Winter 2017

We live in the shelter of each other

Painting of native people working in the sugarcane industry with colonial overseer on horseback.
Image: Sugarcane by Diego Rivera Courtesy of Pinterest.

Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist, had one piece of advice for his students. He told them: Never withdraw from life.

This was the centrepiece of his vocation as an artist who passionately wanted his art to come from, and to sing to, the hearts of the people, the ordinary people of Mexico and the world. His murals, like life itself, are enormous, chaotic, loving, contradictory, hilarious and tragic, all at once. To paraphrase the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda: ‘The people defined him and he never stopped being one of them.’

His life was deeply fractured and flawed.

Like any of us.

In the lead-up to the October congress I have been reflecting on the St Vincent de Paul Society and this is why Diego Rivera’s life and work come to mind.

It is fashionable, in a world where not only the economy but society itself is market-based, to see ourselves, individually and organisationally, as being pitted against each other in a struggle for survival and success, a struggle in which the strong and powerful inevitably dominate the weak and discarded.

But we are truest to our prophetic calling when we do not shy away from our deep brokenness. This, paradoxically, is when we are at our strongest. As Paul of Tarsus (2 Corinthians 12:10) famously claimed: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’

We know about brokenness. We are surrounded by fragility, woundedness, pain; but not from a position of aloofness or superiority. We, the members of the St Vincent de Paul Society, and indeed all who share the collective passion for another world, are a community of brokenness.

Everyone has the right to a fair crack at happiness. The world in which we live is known for its glorification of wealth and inequality, its idolatry of power, its commodification of everything. Society in the 21st century is like a factory in which people are un-made, fractured, broken, wounded.

People are isolated from each other, atomised, separated, forced to feel as if they are nothing. Young unemployed people, people living with a disability, people experiencing homelessness, sole parents and a growing number of other sections of society, are excluded and exploited while being blamed for their own exclusion and suffering. They are systematically, not accidentally, un-made, broken, sometimes crushed. These are the People of God, our People, the People. We are deeply privileged when they accompany us. We are deeply blessed when we are invited to walk in solidarity with them.

We are at our strongest when we walk together; not because we have no weaknesses but because our shared weakness, our shared tenderness, is precisely our strength.

The Irish have a beautiful saying:

It is in the shelter of each other that the People live.

It is not without significance that two of the sharpest manifestations of structural inequality are homelessness and incarceration, both being the antithesis of this beautiful saying. Our market-based society teaches us that we are morally bound to stand alone, to be self-reliant, to compete, to condemn, to go it alone and to leave others to go it alone.

But this society is not the mythological best of all possible worlds. The People who are excluded and exploited in this world have not failed the system, as we are taught by sections of the mainstream media and political leadership. No, it is the system that has failed them. Often deliberately!

Sometimes our presence in this cold terrain is conceptualised misleadingly as charity for those who have failed to stand alone. Those who view us in this way are trying to use us to reinforce the very structures that crush people’s bodies and souls.

But ours is a prophetic calling, a gospel vocation: to make sure that the People’s voices are heard and to bear witness to the urgent collective desire for another kind of society, a future society that we are modestly building now, a society in which the People live instead of being lost, a society in which we all give shelter to each other, instead of locking each other out or locking each other up. This latter systematic act of mass incarceration is applied especially, but not exclusively, to the First Nations Peoples and to the most recent seekers of refuge.

We have nothing to fear from telling the truth about these problems and we have every good reason to be filled with hope that progressive social change will always come from the very People who are historically crushed. This is the core message of biblical liberation. And we know it from the beautiful stories we are privileged as Vincentians to hear from the people we stand in solidarity with. Change does not happen smoothly of course, but in a jagged sequence of painful setbacks and small steps forward.

As we prepare for the October congress through reflection and dialogue, let us ask ourselves how we can better understand the world around us so that we do not withdraw from life. And let us imagine how, now and into the future, we can live in the shelter of each other. And let us feel the strength of walking together as companions in brokenness, together yearning for, and building, little by little, a just and compassionate society.

Dr John Falzon is CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

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