The symbol of anti-poverty week to which we are accustomed has come to be the gathering of CEO’s of large companies sleeping out for a night. It is an encouraging image of a concern by people whom life has privileged for those who are disadvantaged. It also speaks powerfully of our common humanity.

This year perhaps another image that speaks of compassion but broadens our reflection on poverty still further. It is that of a Turkish soldier tenderly carrying from the beach the little body of Aylan Kurdi, feet clad in runners that we could imagine our own children wearing.

This image speaks of compassion and sparks it. It also speaks of the harrowing poverty that is caused by the cruelty of others. The refugees we see on our screens are fleeing from persecution, violence, bombs and disorder. They have left home and have entered into a life of poverty in which they depend on the chance of the weather and the compassion of others.

This image, which opens the eye of our hearts to see a wider world of poverty, also reminds us of the extreme poverty lived by some people in our own society. They comprise those who came to us in Australia, as Aylan came through Turkey, to seek protection from persecution. Here they are not held tenderly by officers but are treated with little respect for their dignity, deprived of freedom and condemned to live in penury.

When we think of asylum seekers in our land, and raise our eyes to look at people around the world for whom finding food each day is a major victory, we can see that their suffering is not an accident but the result of the ways in which other human beings act and live.

Their poverty is part of a world that is characterised by great disparity of wealth between and within nations, the degradation of the environment of which we are part, and by wars fought to retain power.

Each of these situations reflects patterns of human choice. Individuals seek to enlarge their individual wealth without any thought of the millions of ways they depend on others or of the plight of vulnerable people in their societies. They also exploit the possibilities offered by new technologies without any thought for how they will affect the environment. And they work to ensure that their own wealth and power will not be threatened.

When people see this is a natural way to behave the relationships between social groups and nations become competitive, leading to conflict in which the poor suffer further.

If poverty is to be addressed, compassion is the necessary starting point. When we are touched by other people and reach out to them we begin to ask why they are poor. We recognise the way in which greed is entrenched in the way we order our economy in the interests of the very few. We understand how fiercely unfairness is defended.

At that point we see why for the benefit of the human family and of the poor, justice must marry compassion.

Our work at Jesuit Social Services allows us to enter the lives of many disadvantaged young people. As we see the spider web of disadvantage that keeps them poor, we can see how it is woven out of the deep disrespect that society has for those who are not economically successful. We accompany young people, and we work for a more just society.

– Andrew Hamilton SJ