“It is good when we are challenged to sum things up in a single idea. It’s hard, but it’s good.” Dr. John Falzon, CEO of the SVDP in Australia addresses the issue in his presentation to the Society’s National Youth congress.
“Recently I had the delightful experience of speaking at the Society’s National Youth Congress in Melbourne and I decided that it would be a good opportunity to try and present a very simple message about what the St Vincent de Paul Society is and why we exist.
I thought about the history of the Society, about our founding charism, our ethos, our mission, our vision and then about the tradition we have come from: the Greek Scriptures and then, going back even further, the Hebrew Scriptures.
I kept coming back, however, to the simplicity of the observation, quoted in the last edition of The Record by our National President, Anthony Thornton, made by the late bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico, Samuel Ruiz Garcia: “The only question we will have to answer at the end of time is how we treated the poor.”
I love this simple claim. It says everything we need to know. It tells us that, like Frederic and his companions, we must allow ourselves to be tipped over to the side, and the philosophy of those who have no bread..
For this is the core story of both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures: that God is on the side of the poor and that to take the side of the poor is to know God: “He defended the cause of the poor and the needy; This is good.Is not this what it means to know me? It is Yahweh who speaks.” (Jeremiah 22:16)
It is a confronting message but it is also one of enormous comfort for it tells us unequivocally that our hope for a different kind of world is hope that is born in the heart of our social reality.This message finds its most human expression in the Incarnation, when this message, the Word, becomes flesh and lives amongst us.Jesus, the Word made flesh, makes no bones about the radicalism of the message:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that Day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughingnow, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”(Luke 6: 17-26)
The beatitudes, as Oscar Romero was fond of pointing out, turn everything upside down. but the tradition they are born from is one that has always sought to turn things upside down. The prophet Isaiah, for example, writes beautifully of the way that this tradition views the world. Isaiah 3:15 has God passing judgement on the wealthy ruling elite, condemning their exploitation and oppression of the people and directly linking this injustice to the accumulation of their wealth:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my
people, by grinding the face of the poor?”
It is absolutely clear that the people that God refers to as ‘my people” are neither an ethnic group nor a religious group; they are the poor.
It is then no surprise that Jesus should teach that our lives are to be measured only in relation to those with whom God has unconditionally sided:
“I was hungry and you gave me to eat.
I was thirsty and you gave me to drink.
I was a stranger and you took me in;
Sick and you visited me;
Imprisoned and you came to see me.” (Matthew 25: 35 -36)
It is also no surprise that we should be told in the story describing the earliest beginnings of the community of believers that “they recognised him in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35)
This is important. It is no coincidence that the act that is presented as the one in which Christ is consistently recognised is the breaking of the bread, the sharing of food. The resonance of this act is rich with the biblical tradition of bread being the basic stuff of human sustenance, the fair distribution of which is the measure of justice and therefore the measure of knowing God.
We continue to live in a time when the bread of the world is not shared by all the people of the world. To be tipped over to the side of the poor, to the philosophy of those who have no bread, is to truly recognise him in the breaking of the bread. The bread of basic sustenance and the wine of joy and delight in life are both essential in this transformative project of creating a new society in which no one is denied either the basics of life or the joys of life. This is why the St Vincent de Paul Society holds that all of our sisters and brothers have the right to appropriate housing, adequate income, employment, education and health along with the right to meet their not-so-material needs such as: spiritual sustenance, cultural activity, sport and recreation, the love and support of other people, a sense of belonging, and freedom from prejudice.
This is why we oppose measures such as compulsory income management that might meet the material needs of people but fail to meet their right to dignity and respect, “grinding the face of the poor”.
It is also why the late bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia nailed it when he said: “The only question we will have to answer at the end of time is how we treated the poor.”
Sometimes we can make the fatal mistake of thinking that the love that is taught in the Scriptures can be practised by looking
down on someone and feeling pity for them. This is what gives birth to both the atrocious paternalism and the demeaning attitude of seeing people as belonging to the “deserving poor” or the “undeserving poor” who can expect nothing but punitive treatment and moralising judgement. Nothing could be
more offensive or contrary to the Gospel.
The love that we are called to is both compassion and solidarity. It means taking sides with the people who are devalued and demonised, the “dangerous classes”. It also means learning from the people who have the most to teach us about what would make a just and compassionate society; the people who are living in the hope that another kind of world is possible; the people who cannot afford the luxury of defeatism or despair and who cannot live within the current status quo which rests on structures that destroy humanity and foster inequality.
To paraphrase Lilla Watson, our liberation as human beings is fundamentally bound up with the liberation of all who are crushed by the structures of injustice.
This is why the St Vincent de Paul Society was founded. This is why, to use Frederic’s powerful phrase, based on the parable of the
Good Samaritan, we seek to not only tend to the wounds but also to stop the blows. ◆
Dr Falzon is the Chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council.
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