Last week two groups from the Uniting Church of Australia (UCA) came to visit their partners in two local churches of the Protestant Church in East Timor (IPTL) in Dili. They make periodic visits to build relationships and to stay in touch with the realities of what it means to be the church in East Timor. On this trip, part of their agenda was to listen to what their Timorese partners had to say about the maritime boundary issue between East Timor and Australia.
In short, the maritime boundary issue concerns a disagreement about the boundary between Australia and East Timor. At stake are rights to significant deposits of oil and gas and the revenue that could potentially come from it. For Timor this is huge; over 80% of its national budget comes from oil and gas. Because of that, unless Timor makes major changes in its development policy, the economic future of the nation depends on having access to these resources. For Australia though, this oil and gas is a minimal percentage of its annual budget. East Timor claims – backed up by international law I might add – that the boundary should be the median line between the two countries. If that were the case, Timor would have access to the oil and gas that rightfully belongs to the Timorese people. But Australia insists it has rights to most of the oil and gas based on earlier agreements that were negotiated without defining the maritime boundary, which in the end is the critical issue both for access to the oil and gas and for Timor’s national sovereignty.
Mixed in with the multitude of global conflicts and controversies that make up the news everyday, the maritime boundary issue hardly makes headlines. Even in Australia this issue is barely on the radar screen according to our UCA friends. Nevertheless, this is an important issue for anyone cares about justice and the rights of the poor. Why? Because it’s not just about East Timor and Australia. The controversy is also symbolic of an old and persistent dynamic in global politics: rich nations exploiting poor ones.
In order to facilitate deeper learning on this issue, Thursday afternoon members of Ekaristi Church in Dili, (IPTL) organized a listening session with a local human rights organization working on the maritime boundary issue. Two Timorese speakers summarized the history of the disagreement on the maritime boundary, the current treaty on oil and gas development as well as speaking to the complex relationship between Australia and East Timor. One theme they came back to a number of times was the long history of solidarity between ordinary Australian citizens and the Timorese people, a reminder that even on complex international issues, lasting social change begins with personal relationships.
After an hour of presentation our speakers opened it up for questions. But no one in the largely Australian audience had any questions. For a moment it was what my 12-year-old daughter would call an “awkward silence.” Before it got too awkward though, one of the speakers said, “Well, if you don’t have any questions for us…then we’ve got some questions for you.”
The Rich Man and Lazarus
I should mention at this point that all week I’d been pondering the gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday, Luke 16:19-31. The “parable” of the rich man and Lazarus, as Ched Myers pointed out in his commentary last week, is not really a parable. It’s more of an apocalyptic warning tale or even a political cartoon. https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2016/09/22/the-rich-man-and-lazarus-warning-tale-and-interpretive-key-to-luke/#more-6675
Ched reminds us that apocalyptic, is a genre of biblical literature that uses provocative imagery to expose a reality that is often hidden by the dominant (imperial) paradigm. So in the Lazarus story we have a stark picture of the existential and eternal consequences of ignoring God’s command for justice and the rights of the poor. I encourage you to read the story, but in short, it’s a tale Jesus told about a rich man who “…was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously each day.” Meanwhile right out in front of his house was “…a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table….”
Complexities aside, the contours of the story of the rich man and Lazarus sounds eerily familiar alongside the maritime boundary issue. Here we have a wealthy, powerful country exploiting the natural resources that should, by the standards of international law and common human decency, belong to a poor nation struggling to emerge from decades of conflict and poverty. Of course it would be easy to simply blame Australia, but that’s not the point. As East Timor’s president Taur Matan Ruak said in a piece last week, “Australia isn’t the enemy…poverty is.” On the other hand, we also have to recognize the national and global forces at work on an issue like this. Australia may be the government in question in this particular case, but multinational corporations and the economic order that upholds them are really the ones to blame.
When no one in the audience had any questions, our speaker stood up and asked the audience something along these lines:
“As Australians…what are you going to do about it?”
It’s a question that, if we’re listening well, emerges over and again in the biblical narrative. In Luke’s story, Lazarus doesn’t speak. We do however get an apocalyptic image of the rich man who, having died along with Lazarus, is now pictured in hell begging Father Abraham for mercy. Abraham reminds him: “…in your lifetime you received good things and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” Yikes…! You can understand why the rich man would beg Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. But the question is, would they listen? After all says Abraham, “…they have Moses and the prophets to warn them.”
The story of Lazarus is intended as a warning the wealthy – to those of us who benefit from an economic order that exploits the poor and nature. It’s a story that “reads” us. So biblical imagination invites us to ask: if Lazarus could speak, what would he say? If he had a question for us, what would it be? Faced with a world of gross income disparity, continued exploitation of the poor and nature, we might hear him asking the same question our Timorese speaker asked regarding the maritime boundary issue: “…what are you going to do about it?”