‘My constituency is the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised?’
Rev Jesse Jackson
Isaiah invited us last week to imagine a different world and a different way of being together by using images of a world restored. Pope Francis keeps referring to a ‘culture of encounter’. Advent’s vision of a peaceable realm is not just about a lion and lamb together, but about seemingly more unimaginable – people living justly and peacefully together and in harmony with creation.
A revolution is taking place. The dream can come to life in practical ways: fair housing, employment fairness, just wages, hope for the young, and the refusal to vilify and demonise/scapegoat people different to us. Isaiah’s vision has developed in the last three weeks: beginning with the nations at war and desires for peace; enemies becoming friends with justice for the afflicted and distressed; and today, the rejoicing, even in creation, as the lame, the dispirited and broken are taken up into God’s dance.
On December 3rd International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Pope Francis reminded us that central to combating discrimination, quality of life and promoting a culture of encounter is the promotion of full participation of people with disability. Caring for people living with disability allows us all to create more just and compassionate political systems and see in the other the image of God. Disability is a political issue and caring for human beings made in God’s image is essential to our communal efforts to create just and compassionate communities and political systems. Whilst acknowledging some progress in medical and welfare areas, the Pope linked the throwaway culture with disability where many feel that ‘they exist without belonging and without participating.’ He urged all ‘to make the world more human’ by removing prejudice. Importantly, he said, that such people should not only be ministered to but also be allowed to minister to us - a principle that must be applied to migrants, Indigenous people, youth and other minorities. He also invited people to courageously ‘give a voice to those who are discriminated against because of their disability’ by making good laws and breaking down barriers. Making good laws and breaking down physical barriers is important, but it is not enough, if the mentality does not change, if our culture continues to produce inequalities that prevent people from actively participating in ordinary life. We need to change attitudes not just laws.
Our parliament has finished for the year on a cruel and inhumane high having legislated to reduce the power of trade unions, or even eliminating them, a cruel repeal of Medevac recently, and failing to fully support the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) leaving many people in aged care to fall through the cracks. Though our leaders will invoke Christian values, their position flies in the face of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition that expresses God’s special concern for the poor and oppressed. Policies that fail people who are in any way poor are slap in the face to Jesus who presents these people as recipients of God’s special concern. He reminded us constantly that the least are God’s favourites who should be treated as the most important people in the world. Here is Pope Francis’ biblical authenticity as he refers to God’s ‘preferential option for the poor?’
The question to Jesus is also put to us: is this the One we are to follow or do we prolong business as usual for a while longer for another with a different message – a prosperity gospel, tax cuts for the rich, dealing with conflict by violence? We know Jesus by looking at those he approaches. Following Jesus involves being with others in their suffering and offering them hope. The question posed to Jesus has been applied to Pope Francis as he promotes a culture of encounter through mercy and compassion. If he was asked, ‘Are you the one who was chosen for the church?’ he may answer in words similar to Jesus. We see in Francis the works of love and mercy we see in Jesus. Unlike John’s question, the question to the Pope represents a hateful agenda and opposition to his work for a more humane and merciful Church. Six years ago, he raised a few eyebrows but also opened many eyes when he visited a prison for young people to celebrate the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. He washed the feet, of not only Catholics, or Catholic men, but Muslims and women in the ritual. The Holy Thursday washing of the feet was exclusively reserved to Catholic men.
Our world is constantly being transformed. A revolution is taking place! It requires the constant challenge to oppressive powers and strengthening the oppressed to struggle and not conform to the existing order. God’s reign is under attack where helping the poor and refugees is criminalised in many places; when people are labeled ‘bleeding hearts’ for seeking justice; when people raise their voices on behalf of others and are vilified; when people who speak out or act out for others and live with the consequences; when people try to be inclusive, work for social inclusion, break down barriers, and work to abolish class divides and find themselves ostracized or even denied Holy Communion; and, when people call for nonviolent responses to conflict and are considered naïve. Advent challenges to us to make God real by our actions. The free market cannot do this.
John appeared when God’s reign seemed under attack – as it still is. The rich and powerful do not tend to do what he did – critiquing the structures of power. According to Isaiah, Psalm 145, and Matthew today people living with disability and living in poverty are the first recipients of God’s favour in days yet to come. The healings might be a way of demonstrating God’s power to upend the status quo but also signal God’s preferential care for people whom the world rejected in those days and still reject today. For us it is an invitation to examine the social patterns of exclusion and injustices that are directed particularly against people with any kind of disability and oppressed and otherwise marginalised. Those in power will not do this. We need to do something about it, because despite this mandate, inequality, injustice, and oppression against people with disability have been sanctioned in various ways: on assumptions of biological, moral, and social inferiority alongside a presumed failure on their part or failures of their parents by sin. The results of those assumptions stand as a witness against newborns, infants, children, and adults who have been neglected, abused, and murdered on account of the presence of disability in their lives. The call to action needs to include advocacy and friendship – not just solidarity. The Word of God today calls upon us as God’s people to ‘Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, [and] say to those whose hearts are frightened [to those who are oppressed]: Be strong, fear not!’ (Is 35:4). As we all await the Parousia the great reversal of fortunes for those who are oppressed depends, perhaps in large part, upon us - with God’s help,
Many who want change and act for it see little progress and must live with pain and disappointment especially when the institutions that we belong to do not follow the gospel in its dealings with people. Like John, we do not see the world changed in our lifetime. Dashed hopes and shattered expectations are not strangers to us. But, our challenge is to offer world something new. If we are to ask the poor, the stranger, the outcast in society and the church how would they respond if they saw us? What would others see and hear in us?
Fr Claude Mostowik msc
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Erskineville, NSW
President, Pax Christi Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia (NSW)