Love your neighbour: What Abbott gets wrong about the Gospel


Tony Abbott says the instinct to “love your neighbour” has led Europe to make catastrophic errors in its response to the Syrian refugee crisis. But compassion is at the very core of his faith and his church. To shrug it off is not just theologically dodgy, but politically fraught, writes Julia Baird.

It’s difficult to work out what the greater shock was: hearing former Prime Minister Tony Abbott say that the imperative to “love your neighbour as yourself” was at the heart of every western polity – including protection for workers and a strong safety net – or to hear him breezily dismiss it in the next breath.

Well may it be, he told the crowd at the Second Annual Margaret Thatcher Centre Gala in London, to be decent and humane regarding refugees, but right now “this wholesome instinct” to love our neighbours is “leading much of Europe into catastrophic error”.

The problem is, it’s not an instinct it’s a commandment. It’s not optional but compulsory. And caring for the homeless, the orphans, the widows, the strangers is not just an occasional, arbitrary tangent in the Bible but a central theme throughout.

To say that there’s a limit to, or confusion around, an unlimited, explicit statement is a very peculiar justification for denying entry to those seeking asylum.

And in denying its universal application, Mr Abbott is putting himself profoundly at odds with the leader of his own church.

Pope Francis, who has taken a forceful stance on the need for compassion for the plight of asylum seekers everywhere, recently said: “Biblical revelation urges us to welcome the stranger; it tells us that in so doing, we open our doors to God, and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ himself.” He has called on every Catholic parish in Europe to house at least one family of refugees, and is himself housing one in the Vatican.

The verses the Pope drew on are in Matthew 25, where Jesus says in heaven people will be told that what they did for the most vulnerable, they did for him:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

When the people ask, puzzled, when did we do any of that to you? He will respond: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

This is what the Bible tells us. So were we to think of refugees as the face of Jesus, how might we treat them differently? With dignity, perhaps. And kindness. As Pope Francis beautifully put it:

At the heart of the gospel of mercy, the encounter and acceptance by others are intertwined with the encounter and acceptance of God himself. Welcoming others means welcoming God in person!

Which doesn’t seem to be the general vibe on Nauru or Manus Island.

The Pope does not single out “economic migrants” for rough treatment, as Mr Abbott did again in his speech, saying anyone who had crossed more than one border was by definition an economic migrant in cahoots with people smugglers: “They had already escaped persecution when they decided to move again.”

In contrast, the Pope said, generously, refugees are merely seeking “a better, more prosperous life” for their families, like all of us. They are “our brothers and sisters in search of a better life, far away from poverty, hunger, exploitation and the unjust distribution of the planet’s resources, which are meant to be equitably shared by all.”

Mr Abbott has invoked faith against asylum seekers before, telling ABC Perth radio that fleeing persecution by boat flouted the tenets of the faith:

“I don’t think it’s a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door,” he said. Is it Christian to ask if you can spend a night in the stables?

What is most revealing in these statements is the sense that politics and faith are separate spheres that only occasionally intersect – why they are more likely to on the subject of, say, marriage equality rather than immigration is a matter of mystery.

Over the past few years there has been a subterranean, fierce struggle within the Coalition about when the Bible matters, and what the teachings on compassion, kindness and the duty of care mean when it comes to refugees.

But it is clear that Mr Abbott is marking out a good leader as one who knows how and when to ignore or bypass fundamental precepts of private belief. More, say, Tina Turner than the Good Samaritan.

Unease about this is increasingly felt more broadly in the community. It is not surprising that Catholic bishops like Retired Bishop Pat Power and Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan immediately slammed Mr Abbott’s remarks as “appalling”. The number of those in the church community troubled and angered by our harsh many-layered system of deterrence has grown, and they have become more vocal.
Over the past couple of years, more than 200 church leaders including Catholic nuns, have risked arrest during quiet, peaceful protests and sit-ins in politicians’ offices.

They are part of a faith-based movement called Love Makes a Way that seeks better treatment for asylum seekers, and one of their leaders, Jarrod McKenna, was stunned to hear of Mr Abbott’s remarks.

McKenna, who is also the Teaching Pastor of Westcity Church in Perth, said:

Wherever the love Jesus teaches leads is what all Christians should long for; not warn against.

If I was Mr Abbott’s pastor I’d be sitting him down for some intensive Bible studies about how Jesus’s love is not a “wholesome instinct”, nor an optional extra but a concrete practice of putting love in action. If “loving thy neighbour” is an error, I pray we’d all be found guilty of it.

If our former PM is struggling to know how to apply “love thy neighbour” – in Europe or elsewhere, Mr McKenna suggested “he asks how we can ‘do to others as we would want them to do to us’ if we were in their situation needing safety.”

There are many reasons to carefully monitor borders, and try to stem the numbers of those taking dangerous voyages by sea. The scale of the problem in Europe is immense, and the vastness of the need overwhelming.

But what Mr Abbott is dismissing as a naive, wholesome instinct is at the very core of his faith and his church. To shrug off compassion as catastrophic is not just psychologically perilous and theologically dodgy, but politically fraught.

And perhaps worst of all, it just makes no sense.