Bible Study and Reflection

"Renewing Spirituality, Strategies for Justice"

by Ed de la Torre


Part III (February 14)

My reflection today is not based on text but on the theme of spirituality. I see two poles of Christian spirituality when I read the message of the Gospel. And what are these two poles?

One is the pole of— self-sacrifice.

And the other is — self -fulfillment.

This is the whole tension between: "Give up your life for the gospel’s sake or for justice sake." and "I have come that they may have life and life in its fullness".

Now it is not presented in the gospel in exactly those stark ways. Let me just go through some passages that speak to me about these two seemingly contradictory messages.

The first one, often quoted: Matthew 10:38-39. "Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who prefers son or daughter to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me. Anyone who finds his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it," and Mark consistently adds, ’for my sake’ and the gospel.

Immediately just for contrast.. .let us go to Matthew 19:29. "And everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over, and also inherit eternal life."

And Luke has an interesting note. Luke 6:3 8.

"Give and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back." Once you give. You are given much more.

The point I like to raise here is that oftentimes there is a dichotomy. An either/or polarization in our gospel. For most of us who work for justice, for peoples empowerment, which is conflictual, there is a whole stream of text and tradition that we quote to ourselves that says work for justice, for the reign of God, for the poor, do sacrifice, including ultimately, your life. To underline that, we read not only ‘do unto others as you would have others do to you’ but also ‘love one another as I have loved you’. Which means love selflessly, like Jesus did, without thought of reward. So this is one tradition that appeals strongly to us.

In fact in my own seminary training this was associated with the whole doctrine of kenosis. That we take the role of the servant and go out and serve.

And of course it can lead sometimes to excess. Especially in approaching middle-class Christians whose guilt complex we often want to appeal to. We often say, "You have been privileged, do something about that." I remember, a nun used to complain to me about this. "Ed, why is this gospel of liberation to the poor for justice, not very liberating for me? The message I get from you is I work for justice not to profit, I am not to expect any reward. Must I do what I am doing to make up for the fact that I was privileged?"

There is a part of the gospel that also speaks of fulfillment. You could almost have shades of doctrines of election. God calls others to succeed in life while others are called to sacrifice.

I want to set a framework for reflection that does not deny one or the other. I start reflection on myself on the question of how to keep the balance. How to handle the tension in developing a spirituality for justice. How do we keep the authenticity of the fullness of the gospel? But uncompromisingly say, there is sacrifice and at the same time say that it is a gospel that leads us to the fullness of life. That does not dichotomize and say, "The fullness of life, leave for later, for now just grin and bear it." This is the reverse side of the much criticized ‘pie in the sky’ gospel of ‘suffer now, rewards later’.

Let me start with my own personal series of experiences on this. The first one was when I was training for the priesthood. And I was having this final retreat before I got ordained. It was a time when we asked ourselves whether we were really committed to what we were about to do. And I remember using Douglas Hyde’s dedication on leadership or something. Douglas Hyde was a British ex-communist who was converted to Catholicism and vowed to convert as many people to Catholicism as he converted to communism. And he was preaching the gospel in Asia.

And he had an interesting passage about the difference between Christian and communist recruitment tactics. A Christian recruits someone to a Christian organization and when the would-be recruit asks, "What do l have to do?" The tendency of Christians is to say, "Oh, not very much. Just join." So many are ready to join but they are not ready to do very much.

When Hyde was still a communist and when he recruited someone, and he was asked what the recruit would have to do, Hyde would answer, "You have to be prepared to give up everything including your life." So very few joined. But those who joined were ready to give everything.

Having experienced left politics myself, I don’t think that is always true. The left does not always recruit that well. But it appealed to me. As a young priest I said, "These communists are asking for total commitment and I, well I have to consider earning my Ph. D., studying in Europe, becoming a professor."

I realized I was not being challenged to sacrifice.

And so when I was on this last retreat, I said there was something wrong in this. I felt that I was not being stretched. And there was this emptiness. And I said, "To be a priest, if it means anything at all, is to be selfless to give up everything." That was my reflection.

But later I was asked to be half-professor and half-chaplain of a peasant organization. And we accumulated 70-80 land cases. And finally we decided to have a live-in picket at the Bureau of Lands to get the government to recognize peasant rights to their lands. So I went to the picket lines everyday. And I sort of forgot to continue teaching at the seminary. It was the beginning of the end of my institutional life.

We went around the different Catholic colleges and universities to explain with farmers how they lost their lands. And of course we appealed to many students as well. And I remember in one Catholic women’s college, one lady who was near the top of her class and who was about to graduate, dropped out of her class and joined the picket line full time. And her mother, who happened to be a social-psychologist, was so disturbed she visited her daughter at the picket line hoping to convince her to come home. She told her daughter, "You think these people are doing this for justice? Look at these young priests and nuns. They are sexually repressed. They have too much energy which needs to flow out into these causes. And it made us think.

Then came the influence of the radical movement and the cultural revolution in China. "Fight self, fight revisionism." What came as the Marxist gospel in the Philippines was Mao Ze-dong Thought and cultural revolution. Not structural analysis but personal transformation. And so it appealed very much to a lot of young students including the Student Christian Movement. We used to have meditation on "Five Golden Rays". Serve the People. And the message is: "In the service of the people, you must give everything wholeheartedly, selflessly. Selflessness causes fear and ignorance."

Selflessness is the key. Fear is always the fear of losing something. But if you are selfless, you will lose your fear. Ignorance, is because your mind is blocked. Your self-interest is keeping you from knowing the truth. If you are selfless you will find truth.

This hit us hard. "This is gospel! Why do we have to read it from Chinese books? How come our pastors and priests never challenged us so sharply?", we asked.

And then we got involved. Friends got killed. And of course we discussed resurrection. Life after death. All this while our consciousness was being assaulted by Marxist sayings, for example every idea must be grounded in experience. Ideas do not come from books but from experience, from history. And we were still struggling to understand the text of resurrection and life.

And I remember it was exactly Good Friday when we were discussing this. There were twelve of us, very symbolic indeed. We were asking ourselves: "What will happen to us in the long run?" Six of us said, "We will become Marxists completely." So I asked, "What will happen to your Christianity?" And one said, "When I was a child I spoke like a child. I will remember my Christianity as I remember my childhood. But now that I am mature, I will be a Marxist."

And the other six of us said we will still be Christians but of a new kind. We will be like the risen Christ. Magdalenes would not be able to recognize us. But the new will rise only after the old has died. So whether you die permanently or rise again, there is a moment of death. And so we used to romantically write each other, ‘from the tomb’ in farewell. Since we said that we will all go through the passage together, even when our own theological infrastructure is being assaulted not only by practice but also by this theoretical challenge.

And it was within that setting that I first thought of this reflection about selflessness, sacrifice, life. Which later under very painful circumstances pushed me to conclude. I was in prison when I heard the news that one of my students, a young priest had gone to the Cordilleras (where Bishop Bob comes from) and he had joined the guerillas. And I think he and his group were trapped in a village and the military captured them, and killed him. And when they found out he was a priest, afraid of the scandal, they cut off his head and threw it somewhere and they buried his body elsewhere. The purpose was so that nobody would be able to use the body as a means for a funeral protest march.

So they wrote me. And we had a funeral mass celebrated by his bishop uncle who was quite conservative but who was shaken by the event. They wrote me and said, "Ed, please send a message from prison."

And at that moment, 1 remember, I found it difficult, I read the letter for 5 minutes. Perhaps because I had it at the bottom of my head for so long, for about 15 years, the question of ‘Why death?’ and the meaning of resurrection. I knew that the audience was a mixed audience not only Christians but also activists many of whom would be atheists. And their question would be what is the meaning of his life and death? Can I help explain that?

So I said maybe. One way is to look at our life as a treasure to be guarded and to be preserved. And when someone asks us for help, asks us for our time, our skill, it is always like a drain on our treasure. You have to give away part of the treasure because they are asking. But your basic stance is you have to preserve your life. Well when your attitude is like that, then death is a final defeat. Because you have failed to hold on to your life.

On the other hand, if your approach to life is that you also see it as a treasure but a treasure that you are supposed to share to as many people as possible, then perhaps death is a final victory. And I quoted Christ saying, ‘Cosummatumest’. It is finally delivered. I don’t think it captures the whole truth but I think it gives us a glimpse to a part of the truth. And I quoted it because it reinforces this powerful current in the gospel that talks to us of self-sacrifice almost after fulfillment. But I will also mention that fulfillment is a total giving of ourselves.

That would be one part of our understanding of spirituality. What about the other part of the story?

The other part starts with ironically the wisdom of community organizing of Alinsky and Paulo Freire. Alinsky was precisely criticizing the kind of moralism of Christians, the ‘do-goodism’ of middle- class people. Alinsky said, "Organizing people for power starts with fighting for self-interest."

This is so different from the gospel. "Self-interest is not an ugly word," Alinsky says. Everyone has legitimate self- interest. People fight to get their interest. People do not fight to lose. But to get.

But then he immediately adds in an almost cynical fashion, while we are fighting for self-interest, we must couch it in some general, moral language. You never fight for naked self-interest, you fight for general values like justice.

In the beginning, Alinsky’s teaching was received positively. It gave a dose of realism to this tradition of heroism, self- sacrifice and Christian moralism. Later, we got uneasy when he talked of victory being the twilight of the people. When they are up, people also become oppressive. They are also selfish and so the struggle for self-interest of those oppressed continues. So here there is only cyclical development. No transformation. This reflects the reality of the United States perhaps, but not Asia? So Alinsky gives us very tactical wisdom, but not long-term wisdom.

The ideological critique of Alinsky that came from the left did not necessarily come from Christian tradition but from the juxtaposition of a bourgeios morality and a proletarian morality. That a bourgeios morality is essentially Sectarian, meaning you are capable of loving but you love: self, family, you love your corporation, you love your small group.

While proletarian love is not based on real experience but on a theoretical construct which seems not interested in self-gaining since it is interested in the larger humanity. Therefore, it is equated with selflessness. Of course, the practice may be something else.

And yet there is something at the core of that message which is not just tactical methodology. Is this value of self-sacrifice not peculiar to your being middle-class? Doesn’t self-sacrifice soothe your guilt of being privileged? When you talk to the poor do you talk about self-sacrifice? Or don’t you say, "Peasants fight for land! Workers fight for better wages and working conditions!"

How do we reconcile these two messages? Is liberation about gaining something for only one part of humanity? And for the other half, liberation is sacrifice of life? There must be some material objective for struggle, mustn’t there? Do we struggle to gain nothing more than moral superiority? While others struggle to gain something. I struggle to gain nothing! My satisfaction being that ‘I am doing your will’ as the Jesuits say. Is this not implicitly reinforcing a moralistic superiority of the middle-class intellectual, of the cadre, of a priest?

And what about the poor? Will they struggle only for food?

The third and last stage I arrived at and which I will open up for discussion and sharing. It is quite tentative. I am not sure I will even defend it in print. I was once asked, "Ed, what is your insight to 20 years of your work, especially in terms of sustainable spirituality?" How do you develop spirituality not rapidly but steadily and keep it going for a continuous period? How do you persevere?

And after struggling through it, I arrive at three tentative points:

One: we are driven only by multiple motives. Remember how we modified Alinsky’s ‘people in high places can be convinced to do the right thing only for the wrong reason?’ we say they do it ‘for mixed reasons’. But mixed may be seen as bad. It is as if one motive has two faces. I would rather say multiple motives — some are really pure, generous, true, others quite murky and selfish. On our end, I think this is the first point. To recognize and acknowledge that we are driven in our struggle for justice by multiple motives. This is to ground ourselves in truth.

Two: more than that is to recognize that having multiple motives in struggle is a strength, is a power. Because to have only one motive is to quickly exhaust it. Second, in the Christian and Marxist traditions, and I would venture to say perhaps in the Buddhist tradition as well, there is one spiritual teaching that tends to deliver a message called: ‘purify your motives’. Remove the base and selfish ones. And preserve the pure ones, preserve selflessness. "Work for the Kingdom of God and the liberation of humankind." But this is not what I would advocate.

Third: what I would advocate is not to purify our motives but to organize them. We recognize that we have many motives. To organize them is to put them in their proper relationships and to determine which is the lead motive. Maybe the lead motive is the purer one. But the others remain. They are only subordinate. This borrows from our insights in community organizing where we realize that there is really no community that is not organized. Therefore, community organizing is really re-organizing. What we need to do is to re-organize our motives, because they are already organized.

Perseverance includes finding out at any given moment what our lead motives are. And then finding out whether they need to be re-organized. Let me illustrate that in a bit more concrete terms. I remember the very last demonstration that we had before martial law was declared that was Thursday, Sept. 21, 1992. Actually the martial law decree had already been signed. Only Marcos declared martial law two days later.

I remember I dressed up in this very nice shirt we call barong tagalog. I had a good haircut. I exchanged my usual sandals for my shoes. Because this was to be a broad rally against the dangers of fascism. And they needed speakers from the ‘middle sectors’ the not-so-radicals to speak about the broad united front against fascism. And when we reached the staging area, and we were waiting there, and I had expected hundreds of thousands of people, but there were only a handful. And you could see in the distance the phalanx of riot police waiting to break our heads. At that moment you really start getting worried about the whole thing. But you think, well as we start marching I will gain more courage. And you do develop courage as you hear the slogans shouted. Until you see the riot police take position and then you get fearful again. On the other hand you feel the frenzy of your friends around you and you get angry and excited. And you also feel a little bit ashamed that inside you are afraid while the others seemed so ready to meet their death.

So within the same march, I was being driven by at least six feelings. I was angry at fascism. Afraid of the police. Shamefaced that I had little courage. Happy in my companionship with others. And these feelings were all driving me at the same time. But the lead motive was clear — to oppose fascism. But I was driven more powerfully because at least there was at least one rationale motive. What is wrong with that? I don’t know too much about mechanics, but maybe when you mix different sorts of fuel, you get more power than if you have only one fuel.

Maybe there is not only one spirit, but many spirits. And maybe we have either deceived ourselves and deprived ourselves of power and spirit by recognizing only some and ignoring others, or worse pretending we have suppressed them when they are actually still there. We deny rather than develop the discipline of recognizing and re-organizing our motives.

I first explored this theme - of all places - in Britain, in Yorskhire area. There was a workshop on community organizing attended by church people who wanted to support community organizing. In Britain, they called them ‘Urban Priority Areas’. In the Philippines we called them ‘slums’.

So I asked them, "Why are you getting involved in this struggle?" A group of them were nuns, some were pastors, and so they were discussing, what was it in their theology or their faith that made them participate. So they were giving biblical reasons. And I said, "That is all true. But let us explore your guilt. You feel guilty. Pity. You pity the poor. Anger. You are angry at Thatcher."

We sort out feelings to find the truth and to come to grips with what drives us. Once we know these different feelings and motivations we start re-organizing them. The Yorkshire group found this exercise, I think, liberating.

Of course, part of it is they are willing to accept a Third World person’s word for it. Especially one who has been in prison for nine years. They think that for nine years I thought of nothing but devising workshops. Because they suspended their disbelief they allowed themselves to explore motives even if this was contrary to their normal or traditional ways to admit those things.

Perhaps that is what we need to do. Not only for our own liberation but to sustain us over the long haul. We need to recognize different motives. Perhaps maintaining spirituality is like running a marathon race. Different motives take the lead at different times. If only one motive takes the lead all throughout the race, that will be exhausted in no time.

It is an insight that I have been trying to translate into formation programs for activists, when they are in mid-life crisis. I have been asked, "Ed, this newfound enthusiasm for spirituality, is this a kind of loss of energy for justice or is it maturity?" It is difficult to judge. Are we just getting older or are we getting wearier?

But we need people for the long haul. To use the Catholic tradition as an example, the first set of saints were martyrs. Martyrs gave everything in one dramatic moment. The next set of saints were the confessors, the ones who died in bed. But they lived out their lives daily in service.

I do prefer being a confessor now than being a martyr if that can be helped. Why can’t we live for 60 years in the struggle instead of being remembered in a URM memorial meeting?

We need a spirituality for confessors. Especially now when everything is muddled. What is the shape of justice? How will people come to power and give justice to everyone. This is not, I hope, just a reflection of our ages — of midlife crisis — but a realization of the need not only of a spirituality for martyrs but of a spirituality for confessors too.

There are core questions we need to settle too. What is the gospel? Is the gospel - ‘sacrifice now for justice sake, and life will come later’. What does ‘hundredfold’ mean - and not be an excuse for corruption, for privilege? How does joy and satisfaction come into the struggle? When does a feast here become part of a very legitimate celebration of struggle and when is it the grey area of self-indulgence?


Comment: I have been reflecting about what and how we in CIC preach the gospel to workers. We seldom talk about sacrifice or spirituality. It is difficult enough for them to work in factories. To share the gospel to workers seems to be to add another burden to them. They certainly are not going to come for bible study especially if it demands too much of their time or if church demands absolute honesty from them like some evangelical groups demand. We should be able to share a little happiness. Not sacrifice all the time.

Q: Can we really know our motives? Can we sort them out neatly and organize them?

A: It may be difficult to sort out motives. We have had no training for such. But at least there must be recognition that we are driven by a plurality of motives.

Q: Perhaps the dichotomy lies not in the poles of self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment but in the way groups allocate sacrifices and rewards among its members. There are those who do field work and those who keep office, and the sacrifices demanded of each are not equal. As for rewards, these are also unequally divided.

A: We need to hold ourselves accountable to the organization and the community.

Q: We have to purify our motives so that we will all be happy with ourselves. Egocentrism and gospel values are always in tension.

A: This exercise should be a community exercise and for the benefit of the community. It is less about individuals defining individual motives. Furthermore, individuals need help to sort out their own motives. A community or group can help out in this regard.

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