How Sewn Lips Speak
Hungering for solidarity with asylum seekers
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 why now?

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 all things.

That was the promise anyway.

Dave Collis is a former campaigns officer for Jubilee Australia. He now describes himself as ‘vocationally challenged’