The Christmas story's whisper from the edges

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Chris Johnston's cartoon 'Christmas story for the poor' shows a the star of Bethlehem shining a light on poor people.In Bendigo, at a St Vincent de Paul Society forum for Anti-Poverty Week this year, Vicki Clark, Mutti Mutti Woman and Coordinator of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria, shared the red earth from her mother's Country, inviting all of us to cradle it in our hands. It was beautiful to hold the red earth from Mutti Mutti Country in our hands.

Adam is the name in the ancient Hebrew writings for the first human. His name comes from adamah, the word for earth or dust. This word is also related to the word for blood and the word for the colour red. It was beautiful to hold the red earth from Mutti Mutti Country in our hands because it reminded me of the meaning of dirt and of blood and of being human. In calling us to hold the red earth in our hands Vicki was inviting us into a sacramental encounter. The God of the bible is unequivocally on the side of all who are oppressed and dispossessed.

In the play Bran Nue Dae there is a memorable scene where a boy says he is ashamed to approach the girl he loves because he is dirty. The older and wiser Uncle Tadpole responds with laughter and the famous exclamation that 'We're all dirty!' This is a beautiful evocation of the common ground from which all of us, as human beings, come and which, rather than ever allowing for a social order built on inequality, should be the solid basis for an organisation of society and the economy that is both equitable and respectful.

The people of God are not an ethnic group or even a religious group. They are the scattered and crushed. They are the ones who are treated like dirt, who are humbled and humiliated by the historical structures of inequality, inequality that is built especially on class, gender and race. They are the colonised and the exploited, the despised and the ignored.

As that magnificent group of poets known as Isaiah exclaim: 'What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?'

I remember some years back driving out to Ryleston with my family to meet some friends. On the way we saw some stunningly beautiful country but we couldn't help feeling a sense of unease that we couldn't quite explain. This unsettling feeling remained with us the whole time. When we got home we consulted our battered copy of Bruce Elder's Blood on the Wattle, an extremely accessible introduction to the hidden history of some of the massacres of the First Peoples across Australia, which should be compulsory reading for high school students.

The country we had driven through was indeed beautiful but it was soaked with the blood of men, women and children who had been driven off cliffs and hunted down in an effort to clear the rich Wiradjuri land of the Wiradjuri People. Without realising it we could hear the sound of our sister's and brother's blood crying out to us from the land: 'Listen to the sound of your brother's blood crying out to me from the ground.'

The incarnational heart of the Christmas story is a reinforcement of this identification that we find throughout the Hebrew scriptures that God is humanity hurt, which is why the child born on the fringes of society inevitably ends up executed as a dangerous outcast, an object of derision for the powers that be.

But this God is also a creator and he who is torn down is also he who is raised up.

The First Peoples were pushed from their Country. Dispossession and historical disadvantage are the toxic fruits of colonisation. Throughout history and across the globe, people are pushed from land that is held in common. The commons are transformed into vehicles of profit instead of sustenance for the people. The excluded, however, do not disappear. They rise from the dead. And inasmuch as they rise from the dead we rise from the dead with them.

This is the creative power of the oppressed. It is the power to create a new kind of society in which oppression is no longer the rule and dispossession is no longer the basis for the economic order.

One of the capitalist system's achievements is to have concealed the notion of capitalism itself.

So much so, that when you read the words 'capitalist' and 'capitalism' you might immediately assume that the piece of writing in which they occur is somehow 'radical' or 'militant'!

It is not generally considered normal or even necessary to refer to capitalism by name, even when the naming is not accompanied by a critique. We have come to expect the only references to capitalism (outside academic or theoretical texts) will likely come from those who hate it or those who hate those who hate it.

To name the capitalist system is to acknowledge that it is a system. It was not always thus. It came about because of a number of significant changes in the way people produced especially in the area of technology, causing the previous economic system (feudalism) to be outgrown, as it were, to actually fetter and inhibit the creative potential, particularly of the incipient entrepreneurial class.

To name the capitalist system is to therefore acknowledge its historicity. It did not come down from the sky. It is not natural. It is however 'natural' to feel like it is the best of all possible systems for those within it as a system. It is also 'natural' to find it hard to imagine that it could ever possibly end. But then it was just as 'natural' for a peasant (or a noble) to find it unthinkable that there would ever be a time when Feudalism ceased to be.

But I need to introduce a caveat on what I've just said. See, you probably don't feel like capitalism is the best of all possible systems if you are dehumanised by it. If you are left out of the prosperity in a prosperous country or you are trapped in the informal economy in one of the worlds growing number of growing slums, you are well and truly unlikely to feel like capitalism is working out.

The point out of this reflection is very simple. It is easily divided into two distinct but deeply related parts:

1. That the economic system we live in can be named, described and understood.
2. That the limitations of the system are most strongly revealed in the condition of the excluded and exploited.

These two points provide us with a choice.

Either the system by which wealth is generated and distributed is accepted as a given and the people who fail to benefit from the system are ignored or made to change their behaviour, which is construed as being the cause of their exclusion.

Or the people who are left out and pushed out join together to tell their collective story of exclusion and dispossession and joined by others who choose to take their side, call into question the effectiveness of the system and work towards changing it.

As the 1975 Henderson Inquiry into poverty found: 'If poverty is seen as a result of structural inequality within society, any serious attempt to eliminate poverty must seek to change those conditions which produce it.'

And as the groundbreaking 1996 Australian Catholic Bishops' Social Justice Statement argued: 'In the main, people are poor not because they are lazy or lacking in ability or because they are unlucky. They are poor because of the way society, including its economic system, is organised.'

This much is clear: when it comes to the experience of exclusion and exploitation, if people do not tell their stories there will always be those who, in fidelity to the first option, will tell their stories for them, thereby radically altering the truth.

Recently, we have seen Francis, Bishop of Rome, choose this very subject as the focus of his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:

Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.

Francis also blasted the so-called trickle-down economic theories:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

The Christmas story is a whisper from the edges that another kind of world is possible.

There are those for whom this message is unwelcome, those for whom it will be scorned as being naive at best and dangerous at worst, those for who it will be regarded with warmth and those for whom it is an urgent enkindling of hope in the face of degradation and despair.


John Falzon headshotDr John Falzon is a political sociologist, poet and author of The Language of the Unheard(2012). He is Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent Paul Society National Council of Australia.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston.

Topic tags: John Falzon, Christmas, St Vincent de Paul Society, poverty, economics, Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

 

 

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Thank you for these whispers from the edges; for the seasonal reminder to listen to those on the margins if we want to understand the world we are helping to build.
Denis Fitzgerald | 17 December 2013


'The Christmas story is a whisper from the edges that another kind of world is possible.' A majestic, powerful evocation of justice through love, and redemption through incarnation - 'God is humanity hurt'. Thank you for this encouraging, visionary work.
Barry G | 17 December 2013


Thanks John. When shall we build a society where inclusion is the rule and fairness to all is the standard we are proud of? Perhaps when we believe that we are all dirty and not superior to any person, but joined in a common humanity. Call it love.
carmel | 17 December 2013


Good article. Further to be recognised is that capitalism no longer exists. It has morphed into managerial economism. Today the corporations are owned by other corporations and trickle down is from corporation to corporation..It only ever reaches human beings via super funds and the like. The managers see human beings as a "human resource"and not as beneficiaries of the economic process at all. JP2 had a lot to say about this .
james macken | 17 December 2013


Thank you for the powerful reminder that "another kind of world is possible." Many times I despair whether this can really be true in our present political and market-driven climate. But people like John Falzon and Pope Francis encourage me to keep hoping, keep praying and keep working for a better, fairer world.
Robert Van Zetten | 17 December 2013


as long as we have homelessness in such huge numbers and with so many families, we can't call ourselves 'the lucky country', how about the 'blindfolded country'?
walter p komarnicki | 17 December 2013


Was pope Francis's recent document Evangelli Gaudium's only about social justice? No, Pope Francis also condemned abortion and, most importantly, exhorted Catholics to evangelize. It is sad that some lovers of the left wing ideology use Pope Francis to promote their political views.
Ron Cini | 17 December 2013


Ron Cini, why is it inappropriate for the politically inclined to emphasise those aspects of Pope Francis's message which speak to their areas of concern? Would you also find it inappropriate for the Right to Life activists to emphasise his reinforcement of the Church's stand against abortion? Don't you think that those who Jesus spoke to similarly emphasised those areas of his talks which reflected on their own situations - be they widows, orphans, fishermen, Roman soldiers or, like Joseph of Aramethea, highly respected citizens? If you misconstrue as '[promotion of] their political views', reference to the Pope's statements by some Catholics who might have a different political perspective from yourself, aren't you being at least a little exclusive about who can quote the Pope? It is only natural that we all note when the Pope's statements reinforce what we already believe. If we don't hear him then, how are we ever going to hear him when he states something about which we might be uncomfortable?
Ian Fraser | 18 December 2013


Thank you John for such a wonderful article. Wonderful for me, at least, in that you set out our systemic problem and become inured the pervading nonsense instead of calling it for what it is; crimes against humanity painted as progress. Sad too that many of the current government's marginalizers have had a catholic formation. A visitor to the planet would see Christmas as a brilliant commercial/retail triumph without any pesky connections with a child on the edges, because there was no room at the inn.
Michael D. Breen | 18 December 2013


I give thanks to John for speaking on behalf of the oppressed and excluded. May we add our voice to his in our daily lives. Yes, the true Christmas message can be disagreeable. It must be disquieting for the smug and comfortable to hear that in the reality of our lives, Jesus’ message is as much political as it is spiritual. I pray that at this time, we all take the chance to find renewed softness in our hearts and kindness to all people.
Mark Meehan | 18 December 2013


Sorry, for a moment there, I thought I'd stumbled on a Socialist Left website! John Falzon, as a political sociologist, clearly espouses the Marxian interpretation of history but, as with all socialists, misrepresents capitalism and its effects. As any study of the world over the last 200 years will show, all societies that have developed through capitalism have immeasurably improved the circumstances of ALL their citizens, while those societies that have been diverted by socialism have seen a regression, often of catastrophic proportions. John also clearly needs to read a little Keith Windschuttle to balance his view of Australian history. Bleeding Heart Black Armband mythology is no replacement for historical fact. As another Christmas article has pointed out, "Fact is, Mary and Joseph were victims of Big Government... Why did they leave their home in Nazareth? Because the Emperor Augustus ordered all Roman subjects to return to their ancestral homes for a census, thus wasting the couple's time, money and sandal leather to extract information that might have been just as easily obtained if they had been allowed to remain in their own home." If John is CEO of Vinnies, Dracula is in charge of the blood bank.
Roger | 28 December 2013


An excellent article which unearth economic wisdom not normally perceived. It also specify economic truth before religion & religion above mundane economic needs.
S.C.Bhardwaj | 03 January 2014


Thanks John! I suggest readers also read an article on 'Guardian Australia' website, on 20 Jan.2014, entitled "Oxfam: 85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world." This article points out "...that those richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of $1tn, as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world's population." The article graphically illustrates the share of the national income in different countries going to the richest one percent. From the graph I estimate that Australia's wealthiest one percent received about 6 percent of this country's wealth in 1980 but this has risen to about 11 percent in 2012. I think of what Jesus said about the rich man having as much chance of getting into Heaven as a camel has of getting through the eye of a needle. People don't become any happier by becoming wealthy. All we need to be happy is enough for the basic necessities of life and enough leisure time to spend with our families and friends. I ask readers to email major party politicians on this as our major parties are responsible for Australia's great disparity of wealth. Please consider attaching a copy of either article.
George Allen | 21 January 2014


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