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Education for Liberation: Five Practical Tools for Catholic Educators Addressing the Major Social Justice Issues and Building a Just Society

Social Justice Conference
"Harden not your hearts"
The Christian Brothers St Francis Xavier Province

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO*

18 April 2004


I join with Joan Hendricks who was with us on the panel last night in acknowledging the traditional owners of this land. I presume to speak for all of you when I pledge our support to Joan and her people at this difficult time when government has chosen to identify Aboriginal self-determination with apartheid. I thought we had moved beyond that and it causes great offence and hurt to many Aboriginal Australians when our government uses the scrapping of ATSIC and the dismissal of its chairperson as the Trojan horse for ending Aboriginal aspirations to the recognition and protection of the only culture and tradition which is unique to this land.

This morning I woke my nephew Ben who attends and Edmund Rice school. Thanks to your attendance here today, Ben has a teacher free day which I am told you describe as a pupil free day. It just depends which side of the river you are on! I asked Ben how he was. He replied, "I was much better before the lights went on." By the time you have implemented our strategies of Education for Liberation by being faithful to your roles Catholic Educators Addressing the Major Social Justice Issues and Building a Just Society, I trust Ben will be feeling all the better once the lights are on in his mind, in his classroom and in our world. I refer to those lights which enlightened the injustices of our world.

In preparation for this conference, I had a look at Peter Nicholson's 2003 report "Beyond the Comfort Zone: A consultation with young adults involved in the Edmund Rice network throughout Australia" He observes:

On a cold Sunday morning in a bush setting south of Perth I listened to a group of young adults talking with great honesty and intensity about their lives. They spoke about their dreams, their hopes and their search for how best to live as human beings. They talked in way that me or my contemporaries could never have done. I asked how the Congregation of the Christian Brothers and the Edmund Rice network might help them.

Amongst the replies, not the first, were the words, take us beyond our comfort zone. All of us need to be taken beyond our comfort zone. That is where we find human growth and human authenticity. That is where we find love, justice and community. That is where we find hope for ourselves and our world. That is where we find our god. Jesus looked at the rich young man with compassion and invited him to move beyond the comfort zone of his current lifestyle.

Edmund Rice heard a similar call and responded. Today the Christian Brothers and the Edmund Rice network have a 200 year tradition of working with the young. In the contemporary world this ministry faces significant challenges.

Nicholson saw the task as finding for these young people "liberating ‘good news’ for their lives and their world." Ben's mother is a psychiatrist. She mused to me last night, "It is all very well for these boys to be taken into soup kitchens and to be given the opportunity to help street kids, but it is very sad when they come back to the school playground and bully each other." Maybe social justice begins in the school playground.

This morning I offer you five practical tools for educating your students for liberation. They are: evoking, supporting and processing the experience of the students, using the scriptures, applying Catholic Social Teaching, adapting liturgy to real life, and moving in solidarity on both sides of the river.

Tool 1: Evoking the Experience of the Students

About six times a year, I take my life in my hands and agree to talk to years 11 and 12 in a school. I am yet to be convinced the utility of these one-off missile strikes with heavy social justice firepower. The knack is obviously to get the right mix of entertainment and challenging inspiration. Two weeks ago I made one such visit.

You get ushered into the principal's office where you are told fine things about the school such as "We have the children of some influential people here but we are a very egalitarian school." You then march into the assembly hall where teachers are on duty and three hundred students are called to attention. An impressive CV is then recited to the students. You can see the eyes glazing over, the frowns becoming more furrowed and the folded arms more set. You speak for 15 minutes planting seeds and time bombs in about equal proportions, catching a few eyes with glints and a handful of open faces interested in the possibilities. Then you place yourself on the altar of sacrifice and invite questions.

And so it was the other day. The questions started to flow but then a Vietnamese Year 12 boy got to his feet and told his story. His Dad had come on a boat which almost sank many times, but for the miraculous appearance of Mary. Mum and the children were then allowed to join Dad in Australia. The boy (Let's call him Minh, not his real name) then starts to cry. I catch the eye of teachers worried that the whole episode might be about to get out of control. But there is silence in the hall. It is a respectful silence. No one is embarrassed. This is for real. Minh then surmises, "I don't know what it would have been like for my family if we had tried to flee to Australia today. I don't think I would be at this school." Minh makes a far more convincing case against the mandatory detention of asylum seekers than I do. He is not wanting to engage in politics. He just wants to tell his story. I risk keeping the spotlight on him a little longer, thank him for his courageous contribution and ask if he is proud to be an Australian. Of course, he is. Later I am escorted to the board room to meet the school leaders. I ask that Minh join us. He comes, still upset, but happy to share more of his family story. One woman teacher says, "I would love to give you a hug, but I am not allowed." I learn that Minh has never shared his story before. It is news to everyone. It is good news. This is a sacred place for evoking the experience of the student beyond his comfort zone, assisting him to process that experience and its intersection with the public issues of the day.

The Headmaster's Executive Assistant later writes to me:

I often think that occasions such as our Youth Forums may not bear fruit for many years; who knows which young person we so easily pigeonhole today as a footballer, a rogue, a mathematician, a musician may act on some of the things they hear on these occasions. The testimony of young (Minh) and your encouragement to him to tell his story certainly added to the strength of your message.

Not every such forum is a moment of grace. But they are worth waiting for. They are worth working for. They are worth structuring into the school timetable and ethos.

Tool 2: Using scripture to Highlight the Christian Challenge of Social Justice

Recently I was invited to lead an ecumenical Lenten reflection in a large country town during the final week of lent. I was asked to explain something about the refugee issue and the problem of border protection and proper treatment of asylum seekers in the light of the gospels. So I made a presentation along the following lines.

I commend our government for its stated objective: "to resettle some 12,000 persons each year who are in greatest need and to prioritise those who are in need of assistance - those who are at risk if they remain where they are and have no other means of escape other than resettlement to a third country." I further commend the government for increasing the humanitarian quota to 13,000 places in the next year, ensuring the 6,000 of those places go to refugees. Some of those persons in greatest need have come to Australia by boat without a visa and we have treated them appallingly. There is no reason why the government objective cannot be achieved together with the objective of treating asylum seekers within our territory firmly but decently. The immorality and inequity in world burden sharing resulting from our present "slam the back door" policy is highlighted by a simple thought experiment. Imagine that every country signed the Refugee Convention and then adopted the Australian policy. No refugee would be able to flee from their country of persecution without first joining the mythical queue in their country of persecution to apply for a protection visa. If anyone dared to flee persecution, they would immediately be held in detention (probably for a year or so) awaiting a determination of their claim. All refugees in the world would be condemned to remain subject to persecution or to proceed straight to open-ended, judicially unreviewable detention. The purpose of the Refugee Convention would be completely thwarted. The myopic argument runs that we Australians are entitled to design a sledge hammer to crack this small nut because other countries have not (yet) adopted our policies and because we are prepared to take 12,000 applicants through the front door provided they stay in the queue back in the country of persecution or first asylum.

If seeking to implement a Christian Response to refugees and asylum seekers on our doorstep, we might contemplate the present Australian version of the parable of Dives and Lazarus: (Lk 16:19-26 with a contemporary Australian gloss)

There was once a rich man, who dressed in purple and the finest linen, and feasted in great magnificence every day. At his gate covered with sores, lay a poor man named Lazarus, who would have been glad to satisfy his hunger with the scraps from the rich man's table. Even the dogs used to come and lick his sores. One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up; and there, far away was Abraham with Lazarus beside him. "Abraham, my father," he called out, "take pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, for I am in agony in this fire. And remember that I overlooked Lazarus at my door only because there were many other people on the other side of the world who were in even greater need. I wanted to dispense charity and justice in an orderly way, not rewarding queue jumpers like Lazarus who is now with you." But Abraham said, "Remember, my child, that all the good things fell to you while you were alive, and all the bad to Lazarus; now he has his consolation here and it is you who are in agony. But that is not all: there is a great chasm fixed between us; no one from our side who wants to reach you can cross it, and none may pass from your side to us."

If detention is to remain a cornerstone of Australian border protection and front door immigration entry, there is a need for alternative arrangements to render the present detention policy more humane and effective. Given the modesty of the problem confronting Australia, we would do well to ensure compliance with the standards set by other countries receiving far more asylum seekers across porous borders than we ever have. I propose three simple questions: Given that Australia has the advantage of geographic isolation, I ask my government, why don't we try to be just a little more decent rather than less decent than other countries with the same living standards when it comes to our treatment of those who arrive (whether with or without a visa) invoking our protection obligations? Or if that is judged too naïve, how about we aim to be just as decent as those who receive ten times more asylum seekers than we do? Or if that is too much to ask (given the fear driven mandate of the recent election), how about we limit our indecency to our treatment of adults, ensuring that never again are kids put in the line of batons and tear gas in the name of border protection, as they were at Woomera this last Easter? It is in the interests of the refugees of the world that we address the problems of secondary movement and 9-11 heeding the warning of Mr Lubbers that we "build an effective system of international burden sharing, where governments are discouraged from taking unilateral and punitive action, and where refugees are able to rely on adequate protection and assistance within their regions of origin. For to take punitive action is to shoot oneself in the foot. It is not effective, and it only worsens the climate between North and South."

At the end of the presentation and question time, I was approached by the mother of one of the local Catholic priests. Acknowledging the presence of Archbishop Bathersby with us today, I know that we are part of a hierarchical church. But above the bishops and archbishops are the mothers of priests. They carry a great authority. And of course, it is an office of the church open only to women. The mother told me that she had considered challenging me publicly but decided not to. She said, "You must admit that we are better than most other countries." Even if we were, I thought that was beside the point. In fact, I thought such a consideration could distract us from the gospel imperative. It is very easy for us to discard the radical challenge of the scriptures by simply comparing our own performance with others. Admittedly the only person to ever fully enact the gospel was crucified rather than elected. But the challenge is to live the gospel in our private and public, individual and collective lives.

Tool 3: Applying Catholic Social Teaching

We will decide who comes to this country. People can't just turn up here uninvited. They should wait in the queue and enter via the front door. We don't want queue jumpers who try and push in through the back door. How does any of this sit with Catholic social teaching, including Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris:

Among man's personal rights we must include his right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants and—so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood, permits—to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society.

Even if we concede that everyone has the right to emigrate, this does not necessarily entail the norm: "Everyone has a right to enter any territory he or she chooses, with a view to living and working peacefully under the laws applicable to citizens, provided only that the exercise of the right does not coincide with its exercise by so many other people that the fundamental human rights of other human individuals are threatened - such fundamental human rights NOT including the right that the moral, demographic, economic, political or other cultural character or well-being of a national or lesser community be preserved."

Oxford professor and papal adviser, John Finnis says, "It is quite unclear that every other community everywhere has an equivalent duty to admit unlimited numbers of foreigners whatever the foreseeable consequences for the economic, political and cultural life of its citizens". According to Finnis:

The fundamental norms of justice which underlie the institutions of property (dominium) are applicable, mutatis mutandis, to the institution of territorial dominion by politically organised communities. The first of these fundamental norms is that the world with its resources is radically common to all, for the benefit of each and every member of the human race. The second is that a system of dominion - entailing restrictions on the availability of defined parcels of land and resources - tends to result in important benefits to all and can be fair, provided that its immediate negative implications for those who remain in serious deprivation by reason of their exclusion from lands and/or resources are alleviated.

Catholic social teaching may be difficult in its application but it is a great resource in honing our moral instincts when we come to evaluate the justice of laws and policies.

Tool 4: Bringing Liturgy to Life

At Kings Cross in Sydney we have an ecumenical "Way of the Cross" around the streets of Kings Cross on Good Friday morning. We draw on the church's tradition of popular devotion. The stations originated back in the fourth century with the Byzantine pilgrims who visited Jerusalem and its holy places. At each station we sing a verse of Stabat Mater Dolorosa a plaintive chant composed by the Franciscans in the thirteenth century. Each year, we continue this journey recalling the passion of Jesus within our own local community. The broadsheet distributed to the modern Kings Cross pilgrim proclaims "Witness not Protest":

Reflecting the solemnity of Jesus' way of the cross, our journey together takes on the character of a 'silent witness' rather than a 'noisy protest'.

For example, the second station, "Jesus is mocked", takes place at the corner of Roslyn Street and Ward Ave where many addicts gather to buy and sell drugs. After reflecting on Luke 23:7-12 when the soldiers of Pilate and Herod take turns to mock Jesus, the focus for prayer is for those who buy and sell drugs on the streets:

Lord, we sit and judge. Remove the distance that separates us from our brothers and sisters on the streets. Help us to recognise our shared humanity, our shared weaknesses, our shared pain. May we lead one another to love not fear, to understand not condemn. Lord, we want to see as you saw, to love as you loved. We pray, Lord, that you hear us.

The great challenge for us is to be as inclusive in our liturgies and in our lives as was Jesus who ended up placing his very self on the altar of life.

Tool 5: Moving in Solidarity on Both Sides of the River

Last year I was privileged to attend a Jesuit meeting in Loyola, Spain. 100 Jesuits were able to jet in, from all over the globe, meeting together for a week. Back home we can keep in touch by email, enjoying the benefits of globalisation. The modern ease of travel and communication are a blessing and opportunity for our mission. But these benefits are not shared equally in our world. New chasms between the rich and poor are carved out. New criteria distinguish the "haves" and "have nots".

The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development noted:

The rapid integration of markets, mobility of capital and significant increases in investment flows around the world have opened new challenges and opportunities for the pursuit of sustainable development. But the benefits and costs of globalisation are unevenly distributed, with developing countries facing special difficulties in meeting this challenge. We risk the entrenchment of these global disparities and unless we act in a manner that fundamentally changes their lives, the poor of the world may lose confidence in their representatives and the democratic systems to which we remain committed, seeing their representatives as nothing more than sounding brass or tinkling cymbals.

Typical of the NGO sector, the Society for International Development pointed out in its Hague Declaration in November 2002 that globalisation has "the potential for greater human development and prosperity on the one hand or alienation, disempowerment, impoverishment and polarisation on the other."

Back in 1985, I attended a meeting of Aborigines living on a riverbank in Northern Australia. The Aborigines had lived on a government reservation which was run by a church and which had since closed. Some of the people moved to government housing in a nearby town but they did not like it much and the neighbours liked it even less. Eventually they became fringe dwellers on land they regarded as their traditional country. They were seeking land title and money for houses from government. At the end of the meeting, the convenor pointed across the river and said, "See that house: that is Mr X's weekender. They don't come very often but when they do they come by helicopter. See that helipad on the roof. It cost $3/4 million." That was almost twice the amount they were seeking for basic permanent housing.

I have often told this story in schools. I once told the story to the final graduation class in one of our Jesuit schools. The teacher tried to reassure me with the observation that the boys asked the very same questions that all young people would ask about this situation. He thought the school had succeeded by providing the trusting space where the students could ask their questions. I was wondering what the effect of hours and hours of classes dedicated to social justice had been when the questions were the same at the end of the process, as you would have expected at the beginning. Especially in the more wealthy schools, there are many questions: Why don't the Aborigines build their own houses if they want them? What are they complaining about? If the white man didn't come, they wouldn't even have a water supply. If it weren't for Mr. X paying his taxes, there would be no money to pay these people welfare. After many years, I gave up trying to answer these questions or to refute these comments. In response, I ask only one question: Which side of the river are you standing on as you ask your questions?

There is never any doubt about which side of the river people are standing on. Can you see that there are just as many questions that can be asked from the other side of the river? They are just as unanswerable. They are likely to make you just as upset and powerless and confused. Where you stand depends on where you sit. If we are to be educated for liberation in a globalised world, we need to be able to stand on both sides of the river. We also need to assist with the bridge building needed so that others can move more readily from one side of the river to the other. Moving on both sides of the river, the moral actor is able to understand the interdependence of those on either side of the river and then to take a stand in solidarity with those who are marginalised, disadvantaged or dispossessed in any situation of political conflict and historic injustice. The bridge analogy works very well for many social conflicts when "golabalisation" is such a buzz word. It is simply an application of Jesus' invocation to the first disciples in John's gospel; "Come and see". When pacifist American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan was distressed by the activity of some of his Latin American Jesuit brothers who had identified with armed struggle and revolution, he found there was no substitute for responding to the invitation, "Come and see."

At the international Jesuit meeting, the image of the river proved useful as we wrestled with the intellectual content and the practical challenge of globalisation. In the discussion that followed there were some splendid additions made to the image of the river. Those with strong ecological concerns pointed out that the river was being poisoned all the time no matter which side of the river we were standing on, and this environmental damage was a disaster for everyone, regardless of which side of the river they stood. Others surmised that in the global village, the water mass was now more like a lake than a river. We move around finding many different perspectives on the water and on the shore.

In a globalised world, old borders are being removed or weakened, while new borders are being erected or strengthened. Those who have the wealth and the passport to enjoy the benefits are moving into a more borderless world. Being educated people of the first world, we can readily avail ourselves the benefits. But we need to have a discerning eye to the detriment, especially to those who do not enjoy our mobility or shared spirituality and commitment that renders transnational dialogue more achievable and less threatening to identity. When there is a fair exchange across the borderless world, all is well. But the removal of borders can also cause a one way flow of benefits, swamping the weaker partner. For example, there is presently a strong concern being expressed by our local film industry. They fear that the free trade agreement with the US could kill off the local industry, eventually undermining the strength of local arts and culture, subjecting all Australians to a "McDonalds" style culture diet.

New borders are being erected where none existed before. First world governments are competing with each other to design more stringent tests for the admission of asylum seekers. Mandatory detention of unvisaed asylum seekers, interdiction on the high seas followed by refoulement without the checking of asylum claims are becoming more acceptable practices. Border security in a post-September 11 world impacts most on bona fide asylum seekers and on travellers from the world's trouble spots who will be more readily excluded. Globalisation produces new divisions of rich and poor, including the information rich and the information poor.

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, we are no longer a bipolar world. In the past, we accepted refugees who came from the same side of the bipolar conflict as we did. For example, Australia was generous to Vietnamese refugees because we fought on the same side as those who fled. But in the new world, refugees do not flee from conflicts backed by the bipolar superpowers. They flee inter-ethnic conflict in failing states. We have no public reason to treat them in any way than as foreigners having no special claim on our concern.

In a bi-polar world, we can define everyone as "us" or "them". In the new world, some want to distinguish between the Americans and the rest of us. Such categorisation hurts us all. Our globalised world is increasingly identified as a world dominated by one superpower advocating democracy and free market capitalism for all.

The educated of the first world are likely to be the natural, easy winners from increasing globalisation. When we have some exposure to the third world, we are likely to be more attuned to the downside, appreciating at first hand the exploitation and cultural death threatened by cash crops, junk food and culturally neutered mass media.

We need to study the light and darkness of globalisation in the light of gospel values. We need to display effective and affective solidarity. In the past, we have taken a uni-dimensional view. If we obey the injunction "Harden not your hearts", we are strongly placed to be on both sides of the river, locally and internationally. We are uniquely positioned to use our position and to speak out. We are at our best when we have credibility with those who own the helicopters as well as with those who are dispossessed. We need to distinguish globalisation from the ideological dimension associated with the rebirth of liberalism, acknowledging that many of the world's problems pre-date globalisation.

Groum Tesfaye, a Jesuit from Ethiopia noted: "You can take the boy out of the village but you cannot take the village out of the boy. We can now keep the boy in the village by offering him better education in situ. Globalisation is presently degrading the villager's local life, but it could enhance local life. This faceless predator is affecting our ministry. With inter-provincial collaboration, we could do much for distance learning, bringing education into the village directly." Whether the waters around us be a pond or a river, those educated for liberation need to keep mobile and grounded, surveying the water and terra firma from all perspectives, before acting with effective and affective solidarity with those caught in the mud of their circumstances or denied access to the bridge of other possibilities.


I wish you well in accompanying your students across the bridge, beyond their comfort zone. The risk we run in middle class Australian schools is that we will produce students brought up in an atmosphere of isolated fear of the other, and especially of the poor. If our students attend a socially isolated school in Fortress Australia, they will be ill-equipped to cross to the other side of the river and they will think the gospel, church social teaching and liturgy a boring irrelevance. The first challenge to us adults privileged to work with the young is to be taken beyond our own comfort zone and to be seen by the students as persons open to grace on the margins and at the limits.

* Fr Brennan is presently a Visiting Fellow in Research School of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Australian National University. His latest book is Tampering with Asylum (University of Queensland Press, 2003).


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