Seeds of Change Chapter 19: Struggle to Transform Unjust Situations

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From Vincentian Family News Blog's introduction to the Systemic Change: Seeds of Change series: Pope John Paul II encouraged people to analyze the situation of the poor carefully, to identify the structural roots of poverty, and to formulate concrete solutions.This week, we begin a 20-week series, offered by the members of the Commission for Promoting Systemic Change, about strategies that are useful, often even essential, for bringing about such change.

Adopting as its starting point a group of projects in which systemic change has actually taken place, the Commission analyzed stories of leaders of successful projects. From these stories, the Commission sought to identify the strategies that helped produce lasting change.It soon became clear that many of the strategies that led to structural changes and transformed the circumstances of individuals and communities flowed from the Gospels and from our Vincentian tradition.

Systemic Change Strategy 19: Struggle to transform unjust situations and to have a positive impact, through political action, on public policy and laws.

by Robert P. Maloney, CM

Robert P. Maloney, CM

Today, we are conscious that sin affects not just individuals; it also deeply affects social structures. It becomes embodied in unjust laws, power-based economic relationships, inequitable treaties, artificial boundaries, oppressive governments, and numerous other subtle obstacles to harmonious societal relationships. Many of these unjust societal structures keep the poor poor.

Pope John Paul II referred to such sinful social structures in 1986:

…a world which is divided into blocs, sustained by rigid ideologies, and in which, instead of interdependence and solidarity, different forms of imperialism hold sway, can only be a world subject to structures of sin.

Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan dramatizes the principle that love of God is displayed effectively in love of neighbor. But today we recognize more and more that effective love involves not just binding up an individual victim’s wounds and pouring oil on them, but also making sure that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is safe for all travelers in the future.

In order to promote systemic change, many of the branches of the Vincentian Family have, in their recent documents, committed themselves not only to stand at the side of the poor in their struggle for justice but also to engage in political action with them. For example:

From the AIC Assembly held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, February 6-10, 2005:

The mission of AIC is to bring an effective contribution to eradicating poverty. Its objective is to “act together against the different types of poverty, against the inequalities and unfair conditions under which a large percentage of humanity suffers: the poor.
Moreover, AIC wishes:
  • To be a transformative force in society and fight against different types of poverty.
  • To commit itself primarily to stand with women throughout the world.
  • To reinforce the participation of the poor.
  • To encourage collaboration and networking.
  • Because it is aware of the co-responsibility of all those involved, AIC wants to participate in programs of public politics.

Congregation of the Mission

Constitutions 18: “Following St. Vincent, who, like the Good Samaritan of the gospel parable (Lk 10: 30-37), gave effective help to the abandoned, provinces and members should earnestly strive to serve those rejected by society and those who are victims of disasters and injustices of every kind.”
Final Document of General Assembly of 1998, II, 4: “In our work of prophetic evangelization, we should keep these characteristics in mind: attention to the reality of human society, above all to the causes of the unequal distribution of the goods in the world; participation in the life and conditions of the poor; cooperation with associations established to defend human rights and to promote justice and peace.”

Daughters of Charity

Constitutions 24e:“Saint Vincent reminds the Sisters that love embraces justice (SV VII, 115). The Daughters of Charity are constantly solicitous for the development of every person in all the aspects of their being… They commit themselves to work for social transformation to change the unjust structures that cause poverty.”

Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Rule 7.1: “The Society is concerned not only with alleviating need but also with identifying the unjust structures that cause it. It is, therefore, committed to identifying the root causes of poverty and to contributing to their elimination. In all its charitable actions there should be a search for justice; in its struggle for justice, the Society must keep in mind the demands of charity.”
7.6: “Where injustice, inequality, poverty or exclusion are due to unjust economic, political or social structures or to inadequate or unjust legislation, the Society should speak out clearly against the situation, always with charity, with the aim of contributing to and demanding improvements.”

Sisters of Charity Federation, USA, in a paper entitled “Advocacy: A Voice for the Voiceless”:

“In more recent times and in far different situations, we consider advocacy in terms of both its content and its methods. We stand often at a place of privilege where, because of education and situation, we can identify systemic injustices and work to change them. We see oppression and can listen to the lives of the people, translating and articulating their pain in forums unavailable to those whose rights we champion.
“We can give voice to unspoken truth, to justice denied, to suffering unseen. We can speak in prophetic ways: naming cultural blindness aloud, questioning the taken-for-granted, and intervening to reform the very structures that deny or neglect the basic rights of people. We can lend our voices of support or of dissent to issues that cry out for gospel values. Our advocacy, even a small pebble of effort, can ripple outward to create waves of change.”

Today the Vincentian mission at the United Nations, in which various branches of the Family are taking part, aims at assisting the poor in their struggle for justice, particularly through the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals and through advocacy on behalf of human rights. See a description of the Family’s mission at the UN.

This “political action” strategy is exemplified in the story of The Passage:

Serving poverty in the first world is constantly blocked by policy and legislation, and so The Passage openly takes government money and sits at the political table in order to have influence. It interfaces with the local public to educate and promote awareness, builds bridges between sectors and works in partnership with other voluntary agencies.
In this way The Passage [1] seeks to challenge and transform the immediate society in which it operates as well as the individual lives of people who are poor.

Index of Systemic Change: Seeds of Change series

  1. The Passage, which works with homeless people in central London, was described by Sister Ellen Flynn, DC in Seeds of Change Chapter 18: Construct a Shared Vision With Diverse Stakeholders