Bible Study and Reflection

"Renewing Spirituality, Strategies for Justice"

by Ed de la Torre


Part I (February 12)

Just a few months ago, I was part of a discussion on the future directions of URM. This was in a theology-ideology meeting in Bangkok, September of last year. I have also been a part of an exercise in South Africa not too long ago. We were part of a Kairos project where we wrote a Critique of Right Wing Christianity and affirmed the faith of Christians in struggle. You are probably aware of the report of those discussions in the document, The Road o Damascus: Kairos and Conversion. We are to meet again next year to review the situation. To ask, where are we now? What is the new Kairos, the new challenge for Christians?

And somehow, the two events conditioned or influenced my thinking as I was preparing for these three bible studies. The theme I have chosen is "Renewing Spirituality, Strategy for Justice".

There will be three points for reflection in my presentation.

The first is spirituality. This is foundational. From the spirit we derive life, energy, power. We address questions like are we losing power, are we growing tired, are we growing cynical? Why? And how do we renew our spirituality?

But at the same time strategy, from the simple questions of methods, approaches to the long term goals, long term directions. What are these now?

And finally, justice. I thought it was necessary to sharpen our focus on justice rather than simply invoke the current ecumenical mantra of justice, peace and integrity of creation or justice, peace, creation. This is to make sure that justice remains at the core of our concern, including its connotations of partisanship, of conflict, of difficulties. As we talk of justice we, at the same time, try to integrate it to questions of ecology, faith and nature. And there is the whole question of peace we also need to relate to.

This is not to counterpose justice to these other values. I simply say I want to focus on justice. This is very closely related to personal struggle because justice will not come without personal struggle. So that is the framework hopefully within which many of the ideas in the text that I would like to study with you will fit.

But of course the discussion, reactions, conversations will be an integral part of this. Because as I mentioned yesterday, I would like to write the final text to include your ideas so that it is not simply a report of what I say.

For this morning I would like to start with almost my favorite URM text—Luke 18:1-7.

"Then he told them a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. ‘There was a judge in a certain town,’ he said, ‘who had neither fear of God nor respect for man.’ In the same town there was a widow who kept on coming to him and saying, ‘I want justice from you against my enemy!’ For a long time he refused, but at last he said to himself, ‘Maybe I have neither fear of God nor respect for man, but since she keeps on pestering me I must give this widow her just rights, or she will persist in coming and worry me to death.’ And the Lard said, ‘You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night even when he delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?"

Well I’ve read this text many times before I landed in prison but I never read it with the eyes that developed when I was in prison. At first glance, it is a very straight-forward text on prayer and perseverance, and faith. A kind of afortiori argument. "If unjust judges will yield to justice if you persevere, how much more for a just god, if you only persevere."

And so it is about prayer, which in the Christian tradition means solemnity, quiet, dependence on ‘a power outside’. The first time I read the text in a new light was in 1979. And the context was like this: I was in prison for 4 years then and there were many others with me. And we had organized our parents, our relatives and friends and mobilized them to keep pressing the government to release us legally. I mean those of us who had a chance to be released legally. Those who had no chance were planning escape. They had to be self-reliant.

But most of us thought we could be released legally. So we mobilized them to go to different military officials, they wrote letters to Marcos, they mobilized people abroad for months and months and months and nothing was happening. One Sunday we had a meeting and they came and they were really very tired. Most of the mothers, most of whom were not so political, because most of their children were activists who dropped out of their homes to do fulltime work, were specially weary. First they leave home and now when they are arrested, the political movement cannot help them. They did not immediately understand that the movement itself was in hiding. And so the parents said, "You brought us so much trouble before, now you lead us into more trouble, and you don’t even appreciate us." So that was the kind of mood they were in.

At the same time, the political activists were saying, "Although our mothers are frustrated, there is a good thing about this frustration. They are getting more politicized. They are getting more angry at Marcos. They are getting more critical of government." Some of us were worried though, needlessly I would think. They were asking, "What if Marcos releases us? We will benefit but it will be a set back to the development of the political consciousness of the mothers. They will say, well, this government is not so bad after all. They have released my son. They have released my daughter."

So we faced this dilemma: we wanted to be released but this encouraged our parents to rely on reforms given by the government.

Some expressed their dilemma this way: "What is more important? Our release from prison? Is it not more important that our mothers develop a radical consciousness? But will this not mean we will stay in prison longer?"

But of course for most of us, it was not an immediate question. We were intent to get out by all means. We can discuss with our parents later. It was within that framework, that we had mass that Sunday. Weirdly enough it just happened that this was the text for this Sunday. And then I read this. And we had a very interesting discussion on the first part.

Which reminded me of Alinsky. Alinsky was of course part of the early URM influences specially in Korea and the Philippines. And somewhere he says: "People in power can be made to do the right things but only for the wrong reasons." It is supposed to be one of his sayings, revealing his almost pragmatic, half-cynical, calculating, mischievous attitude towards authority.

And when we read this, we recognized Alinsky. There is this judge. The judge remains in power. The judge remains unjust. And yet some justice was squeezed out of him. Does that mean that the judge was converted? No. The judge remained unjust. Which is contrary to our Christian formation. We usually want to convert the power so that it will become just. Or to subvert it so that it will be replaced by a just power. But meanwhile within the period which we will call strategic defensive where the power remains unjust what do we do about injustice? The question is do we despair or do we work out some concessions, some limited justice? Must we wait for a total revolution before we hope for any change to come?

Well for our own spirituality, I say you need these small victories. Otherwise, how can you persevere? How can you continue? But yet in these small victories we need to ensure that we don’t get deceived. You don’t get the illusion that the judge has converted.

That was part of the discussion we were having. If Marcos ever releases you, does it mean that he has changed? Or does it mean that he has his own motives, his own calculations.

My most recent dialogue on this was in South Africa when I gave a Bible Study at the National Council of Churches. And this was at the time of De Klerk’s reforms. And there were great debates in the movement, especially in the churches. Some said, "We’ll give him a chance, don’t apply to much pressure, don’t rock the boat. There are more ultra rightists than De Klerk," and things like that.

On the other hand others were saying, "There are no real reforms. These are all calculated to crush the African National Congress."

And this is where I thought of modifying Minsky. Because Alinsky said ‘they will do the right thing only for the wrong reasons’. I would modify it by saying: ‘they will do the right thing but only for mixed, multiple reasons’. Part of the reason might be true. It is really a fair demand. It can be granted if you hold justice not in an abstract ‘what should be’, but what can be given in the ‘present correlation of forces’.

Yes. Frank Chikane was saying, "We can use this text." De Klerk is conceding something because of our struggle. But he has his other reasons. Our struggle is part of the reason for De Klerk’s reforms. So there is a right reason. A recognition of our power. And there is a wrong reason. And that is to prevent us from really coming to power and to divide us.

I feel that without multiplying the different contexts within which we have read this text it suddenly seems as if prayer becomes the exact opposite of what a prayer should be. Prayer becomes irreverent almost a mischievous and analytical activity, calculating the wisdom of this world, sorting out the mixed and multiple motives of the unjust powers, extract-in g some concessions of justice to feed our spirit in a general situation of struggle when we are not very hopeful that powers will become immediately just. Or hopeful that the just will immediately come to power.

The question that posed itself much more powerfully to me was actually the rest of the text. You have to have mischief: Low do you get some justice from an unjust judge, how do you harass him, knowing he likes to get some sleep? Let us get justice for the wrong reason. But it is justice for us.

But then we go to the rest of the text. And it reads, "... hear what the unrighteous judge said, and will not God vindicate people?" And we are back to solemn prayer again. In the beginning you are relying on your skills, on your wits, on your analysis. The second part says, ‘yes and trust it to God and pray’. And so it is as if you are just developing the power within you when you are told to ‘trust the power outside you’.

You always have this dichotomy of Christian spirituality. We can always claim that God is within us. We are driven by his power, his wisdom. But what about our belief in people’s wisdom, people’s power? Where does that spirituality come from?

It is an important question to pose. I think this addresses not tactics as it does in the beginning, but strategy — the long term vision, the long term approach. Let me explain further.

It is not enough to be clever and witty and analytical and keep extracting some justice from unjust judges who continue to remain in power. Isn’t our long term goal — to have just power so that we don’t need to be clever in order to get some justice? We will just make a petition and the power will yield justice because it is just and it is in power. We are not only after concessions either. We want wholesale justice from transformed structures.

How do you avoid the dichotomy of God being the ultimate power and the ultimate justice, and just power established by peoples efforts in our societies?

I would perceive it this way. When we pray to God, and God to give justice we do not think of God as an invisible hand or an invisible spirit that brings justice down.

We in fact think of something more palpable, something that yields to some human experience or perception of God acting justly. The God we believe in acts in history, not outside it.

Fine. But what is history? We say, "History will prove us right." What is this history that will prove us right? Is it Hegel’s idea? To make history more concrete we have to talk of people. Who make history? What is history about? It is about people.

And so we start talking about God acting in people. Now who are this people and what does praying to God in people mean? It is God in people acting in history to establish just power. In Bad Boll during the Korean consultation in 1981, I gave a talk and I slipped. I said ‘pray to people’. And there was this Dutch Reformed theologian who corrected me saying, "Ed, you mean to pray to God in people." The theologian was so scared that I was making people a substitute to God. So I said, "Fine, ‘God in people’ if that makes you happy." Sometimes my theology is not so precise.

There are two thoughts on prayer that I would like to offer for reflection. The first is about this term ‘people’. To what extent can we say that God acts to establish just power through people? And to be realistic and not idolatrous not only theologically, but also politically. Meaning, well when has people power ever come to power and rendered justice? — very important question now when all models are being questioned, whether socialist, communist, populist, democratic, authoritarian. It is so easy to slip into the temptation of saying that everything before the kingdom is imperfect. Everything has to be criticized from the standpoint of a utopia or a permanent escathological reserve — churches like society will always be imperfect, in other words. So there is always this reservation which we attribute to our commitment to God and not to any regime in society.

The first insight I have in this is to rediscover the full meaning and possibility of people and this I did in dialogue with the whole Minjung theology tradition. When we correlate God to people we are not talking of only one past. We are not talking of only one faith. We are not talking of only one section. We are talking of all people. Which means that at any given time, a group of people whether the proletariat, whether the whole national community against a colonial power, if they come to power it will be more just than the power overthrown. But in so far as it is not inclusive of the other people, there lies the danger of its injustice. And that is why we have this tension in all political struggles, where you have groups either representing people or even groups with people participating but who in their vision simultaneously, include and exclude others. And I am not refering to powers like the bourgeiosie or the landlords. I am refering to our mass movements. How do workers perceive peasants? They say peasants belong to the rural idiocy and are the basis of reaction. You have lowland people saying well indigenous communities are fine but they are against modernization.

Or men saying, "We have to get more women participants," but not really. Or women saying, "Well, men really have spoiled the whole thing we just have to suffer the consequences." We have these visions among our movements which always privilege a particular group to the detriment of others. There is nothing wrong with giving an emphasis at any given time. But at the same time the temptation which we always yield to is to say — the others are beneficiaries of our just rule but they will not be participants or their power will be secondary. We are afraid to acknowledge that power because it might put an agenda that we are not yet ready to address. So we say, "Please do not rock the boat. We are still consolidating power."

These are all very valid considerations. What I see in this reading is not so much an absolute critique of exclusivism but a cautionary comment saying don’t be too self-righteous, don’t close history and people too soon. It is bigger than you think. Just as God is bigger than all our theology. And all our concepts.

We can understand people theologically in this sense. We can also make a political argument in this sense. ‘People’ is bigger than our definitions of them. And there lies its hope and its liberating power. We have to make choices at any given time. We represent those who are the most conscious, the most actualized power of the people. But never reduce the power of the people too soon and too narrowly to a particular historical expression of it.

And it is in that tension that we have to live our strategy. We have to make choices. We cannot say, "That line is imperfect I will not be part of it." On the other hand, having made a choice we should always leave ourselves open to this critical principle that says, "Make sure that your room for others keeps increasing." Not so that people become beneficiaries but so that they become participants. More and more people wake up and participate so that peoples power and peoples rule will be even more just.

I think it is in this light that I would judge the ambiguities of the popular movements, the democratic movements, the socialist movements While affirming their justness viz the old rule, we need to increase peoples participation in widening categories.

Now to translate this politically and analytically is something else. All the texts yield to me a kind of an embryo principle and understanding of people power, democracy, peoples participation.

Having said that, what about praying? I remember when I was in prison in 1986. Marcos was already gone. The military forces in the camp where I was imprisoned refused to surrender. So Ramos’ group was about to assault the camp to make them surrender. But since they had only a few mortars and they did not know exactly where the arsenal was, they were going to have ranging shots before the final shots. And we were in between these two armed forces. And the roof of the prison was made of asbestos.

So that time I really prayed to God. I said, "God, don’t do this to me. I am about to be released and now I am to be killed? This is unfair!" In the meantime, I looked for a concrete table where I could hide under if a bomb hits our building because we have to have self-reliance while praying. But I remember I was praying very hard. Just when you were going to be released from prison, you will be released dead?

Now what does praying to God in people mean? Those of us who talk of people easily get accused of populism. Because people as you say politically gets used as a counterpose to class-conscious parties, activists, who are teaching, preaching. And we say, "Let the people decide. Don’t spoil them with your western- influenced categories. Don’t spoil them with sectarianism. Please let the people decide."

But among Christians the choice is not between committing two sins. We try to have a creative and dialectical tension between two truths. Now what has this all got to do with praying? I think praying is to address your word which you do not claim is God’s word, which you do not claim is people’s word. You have your own word. But you address this to someone because you know that if the word remains with you, you might be the only one trying to make that word real and it won’t happen. Because you are not the historical subject. You haven’t got enough power to make that word alive. And so you keep addressing it to those who have the power, to live it, to struggle for it.

Now where did your word come from? Your own experience, your own reading. If you are a group, it comes from your own discussions. This is the tension I see. A party, a church, an activist group, URM should assume the responsibility of recognizing and speaking its word. Without immediately claiming, "Oh, this is the peoples word." You got part of it from your experiences. But then this word you address to others because you know that the bigger power than can make this word come alive are the people.

And that’s why we need to persevere in saying the word, that is why we need to communicate, that is why if you take it one step beyond —prayer is really listening and speaking. That is why you have to be in dialogue with all people. But you cannot be in dialogue if you do not have your word. It would be an evasion of responsibility to say, ‘Well. I really have nothing. I just get everything from the people." Which every politician says. Even all of us, when we are not sure of what to say, we say ‘people say’. Well we have to assume responsibility for ourselves. We can say I got this from experience, from reading, from my theoretical discussions. But at the same time avoid the temptation of elitism. But for this to be real, for this word to be tested, I address it to people.

And in that dialogue, people take over your word. The people modify it. And you together speak your word. And hopefully, together you struggle for a more just power.

Those are the two reflections and insights that were provoked in me by trying to struggle over a text of prayer and faith from a point of view that was formed by struggle and debates about struggle of people.

And let me end with the last throw-away phrase there. "But when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?" Yeah it makes sense. If people are afraid they have no faith. What does that mean in our context?

When we talk of faith what would its meaning be, given the discussion I have given earlier? Three quick things and I will not elaborate.

First one is that whether in a very explicit Christian tradition or whether in a more secular tradition, faith precedes understanding. Meaning, you don’t analyse first. And then based on analysis and calculations you begin to believe. I don’t know where it is coming from but in my experience, through various influences, in a sense, we activists, we organizers, we start at rock bottom — from faith. Especially now, analytically, there seems to be no hope for the Third World. Capitalism is dominant Socialism is gone. Structural adjustment is inevitable. Trade is against us. We can pick for little loans, our commodities compete with each other, we have bungled so many projects.

And yet deep down we say, "No! We can do something. Not only do we deserve something better but we can!" You must first believe before we can work. Before we can analyse. Otherwise your analysis will reinforce your cynicism and despair in most cases. Now where does that come from? It seems like a perverse faith that keeps on saying, like Tertullian who said, "I believe because it is illogical." Sometimes it is almost like that you know?

We must believe even when it seems almost illogical. Precisely when it seems to be illogical. Believe that there is the possibility of just power.

And that is where I realize this text applies specially to Christians in the North and especially before 1989 when we had a crisis but not so big yet. We always told them, "The problem with you people in the North is you work so hard, I think you work with a kind of desperation. Deep down you don’t believe that your societies can be changed. Because there are no alternatives. Deep down you don’t believe that you can change. But you work hard because (rage, rage against the dying of the night) before I go I must say No. But deep down you are not informed by faith. That is why you don’t have discipline. That is why you don’t have joy. That is why you don’t have mischief. Thats why you don’t analyse too much. You just want to do. You are afraid to think. Because deep down you are desperate. The society is terrible. Its capitalism at its worst. There is no socialist alternative."

Ironically, while there is more death and dying and suffering and confusion and debate among us in the Third World deep down, we believe we can transform our societies. And deep down we believe we will be the ones to transform our societies. And I said that is the big difference. On the surface, you may be even doing more. But it is a matter of faith deep down which now will seek understanding. That is a good definition of theology — faith that seeks understanding. The faith tests itself by analysis, tests itself by strategy. But first faith. Faith that for us Christians may be rooted in many sources but you have a basic specific biblical Christian faith.

And those words spoken in another context can be very pious, charismatic exhortations. But I think in a political context, in a period like now, where the analysis is not complete and the strategy is being revised, it is important to say, "I believe and then I analyse." You don’t say, "I will believe after we have finished our analysis." Because the analysis is not about to yield a complete rationale bases. So this belief that despite all evidence to the contrary, we can still have a just world, a more just society and we still have power, if only we work at it.

I think that is the parting word that I would like to offer. I am not sure personally if most of this is reading into the text. I see the method right now as text and context talking to each other. How much of it is simply an affirmation of a Thomist principle, St. Thomas Aquinas had this principle: "Whatever is received is received according to the capacity, that mode, the point of view of the particular hearer or the receiver." I don’t know. The text itself suffers and changes depending on who is looking at it. Almost a very subjective view of the truth. On the other hand, if you trust that the text will not just yield itself to total violence but to talk back and criticize that, then perhaps this approach has some possibilities. But I offer some words of caution. Because I’ve read this text for so many years, people started reading a different text to me and I don’t know whether the text has changed or I have changed so much in the meantime.


Q: Are you in fact saying it is unwise to make compromises?

A: No. I am saying that, precisely we have to be as wise as possible to get these compromises. But that is not strategy. Those are tactics. But they are important while you are serving out your strategy. Tactics should be part of your strategy. Otherwise, we will just be going back to ashrams and workshops forever and we will not be doing anything about structures in the meantime. But clearly, they don’t constitute strategy if we see pinching of compromises as our goal that constitutes a permanent defeat for us.

But it is a thin line. We advance through a combination of struggles that are defeated and struggles that win. We never expect to win all the time. If you win all the time you can get complacent. If you get defeated all the time you get terrorized or exhausted. Thus the first wisdom is at the tactical level which I think is a useful critique of Christian idealism that wants powers to do the right thing for the right motive.

Lets face it. Sri Lanka. Marcos in the Philippines. De Klerk in South Africa. These are unjust powers who are not about to be dislodged. So what do you do? You don’t challenge? Of course we do. But while they have not fallen should we not try to get some justice from that system and that power? To sustain us, basically? It is a very deep wisdom. ..We hear stories of suffering and struggle. This is our initial victory. We need that to sustain ourselves. We cannot persevere without these little victories.

Comment: Personally, I think it is wrong to always see power as alien, as held by someone else. I think of power as something that everyone has but which we often abuse and which cause our misfortune.

Q: Being inclusive creates its own problem. Do we try to become inclusive just to have a flavor of democracy knowing it won’t work?

A: The question of who should be "in" was also posed to me in Britain in 1989. And I thought of an exercise that would dramatize what are possible and what are impossible. As Christians, let us think of the Kingdom, the community of God. Imagine the Kingdom. What categories or classes of people will be there? Of course, there will be men and women. Unless you take those scholasticists’ position ‘there will be no sexes in heaven.’ Men and women is a category that is part of community. But can you imagine landowner and tenant in heaven? No. I cannot. Obviously any exploitative relation, any dominating relation, should be excluded. Then we will simply eliminate categories like that. To that extent we cannot be inclusive. And so we must also exclude such categories in our struggle, in the life of the movement.

The second point is also important. It has implications to our politics. Since we cannot, in our best effort - with our resources, training and dedication - organize everybody, then we must be ecumenical. We have to be open to strategic and not only tactical alliances. And that starts with mutual recognition that you and the others are both struggling towards the same direction.

Let me give a more precise refinement on this. When we talk about ecumenism, alliances, we have a tendency to be sectarian — "I have the correct line. You are wrong. Join me."

The other tendency is to be liberal — "No one really knows what is the correct line anyway. I do my thing. You do your thing. And we dialogue. And we go on." But this is insufficient.

We have to recognize some commonalities with others, although we also have to recognize differences. When we have a clear understanding of these cornrnonalities as well as differences and decide to be together, the ground is more solid for our unity. We do not say, "I am revolutionary, you are democratic, let us have a tactical alliance."

It also means we look at the situation and ask: "Where do we invest our energies? Do we supplement something that is relatively neglected or stress on something that will yield results for others." Let us not take everything into our limited hands. That is part of the implication of this. But the basic line is you recognize there is a greater variety of organizing challenges than we normally wish to acknowledge.

[This Bible Study was presented at the 23rd URM Committee Meeting held in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 11-15 February 1992]