Bible Study and Reflection

"Renewing Spirituality, Strategies for Justice"

by Ed de la Torre


Part II (February 13)

The text this morning is from Luke 10:38-42. The story of Martha and Mary.

"In the course of their journey he came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lords feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving to me to do all the serving by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha’, he said, ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the ‘better part; it is not to be taken from her."


This is a text often used to criticize activists. That is why I want to reflect on it.

I want to draw your attention (how significant it is given the arbitrariness of how chapters are divided, I don’t know) to the fact that this passage is preceded by the parable of the Good Samaritan. Which ironically emphasises service and love. "It is more important to love than to worship." So is there a contradiction between these passages? One passage says stop serving, sit down, listen and contemplate’. Another says, "Lord, teach us how to pray the Our Father."

If we include the earlier chapter and the passages yesterday about ‘harassing judges’ which tells us ‘ask and you will receive,’ then the Bible is really full of contradictions and contradictory messages. One part says, service, the next contemplation, the next prayer.

Now let me go through that a little bit more slowly this morning. Here I would like to focus on this tension point between action and contemplation. Between activism and what we have been told from childhood is a privileged aspect of Christian life — reflection, contemplation, prayer. Let me start with a brief reference to the Good Samaritan passage.

I have been reflecting on the first part of the passage. How does URM integrate the desire to serve with the value of worship and service? Activists notoriously say, "My work is my prayer, don’t burden me with trivialities." My reflection focuses on the issue of: Why did the priest and the Levite pass on the other side? Of course, it is easy to say ... ‘because they were hard of heart, they did not care’. So they went on.

If that were their only problem then the problem is only a psychological or moral one. So all we need to do is to take priests and bishops to exposures’ to poverty and oppression and they will be forced to respond and the psychological, moral problems will go away.

My own thinking on the matter, to be fair to clergy, is that the normal person who joins the priesthood or church service initially at least is motivated by a desire to serve. We do not enter the church employment initially to gain money and power, (that comes later?). The normal understanding is that church is an arena of struggle, a venue to serve people. So my premise is this, if the priest and Levite were concerned people, yet they pass on the other side, maybe they had a problem not of the heart, but of the head. Maybe it was a theological problem. Maybe three theological problems:

a) The first one is rather simple. Maybe the priest probably thought, "It is not my role. Let the social service or the deacons take care of that. My role is to lead the worship. But I think that is a very minor thing."

b) The second problem might be about priorities. "I do not say that it is not important. But I have a more important thing to do." Especially look at it in the context (like of the Philippines). "I am late for church. There are 50 baptisms waiting for me in the village. And 25 marriages that have to be legitimized as soon as possible because these people have been living in sin all this time. And there is only one mass in the year, during the fiesta. I am rushing." And then on the way there is someone lying there. And I say ... "Yeah, but 100 village people will grumble and they might even join the Protestants if I don’t come on time."

If you dig deeper into our primeval theological formation, that is not a minor question. Especially when it is not put so crudely. The dilemma in service is that ‘service to the least of the brethren’ is seen as indirect service to Christ. Worship, on the other hand, is seen as direct service to God. What is better? Direct service to God through worship is seen as better. But even that I think is not the biggest problem. Because we have enough moral principles to guide us such as the principle of urgency. A person is drowning, you are the only person available. Your first moral duty is to save the drowning person.

c) I think that the deepest problem is when ‘doing service to the poor is seen to prevent you from serving God through worship’. Why? Take the original setting. To perform worship you must be ritually clean. If you help a bleeding person, you might become unclean. Therefore you are not just delayed. You are prevented from doing your function. You may say, "But that is a Jewish ritual."

I am saying theologically or spiritually, very often activists become unclean. When you enter into a dialogue with Marxism, and they ask the question, "Where do ideas come from?" You start having a crisis of belief. And church people will be saying, "What does it profit you to liberate the whole society if it is at the loss of your very identity and consciousness and faith as a Christian."

And I think that concern should not be under-estimated. When young people face the crossroads in their lives we have a responsibility to prepare them theologically. This is not to justify the actions of the Levite and the priest passing on but just to go deeper in our understanding on how to challenge churches that are not really hard of heart. They want a theology from us that integrates service to prayer. Where is that theology?

I don’t know about Protestant tradition. But in the Catholic tradition people quote Papal encyclicals and words from moral theologians to attack us. I remember in the seminary when I was starting to be an activist. They always came at us with the phrase the heresy of action or the danger of the heresy of action.

The first two or three times heresy of action was used against us it was fairly easy to dismiss. Because the ones who were using it against us were activists themselves. But in other kinds of activism — they were in charge of schools, charities, etc. So they were also not contemplatives. Ad hominem. You are also doing the same. We are both guilty of heresy of action. Only our action is more helpful than yours.

It became difficult because the earlier translations I remember was not only that, "Mary had chosen a good part that should not be taken from her." But it was, "Mary had taken the better part." And we were saying, "This is too much!" It is better to sit and listen at the feet of Christ than to roam around preaching Christ?

The initial breakthrough was fairly simple for me. I used the passage of "whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me" to introduce the idea of ‘serving the person of Christ’. But it is not enough to serve people. It is as important to listen to them. It is important to learn. In fact the two are closely related. How do you know how best to serve? Your service can be a mindless activity. You worry, "Hey, you have problems, I better do something." But if you listen, you may be able to serve better. By asking, "What exactly do you want?"

I remember, one of our earlier teachers was using the passage about Christ giving sight to the blind saying, "Look, Christ is God. I presumed he knew. And besides, you don’t have to be God to know what the other person needs. The person is blind for God’s sake. You know that he needs sight. But why do doctors have to say, ‘What do you want me to do to you?"’ Maybe that is an important methodology and attitude. And that is related to the other passage here. Ask and you shall receive.

Is the asking crucial? Why not simply say, "You don’t need to ask, I know. Besides, you may not know what you really need. I know what you need."

Asking and listening is a fundamental and integral part of service. Otherwise, service can be a mindless, presumptuous activity. So that was the first step. But this did not address yet the question of contemplation and prayer. We have thus far talked about methodology, basic attitudes an activist should have: to listen to people, to ask them.

The second step is to see Martha and Mary not as separate values but as one. I was once talking to a justice and peace group in Britain and we were struggling with the same text. And I said, "Why can’t we consider Mary and Martha as sisters within us?"

I did not really think too much about that, but the women in the group said, "Psychologically and theologically, there might be more to that Ed than you realize." First of all, we are talking about two women. We are not talking about a male principle and a female principle here. We are talking of two women who represent together what we should be —activist and contemplative. Thus, Mary and Martha are sisters within us. When Martha complains it is not one person complaining to another. It is actually the activist part of you saying, "Act!" It is the tension of the part of us (the Martha) who says, "Come on do something, how can you sit there, someone has to cook, someone has to take care of shelter." Remember that Martha owned the house. The Bible does not say if Mary shared in the payments. She just sat there and listened. Such a luxury. Didn’t pay the rent. Didn’t cook. Didn’t wash. Didn’t clean. And Christ says she has the good part.

Let me go one step further to reflect on both this aspect of methodology and then push more and more into spirituality.

First on methodology. When I started getting involved, I was motivated not immediately by a passion for justice or by concern for the poor. In that sense, I was a weird ball. I was not exposed to the poor. I was not a good Samaritan meeting someone and saying, "Never mind theology, I want to help the poor." No, I was a very kind of intellectual person in the seminary. My concern then, awakening to some kind of Third World consciousness, was to write a Filipino theology. Part of the decision that I took was not to go to Rome to study theology. So I wanted to stay in the Philippines to do theology. But the question that I asked myself was, "How do you write theology? Is it enough to stay and write theology? To translate the Bible to Tagalog?"

And I remember that one of the early insights I got which turned to be a story that was part of a joke all over the world in student activism was about the Bethel Temple in Manila. On top of it was a sign that said ‘Jesus is the Answer.’ And underneath that was scribbled, ‘What is the question?’

It was a typical story of student activism days. I was concerned about theology, the text, the message, Christ is the answer, this unique Filipino expression of the Christian gospel now. But how do you get that? And the message was, ‘What is the question?’ What questions are the Filipinos asking? Based on these questions, you respond and your theology takes a particular form unique to your circumstance.

It was very obvious. If you had in an evangelistic setting, some people asking about personal sinfulness, or personal salvation, why am I sinful, how shall I be saved? Then you say ‘Christ is the Answer.’ That will develop a certain kind of theology.

On the other hand, in another setting of, say, a peasant organization or urban poor organization or industrial workers organization, other questions come up like: "Why am I unemployed? Or how will I get land? How do I get justice?" When you say, "Christ is the Answer," you have to sort out a theology that maybe will take on a different shape.

So I found the approach. But I was not really thinking of serving people better yet. I was still developing a theology or discovering the gospel in our setting. But to do that I had to listen some more. One needs to be sensitive to the priorities as defined by the people with whom you are in dialogue.

I remember then that a young lady who was an activist told me: "Ed, if you believe that God had anything to do with evolution or biology, giving us two eyes, two ears but only one mouth then you should know that if we listened twice as much and observed twice as much before shooting our mouths off, maybe our theology and our politics will improve." And maybe it will improve. In fact, it might even be a resolution to some URM anguish. What are we supposed to do next? Why don’t you ask? But whom do you ask? And here I think, the passage of "the least of our brothers and sisters" in Christ, in Mary has two levels.

One is, of course, we ask the poor.

But I would like to push it one step beyond. We often associate Christ as the poor, those who suffer, those who struggle. But what about the part of people who have been empowered, who are organized, who are self-confident, who have ‘broken off from CIC?’ Who say, "Thank you very much?" It is a different listening to ask the Confederation of Trade Unions, "What do you want me to do?" We need to ask them. We cannot simply say, "You are there, I will do this next."

Do we ever think of asking people who are confident now? Not needing us in a sense? People who are no longer on the wayside? People who have recovered? But still people. People who are with the Risen Christ. Not with the Crucified Christ. But still with Christ. These are people who are now able to say, "We have some answers. We know what we want." And then we say, "Yes, I like to be with you. I still like to do something. What do you think I should do?"

And it might yield a different answer and a different relationship. But -still a valid relationship. We need to grow up and resist the subtle and -dangerous, and tempting paternalistic relationship. "You are poor Give me your pain." It will be a different partnership, companionship complementation.

Let us listen to people and be happy when they say, "I give you not just pain, problems, requests, but also some answers. I have done this. I can do this. That one maybe you should do. Maybe we can work together." When we dialogue with the people who are relatively empowered we get a different conversation. A different theology.

And for many of us, the time is coming, the crisis is starting. We are not ready to listen to people who have developed some power, some self-confidence. We are not ready for a new relationship. A very liberating one when you think of it. When we can start paying attention to questions like, "What is our distinct word at this moment?"

We need to relearn what we learned in the past. There was a triad that tended to be drawn about learning about people. You start with learning about people. Do research about them. You learn about people. The second is you learn from people. You listen to them. But then the highest stage in that sense is you learn with people. Both of you say, "Let us address this."Learning from is associated with ‘Tell me your problem and I will do something for you." Learning from is ‘Teach me because I do not know." Learning with is, "We both need to learn. I can teach you something. You can teach me something. Lets talk about common actions." Both of you are learners, are teachers. Both are being challenged.

If we relate that to the whole question of Mary sitting at the feet, we see a different relationship between Mary and Christ. Mary does not appear dumb and passive. She would be asking questions, "Did you really mean that? What about this?" And so when we think about this text let us think about Mary being a learner, who has her own word. The text will yield more meaning and consolation. This is not a verse one can simply use to browbeat activists, to tell them: "Sit!"

I have two last points.

First, given the well-known fact that we are activists who are growing old, I am wondering whether we really have any provision in our training and in our tradition as URM for — contemplation, going out and gathering. And I suddenly recall. In the institutional Catholic church there is a tradition. When we were under training, we used to have the monthly recollections. First Fridays of the month, classes were suspended and for the whole day we would recollect.

The idea of recollection appeals to me in the activist sense too. Because when you are an activist, you are in a sense scattering yourself’. You go out. Bits and pieces of you are shared out. In a sense this expands your life, your horizon. The other direction is gathering that and integrating that. This is to make you grow in wisdom.

The weakness of our recollection in the seminary was that we were always in the seminary. We recollected but never scattered. So we ended up reflecting on other reflections rather than reflecting on life experiences. And almost as a reaction to that, many of us went out and seldom made reflection. We went into reflection only when we got tired, when we got sick or when we were arrested, or when we were disciplined by our superiors.

Consequently, many suffered ‘burn out’. Or worse, many did not even learn from all their experiences. I brought some Filipino community organizers to Liverpool once. As usual, there was the exchange of experiences. But afterwards this petite Filipina asked this big Irish Liverpoolian organizer drinking in the pub, "Have you ever done a summing-up?" He said, "Why do you speak ‘posh’?" "Summing up, well you have had 16 years of valuable work together, have you ever come together to have a common memory of those 16 years? To learn what went wrong, what went right, what was possible, etc.?" And he said, "No. In fact, when they checked, the 16 years that should have been a point of unity for them, became a point of division because they had separate memories of those years and contradictory ones. And they said, why don’t we sit down and remember. And they had seven hours of shouting, crying and laughing recollection. Just to forge a common memory of what they had done.

To sum up: to recollect especially as a corrective act, I think is a crucial spiritual, theological, political task especially for URM now. I think it is one of the keys to resolving this so- called contradiction between action and reflection. Scattering and recollecting.

The Latin Americans have a word for it: ‘the dangerous or subversive memory’. Yes, if that memory is not alive collectively, then one day one scholar will write that memory for the sake of the ruling elite and they will have the memory of how to defeat the people if they ever rise again. Even a defeat can be a power if you have a common memory and analysis of it. And if you have learned from it. And I think; URM which has tremendous experiences, must have at least a core of program memories that we can build on, that represents our spirit.

The last word is really just a set of stories just to show you the half-funny, half-sad story of the Philippine attempt to integrate theology and activism. The challenge of pollution comes about when you dialogue with the Marxist ideology when your ideas are criticized because they have no material or experiential basis. "Christians are full of illusions," it is often said.

So what about God, heaven, salvation? What about death and resurrection?

This is a story of two Roman Catholic clergy who are very close friends of mine. We belong to the same generation politically although both of them are older than me.

One of them, a diocesan clergy, when martial law was declared went together with his altar boy and some of his activists. They went to the mountains and became guerrillas. It was, in fact, very symbolic. One day they left town with exactly one rifle. And they had to pass through military checkpoints. And they had nothing to wrap the rifle with except the priest’s chasible. I said, "If the superiors hear about this!" Can you imagine priests being called ‘wolves in sheep clothing’? Anyway, they worked for six months in the rural areas, basically organizing small peasant groups.

After six months, they said it is time for ‘consolidation’ meaning, time to raise the political level of the groups. The only political group there was the communist party, a small group led by some young people. And the communist cadres said, ‘To consolidate means not only to educate the people but also to recruit additional party members." So the young communists took notice of the priest’s six months work and were quite impressed. They said, "You are a very good organizer, do you want to join the party?" And the priest said, "Of course, if this can be done. But what are the requirements?"

The cadre was very dogmatic and said, "If you become a party member, you should have no more idealistic beliefs. Just believe in people. Believe in the struggle. Believe in history. God is an illusion." And the priest was very honest. He said, "Well, I am willing to become a party member and undergo education, but I believe in God." So the cadre said, "Well maybe you should not be a party member. You will just be part of the expansion team. Not the consolidation team." And the priest asked, "Why?"

The cadre said, "Well if you believe in God you make people rely on a power outside them. We must make people rely on the power inside them. Then they become strong." And the priest said, "But I organized more people than all of you." And the cadre answered, "Yes, but they are not consolidated."

When the priest told me this story, I asked him whether that party cadre was an ex-seminarian? And he was. So I said, "He was most probably struggling against his own theological problems. That is why he took a very hard line on you." And that was resolved fairly easily. In pragmatic practice, the cadre said, "Alright, he still has some idealism left. But let us recruit him as a candidate member. Then we will see if he can become a full member."

One year later, the time came to evaluate and they said, "OK take him as a full member." And so they asked him again, "How is your theology?" And the priest answered, "Well a lot of it is gone. Many of it was so much chaff. But I still have some core beliefs. I still believe in the resurrection, to make sure I will go some place when I die."

And the cadre said, "That is another idealism. That is a very individualistic value. There is nothing but the people collectively rising and making their own history." So when this happened, the priest came to Manila to talk to me.

It so happened that when he came to Manila, another priest who had been arrested who had also joined the communist party, was just released from prison. So we were discussing very deep theological questions. The priest said, "Ed, did Christ really rise from the dead?" I said, "It is a very important theological issue but we never really resolved it completely in the seminary." So he said, "What does it mean? 1ff get shot today, what does it mean? Will I live still? Where? And How?" Very existential and real questions.

Then this other priest gave a more interesting story. He joined the underground and was recruited to the communist party. And the cadre that recruited him was very mature. They just had a continuous mature dialogue. And his beliefs were just starting to erode. And he was together with a guerrilla commander who dropped out of the Baptist seminary after the third year. He considered himself a thorough Marxist. No remnants of idealism.

The two of them were holed up in a house. And then a seminarian who was acting as a courier for them got arrested. And just to show you how strong or weak some seminarians are, when he was arrested he stuck a knife into himself. Luckily, he missed his heart and lived. He was afraid he would break under torture. Eventually, he broke anyway and gave some information. And so the house was pinpointed and surrounded by about 100 armed soldiers.

And so the priest and the ex-Baptist person were inside trying to make a choice. "Do we fight? We will certainly die but we will go out in blazing glory." Initially they said yes. So they bade goodbye to their families and let them out of the house. And they waited for the soldiers to enter.

The priest told me later, as he held a pistol for the first time, he was convinced he would die. But he was asking, "Will I go to heaven or to hell? To hell for sure. Because Christ said, ‘he who denies me before men, I will deny before my father’ and I am a damned communist. I am committed to be an atheist."

On the other hand he thought, "Maybe I will go to heaven. Because ‘greater love than this no one has than he who is willing to give his life for his friend’." So there were these biblical texts crossing in and out in front of his eyes.

And then the other guy, who might have heard the priest’s mumblings, said, "I have a quotation. Chairman Mao said, ‘in serving the people we must be ready to make sacrifices. Even the ultimate sacrifice of our lives. But we must avoid unnecessary sacrifices. Let us surrender." And so they surrendered. And the priest lived to tell this story to me, which I am retelling you.

Now this makes me think about theology, Christian identity, spirituality. Pushing ourselves out and probably getting polluted theologically and spiritually when we take seriously the work for liberation of people. Getting tainted with different colors when we take this dialogue with Marxists seriously.

And I don’t mean pollution from the dialogue with Marxists only. Even debates about missiology have the same effect. What about our dialogue with other faiths? How do we maintain our distinct Christian identity even as we appreciate, respect and dialogue with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other faiths in Asia?

This is my contemplation.


Q: How do you overcome people’s aversion to contemplation? Can it be overcome?

A: It doesn’t matter. Life will make us contemplate whether we like it or not. Someday, you will get sick, or you get arrested. Or you commit a terrible blunder. Life will force us to contemplate. Even the physical body requires rest. I only suggest that we contemplate with a peer group.

Q: It is difficult for people who act for justice to communicate to churches. They are bound to be misunderstood. How do we deal with this tension between the need to act and the contemplative church? Can we communicate at all?

A: It is indeed unfortunate how action is so strange to and so divorced from some churches. It almost means that we have to be extra credible to get accross. We need to lay our neck on the line. And our word must be connected with life to be believable.

Q: How ready are the men around this table to accept the notion that there are "women or sisters within you?"

Comment: Most men are afraid to admit it publicly.

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