by Dr John Falzon
Social Justice Day Launceston, 21 April 2012
I acknowledge the elders and traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting.
Long, long before there was such a thing as Australia there were families who lived here, people who cared for each other and for the earth, people for whom the world was a deeply spiritual place, people who loved to tell stories about the things that really mattered to them: their dreams and their struggles, the contradictions in life and death, the differences between right and wrong.
Then there was a giant cataclysm.
Families were broken. Some were massacred. Many were taken away from each other. Dreams were torn apart, the sacred was trampled upon. It wasn’t just the land that was taken; families were made to feel the wounds of colonisation.
Like this story, told by a member of the Stolen Generations:
“It was winter 1957, seven o’clock in the morning. The sun was up and the sounds of birds drifted down into our small kitchen. My brother Lenny was sitting on the floor, eating toast; my brothers Murray and David and I, rubbing our eyes in a state of half sleep, were waiting for mum to smear Vegemite on our bread before we dressed for school. A routine day in the Simon household.
‘Someone rapped loudly on the door. My mother didn’t answer it. We hadn’t heard anyone come up the path. The knocking got louder, and finally my mother, who was reluctant to answer any callers when my father wasn’t home, opened the door and exchanged words with three people. We strained to hear what they were saying. Three men then entered the room.
“A man in a suit ordered my mother to pick up Lenny and give him to me. My mother started to scream. One of the policemen bent down and picked up my brother and handed him to me. My mother screamed and sobbed hysterically but the men took no notice, and forced my brothers and me into a car.”
My mother ran out onto the road, fell on her knees and belted her fists into the bitumen as she screamed. We looked back as the car drove off to see her hammering her fists into the road, the tears streaming down her face…”
Now listen to the beautiful opening words of Gaudium et Spes, a document from the Second Vatican Council:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.
Nothing genuinely human should fail to raise an echo in our hearts.
Love is the heart of everything.
As Frederic put it:
“All my life I have followed the poetry of love in preference to the poetry of anger…”
For the St Vincent de Paul Society it is also important to recognize our own elders, past and present.
One such elder was Syd Tutton.
It has been more than a year since Syd left us but I would like to share with you a little of some of the final conversations I had with him about social justice.
Syd believed in taking the side of the marginalised even if this meant challenging the powerful. He was fond of quoting the words attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel and sometimes use words”.
He gave himself to the cause of people who are pushed to the edges of society, both globally and locally. He continued to call for a revolutionary approach to social justice and social change, unafraid of the criticisms he sometimes incurred for this stand.
For Syd, his work with the St Vincent de Paul Society was simply a matter of seeking and finding God in the people who are oppressed by structures of injustice and inequality. He went into bat for people who were degraded and despised and he did this on a personal level as well as in the political arena.
He believed that Government must do what markets cannot, especially regarding the equitable distribution of essentials such as housing. He often denounced the persistence of homelessness in prosperous Australia as a national scandal.
Just before he died I told him I was writing a book and he asked me to give him the gist of it.
I told him I wanted to tell the stories of the people who are effectively relegated to the category of ‘dangerous classes’, sometimes quite blatantly.
He said, but don’t forget we need to be revolutionary. Otherwise we’re “done for”.
He also said we needed to show that God is love. And he said that it’s got to be off the page… a call to the barricades.
I would like to share with you some beautiful words that come from the late Aboriginal poet, Bobbi Sykes:
The revolution is alive
while it lives
Beating, making our hearts warm,
Our minds strong, for we know
that justice is inevitable – like birth.
I put it to you that, given our Vincentian understanding of the need to achieve social justice by turning upside down the values of the world, these words from Bobbi are really a paraphrase of the beautiful words of St John:
God is love,
And those who abide in love abide in God,
And God abides in them. (1 John 4:16)
My greatest joy has been to learn from the people for whom a revolutionary change to social structures is most urgent and most authentically human. The language of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures is a language which expresses some of the finest articulations of human solidarity with the oppressed and the call for liberation.
How can the following words, ascribed to a pregnant teenager, be seen as anything but revolutionary, despite two centuries of attempts to sanitise them and render them ethereal?
“He has filled the hungry with good things,
But the rich he has sent away empty.” Luke 1:53
Or the radical mission statement that simply centres on “liberation for the oppressed”? (Luke 4:18)
Or the outrageous promise in the Beatitudes?
“Happy are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
They shall be satisfied.” Matthew 5:6
When some years ago, the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia was accused of being communist because we dared to ask questions about the causes of poverty and inequality, we were able to quote those beautiful words of the Archbishop, Helder Camara, a man who was educated in the realities of exclusion by the marginalised in the North-East of Brazil:
“When I give bread to the poor, I am called a saint. But when I ask why they have no bread, I am called a communist.”
The founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Frederic Ozanam, was a revolutionary. The social activism he advocated was grounded in an attitude of listening to, and learning from, the dangerous classes:
“Knowledge of the poor and needy is not gained by poring over books or in discussions with politicians, but by visiting the slums where they live, sitting by the bedside of the dying, feeling the cold they feel and learning from their lips the causes of their woes”.
This is being lived out in the lives of the Vincentians I am privileged to meet. It is also lived out in the lives of many unknown heroes in local communities, especially in communities that know the sharp taste of exclusion.
Frederic was aware how conservative Catholic opponents might react to his own advocacy for justice, charity and equality. In 1848 he wrote to priests, asking them to work in the city’s poor suburbs, warning them “not be dismayed even if the hard-hearted rich, offended by your attitude, should accuse you of communism.”
As your State President, Vin Hindmarsh remarked to me last year, it’s amazing what you can find depending on where you are looking.
In communities around Australia, and around the globe; condemned as being the prosperous world’s garbage dumps; the hidden lamp of hope is lovingly known and respected.
It might seem obvious that those who are experiencing exclusion are particularly well placed to analyse the reality that is imposed upon them.
This is the simple message I hear time and time again by Vincentians on the ground. You instinctively know what Frederic lived: the attitude of listening to, and receiving from, our sisters and brothers who are oppressed by structures of exclusion.
Unless we have the courage to take the side of the marginalised, the Australia at the dawn of the 21st century will in some ways be more akin to the Australia at the dawn of the 19th century: a land where exploitation and dispossession are the rule rather than the exception; a land divided rather than diverse; a country ruled by fear instead of a people living in hope.
As Martin Luther King once said: a riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.
Prosperous Australia has a problem. We cannot continue to allow the voices of the unheard to remain unheard. But it is precisely in this contradiction that hope lies, joined inexorably, with the hopes of the oppressed across the globe. Nothing less than this all-embracing vision would be worthy of the kind of hope against all hope that Paul of Tarsus wrote of. And it is embedded in the smallest and humblest of daily struggles of the crushed in our midst; joined at the hip with the struggle for a different kind of world.
Back in 1993, Mick Dodson explained what social justice means to him. He said:
“Social justice is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to school where their education not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination.”
Now that is something worth fighting for!
Not with the violence of anger but, as Frederic put it, with the poetry of love.
It is worth fighting for because it is the beginning of a new society where people come before profits and where dignity takes the place of degradation.
As the late John Paul II said in Toronto in 1984:
“The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximisation of profits.”
This vision of a new society is the basis for the social analysis that characterised the St Vincent de Paul Society’s humble beginnings. Frederic Ozanam, as both a student and as an
academic, was a deeply engaged social activist. As such, he had a bit to say about workers’ rights. At one stage the St Vincent de Paul Society was actually banned as a quasi-communist organisation because it so clearly took the side of the poor during the revolutionary upheavals in Paris.
“Exploitation occurs when the master considers his workers …as an instrument out of which he must extract as much service as possible at the smallest possible price.”
Recently, British Economist, Guy Standing, coined the term, precariat, to describe the reality of low wage workers in our modern, global economy; a reality in which risk continues to be shifted away from capital and on to the backs of working people at the low end of the labour market.
As Frederic put it:
“The haughty lords of industry, just like our ancient kings, are carried round on the backs of the people.”
This includes the people who have been chewed up and spat out by the economy.
A few months ago I received an email from a young man in Queensland. He was writing to thank the Society for the stance we continue to take on the side of people who are demonised for being unemployed.
He told me his story. Here are some bits of it:
“I rent a single bedroom unit for $200 per week.
“Around 5 weeks ago I was retrenched from my job of 4 years. I do not own a car and do not have sufficient funds to purchase a car. Public transport being what it is around here makes finding work very hard. In fact one job I applied for that I got an interview for I had to knock back as I realised that I could not get to the place of employment via public transport.
“With Centrelink payments and rent assistance I would get around $295 per week. I need power of course , and a phone , and I use the internet to help find work …so without even thinking about food, clothes, transport etc …I have around $40 a week to live on after I pay for internet, phone, power and rent .
“Now I’m in a situation where I can’t afford to live here so I am thinking of going back to Tasmania to live with my mother as I just can’t find affordable accommodation here, so because the Government in its wisdom doesn’t pay a single person enough to exist on their own, I find I have to move to a state with less job prospects. Lucky for me my family is there because moving to a place of less job prospects can result in your payments getting cut off, (moving to live with relatives is ok).
“I am currently on Newstart sickness benefits for anxiety and depression brought on by my situation .
“I don’t know what to do …it all seems a bit too hard, …keep going I guess … that’s all you can do…”
This is why, in the words of the German sculptor and painter, Kathe Kollwitz, a woman who made a vocation of faithfully depicting the suffering of the poor and the oppressed: “We are in the world to change the world.”
Even some Vincentians will say to me: But surely we are not meant to actually change the world!
To which I can only repeat the cry I keep on hearing not only from so many Vincentians but, more importantly, from the people we assist, the people whose stories we have the privilege of hearing: How can we, in conscience, leave the world as it is?
For me, the prophetic words of our founder, Frederic Ozanam, keep ringing in my ears as the only way forward:
“Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is the role of justice to prevent the attack!”
We might not feel like we are changing the world when we tend to the wounds of the travellers but we have a sacred obligation to tend to those wounds. This is what Vincentians do day in and day out. We ask how someone is hurting and we try to pour the oil of love on their wounds. We might do this through material assistance, a shoulder to cry on, simple human company and friendship or even specialist services. We do it as well as we can with the resources we have. We have an obligation to use these resources wisely for this purpose. This is, as Frederic tells us, charity. Sadly the word charity has been greatly diminished and twisted by social history in the Western world. It comes, of course, via the Latin caritas, from the Greek word agape, meaning an unconditional loving kindness or tenderness. This New Testament concept comes in turn from the Hebrew hesed, sometimes translated as compassion.
This is why the false notion of “deserving” versus “undeserving” poor, so central to much of the current discourse on welfare reform, is so completely at odds with this biblical principle.
This is also why the notion of charity as a means of maintaining an unjust status quo is also completely at odds with this biblical principle. How can we be compassionate if we tend to the wounds without giving a thought to what caused them and without caring if they are about to be inflicted again? The Samaritan in the parable of Jesus was certainly concerned with these questions and he took preventative action by not leaving the traveler in the path of danger.
But there is more to this urgent calling to compassion and tenderness.
The beautiful Nicaraguan saying sums up the organic connection between charity and justice:
Solidarity is the tenderness of the people.
Solidarity means standing with someone. It means being bound together. It means feeling that we are “of the same kind”, unlike the false “charity” which is dispensed as largesse “from above” to those who are not “like us” since “we” are better than “them”. This “of-the-same-kind-ness” is really at the root of the biblical tender kindness we’ve been talking about.
Solidarity is horizontal rather than vertical. It is that which goes to the heart of the parable of the Good Samaritan because it eliminates the false otherness imposed on the Samaritan and cuts straight to the obvious answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?”
It is this compassion demonstrated by the Samaritan, this suffering-together, that is one and the same thing as solidarity. We’re all of us broken people in some way. I’d go so far as to say that it is very hard to be strong for someone else if you have not experienced brokenness in some way.
This is especially true for movements for social change such as the St Vincent de Paul Society. In fact this brokenness lies at the heart of our spirituality; a spirituality built on our experience of the sacred in the people to whom we belong, our people. We belong because we have been called by the urgency of the spirit, the ardent patience of humanity, to take our place on the side of all who are oppressed, all who have been pushed to the edges. But we who are broken need not be bowed! It is our job to give courage to each other; to give each other heart. This, of course is where the word “courage” comes from. And this is where the struggle for justice, the struggle to transform the world comes in.
It is the role of justice to prevent the attack.
When we reflect on the biblical origins of the notion of charity, we see that it is not only very far removed from any condescending practices; we also see that justice lies at its core for it is built on the horizontal practice of solidarity.
It means laying claim to the words of Jesus of Nazareth that the Kingdom of God is among us. It means hoping against hope and fighting against all odds for a more just and compassionate society. It means in the words of the poet Paul Eluard, who is really paraphrasing the words of Christ: There is another world but it is in this one.
It means not only giving financial assistance to someone who is struggling to survive on an inadequate Centrelink Benefit, but also advocating for a just and compassionate social security system that really does offer security instead of creating insecurity and anxiety. Beyond this, it means advocating for, and helping to build, a society in which people are not condemned to live enclosed by massive walls that prevent access to jobs, education, health and housing.
Yes, we will spend our lives believing in this without necessarily having achieved it. Should this put us off from trying to change the world? As the poet Gioconda Belli wrote:
“History is a long process, and if one can muster the patience to understand it, one can derive satisfaction from the small battles that drive it forward. A cause isn’t hopeless just because its objectives aren’t reached in one’s lifetime.”
But the joys and blessings of the journey are many.
Our world cries out to be changed. This can only mean that we must struggle to bring about that change because justice matters to us, because liberation is our daily bread.
And because, in the end, this all that matters.
As Samuel Ruiz Garcia, former bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico, was fond of repeating:
“The only question we will have to answer at the end of time is how we treated the poor.”
Or in Frederic’s prophetic words, a call to arms if ever there was one:
“It is time to seek the abolition of poverty”.
Dr John Falzon will sleep out on June 21 to raise awareness for homelessness in Australia. Click here to find out more how you can support the 2012 Ceo Sleepout. http://www.ceosleepout.org.au/ceos/act-ceos/profile/?ceo=1729