCG and a guy in Bay 13 asked you
to sew your lips together, would you do it?). The official story begins
to break down, their voice loud but unconvincing.
And thirdly, I marvel at the accuracy of the image as political theatre.
The asylum seekers have been kept in silence for years. The Government
still won't allow the eye of the public within hearing distance. Yet the
'voice' from within Woomera has been getting louder and louder on the
pages of our newspapers and on the contours of our hearts. Whether we
sympathise with their unhappiness, or feel angry at their presumptuousness,
we are at least feeling and hearing their emotional voice.
Which is why it is so amazing they chose the image of silence at this
point. Their lips sewn together was an accurate image of their situation
for years; but now, just as they find their voice in the public spotlight,
they sew their lips together. Why such a powerful image of silence? And
When Jesus came down from the mountain he found his disciples losing an
argument. Riddled with doubt they ran to him asking for reassurance in
the face of their failure. They could not lift a spirit of silence. The
boy's mouth was sewn shut. Not a word could get out.
After the healing Jesus' disciples were drawn into a mood of silence.
Their mouths were sewn shut by the shame of their lack of understanding
as they didn't dare to ask Jesus what he meant. Not a word could get.
Jesus, by contrast, spoke loud and clear. He sought to understand the
issue, and then he spoke words to end the standoff. Into the silence he
spoke powerfully, and the outcome of his words sufficed to win the argument
against the teachers of the law. Significantly, they have no further say
in the story.
Australian law holds that asylum seekers should be put into 'detention
centres' which are in reality prisons. The 'teachers' of this law in the
immigration department are caught right now in a heated argument with
'Christian' disciples (apologies to Christlike non-Christians) all around
Australia over what should be done. But so far we have not been able to
cast out the spirit of silence. Perhaps this is due to the moral silences
in our own heart, an internalised tough stance built to keep out the waves
of disappointment and cynicism from the world outside. It doesn't help
though that the asylum seeker voice remains largely muted behind security
walls, police patrols, and media bans.
Where is Jesus to walk in and break the awkward silence? Jesus has already
come, and he has already spoken. On the way down from the mountain of
transfiguration, on the way to this encounter with silence, the disciples
spoke of their confusion to Jesus:
"Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?"
Somehow the teachers of the law had sowed confusion and doubt in their
hearts. Jesus reminded them that Elijah in fact has already come, but
that they didn't recognise him. And that true to his word Elijah restores
all things. The disciples may have lost their nerve, but it doesn't mean
the voice of liberation and healing is silenced.
As my stomach growls gently I see many protesters at Woomera praying and
fasting in the face of a spirit of silence that "can come out only
by prayer and fasting." Jesus is there right now, and he will restore
That was the promise anyway.
Dave Collis is a former campaigns officer for Jubilee Australia. He now
describes himself as vocationally challenged