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; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.

Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?”

The King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”

If you’re a believer, not much wriggle room, one would think, on the question of asylum seekers. Nowhere do we hear Jesus explain approvingly, “I was in a boat and you detained me.”

Of course, the history of religion presents a long and unedifying narrative of the faithful explaining away the more inconvenient utterances of their founders. Yet you’d think that a self-proclaimed Christian socialist such as Kevin Rudd might be at least a little interested in his Messiah’s thoughts. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Rudd explicated his politics by reference to Pastor Bonhoeffer and his core principle of standing “in defence of the defenceless”. If that essay didn’t apply to asylum seekers, what did it actually mean?

As Mark Day discovered, one crosses Guy Rundle at one’s peril. Nonetheless, Rundle’s argument that on refugees Rudd “has no road but the high road” since Labor’s “whole rationale — as a social liberal party — is inherently humanistic and universalistic” seems way too optimistic. The evident irrelevance of Rudd’s theoretical pronunciations to any actual decisions raises the question of whether Labor actually has a rationale, at least in the sense that Rundle means.

A few days ago, Paul Kelly neatly summarised the way Labor and Liberal understand the refugee issue. The “bedrock truth”, Kelly explained, is that there is “an unresolved conflict between the rights of the democratic state and the rights of asylum-seekers”.

You see, if you put the question like that, you can neatly sidestep the horrific situation facing the Tamils. Sure, there’s been an atrocious civil war. Sure, they’re herded into camps lacking food, water or health care. Sure, because they’ve been cut off from the outside world, they have no access to the “official channels” to appeal for refugee status. Sure, if any of us were in their situation, we’d be getting our families on to the first available boat, too.

Ah, but if asylum seekers have rights, so too does the democratic state, and one claim can be balanced against the other. In that contest, the government will come down every time on the side of territorial security, if only because of a perception (whether right or wrong) that the other choice would be electoral suicide.

Suddenly, then, we’re back in the realm of real politic rather than religion, pragmatism rather than ethics — shared ground between Labor and Liberal, a place where whatever you say for the Monthly remains entirely irrelevant. That’s why Rudd’s language over the past week so consciously reflects Howard’s. “The government,” explained the PM, “makes no apology for a hard-line approach to people smuggling and border security” — and the insistence on not apologising is surely not accidental.

Rundle suggests that, if Rudd goes the full Howard on refugees, he’ll face a revolt from the Left. But that’s precisely why he might just do it. If more boats come, and there’s a fully-fledged tabloid campaign about “queue jumpers”, well, Rudd’s never more comfortable than standing with populists against liberals and the Left. In that respect, Julia Gillard’s gratuitous defence of the Hey Hey blackface caper represents a straw in the wind.

Sure, we’re not there yet. To date, Rudd’s been careful to direct popular anger against people smugglers rather than the refugees themselves. Mind you, that’s been a pretty bizarre exercise in and of itself. As Laurie Oakes notes in the Telegraph, Rudd’s repeatedly denounced traffickers as “the vilest form of people on the planet”, but said nothing whatsoever about those governing Sri Lanka — almost as if it’s morally worse to smuggle victims away from atrocities than it is to perpetrate them in the first place.

Ironically, it’s on this issue that Rudd refers to his religions. Traffickers, you see, should “rot in hell”.

Jesus, of course, had a slightly different take. Let’s give him the last word.

They themselves also will answer, Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?

Then He will answer them, Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.

These will go away into eternal punishment…

Peter Fray

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