Responsibility to Protect Immigrants: Reflecting on Aboriginal Tradition and the Hebrew Bible

As we move from Refugee Week to NAIDOC week, it’s fitting that we listen to Academics Mark Brett and Naomi Wolfe as they explore the roles of guest and host in the Australian context. This piece is an edited excerpt from a NAIITS Conference paper. The full paper will be published in the NAIITS Journal later in the year.

Christians quite commonly invoke the Hebrew Bible in advocating for asylum seekers and refugees. Deut 10:19 is indicative: “You shall love the immigrant, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.” But who is being addressed here? Who are the “you” who have this responsibility to protect the immigrants? In colonial histories, this kind of law was often adopted from the perspective of the “new Israel,” while Indigenous peoples were seen as the new Canaanites. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were then placed on the wrong side of biblical ethics. But what would it mean to read through Canaanite eyes? In settler colonial contexts like this, what does it mean to offer hospitality to the stranger? Who is the host and who is the guest?

Not all the questions at issue can be unpacked here, but we must begin by acknowledging that most of us who are involved in this biblical imagination are Gentiles – whether white, black or brindle. Most of us are not Jews, were not baptized into Moses, and the New Israel ideas that shaped colonial Christianity cannot provide the foundation for embracing the ethics of the Hebrew Bible. 

Within the cultural norms of Indigenous communities, strangers are commonly folded into the kinship system so that people are clear who is looking after whom. The family networks are widened.  Indigenous kinship systems are based upon reciprocity, rituals and responsibility, that seek to include everyone. Every person, every animal, every river, every mountain, has a specific place within its own community, and therefore it becomes a necessity to create a “place” for new people (either temporarily or permanently) to ensure social and cultural cohesion. It does not mean that the new people give up their own cultural identity or traditions and become something or someone else. This understanding is reflected, for example, in the idea that expanding the family might require making new treaties under the watchful eye of the Creator. 

Settler Christianity is not innocent. It is still learning to live in the paradoxical vocation of guest and host, respectful of enduring Indigenous sovereignties, rather than assuming that the state (i.e., the colonial state) can police its own sovereign borders. There can be no justification for joining the biblical narrative of exodus and conquest into a single story that could then be applied as a doctrine of discovery with its own peculiar logic of hospitality. That historic way of appropriating the Hebrew Bible can only be seen as a sin from which settler Christianity must repent. Nevertheless, the Exodus narrative also reveals a God who acts on behalf of the slave and the refugee; many Aboriginal Australians certainly see themselves within a continuing state of captivity. Whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, Christians are free to debate the ways in which their ancestral traditions might embrace the biblical insights into the character of the Creator. And then we could begin on a more meaningful basis to discuss our responsibilities towards asylum seekers and refugees.

Mark Brett teaches Hebrew Bible at Whitley College, within the University of Divinity.

Naomi Wolfe is an Aboriginal woman who grew up in Tasmania, she is an academic from the Australian Catholic University and a graduate of the NAIITS Program at the University of Divinity.

People Seeking Asylum