News: Branding insecurity

Is Palms Catholic? This occasional question I find most odd when it comes from Catholics who know our work. A simple reading of Palms’ values, vision, and mission shows they are not only consistent with, but derived from Catholic Social Teaching.

Are we becoming more obsessed with labels? Is this a bit like AusAID who have a strange notion that a brand is better than a conversation to identify “Australian” volunteers? Do we derive a sense of strength from labelling?

I have a sense that attempting to acquire strength from labelling can often reveal insecurity. We might feel protected by identifying with the tribe, but in danger of being alienated from the ultimate security of integral human relationships across cultures, which I suspect depends on us first identifying and being seen as human. Would a more explicit and obvious brand assist Palms to work with all people of good will, or achieve the opposite?

One needs to be conscious and confident of one’s own beliefs. It is a part of what we bring to any relationship, but assuming that a label, advertising a brand up front, communicates the intended message is a dangerous mistake. It is a reality (especially true for Catholics in the light of revelations of institutional paedophilia) that claiming a name, before being a witness through engagement and action, can shut down engagement with those who might otherwise appreciate the values by which Catholics work.

Living out a belief in the dignity of the human person; solidarity; the common good; the stewardship of creation; and similar principles are what inspires mutual formation. The comment of a participant at Palms’ recent Orientation Course who prides himself on living by such values, but is not a Catholic, helped me to understand that labelling these as exclusively Catholic values is in danger of reinforcing a perception of Catholic arrogance in those who have come to these principles by another route.

Earlier this year Catholic Mission sponsored a conference where I was again inspired by the insight of Steven Bevans (SVD) who asked that rather than think of God as a noun we might envisage being in the “dance, the flow of joy, love, a movement”. As a movement rather than an institution, Palms’ Vision – “People cooperating across cultures in order to achieve a just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful world free of poverty” – seeks action with people who share the vision. Galatians 3:28 – “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” – is clear that branding is divisive, serving to dangerously exclude people from the vision.

Palms’ Mission asks that we “Facilitate, and be open to, mutual formation and inspiration…”. Labelling a program can alienate an engagement with those who might enrich the program, or one’s faith, with different perspectives. Like being “in the dance” Palms should be viewed as a posture rather than a noun. Opening our hands to the world is about adopting a posture to successfully live out our values, achieve our vision, or accomplish the threads of our mission.

Some do feel more comfortable belonging to a labelled institution. The tribe is a necessary identity, providing security for those who might think in terms of “Our Story”. In a world where the dominance of individualism is pervasive many others have been encouraged to think purely in terms of “My Story”. By comparison Our Story appears so much more nourishing.

While respecting and understanding people in both the My Story and Our Story zones at Palms we encourage all to envisage “The Story” where we participate in integral human relationships, the flow of joy, the dance, the posture of opening our hands to the world. What’s in a name? Unfortunately, different things to different people, and as well as the danger of that, it’s inclined to make us static in the false security that we can be protected within our comfort zone.

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True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice. - Martin Luther King Jr