Easter manifesto


Oscar Romero... when he saw the multitudes he was moved to compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered like sheep without a shepherd.

Being moved to compassion can sound almost like an act of largesse on the part of a powerful monarch. The Greek of Matthew's Gospel, however, expresses this phrase with an earthy and painful sense of compulsion, a kind of tugging at the guts or churning of the stomach.

Like how I felt the first time I met children and their parents living behind razor-wire at Villawood Detention Centre. Or how I feel listening to the stories of the Stolen Generations or Aboriginal deaths in custody, or read about yet another brutal bombing of the people of Gaza while the powers of the world seem to turn a blind eye.

We often miss the point of the scriptural metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep. It's not so much about power over as it is about suffering with. Shepherds were among the most marginalised members of society at the time of Jesus. Sadly, the centuries have mangled the metaphor.

For too long the charitable model of welfare has been built on the obscene notion that people should actually be treated like sheep who need a strong and wise shepherd to tell them what to do. This model, which moves easily between paternalism and punishment, comfortably accommodates such injustices as controlling the meagre incomes of people on statutory benefits and other forms of disempowerment 'for their own good'.

Oscar Romero (pictured), the late Archbishop of San Salvador, murdered by US-trained paramilitary in 1980, said of the Beatitudes that they turn everything upside down. They provide us with a radical way of unlearning our acceptance of guidance from above and learning with new hearts the promise of liberation from below.

Rather than looking to the skies for a sign, the story of Jesus presents us with a provocative challenge to listen closely to the signs of the times; the still, small sound of humanity in history.

The people Matthew refers to are 'distressed and scattered'. This sense of alienation is central to marginalisation. People feel they are devalued, left on the scrap-heap, and, worst of all, atomised, on their own, left to bear the blame, and therefore the burden, of their own exclusion.

Rather than viewing people experiencing exclusion as sheep in need of a firm hand and voice of command, we are invited to learn that it is the people who call us. If we want to be attentive to Christ's message we need look no further than the faces of the people who are left or pushed out. Christ speaks to us through the marginalised. In a deeply Incarnational echo of his Come, follow me, they say: Come with us, be our companions.

I often like to quote the beautiful and wise words of the poet, Bertolt Brecht:'the compassion of the oppressed for the oppressed is indispensable. It is the world's one hope.'

It is no surprise that a society built on the foundations of the market should place a high value on individualism. We are taught to make an idol of individual effort, responsibility, reward and consumption. We are taught to accept that an individual should pay for what they use and that those who do not have the means to pay should be denied the right to use.

We are taught that there is a kind of natural justice about the existing order, as if it were ordained that there should be some who are extremely rich and many who are very poor and that the poor are completely free to leave their poverty behind if only they get off their backsides and do something useful.

The Easter motif of suffering and resurrection comes alive in all movements of social justice and social change, when people who have been treated as if they are nothing proclaim by their collective dreaming that we are everything.

This sense of power from below, not as its own end but for the sake of creating a new society, was articulated poignantly by Romero: 'a people disorganised becomes a mass that can be toyed with, but a people that organises itself and fights for its values and for justice is a people that demands respect'.

The God of the scriptures is a God who is unequivocally on the side of the excluded. We have the right and the duty to organise ourselves as companions building a society in which people matter more than the walls that are built to divide them, lock them out, or lock them up and in which no one is treated as inferior.

For those of us who hunger for justice it is a sin to be disorganised. Especially when, as Pablo Neruda reminds us, so much misery is so well organised!

Rise up with me against the organisation of misery
... stand up with me
and let us go off together
to fight face to face
against the devil's webs,
against the system that distributes hunger,
against organised misery. 

John FalzonDr John Falzon is an advocate with a deep interest in philosophy, society, politics and poetry. He is the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council Chief Executive and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. 


Topic tags: John Falzon, social justice, Oscar Romero, Pablo Neruda



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Existing comments

I have long been reading your columns in various papers (Canberra Times, for one) and I have been impressed with the depth of knowledge you have of the Aboriginal situation. I have quoted you in motions I have put before my ALP sub-branch. I very much enjoy knowing I'm not alone in my very harsh opinions about the Fed govt on Indigenous people's lives. I also see, with delight that you remember the people of Gaza (as Pat Power did recently in the Canberra Times). I have also demonstrated for them. I'm pleased to read your speech today and will continue to pray that you will continue to write the way you do!! All power to you!

Nathalie | 05 April 2012  

Dr. Falzon thank you for a wonderful article which highlights what the Easter experience is all about. Following the one who identified with the poor and showed us what true service and charity can be. The men and women of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are at the "cutting edge" of charitable mission. They experience at first hand the victims of the so called "free market forces", were people are viewed as commodities. Thank you Dr. Falzon for speaking out on their behalf and bringing the plight of the outcast and the oppressed to the wider world.

James Clarke | 05 April 2012  

The "poor" do not have to be always with us. We must decide whether we have the courage to enable "the poor" to discard the expectations we have imposed on "them." Real "communion" with others is very demanding for "Us". Maundy Thursday is a time for such reflection.

Eilish Cooke | 05 April 2012  

In regards to the brutal bombing of the people of Gaza, it is best if we study the history of this tiny Jewish nation. Since the ancient beginnings of genesis this tiny nation has been in constant state of survival. Israel is surrounded by Moslem nations. Immediately at the beginning of the new State of Israel on May 15 1948 Arab nations attacked Israel. Now Moslem extremists have vowed to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Arab Moslems hate the Jews; they even use their children as suicide bombers to kill Jewish men, women and children. Anti Semitic outbursts from westerners does not help to bring peace in the Middle East.

Ron Cini | 06 April 2012  

All the more reason for the Inquiry called for by Justice Phillip Cummins. Premier Ted Ballieu so far set the ball rolling, a non-Catholic at that.

L Newington | 06 April 2012  

Thank you Eureka Street,Andy and John,for two wonderful articles expounding the true meaning of Easter, helping us place its truths into the context of our times.

Anne | 06 April 2012  

It amazes me that some commentators (RON CINI) are so bipartisan in their views that they are unable to see a situation at face value and ponder the deeper message rather than looking to take sides and win points. Your statement "Arab Moslems hate the Jews" is anti-semitic in istelf, RON CINI, for Arabs are also semitic. Your view on the middle east is quite narrow. Israel, is not only surrounded my Muslim nations, but many of it's own citizens are Muslim.

AURELIUS | 07 April 2012  

Dr Falzon shows a lamentable ignorance of Bertolt Brecht by including him in this Easter reflection. Brecht had scant regard of compassion for the oppressed, especially if the oppressed were opposed to the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin.

Brecht was a hardcore supporter of Stalin. He excused and supported Stalin's show trials and purges. For him art was not about searching for beauty or truths, let alone liberty. It was about destroying the old order to bring in the Communist utopia. And we all know how much freedom the people enjoyed under Communist regimes.

Offering Brecht as a model of compassion for the oppressed is as appropriate as offering Hitler as a model for international relations.

John Ryan | 07 April 2012  

John Ryan is correct that Bertolt Brecht was no model of compassion. The historian, Paul Johnson, wrote, “ He is the only intellectual among those I have studied who appears to be without a sole redeeming feature.” Johnson says that Brecht’s “lifetime womanizing left him no time for his children” and that “Not once did he give any indication he was perturbed by the sufferings he inflicted on women. They were to be used and discarded, as and when they served his purpose.” As for his literary work, he stole from others including Kipling and Hemingway. A recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize, Brecht defended the show trials and purges with the infamous statement, “As for them, the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” Dr Falzon talks of Brecht’s “beautiful and wise words” and then goes on to quote Pablo Neruda, another Marxist and recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize who wrote an ode to Stalin upon his death. Brecht and Neruda may have written beautifully, but Christ didn’t say you could tell the wolves by their fine rhetoric. He said you would know them by their fruits.

Ross Howard | 08 April 2012  

I too sympathise with the people of Gaza. I also know survivors of the holocaust and their descendants. A solution is clearly needed but not one that pushes Israel into the sea and denies Jews the place of sanctuary and safety that the rest of the world denies to greater and lesser degrees at different times.

Jill Robertson | 10 April 2012  

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