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Francis and the marginalised at Easter


'Easter marginalised' by Chris Johnston. Illustration of crucified Jesus watching a man help shipwrecked asylum seekers out of the sea, while at Jesus' back others carry on with their ordinary materialistic lives.Pope Francis has decided to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass in the detention centre for young people in Rome. His symbolic gesture, which includes washing the feet of 12 young prisoners, says something about Easter, and also about the implications of his desire for the Catholic Church to be a church of the poor.

In celebrating this mass in an Italian gaol the Pope is moving from its usual place at St Peter's Basilica in the heart of the Vatican to a prison on the margins of church and society. He will share the company of young offenders who are marginal in any society.

It is also a gesture of soldarity with people who accompany and serve prisoners and others on the margins of society. Those in whose imagination and lives marginalised people have a central place, soon become and feel marginalised themselves.

Anyone who stands with asylum seekers who are slowly drained of their spirit and mental health by prolonged imprisonment, are placed in the community without right to work and on allowances no Australian could live on, have no pathway to making their case for protection or to be reunited with their families, and are deprived of access to Australian law, find themselves on the edge of a society that approves of and inflicts these barbarities.

Anyone who has shared the confusion and pain of people who were removed from their natural parents, never to know them, and see a parliamentary session committed to an apology to them degenerate into a flurry of mobile phones and other fripperies caused by a leadership challenge, will find themselves estranged from political life.

It is natural to feel marginalised in the face of these and other brutalities inflicted on those you care for. The important question is, what do you do about it? Redress has to do with the imagination and with finding space. People do this in a variety of ways. For Christians to whom the rising of Jesus Christ from the dead is not simply a belief but is central in their imaginative world, the story of Easter is a central resource.

The story of the trial and killing of Jesus confirms that those who stand in solidarity with the marginalised will themselves become marginalised. In the religious idiom of his day Jesus said that prostitutes were loved by God and that God's kingdom was open to them. So he consorted with them. This was seen as both blasphemous and socially intolerable. So he was brutalised and taken outside the city to be executed.

By itself the execution of Jesus is a cautionary tale of futility. It can make it possible to recognise the barbarity of what human beings do to one another, and that pitching your tent with people who are marginalised and demonised may cost you your insouciance, reputation, social acceptance and even your life.

But Jesus' rising from the dead offers reason for hope and vindication for acting as if people do matter. It also gives assurance that nothing worthwhile in the most despised of human beings will be lost. The resurrection of Jesus provides a space for conversational prayer with God who knows all about being marginalised, and the costs of sticking with those who are marginalised, and who underwrites the hope for a future in and beyond this world.

All this is a resource for those for whom the Easter story is an operational part of their imaginative world.

I am not trying to justify faith in the resurrection on the grounds of its psychological benefits. Faith needs to be based in the conviction that New Testament testimony that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is reasonable. In any case it is impossible to make something central to one's imaginative world simply because it is useful to do so.

Nor am I arguing that this kind of faith in the resurrection is the only, or the richest, resource for those marginalised by their association with the marginalised. It is not the only resource, and I am not in a position to make comparisons. But this is how it does work for some Christians.

Finally I do not argue that faith in the resurrection is an effective pill to dull suffering. It offers a space to accommodate suffering. The Easter story is not about denying pain but about affirming life through and beyond it both for the marginalised and for their friends. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Church of the poor, Easter, asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians



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Existing comments

Thx Andrew for an excellent sermon. I doubt the resurrection is "reasonable" but the presence of the risen Christ is an experience possible for all. PB

The Rev'd Patricia Bouma | 28 March 2013  

Thank you Andrew.

BruceS | 28 March 2013  

To me Andrew one of the salient points of the Resurrection is that it redeems lives. I think Pope Francis may be staging a living sign of that. We have so many unredeemed young people and I'm not talking about a narrow religious context. My contention is that a narrow religious context is not genuinely Christian. I found the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom very good on this, but he had been both a refugee and an embittered youth who, fortunately, had not succumbed to a life of crime or hatred. When talking of the Resurrection I find many church people, including clerics, take a rather removed-from-the-living-suffering-world approach which brings death, rather than life. There is, indeed, a lot of dead religion out there. Your article is real food for thought pre-Easter. Thank you for it.

Edward F | 28 March 2013  

Poor Andrew, taken in by another cheap stunt that is designed, not to assist these offenders but the image of this Pope and the corrupt Vatican and Catholic Church. That such empty gestures can be regarded as a Great Act is a sign of the emptiness of the follwers when it comes to holding any critical facility. Sacking a few of the elect would be a significant act, reducing Cardinals to local priest status would be significant, closing down the corrupt Vatican bank system, undoing the fiction that the Vatican was a state, gifted by a fascist, would be a significant move. Organising cameras and the media to film a stunt just shows it is a cheap stunt, that's all. As for 'the Easter story', it's a myth stolen from previous religious traditions, like Christmas was, and nothing more than that. A metaphor maybe but certainly not a reflection of any real action. Now, have I heard Francis speaking out this week on the folly of European bankers and government officials for creating the dodgy debt situation there? No! Has Francis been quoted all week for his forensic disection of the Cyprus theft from citizens to get billionaires off the hook? No! Just empty footwashing gestures.

Janice Wallace | 28 March 2013  

Thank you. A good way to start Easter. Although I too am not at all sure that the resurrection is "reasonable" , I do believe that it singularly makes some sense of the world, the universe, and the human experience within it all. God bless you Father.

Eugene | 28 March 2013  

Janice: unfortunately such 'empty gestures' have a long history in the Church. Consider how the founder himself failed to address the pressing issues of Roman hegemony and the collaboration of the Herodic dynasty. The fact that seemingly intelligent and highly educated people like Andrew remain impressed by such 'cheap stunts' as 'consorting with prostitutes', demonstrates the dangerous power of these empty gestures. It's almost as though educated people writing in their area of expertise can see something in these 'empty gestures' that nonetheless eludes those of us with far greater critical facilities. In fact my own critical facilities are so vast I could host a whole parish for Easter lunch in them, were I not so keenly aware that the whole thing was stolen from the mythology of the Aztecs...or the Egyptians. It doesn't really matter from whom the mythology was stolen, unless they start demanding reparations, but the point is...well that doesn't matter either, I just wanted everyone to know that I have a really big critical facility.

Zac | 28 March 2013  

Pope Francis brings many inspirational themes to the Church. However there is one cause for concern for many sincere believers,and that is his adherence to some outdated "traditions." Traditions, by definition, originated in bygone times, when the authors of them, no matter how intelligent or well-meaning they were, did not have the data (knowledge and consequent understanding) to fully expound the spiritual ideal on which the tradition was based. This applies to many areas, but particularly to the place of sex in our lives. With an originally small population and many dangers to overcome, it may well seem to have been God's Command to "increase and multiply." But with dwindling limited resources, the need for "sustainable poulation" is increasingly obvious. Psalm 127 explains the basis of the traditional attitude to sex: "Sons are a bounty from Yahweh, he rewards with descendants: like arrows in a hero's hand are the sons you father when young. Happy the man who has filled his quiver with arrows of this sort. In dispute with his enemy at the gate, he will not be worsted." Times have now changed, and a new attitude to sex needs to change with it.

Robert Liddy | 28 March 2013  

Like poor Andrew, poor Janice knows a symbolic action when she sees one. She calls the Holy Thursday service “empty footwashing gestures”, perhaps not altogether aware that indeed emptying is what the washing of the apostles’ feet at the Last Supper is all about. You have to start somewhere when confronted with corruption and violence: in Christian tradition the Last Supper is where you start. One also has to agree with Janice that the Easter story is a myth. Of course it’s a myth, it’s a myth because it’s the truth glorified in the world. That is what real, living myths are all about. But on one point it is impossible to agree. Christmas was certainly not stolen from previous religious traditions, and for one very simple reason: it is the showing forth of the Incarnation. It’s a myth as well, of course, the central living myth of faith. If it was anything less than a myth it would not have the impact that it has.

IN REPLY TO JANICE | 28 March 2013  

A critical facility is what the Americans targeted in Baghdad on Day One. The President at the time did not have highly developed critical faculties, which is why he left the job to someone else. One may have a facility for being critical, but it resides inside your faculty.

THE PEDANT | 28 March 2013  

Janice, I think you are full of bias and prejudice against the Catholic Church, but there is some truth in what you say. I can think of one Cardinal who I believe should be sacked. This Cardinal is still in denial of the consensus of scientific opinion on climate change and for that reason alone should be sacked if he continues such denial. Climate change is already causing great suffering to the world's poorest and most vulnerable people, and not to speak up in their support is unconscionable. I suggest that readers view 'Sun Come Up', or even the trailer to this movie, about the first climate change refugees, the Cartaret Islanders of our Pacific region. Millions more climate change refugees will follow, from low countries including Bangla Desh and drought-stricken countries in the Horn of Africa. The washing of the feet of young prisoners by Pope Francis is not an empty gesture. I suggest, Janice, that you study the life of this holy man and the way he has reached out to the poor and marginalised in Argentina. As a Catholic I am inspired by his life story. Please read about him and see if you are inspired too.

Grant Allen | 28 March 2013  

Pope francis is setting an example for the rest of the church. Move out of your flash churches and into the lives of the people on the edge of society. Take a different viewing posture. It is on the edge a different church may emerge.

terry fitz | 28 March 2013  

Actually Andrew, I think Francis' decision to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass in a detention centre says more about his determination to make the catholic church an evangelical church rather than in showing some simple gesture of "solidarity". In fact, I think it's about challenging the church to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries of society in order to evangelize.

DavidSt | 28 March 2013  

Thanks Andrew. I believe Pope Francis's celebration of the Eucharist in a Roman jail on such and important day in the Church's calendar rather than in St Peters is not an empty gesture but a follow up on his acceptance of the challenge of looking after the poor. Indeed he will be close up and personal with the inmates, not afar off. Certainly there are a lot more poor people in the world than those in prison, including the victims of sexual abuse by clergy and others on the margins of society for many different reasons. However I think he should be given some time to address the needs of the others. He can't do it all in a day, and he has only been Pope for about one week! I think he has shown, so far, that we have reason to hope that many others who are poor will see some benefits of Francis's pontificate.

Tony Santospirito | 28 March 2013  

Perhaps George Pell could follow suit by inviting gay and lesbian Catholics to participate in the Mass. That really would be a 'symbolic action'.

Ginger Meggs | 28 March 2013  

Nice article thanks Andrew. I’m very glad to hear about Pope Francis making the youth in prison his focus for the Last Supper remembrance Mass. I think that until now the Vatican authorities have marginalised God with their notion of self importance. For too long the Vatican precinct has modelled itself along lines of celebrity princes who have got themselves at the centre rather than their mission to give holy service to the laity. Jesus wept for those who were concerned with their own importance (John 11:35). When it comes to being marginalized you ask: What can you do about it? I think the answer is indicated by our Saviour who absorbed the evil ways of his persecutors and asked his Father to forgive them. I know about childhood innocence that has been destroyed by the gross actions of incompetent people in authority, who gave them godly power? With their notion of certainty they become godly enough to think they are right. Unfortunately all that is left for the marginalised person to do is ‘turn the other cheek’ and absorb the inherent evil of such authority. Pray to God “because they know not what they do.” Today we have electronic media so there is a chance for those with a voice to object and make sufficient noise until errant authorities stop to listen. God bless Pope Francis and the example given by Francis of Assisi.

Trish Martin | 28 March 2013  

The patron par excellence for care for poor,oppressed and marginalized is not Pope Francis but blessed Pope John Paul who rent asunder the Iron Curtain[noted by Gorbachev] that hid decades of oppression,jailed, gulag marginalized, and economic disaster;histories of famine and degradation-you cant eat symbols! He faced down the might of the Soviet Empire,with such, later grovelling at the feet of the Pope in post Soviet diplomacy[while Holy Father handed them mother of pearl rosaries.] JP2 CV for poor needs recalling as 1 million metro tickets[with Pope Francis photo imprint]do the rounds of Romes' buses.

Father John George | 28 March 2013  

Grant, you might distinguish between climate change and global warming before you roast the Cardinal.

John | 29 March 2013  

"I am not in a position to make comparisons". You certainly are not, Andrew.

Pam | 29 March 2013  

Ginger Meggs: Coals to Newcastle.

John | 29 March 2013  

John, like most people I tend to use the terms'global warming' and 'climate change' synonymously, but you are right to suggest there is a difference. 'Global warming' refers to the warming of the globe because of the increase in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Global warming causes climate change - the long term change in Earth's climate. The Cardinal I referred to is a long-time denier of the risks posed by human-caused climate change. He has come under scathing criticism by many scientists because of his erroneous views on this subject. It gives me no pleasure to join in this criticism, and I do so only out of concern for the many people, particularly poor people, who will lose their lives or their livelihoods because of climate change. Cardinals have a duty to accept scientific truths, and I am pleased that most of them do this. I pray and hope that the Cardinal revisits this subject and accepts what mainstream scientists and also other Church leaders are saying. Not to do do would be most imprudent,and a terrible example to others.

Grant Allen | 29 March 2013  

Why pick on the Catholics? All of the organised Christian cults are suspect in their behaviours and motives, not just the Vatican warriors. There, does that please you Grant? And for dear In Response To Janice, you have to be joshing! Myths are in the same bag as fictions. Here, how's this for a couple, "A fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology" and this one, "A fictitious story, person, or thing." Like the myth of the ANZAC, of Simpson, of the need for a monarch, or that the ALP stands for 'the workers', or the Liberal Party for small business, or the Jesuits for some superior Christian intelligence, all horrible myths, some verging on outright lies. Of course the church has a long history of empty gestures, that's what keeps it alive but over the years the empty gestures have been backed up by solid actions, of hate, cruelty, lies, deceit and total violence.

Janice Wallace | 30 March 2013  

Be it noted that Pope francis' inclusive foot washing is not on a trajectory to women doing the washing. Bergoglio wrote in a 2011 book that women cannot accede to the priesthood because “the maximum of the priesthood is Jesus, a male.” “According to tradition,” wrote the future pope, “all that pertains to the priesthood must happen through man.”

Father John George | 30 March 2013  

As usual, I applaud both the content and the form of Fr Andrew's Eureka Street pieces, and this one is no exception. The combination of reason and imagination, impelling one to a commitment that asks something of us, is, in my view, instructive and encouraging. Without overlooking the legitimate criticisms that can be made of the church - of all the churches - I am astonished at the suggestion, implicit in one or two of the comments, that what Andrew speaks of is the stuff of delusion.

Chris Mostert | 31 March 2013  

Janice,the Christian churches are churches of sinners. But it is because we are sinnners that we think we need a Christian church. Just as it is a lifelong journey of repentance and renewal for each Christian, so there is an ongoing need for reform of the Christian churches. The Christian belief is to see each person, including you Janice, as formed in the image and likeness of God. I think that once we can see the beauty in all God's Creation, including ourselves, we can have more self-respect, lead more fulfilling lives, and better challenge the wrongs we see around us. There are many good examples to inspire us, from the lives of saints like St Mary Mackillop and St Francis to the lives of good Christian people in our parishes, including members of the St Vincent de Paul Society. Your attitude reminds me of Saul, the one who persecuted the Christians, until God spoke to him, after which he transformed his life, became a Christian and a martyr and is now known as St Paul. I think you might see more good in Christianity if you studied the lives of some of the saints, starting with St Mary Mackillop.

Grant Allen | 01 April 2013  

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