Thus says the LORD: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Isaiah, 58:7
Gospel passages like these, from last weekend’s readings, inspire and direct the work that so many people of good-will perform in solidarity with those who are marginalised by our society. It is this philosophy that has led Pope Francis to call upon the Catholic Church to transform itself into a “poor church for the poor”. The passage from Isaiah goes on to say “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.” At a time when there are a great number of challenges to the credibility of those who advocate for the poor in our society, especially for those of us working for church organisations, it is good to be reminded that we need not give in to despair but that in such work there is a joyful message for the whole of the world that serves to shine and heal with love.
In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that such love is real and it needs to be proclaimed. In her commentary on the Pope’s Exhortation Sandi Cornish, believes that there are indications of the reality of this message. “Have you noticed the joy and hope around those ministries and programs where Church people and organisations encounter poor and marginalised people in a direct and human way?” she said “Being with people and understanding their experiences grounds advocacy concerning structural causes. It informs positive proposals for action that cannot be easily dismissed.”
However the expression of such hope or joy can seem much more difficult for those of us who work for social justice in remote advocacy for the poor from behind our desks and computer screens. Our experiences of the poor and marginalised are more vicarious, through the people who work on the ‘front lines’. While this serves to ground the work we do, I find it difficult to find ways to express the joy and hope Sandi refers to.
In responding to these thoughts, Jacqui Rémond the director of Catholic Earthcare Australia commented that in such advocacy work we are truly giving voice to the voiceless of our world. “Through the Gospels, Catholic Social Teaching and other sources we can become attuned to the poor and marginalised in the world and we might ask the question – who are today’s poor on Earth?” Jacqui goes on to question “Is ‘the poor’ the Earth itself? Has the environment also become the new ‘poor and marginalised’ in our world? To my mind the answer is yes” she says “and this has been affirmed by many including scientists and scientific bodies, recent Popes and more locally by our Australian Catholic Bishops in setting up the agency Catholic Earthcare Australia – which is a sign of joy and hope in the world.
We have this tendency to separate the human condition from the planet, separate the poor and marginalised from a purely human perspective. The work of Susan Opotow on moral exclusion and discrimination teaches us that it is by viewing a person as an ‘other’ not ‘one of us’ we justify and support the separation process that leads to devaluing individuals. A similar argument could then be made about only in separating ourselves from the planet can we possibly justify our treatment of the earth as an exploitable resource which then leads to viewing people as an exploitable resources. If we are operating from the position of fraternity and solidarity that the Gospel calls us to such treatment could never be justified. When we expand our view of advocacy away from a purely human centred perspective and focus on serving both the human and non-human poor we are undertaking the Great Work as defined by Catholic priest, cultural historian and Ecotheologian Thomas Berry. Berry “declares the need for healing, not only for humans, but for all beings on Earth whose lives are threatened or wounded from human activity”
Jacqui concluded that through the projects we all undertake “we are invited to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised and offer hope. Giving people a broader perspective in turn gives people joy and hope – and we are called not to do this gloomily but with authentic joy and hope! I think Francis’ voice is fundamentally a voice of love, care and respect for all in the natural world – and we should ‘shout it from the rooftops’ at every appropriate opportunity!
Oh if only I wasn’t afraid of heights!