Alongside our call to be the face of God in the world, we are called to see the face of God in the world. As followers of Jesus, we see the face of God most clearly in the poor. Ignoring the poor means that we potentially ignore God, since through our attempts to overcome poverty and marginalization we participate in God’s plan.
The Reign of God that Jesus proclaimed ushered in a new world order characterized by relationships based on justice, love and peace. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Shalom refers not so much to an absence of violence but to a ‘right order’ – to health, prosperity, security, to political and spiritual well-being; it implies a sense of equity and fairness in our dealings with each other. There is not shalom if children go hungry; if human rights are ignored there is no shalom – there is no shalom in a world indifferent to the common good.
The only thing that Jesus excluded was exclusion itself.
– Richard Rohr –
At the core of Jesus’ ministry was outreach to and inclusion of those at the margins of his society. He touched the untouchables; he stood against systemic injustice and hypocrisy. He showed that God was not pleased with the blind following of laws of rituals and ritual purity. He entered the lives of the victims of these laws, whom he called the ‘little ones’: those with disabilities, the leper, the elderly, those who knew nothing of the law, those who mourn, the hungry, the persecuted, the widows. The list of those included by Jesus goes on. All experienced his compassion and inclusion that led them to new life.
As followers of Jesus, we should never be satisfied by giving to the poor from our excess. It is never enough; a hallmark of charity not justice. Our commitment must be to ‘center’ the poor and make our response to their plight the core of our mission.
I was once with my family at an outdoor restaurant in Lima, Peru. We had just finished the meal and were in the process of paying the bill, when a young girl who had been watching us eat from a distance came and sat on the ground beside our table. With this young girl, who would have been about 19 or 20 years old, was a baby; it could have been her own child, or possibly could have been her little brother or sister.
When you eat in this restaurant, you are served a little bowl of corn as an appetizer; it’s kind of like in Australia where we get a bowl of peanuts: very cheap and easy. As we were about to leave the restaurant, the young girl who was sitting on the ground, asked if she could have the leftover bowls of corn that were on our table. To my great shame I found two or three half empty bowls of corn and handed them down to this young girl and her baby, to eat.
A couple of minutes later, the girl noticed that some of our soft drink bottles weren’t empty; that some of our party had left a little in some of the bottles; and she asked if she could have these bottles so that she could have a drink. This was too much for me, and I asked the waitress to bring a fresh soft drink so that the girl and her baby could drink.
We left the restaurant that day, but the image of that young girl haunted me and continues to do so. I profess to be a Christian; a follower of Jesus, who was the great ‘includer’ of people. The ‘scandal’ of Jesus’ ministry was that he didn’t hand out food; he didn’t hand down bowls to people – he sat down at the table with them. He invited them to the table! I was deeply ashamed that I’d missed out on this opportunity to invite this young girl to the table. I went back to the restaurant each day at lunchtime; not for the food, but rather, hoping for the opportunity to find that young girl and her baby and invite her to the table.
Jesus’ commitment to inclusion was a direct challenge the religious establishment of the day. To declare lepers, tax-collectors, sinners and the poor to be ‘children of God’s kingdom’ is a decidedly political statement. In the face of extremely complex rituals for cleanliness and purity, Jesus taught that one could be washed clean be baptism in water. He taught his disciples to pray for the coming of God’s Reign which surely must have been interpreted as dangerous to the ‘establishment’ and an act of subversion. One could say that it was Jesus’ commitment to inclusion that ultimately cost him his life.
In Christianity we must be ready to give our own lives to create a just order and save others, for the values of the Gospel.
– Rutilio Grande –
Inclusion is at the heart of the Gospel and exclusion, in its many shapes and forms, is the Gospel’s greatest betrayal.
Fr Rutilio Grande of El Salvador, lived and died for a Christ who passionately defended the marginalised and included all in his vision for a just society. Rutilio warned his people not to be content with a God in the clouds, a muzzled, mute and tame Christ. He proposed that if Jesus were to appear again in our world with his subversive message of inclusion and justice, many of us might call for his arrest and silencing.
The Jesus we present must be the Jesus who said ‘Yes’ in the garden of Gethsemane, who decided to stay the course for the sake of the Reign of God; a Jesus who saw what was wrong in His culture and fought to bring about change in people’s hearts.
Inclusion is a constant theme in the teaching of Pope Francis.
At the Global Congress on Catholic Education in 2015, Pope Francis spoke of the ‘shame’ of exclusion in education:
Education has become too selective and elitist … This is shameful. Instead of bridging the gap between people, it widens it. It creates a barrier between poor and rich.
The greatest failure for an education is to educate within the walls of selective culture, the walls of a culture of security, the walls of a social class.
We cannot go on like this with a selective type of education. No one should be denied. If necessary, we must leave the places where we are as educators and go to the outskirts, to the poor.
I was once in a restaurant in Peru. As people were seated around eating, a poor man, accompanied by his little son, entered the restaurant and began to offer sweets for sale, as a way of getting some money in a semi-dignified way.
As some the patrons of the restaurant complained about the presence of this ‘intruder’, the staff began to speak with the man and usher him out of the restaurant. As he was leaving, I couldn’t help but see out of the corner of my eye that his little son, dirty and unkempt, had struck up a friendship with a boy of a similar age who was the son of one of the patrons. Whilst all of this ‘class battle’ was happening between the adults, these two little boys became friends and were playing in the corner, totally unaware of any distinctions between them or any societal norms that they were breaking.
Our Gospel tells us clearly that unless we become like these little children, our potential to see God and God’s vision for the world will be clouded. As long as we allow exclusion and discomfort with ‘the other’ to dictate who we call our neighbour, we will continue to miss the point of our Gospel and our humanity will continue to be impaired and incomplete.
If our world is small and mean and selective; if we live in fear and distrust and exclusion, then our Church or our vision for the divine, will be reflective of this. The challenge for us is to see the world as more than we can know or label, as something big, exciting and full of possibilities.
If this is our world, our vision for Church and faith will be shaped by these priorities. This is a vision for Church and faith that I think has the possibility of making sense to the young people of our world who, just like the little boys who were playing in the corner, see a world unencumbered by division, prejudice and exclusion.
Sounds remarkably like the world that Jesus spoke about!
I was walking early in the morning on the streets of Calcutta. The centre of the city becomes a dormitory in the evenings and the thousands of families who sleep here are cleared away early in the morning so that the business of the day in a bustling city can begin.
Just off the main street, I found another family. They were asleep on the footpath in front of a modern furniture store. Just inside the window of the store was a large double bed, complete with a thick mattress and linen. This family on the hard concrete was separated from this comfortable bed by a simple sheet of glass. Two worlds, a metre apart but as different as is imaginable.
What stops a father from smashing the glass so that his family can have a decent place to sleep? What type of world is it that allows this stark separation to exist? How do these children grow into any sense of why they are on the outside, when there is ample unused bedding clearly in sight?
The Gospel of the marginalised is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered and is revealed.
– Pope Francis –
Pope Francis consistently prays for a church of and for the poor. The ‘Church of the Poor’ promotes service and compassionate engagement with the world as indispensable to the way in which Christians worship the God of love who stands with and for the poor.
- A Church that strives to usher in the Reign of God: the promise of fullness of life and true freedom for all in our troubled world;
- A Church focused on getting the Kingdom of God and its message of justice and truth into the world, rather than people into its ranks;
- A Church not so worried about how the world might change it but rather, how it might strive to change the world; and,
- A Church strives ceaselessly to tell the poor and excluded that God loves them and that the Gospel is good news for them as well.
Christian mission must find a way to talk about a God of love in the midst of poverty, marginalization and exclusion.
Catholic education must speak for the voiceless and those who are excluded. Bold statements must also be made about the future of our world, about justice, about the way in which we are expected to relate to one another, about the dignity of every human life. We don’t pretend that it is possible to envisage a Christianity that is divorced from these issues. A middle class, non-engaged Christianity doesn’t make sense; it’s a contradiction in terms!
Some might be tempted to say that it is easier for a school in the developing world to embrace radical inclusion or an option for the poor, as poverty and exclusion are all around. Don’t let my stories from the developing world cloud our need to educate against exclusion and for the marginalized, in every context.
How do we educate for a sense of universal responsibility? How do we teach young people that their ultimate destiny, and the destiny of young people in parts of the world such as these, are inextricably linked? As Mother Teresa once said; ‘Calcutta can be seen all around the world if only we have eyes to see.’
If we are to be authentic followers of the Gospel, our priority for inclusion and our preferential option for the marginalised must guide our actions and decision-making. Can there be a better guide for us than these words of Gandhi:
I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions. Then you will find your doubts melt away.