by | Jun 28, 2017 | Formation, Systemic change

“Those on top, like politicians and church leaders, talk a lot about peace, but not about justice, because speaking of peace sounds good to others on top and to the naïve on the bottom, but to speak of justice sounds bad to those on top because it opens the eyes of those on the bottom.”

How willing are we to talk about justice?  To discuss it, to analyze the obvious lack of justice in so many ways?  We talk about eliminating poverty, but ultimately that’s a work of justice, not of charity.  St. Vincent reminds us that “the obligations of justice have priority over those of charity.”  Blessed Frederic Ozanam spoke of the two sides of the one coin, charity and justice.  Do we speak often of the first, and much less of the second?

Reading different things lately about justice and poverty, I found myself at the intersection of two bold ideas:

  • Declare Poverty Illegal. A declaration from a Brazilian organization does just that, and the UN has had an international day for eliminating poverty since 1987, with a focus on the enormous problem of world hunger.  It’s quite a stretch to think of poverty as illegal.  Too utopian and out of reach.  At the very least, however, it should be possible to eliminate starvation everywhere.
  • Guarantee a universal basic income, because all human rights are threatened if we cannot feed ourselves. But again, not likely. Utopian, out of reach.  Affordability and global governance issues make it seem a bridge too far, although that assessment is based on existing budgets and systems, not possible ones.

The proponent of the second idea, a senior UN official working on the issue of extreme poverty, goes on to say “The time for small thoughts and little nudges is past. The time has come for new, radical ideas.”  

Can all people be guaranteed food security and clean water? Not likely, at least not completely.  But the great social advances always seemed impossible at first, whether ending slavery, civil rights, or more recently gay rights.

Famvin’s Initiative on Global Homelessness is just such a bold idea!  Hopefully leaders can break down this enormous goal into doable chunks—still bold ones—that the branches and commissions of the Family can implement.

After all, the Vincentian charism invites its members to live at “the intersection (my emphasis) of urgent need and lasting impact” (to borrow a phrase from a most unlikely source, the second richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos of Amazon).

Homelessness, especially when understood to include refugees and the precariously housed, along with the more obvious street sleepers, is obviously an urgent need; and the solutions our systemic change work envisions always strive for lasting impact.

Adequate solutions do seem somewhat out of reach.  Yet the world cannot continue as is.  Not only does climate change threaten the planet and us all, but a world that allows the continuous flow of wealth upwards, to the few, at the expense of the many, seems unsustainable in the long run.  This trend cannot continue without consequences.  At this time only five persons, all men, almost all white and from the US, have almost as much wealth as half the world’s population.  If data like that doesn’t give us pause, we’re just not paying attention.  Or we’ve settled for things as they are.

Perhaps with a successful Global Homelessness Initiative, the Family can not only help thousands to enjoy the human right of a decent home, but also inspire bold ideas at the intersections of other urgent needs and lasting impact.

Jim ClaffeyJim Claffey just retired from the St. Vincent de Paul Society on Long Island, where he served as Director of Formation and Programs. Jim currently serves as the executive secretary of the Vincentian Family’s International Commission to Promote Systemic Change.


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