Feb. 11, 1987
Reflection II:

 

Set free to struggle for freedom

"People — carriers of truth and initiators of freedom"

Rev. Dr. A George Ninan

 

Text: John 9:1-27

Introduction:

It may be useful to each one of us as a community involved in the struggle of people for truth and justice, to affirm two things, perhaps as a warning, in reading the Bible.

One is that we have some kind of a common experience all of us, and naturally when we look at the Bible, we bring in those contexts into the reading. So we are likely to be biased and I think we have every right to be biased because we can reflect on the Bible as many others have done before us, from their own particular contexts.

But we should be careful not to stretch it too far, so that we don’t claim to see things, which are not really there.

Giving sight to the blind

This is a familiar story again. Giving sight to the blind. The scene is again Jerusalem. Jesus is with his disciples and maybe a few others. They are moving around the city, preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, challenging the power structures of the day both political and religious.

When I read this passage, two or three times, I found five interrelated themes springing out of the text. These are:

1) Jesus’ preferential option for the poor (people);

2) Why was he born blind?

3) Jesus’ intervention in the life of the people;

4) Reaction of the world;

5) People becoming subjects of history, carriers, initiators;

Preferential option for the people

The first theme that comes out of this scene specially in the light of the point raised yesterday about our discussion on people, is Jesus preferential option for the poor. Let us look at the person to whom Jesus chooses to intervene — the blind man. What does the blind man represent?

Before that I would like to make an observation that in Asia, we are fast moving into the expression people rather than poor. SIZE="3">I have attended many conferences where people have talked about poor, people, oppressed, marginalised, exploited. But in my own personal understanding of the Asian scene, I find the term people more useful than the term poor. The term poor has an economic meaning, whereas when we speak of marginalised people in Asia, we take not only economic status, but other factors such as caste, race, sex and certain other political, cultural historical circumstances.

The word poor therefore has a narrowing effect on the meaning whereas people is a more comprehensive term which relates to the Biblical term ochlos.

I also want to mention the difference between people and masses. The people who are powerless, economically, socially poor and handicapped, they are generally-speaking called the masses.

They become people when there is a consciousness, in the case of this person, when he got his sight back, he became conscious of his identity and his rights. Masses have to undergo a change, entertain a hope for change.

So who does the blind man represent? I would like to take him as a symbolic representative of the community of the people. He had a physical handicap. In Asia, we find different kinds of handicaps - mental, social, physical, etc. We have to remind ourselves, we are living in a world that is highly competitive and handicaps translate into one form of marginalisation or the other.

So one of the characteristics of people is their being handicapped, in one way or the other. In my country, there is a saying, any person can become the Prime minister. But when it comes to practical reality, you have to compete in a value system of the dominant people and it is very seldom you can make it, the honest way. Others have made it in a dishonest way, but that’s another story.

Secondly, we find the blind man to be a beggar. That means he was poor, economically. In my country, again, I have found that most of the blind or physically-handicapped belong to the poorer sections of society. The economic factor is a major contribution to the situation of people. They have to compete in society where the rules are set by the dominant people.

The third characteristic is he belongs to the socially-backward section of society. Later on we read in the passage, the blind man’s family and neighbors being afraid of authorities which means they were not a part of the power system, they were socially marginalised. They lived in fear. They could not say what they wanted. They would very much be like the Burakumin in Japan today, the Maoris in Aotearoa, or the aborigines or the workers, in general. They had no share in the decision-making processes of society.

In summary, to the first theme Jesus’ preferential option for the poor let me say, in his life, we find Jesus choosing marginalised people, voiceless, powerless people for his disciples and choosing ordinary people as his instruments and witnesses. He spent time with Mary Magdalene or those who were despised in society. He does so with a certain consistency that we can confidently say that in the life of Jesus, there is a bias for the poor.

Why was he born blind?

The second theme is a very key question in this whole passage. Why was he born blind? And this question brings up the whole question of sin and suffering. Popular understanding about this whole question is revealed in the disciples’ question: "Rabbi, who sinned? This man or his parents? Why was he born blind? The Jews had different interpretations of course. We have studied that the Sadducees for example believed that when one has done wrong, one will suffer. Therefore a man is responsible for his misfortunes. On the other hand, the Pharisees maintained that misfortune is God’s will.

This cultural circumstance raises a lot of questions for us in Asia. Asia, as you know, is tremendously influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, which teach the theory of karma or fate, which is a major influence in our people’s thinking. The theory holds that our present situation is a result of the actions, mis-actions of our forefathers. Even in the Old Testament we find passages like "the sins of the parents will be laid upon the children." We can get into a lot of discussion based on this Hebrew belief but let us look at our Asian situation.

When I was working in a slum area in my country, when I was a grassroots worker, I had come across this question several times. The greatest block to organizing was the attitude that everything is futile. "I was born in the slum, my parents were born in the slum, my children are being born in the slum. What is the point? What is the point in approaching authorities for water, they are not going to give it to us. What is the purpose of all these organizing. We are destined to live in slums."

If you ask the man about karma, it is unlikely he will be able to explain it. He simply feels it. It is a cultural factor. This reminds me of another story when I was a student, there was a Brahmin, a very rich person. and many people used to go to him seeking for alms, some charity, food, money, clothing. He would normally answer: "I would very much like to give you something, but the thing is you are paying the price for your past sins. Unless you pay the price, you will not get a better life. So if I help you, I am making your life easier and preventing your upward journey into a better life. So I should not give anything."

Of course there are people who give alms, because it is important for them to feel a sense of salvation by deeds. But the general effect of Jewish, Hindu or other belief is there is an acceptance of fate. There is therefore no need of struggle or freedom.

The second thing is Jesus said: "It is not that this man or his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s power might be displayed in curing him." This was a very difficult passage for me to accept. To bring about God’s glory, somebody has to suffer. I thought this was injustice!

But thinking deeper two things came to mind. One is the popular thinking that God has a purpose for everyone. So if we are to suffer, we must go through it. We talk about Job, his trial of suffering and pain which he voluntarily went through because it was God’s will. Even Jesus was willing to accept the cross because "it is the will of my father."

The second and more important point is that God chooses a group of people, a person to be his tool to bring certain truths to light. That is a very honored position. Jesus chooses a seemingly insignificant person, a handicap, socially-marginallised and economically poor person, as his instrument in conveying a powerful message, that brings about a major change in the history of human society! These two points need not be contradictory. These are related. But it is not sufficient to know why I have to suffer because it is God’s will. We have to believe that we are a suffering community because God has chosen us to be the instruments of his kingdom.

The third and most obvious factor to us is of course the socio-economic factor. The man was a beggar. His parents were poor and marginalised and probably belonged to the lower economic strata of society. There is also a probability that the blind man’s mother might have been a prostitute. The socio-economic factor, in particular, malnutrition, we all know is a major cause of physical and mental retardation among children in Asia. So these are all factors for the man’s blindness — personal responsibility. God’s will and society’s unjust system.

Jesus’ intervention in people’s lives

"With these words, he spat on the ground and made a paste with his spittle. He spread it on the man’s eyes and said to him ‘go, and wash it in the pool of Siloam."

In intervening in the life of this marginal man, I find three important points:

1) We find Jesus using a very simple method. He spat on the ground, made a paste of mud and spittle, rubbed it on to the blind man’s eyes and commanded him to wash it at the pool. I would say this is the indigenous way. He did not recommend a big eye operation, nor a big offering to the priest he used available materials.

This raises some questions for us. What technology do we use in organizing people and in serving them. We could debate on the use of computers and the like. I have been one to encourage the use of computers, under certain conditions. We have of course been supportive of Asian medical practices, acupressure and herbal medicines. But this passage raises several questions on the kind of development we want. By some standards of my Marxist friends, I am a conservative about technology. They have asked me, "what are you selling, ignorance and underdevelopment? How can we compete, in this modern world without modern technology. You mean only the rich should be efficient? etc"

Time has come when we Asian people have to contribute tremendously to the development debate. China is opening up to the west and wants modernization, there’s no harm in that. But how far should Asians go? All the way, and what about problems related to ecology and others?

In relation to our own intervention in the life of people, what are the resources we use? Many of the URM groups now I know want technology and other unnecessary conveniences. Here in the life of Jesus, we find simple things being used to meet basic needs.

2) The other point is, Jesus asks, "go and wash in the pool of Siloam." We thought that Jesus was one who broke all traditions and wanted to stand up against the cultural system. But here we find him going back to a traditional practice. Washing has always been a part of the temple’s purification rites of Jewish religion.

In my earlier days in the URM, I was disenchanted with the structures of church worship. So some of us used to meet in my house to study Bible and have fellowship. And being liberational, we invited progressive Hindus, Muslims etc. Then somebody started calling this St. George’s Church. I realized then the limits of institutionalism along with the need to communicate on the same wave length. Jesus did not reject the synagogue altogether. He participated in the activities of the synagogue and in this action, we find Jesus maintaining certain symbols which are important.

3) A third point in Jesus’ act of intervention is seen in the question by the authorities: "Where is he. the one who brought sight to the blind? What was the answer? "I don‘t SIZE="2">know where Jesus is."

To me this is a very important passage in the sense, Jesus was not going to continue his presence and dominate this poor man. "I gave you sight so you come and see me every morning." Jesus faded away from the scene, in a sense. This is an important pointer for those of us who want to claim responsibility for achievements.

Good community organizers, like Jesus, are supposed to fade away. The organizer enables the community to see, by removing the blinders, and then goes somewhere else. Sticking to a place is a tremendous temptation for churches and even action groups. We want bigger institutions, we want to proclaim to the world that we are strong and powerful. We in the URM, after 30 years, have to continue to fight this big temptation to become big.

Jesus is like salt and leaven in the story. Salt dissolves in food. You will not find salt there but you can taste the difference. The same with yeast. You do not find it in the bread but you have the taste of it. I think it is very important for the total church to recapture the idea that we are not to build institutions and structures and propagate the gospel from a powerful position.

It is for the same reason that I have a big problem with the operation of the world-renowned Mother Theresa. Apart from its charity orientation, what I object to and find sad about her work is she has institutionalized the whole work. It is noble to take a dying person from the streets and give him/her a dignified life before he/she dies. But now she is bringing in millions of rupees, and supporting her program has become a neat alternative for people’s involvement in social change. All you need to do is contribute money to a sanctified program like Mother Theresa and you are saved.

Institutionalization is a danger for churches as well as action groups.

Reaction of the world

What is the reaction of the world when the masses become people?

Let us look at the people who were on the scene and see how they reacted. First, the inner-circle — the blind man’s own parents. How did they react to the restoration of sight and to the fact that their son was brought to the authorities for questioning? How did they interpret the whole commotion brought about by Jesus intervention? How did they feel when the authorities were angry about the violation of the Sabbath day?

The reaction was fear! The parents did not want to get into trouble. They had seen a miracle but they would not openly witness. They had a lot to shout in joy about, but they were fearful that they would be punished along with Jesus.

Conscientisation is a process of removing fear when people are made to realize who they are, what they are and the root cause of their oppression. Then we see a community overcoming its fear. It is amazing that in Asia, the majority of the people are poor. Yet why is it that they cannot unite together and march forward? The reason is fear.

What is the reaction of the general public, the neighbors and those who have been accustomed seeing him begging in the temple? "Is it not this man who used to sit and beg? Others said, yes this is the man. Others said no, but it is someone like him." The man himself said’ I am the man." And they asked him, "How were your eyes opened? He replied the man Jesus made a paste and smeared my eyes with it and told me to go to Siloam and wash."

What was their reaction? Of course, they were surprised, and shocked to hear of the event. But we do not find in them a sense of rejoicing in the fact that the man has gained his sight. They sounded suspicious. Perhaps the people had been upset that now they lost an object for their charity. They would have preferred that he was blind again. And they took him away to the authorities for questioning.

And what was the reaction of the Pharisees and the temple authorities? They called the man and questioned him not once but many times. They find that this poor man was better as an eyesore. Now that he is conscious, he has become a threat. The poor masses are not a threat to the system, but when they can see, when people become conscious, immediately the authorities find them a threat. The miracle had a destabilizing effect on the whole temple and it was as if the temple’s authority and value had been questioned.

So what do they do? They look for loopholes. The action had been done on the Sabbath, a day of rest. Jesus has broken the law! So the legalism comes in. This is very familiar in many Asian countries. How the bureaucracies throw the weight of law to people so that their rights are denied. In India when a group of people march so that they may be given water, this is considered a political action. They are only asking for basic things, light, water, food, shelter, clothing but when they are organized and conscious the state reacts. The recent massacre of peasants in Manila is an example.

Another reaction of the authorities is that they had pre-judged Jesus. "We know that God spoke to Moses, but as far as this man Jesus, we do not know where he comes from. He must be of the devil!" He cannot be of God — SIZE="2">a prejudgement by those who are in authority.

Action groups have also been prejudged many times. Because in a sense they represent a threat to established churches. In fact I know of a friend who wrote something saying that action groups are a product of German guilt! We have all of course come into being after the war and most of our funding is German. So this friend of mine says, when the German money stops coming in, that will be the end of action groups. A prejudgement.

People as subjects of history

I find this passage affirming people as subjects of change, subjects of history. Very briefly, let me mention two or three things. First, the man witnesses and testifies to the best of his knowledge, "Jesus is a prophet!" This is a very affirmative statement, he is sure of what he is saying. He is emboldened by his experience. He acquires a new status. When previously he was seen as insignificant in Jerusalem, now authorities call him, and seek his audience more than once. The man is joyful beyond imagination. He has become a whole human being.

When God intervenes in the life of the marginalized people, he empowers them. People who have been conscientised and organized find a new feeling of worth and power, they did not have when they were separate individuals. We always talk about God being on the side of the poor. We have to get to the bottom of what that means in reality. Then might we understand the meaning when we say people are subjects of history.

We can see a joyful man in this story. "I am a human being. I am a son of God." And we find a boldness even some aggressiveness. Whereas he was once a figure of pity, now he shows some irritation at the repeated questions of the authorities. He has none of the fear of his neighbors and his parents. He challenges the authorities even, "I have told you already. But you took no notice. Why do you want to hear it again, do you also want to be his disciples?"

In other words, the man who was always stretching his hands for alms, was now a man with a clenched fist. This process has always inspired me in my work. God really transforms people, so that boldness becomes an affirmation of a person’s humanity.

Secondly, the man exclaims, "Now I can see! Now I see! What does he see? I am sure being born blind, he might have imagined many forms and images about the world, people, the temple. Now he can see the colors of the world, the splendor of the temple, the expressions on the faces of people. The beautiful things. But also the sad reality of oppression, the rich people in expensive robes, their mansions and their possessions. And then he saw the poor, the squalor of the slums where he and his parents lived. The exploitative merchants, the hunger of children. He saw the full extent of his marginalisation and deprivation. With all he had seen, would he not have wished to be blind again?

I don’t have to say anything more than that as far as we are concerned. The whole emphasis of URM has been based on the need for conscientisation and organization of people. Helping people to see reality and to act responsibly to change that reality.

I remember going to a slum and we were fighting for water at that time and the pipe had to go through a richman’s plot. He did not want the slum on the other side so he made it difficult for the pipe to pass through his land. So we organized and got the water. At the opening ceremony to celebrate the victory, we were reflecting with the people. And I was shocked when the people were saying, "the government is efficient, the collector is a good man, because he gave us water. This richman who made it difficult for us, he is a bad guy."

So we did a little analysis. Why did the people think that the government was efficient, why did they consider the collector a good man and the richman a bad guy? We had to analyse laws relating to land ownership in a city like Bombay, the political structure which determines the laws which define the rights of slum dwellers, the role of politicians. The role of culture, etc.

And we came to the conclusion that we had to approach organizing still on the local level but we had to have a macro-perspective. We have to help people see beyond what is at the surface. We have to make them see deeper into reality. They must be able to see how society is ordered why they are marginalised. And then with a new understanding, they will move at a higher plane of action.

In conclusion, being able to see, enables people to act and be the carriers of truth. And the truth is that they are human beings created in God’s image having as much right as the rich to the resources of this world. Once conscientised and made aware of the truth, people become subjects of history, initiators of action in the struggle for freedom.

This freedom is not yet complete, as we see in this story. He is still poor, he is still marginalised. But he has taken the first steps in the on-going struggle for freedom of the whole society from the bondages that oppress it.


[This Bible Study is one of three that was presented at the URM Committee Consultation held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 9-12 February 1987]