Seeing Better and Systemic Change

by | Aug 23, 2017 | Formation, Systemic change

In his wonderful new book Vincentian Meditations, Tom McKenna has a chapter on “seeing better.” He asks “what does standing under Vincent’s influence do to an individual?” And one response is that one can see better.

That can mean many things but it might would include “seeing” the wisdom of Vincent’s spiritual teaching, the growing vitality and unity of the Vincentian Family, and hopefully seeing a bit more readily the face of Christ in the poor we serve.

”Seeing better” can also be a gateway to systemic change work. In fact, seeing is the first step of the well-known pastoral dynamic of See-Judge-Act, where first we see the lived reality all around us more deeply, perhaps for the first time. This seeing is not simply to be aware or to notice, but to analyze the facets and strands of life and reality wherever we are, and to comprehend at a deep level what is really happening behind the scenes, underneath what is more visible. If we cannot, or do not, analyze thoroughly and critically our lived reality, nothing can be changed or improved.

This kind of seeing then fosters a judgment on our part. What do we think of this reality? What would Jesus think of it? What might we find in scripture to help us form a judgment about it? How does this reality stack up against our values, our ideals, our hopes and dreams?

What follows, of course, is our response, our action to address what we’ve seen and judged. We act to make a difference because what we’ve seen and judged cannot stand. It is not God’s will, it does not further the Kingdom of God on earth, and it is not the abundant life Jesus proclaims.

And so we might see:

  • How society is stacked against the poor
  • How those born in poverty are more likely to remain in poverty throughout life
  • How easily resources routinely further enrich the wealthy and well-connected, while ignoring the plight of the many
  • How people trapped in poverty are not consulted about their needs and do not have seats at the decision-making tables

Most of all perhaps seeing better will help us understand that poverty is not inevitable. Or in the words of Nelson Mandela, poverty is made by humans and can be changed by humans. We might come to see more clearly the outrageous fact that five individuals now control the wealth of half of the world’s poor, because wealth—and power—increasingly flow only upward to a one percent of the population seemingly indifferent to the common good.

A new report entitled “Reversing Inequality: Unleashing the transformative potential of an equitable economy” passes this judgment on the US economy: “There are systemic inequalities deeply ingrained in our economic model…and inequality effectively disenfranchises us, diminishing what our vote at the ballot box means relative to the influence of money drowning out our voice in the public square… It warps lawmakers’ priorities and blocks necessary reforms.”

To reverse this trend, the report goes on to propose several fundamental initial steps, including:

  • Make the minimum wage a living wage
  • Guarantee healthcare to all
  • Enact serious campaign finance reform
  • Make public college tuition-free

Although the US is the focus on this study, any country could benefit from its conclusions and challenges.
But how will these proposals de funded? Are these steps at all do-able, or pure fantasy? If military budgets alone were trimmed to reasonable levels, there would be money to fund these steps. In any case, a radical re-orienting of government budgets and priorities at every level, in service to the common good, would set humanity on a much different path.

The author of the study concludes that “Systemic change can only come from a shared vision of what is possible.” And so Vincentians might ask ourselves:

Do we see what is possible, a shared vision, a common good that includes justice for those trapped in poverty?

Do we judge the current situation a moral outrage that must not stand?
Will we act together as a Vincentian family in effective ways to change unjust systems and structures?

Jim ClaffeyJim Claffey currently serves as the executive secretary of the Vincentian Family’s International Commission to Promote Systemic Change.