Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Graduation Address to the School of Theology, Charles Sturt University
Delivered at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta on 10 December 2018
“Building a more just and inclusive future society”
Readings: Isaiah 11:2-3,6-9; John 6:1-14
Dear friends and graduates,
Some of you may be familiar with The Hunger Games trilogy, which was a phenomenal success along with the film a few years ago. In this series, the author creates a dystopian future society in which the wealthy, elite citizens of the Capitol live lives of luxury and excess. They exploit and oppress the citizens of the poverty-stricken outlying districts to support and entertain them.
In the most egregious act of totalitarian control, the leaders of the Capitol pit children against other children from each of the impoverished districts in a battle to the death for their amusement. They even use the twisted catchphrase of “May the odds be ever in your favour” to assuage the masses.
In the course of the series, the protagonist, a woman named Katniss Everdeen, becomes a symbol for the poorest citizens to rise up against the Capitol’s oppressive rule. While the story weaves in and out of Katniss’s love triangle with Peeta and Gale, as she tries to overthrow the Capitol, what she is really fighting for is justice for the oppressed.
The Hunger Games centres on economic inequality, poverty, the abuse of wealth and power and the exploitation of the poor. At the end of the day, the author is writing a dystopian future that is an indictment of a socio-economic system. In fact, it is an indictment of our present socio-economic system.
The Hunger Games trilogy may be a cynical reaction to the way the economy is organised to favour the rich and oppress the poor. But its indictment of unjust socio-economic system finds echo in the prophetic tradition and particularly in the iconic passage from Isaiah that we have just listened to. Both The Hunger Games and the prophet denounce the unjust status quo.
Whereas the former predicts a dystopian future, the latter goes beyond the present hopelessness and envisions a future with new possibilities. It is with the prophetic reimagination for a more just and inclusive world that we are called to exercise today.
The prophet Isaiah speaks words of hope and encouragement to his people. During the long and harrowing exile, many of them had given up their ancestors’ faith and drifted away. Those who remained loyal and steadfast in spite of the ordeal came to be known as the remnants. These were not the movers and shakers, the elites and the echelons of Israel. Rather the remnants were the people considered to be the poor, the oppressed and the vulnerable among the exiles.
Isaiah, thus, speaks of the day of liberation for Israel in terms of God’s restorative justice for them. He prophesies about a new king who will be filled with the Spirit of the Lord. He will make systemic reparations for the poor and the marginalised. The rightly governed world will indeed be detoxified, no more a threat to the poor, the meek, the children, the lamb, the kid. The new world will indeed be safe for the most vulnerable.
In a burst of poetic imagination, Isaiah continues to describe the new world order in terms of the harmony between the strong and the weak: the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the calf with the lion, the cow with the bear. These images are not warm and fuzzy without the hard work of reconciliation.
For Isaiah, this isn’t simply a time of happiness and warmth that will magically come together when the righteous king comes to rule. It is an idea of the change that is, at its very foundation, radical to its core as it calls for an alteration of the social order that we, who are privileged, have found comfortable. It is a summons for believers to live and relate to each other in a way that is different to the competitive, ruthless, dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest ideology.
It is the stuff of a utopia that Martin Luther King’s dream of social justice and racial equality was built on.
This is a sobering and poignant lesson for believers today. Like the Jewish exiles of old, we find ourselves in a new captivity where the bearings we relied on are fast receding. Instead, we are surrounded by a unfamiliar and even hostile landscape. No longer sheltered in the safe harbour of Christendom, we must nagivate the treacherous waters of a post-Christian world.
The litmus test for us as it was for the remnants of Israel is not seek to reassert our dominance and return to our once safe world, but to grow strong in our faith through times of chaos. Isaiah like the other great prophets of the exile called the people to engage with the world around them and to be the beacon of light.
Like the remnants of Israel, we must learn to create a new society of solidarity, compassion and justice even at the cost of our privilege and comfort as opposed to the dystopia of exploitation, inhospitality and exclusion.
The Gospel tells us a similar story. Jesus and his disciples are met with a predicament: a large hungry crowd and very little food. The disciples react with a sense of fear and fatalistic resignation. One says, “Two hundred days wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little bit”. He must be an accountant. He assesses everything in dollar terms.
Another says, “There are only five barley loaves and two fish. What good are these for so many?” He might have worried that someone would get injured if a fight for food broke out. He must be an insurance broker who always gives you the worst scenario.
But Jesus refused to do nothing. He asked his disciples to confront the need, to act with courage and to do all they could in their power to help others. He told them to start doing the possible rather than fearing the impossible.
It was by concrete practical actions of solidarity and sharing that they would be able to change a harsh reality into a celebration of hope. It is instructive that Jesus transforms the five loaves and two fish belonging to a little boy.
This is consistent with the way the grace of God is often manifested: not through the privileged, affluent and secure but through the insignificant and vulnerable who are prepared to take the risk of staking everything on God’s promise and living life to the full.
Dear friends and graduates,
Christians are countercultural and prophetic and insofar as we dare to name and to critique the anti-Gospel attitudes of the world around us.
More importantly, we seek to reframe the harsh, unjust and inhumane realities that many experience into an alternative vision of hope and promote those values that will lead to the fulfilment of that vision.
We show the way to a culture of encounter and acceptance by a radical discipleship of love and compassion, solidarity and service. We accompany the victims of injustice in the journey to freedom with a sense of total commitment and fidelity, even when the fight in favour of God’s justice for them necessitates a witness of courage and hope.
As disciples of Jesus, we are committed to building a better, a more humane, welcoming and inclusive society not by giving in to fear and suspicion but by fostering a culture of encounter, respect and acceptance.
As true believers, we cannot remain content with status quo, especially when that status quo is less than what God wants for us as individuals and as a community.
Australia is a wonderful country but where it is in terms of its treatment of the Indigenous people, the asylum seekers et cetera should galvernise us into action.
50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr lamented that the Christian churches were largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice.
We find an echo of King’s prophetic stance in Pope Francis’s Joy of the Gospel. “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets (with the poor), rather than a church which is unhealthy from clinging to its own security”.
We cannot be true to the Gospel if we safeguard our privileges and fail to deliver justice and human dignity to those who are unjustly deprived of it. We cannot be his disciples if we ignore the plight of the marginalised and the vulnerable. We cannot be salt and leaven if we allow our Christian conscience to be desensitised by the inequality, injustice and inhumanity in our society and in the world.
It is God’s vision of justice, mercy and the fullness of life for all that consumes us and spurs us on.
With the men and women of goodwill, let us build a better Australia and a better world. May our endeavour to replace the culture of fear and indifference with that of encounter and acceptance be brought to fulfillment in accordance with God’s vision of the fullness of life for all humanity. May we be inspired by the prophetic dream to show the alternative pathway of hope, inclusion and sustainability through shared humanity against the dystopia future of fear and despair.
Most Rev Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta