I, like many other football fans and others concerned about human rights have been following the story of Hakeem al-Araibi, the young footballer granted refugee status in Australia in 2014 and who has been living and playing semi-professional football (soccer) in Melbourne. Hakeem was able to escape from his native Bahrain when selected to play for the national team in Qatar in 2013. He fled through Iran to Malaysia, Thailand and onto Australia where he was granted asylum.
Hakeem was accused of being part of a violent protest even though he was playing football at the time and the match was televised. His brother was arrested for his part in this and Hakeem seems to have been implicated by association. He has since spoken out against the oppression and persecution of those who spoke out for democracy and freedom or who protested against the ruling family. Persecution is especially against those of different faith from the ruling family of Sunni Islam.
In Australia, Hakeem married and sought advice before travelling to Thailand last year for his honeymoon. He was given the all clear but Thai authorities received an Interpol ‘Red Notice’ issued by Bahrain and he was detained in prison on arrival in Thailand. Over the last 2 months Hakeem has been protesting his innocence and has expressed his fears that if returned to Bahrain, he would be tortured or worse. There has been significant representation and support from international authorities, including Amnesty International, the Australian Government, Football Federation Australia, The Professional Footballers Association of Australia, FIFA (International Football Association), and many, many individuals. Former Socceroo, Craig Foster has been a very significant voice and has garnered support from football associations, journalists and raised the prominence of Hakeem’s situation. Other supporters include the joint Australians of the Year, Dr Richard Harris OAM and Dr Craig Challen SC OAM, the two doctors who helped retrieve the Thai soccer team from the flooded cave last year. This week (Monday), the Thai authorities released Hakeem and he arrived back in Australia on Tuesday.
This was great news and represents a ‘victory’ for freedom and hope. It was because many ordinary people were motivated by this story of injustice and rallied around a cause for human rights. People like Craig Foster and others in journalism and sport helped raise the profile of the story. Ordinary people added their voices and someone whose life was in crisis, who was locked away, a captive in prison, oppressed and experiencing the poverty of vulnerability, found freedom. Those who were ‘blind’ had eyes opened to the real nature of what was happening and chose to act for justice and life.
All of these are the themes that we encounter in Jesus’ opening words in Luke’s Gospel where he says he has come to ‘proclaim Good News to the poor, release of captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed.’ Jesus adds that he will announce that the good and favourable day of the Lord has come. This is what we see in Hakeem’s story and it is more poignant because he is a Shia Muslim, and that God’s love and grace are for all people but are realised when humans embrace the values of God’s Reign that is grounded in love and compassion, justice and peace, mercy and forgiveness and inclusive community. These are the values that Jesus proclaims and lives out and demands his followers and all people embrace!
In this week’s reading (Luke 6:17-26) we hear a report on Jesus’ mission of preaching Good News to the poor, releasing those who are captive, healing blindness and bringing freedom to oppressed peoples. He teaches people in what is called the ‘Sermon on the Plain’, which is Luke’s equivalent of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, a radical teaching that has influenced such leaders as Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr. Jesus declares that those who are poor, hungry, mourning and persecuted because they live by his standards will be blessed. Woe to those who are rich, full, laughing and comfortable for they have received their fill. These are harsh words and have often been taken as a state of being beyond life in the heavenly realm, the afterlife. Jesus does not spiritualise the state of human struggle or greed. He does not revert to some utopian hope in another realm beyond the world we know as the true means of resolution and justice. Jesus demands that those who ‘see’ and feel and know love live for justice and life now. He knows in his own being the freedom and joy that comes in sharing and inclusive community where the sick, the suffering, the hungry, the poor and the grieving find others who will share life, hope and the resources they need, now. Jesus understands the reality that when we hoard and accumulate for purely personal gain and greed, we ultimately find ourselves lost and empty – I think of several of those who have much but keep it for themselves and live mean and fearful lives, protecting what they have and remain suspicious of others. History is full of such people whose fear results in demented, oppressive, violent and hate-filled lives. In Jesus’ time King Herod was one example. We could add a multitude of dictators or super- wealthy people who end up miserable and lonely. When there is no flow of love, grace and generosity, life stagnates.
Jesus’ teaching and declaration is about the reality of God’s grace that is realised when humans release love and live for justice and peace, expressing hope and joy. When the rich and full, comfortable and laughing recognise the blessedness of their lives and share that with others, the world changes. The captives are released, the poor receive resources, the blind eyes are opened and the oppressed find freedom in the life of a community of love. Jesus is not much concerned about what people believe or whether they believe themselves to ‘be in or outside God’s people’. Jesus proclaims a reality of life and his followers will express this way of being, whether they understand everything else or not! The way of Christ is realised when we work for freedom, hope, love, justice, peace and proclaim the Good News of God’s very real and present love for all people in this world, now. The truth of Jesus’ words find their fulfillment in the present when people respond generously and graciously towards the suffering, poor, captive, grieving, oppressed and live for justice, hope and life – because that is what God is like!!
Hakeem’s story is an example of how God’s Reign of love can be realised in the present when people work together for justice, love and hope. When people use their resources and care enough to make a difference. The response to farmers who experience the difficulties of drought and flood, those who are victims of bush fire, those who seek asylum and are received, the poor and marginalised who are given resources to live, those who live with disability or illness who are embraced and cared. This is God’s Reign realised! We are invited into the blessedness of sharing love through inclusive, gracious community.