Bible Study and Reflection

by Ed de la Torre

30 January 1993 -- Part II

This morning, I propose to discuss not one text but a theme with reference to different texts. Because I could not find just one that would be appropriate reference for the reflection I like to share. Secondly, it is "work in progress". I’m not quite sure about the end of this reflection. I’ve been working on it for quite awhile in the Philippines and it concerns two things. On one hand, my reference to the paradigm we use to understand and make sense of our passages and changes - Passion, Death and Resurrection. Is that really an overriding paradigm that makes sense not only to organizers’ feelings and thoughts but also is crucial to Christian and Biblical understanding of the passages we go through? That paradigm traditionally has been interpreted in very personal-conversion terms - "you die to yourself and live again." I want to correlate it with the two key concepts in URM circles. In addition to people which is one of our mantras, leadership, and companionship.

The first time I was introduced to URM leadership, someone approached me to ask, "Ed, do you know the leadership group in CCA? It is URM." This was in 1970s.

Companions are persons with whom you travel, who move more or less with a similar pace as you. Why this particular concern? Partly because of this URM audience. The other is from personal, Philippine context. I mentioned that I am engaged in a folk school, a grassroots leadership course for 6 weeks followed by monthly, distance education, quarterly follow-up, etc. We are thinking of a 3-year formation program. Just to give a decent, adequate service - not one of those rushed one-week or one-month courses. And it comes after 20 years of serious thinking/reflection of what I should be doing. I found some parallels in my struggles to extract meaning and method in the Bible.

I remember George Todd used to say the difference between URM and funding agencies is that we don’t wait for your reports. We want to read them in papers. Meaning, we expect spectacular, big actions. We still talk of movements, unions. But somehow, there is a kind of ambiguity in the process of building movements. Yes, we work crowds. But really, if you look at URM, our work is a combination of grassroots organizing and nurturing leaders, who in turn lead large crowds. But not enough of our literature focusses on that because we think it is elitist. So we talk of the numbers of the huge mass of ordinary people.

Now I want to come to grips with this whole issue of leadership. After working the crowds and developing movements, I say, maybe for the rest of my life, I will focus a bit more on leaders. Precisely to develop democratic, accountable leaders who will not be elitist. We must develop leaders who are held to greater accountability. I don’t know if there is a real strict parallelism between us and Christ working crowds and culling from them 72 and then 12. At one point Jesus fed the 5,000. How did he organize and what were his methodologies? I’m trying to read many books on leadership. There is this whole literature on cadre artists. There is corporate literature. I’m looking for the Biblical literature on leadership. Including "many are called, few are chosen". Is that about salvation and liberation only or is it about leaders and discipleship, too? Sometimes I’m told I’m spending too much time and effort on a few. If I ask for $10,000 for education, I am expected to educate at least 5,000 people. If I educate only 5 leaders, that’s too expensive. But I say, we spend so much money on college education, tuition fees, post-graduate, and all that but how come we don’t consider that as bad investment? When we go to the grassroots, we have three-day education courses. We say, that is cost-effective. Is it?

Can’t we develop community-rooted, sectorally-rooted leadership that will offer the best of our insights into training and formation? That is where my roots are right now. At least for the next three years.

The other is a reading into our past. 1992 is the Philippine centenary of the founding of our revolutionary movement against Spain - the Katipunan. The victory was in 1898. So we celebrate in 1998, hopefully with a better government because that is the next presidential elections.

This was the pre-socialist era. We ask, "What went on the minds of our revolutionary leaders beyond independence from Spain? What can we learn from them?" And recent scholars have posed a very interesting proposition. The so-called illustrados (the enlightened, intellectuals), not all of whom were very rich, interpreted the struggle in French Revolution paradigm, "LibertÚ, Fraternite, EgalitÚ", an independent nation-state. "Independencia!" was the slogan. But the peasants and some middle classes, the urban lower middle class used, "Kalayaan! ", which is similar to independencia except for the fact that kalayaan is not just freedom if you listen to the stories and songs of the time. It was also freedom from the landlords. Our people were also thinking of building a community that shares. Some Europeans will probably call that "Peasant Utopia." The thesis is that so many of the farmers who joined the struggle were unlettered, so they had no way to articulate their vision except to sing continuously during Holy Week, songs contained in a big book called, "Passion ", which started as a catechetical, pedagogical tool, translated by some Spanish friars and in verse form and sung, about the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. The latter version started with Creation and ended with Revelation. Up to now, it is still done. You start singing it, as others stop you take turns because it is sung without interruption until the end. You go to sleep while others sing. And they feed you rice cakes as you sing. It’s done only on Holy Week every year.

The thesis is that the peasant revolutionaries had to make sense of it all. The big framework within which they interpreted their life and struggle was in terms of Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. unfortunately, this has never been written nor footnoted. What has dominated is independencia. The scholars say there is this other set of meanings revealed in these songs. We better look into that again. It is not simply catering to popular religiosity, or popular messianism, it’s an important thing. Did that world of meaning play a crucial role both in inspiring and explaining what Filipino peasants were going through? When I remember first reading those writings some years back and now rereading them, I keep asking myself - "It’s true, isn’t it?" In 1972, torn between my early reformism or tentative entry to activism, and being challenged by radicalism, I remember saying, "I will describe my life as the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the middle class Christian with Marxist influence." I revised it to petty bourgeois Christian. And yet I never really took it seriously. I wanted to write an essay but also to ask my self, "Do we really have a paradigm?" Clearly, the secular Left paradigm clearly influenced all of us. Struggle. Capitalism. Socialism. That is now shaken loose. We should still be part of that struggle to give the Christian contribution to that struggle. But what is a dominant and distinct Christian paradigm that we can offer? Not as a casual exotic contribution but as a serious contribution to Mission and Evangelism. What paradigm do we offer others to make sense of and to give hope? We need this in a situation of paradigms lost. What is our central paradigm?

I’m trying to correlate it to the powerful URM paradigm of "The Reign of God". I deliberately left off "Kingdom" not only because of the sexist connotation but I remember a Moroccan who said, "I don’t like "Kingdom", I will call it the "Republic of God." It makes a good quote but it doesn’t communicate. Or the "Socialist Republic of God". A Briton said he remembered that Cromwell and the Puritans had their original concept of the "Commonwealth" of God. The "Already" and the "Not Yet".

We are not talking about URM in general or ahistorically. We are talking about URM now, at a critical point. I don’t think the problem is whether we continue or in what form. We will continue under whatever form. The problem is: Are we still a cutting edge? If workers are empowered, don’t we decrease, don’t we die? Fine. Are we just maintaining the operations but losing the edge? That’s one. But second and equally important, who are our companions? Yes, with us. But who else? Who is part of the companionship in the struggle towards the future.

Let me offer some reflections from a couple of texts. First, from prison. The first two years of my imprisonment, I was not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. The first time I was arrested, I was with 30 people, 17 of whom were badly tortured. I was put away separately. It was December 13. So by December 24, the prisoners had more or less recovered from shock and injury and I told the Commanding Officer (CO) of the prison, "December 24 is Christmas, everyone will be sad without a mass. Can we have a mass?" The soldier was the son of a Protestant pastor. He was probably feeling defensive. A Roman Catholic priest suggests a mass. He needs to be ecumenical. The CO said, "This will be interesting. We should invite the press. Imagine the congregation: prisoners, soldiers, the priest is a prisoner. This is good propaganda!" When the prisoners were brought out, I got the shock of my life! I saw my fellow detainees and they were black and blue from injuries from torture!

I had to preach a sermon. What about? This is Christmas. We don’t want to say anything offensive, this is a season of goodwill. On the other hand, the whole point of Christmas is incarnation. We can’t float up there. I will express my anguish: How come we are divided, there are prisoners and guards? How can we be a community in a situation of injustice? Very general. Still it was very controversial. So no more mass for the next two-and-a-half years. The CO said, "Now I know your technique, Ed. You talk about incarnation and then you talk about real things." But then in 1976, I was transferred to a bigger prison. And every Sunday, we had Eucharist which I thought would bring us more trouble than our politics because we were having inter-communion. We used to say, "Don’t tell Cardinal Sin or the Roman Catholic church." They are more worried about those who fiddle with liturgies than those who fiddle with politics. And we did not ask people about their precise beliefs before we invited them to the table. It was good for us but also for the relatives who visited, who were enabled to interpret liturgy in a new light. Many of those who visit are pious Catholics who loved their children but who were also mad at them for dropping out of the family and school and for bringing trouble to them by being arrested. My function as a priest was to interpret in Christian paradigms, that problem. For us, the bigger problem was those of us in prison had different strained relations. We were companions. Some were tortured and stood firm. Others were tortured and broke, gave information and which eventually led to arrests including mine. There were people who showed weakness, others were quarreling, with unresolved fights and they were all there in one group, sharing one condition but feeling strange and full of contradictory feelings. And it was in that setting that I found my first insights. I remember communicating this for the first time in Bangalore, "Living in Christ with People", that controversial URM experience in Bangalore. (I found out later.)

First, we realized that the first Eucharist was a pre-arrest experience. You don’t usually associate mass with preparation for arrest and imprisonment. I’m sure they did not plan it that way either. But Christ had intimations. He was alluding to, "It is written, the Son of Man will be taken, handed over." Peter said, "No, no, it cannot be." I think, more than anyone else, Peter knew. Maybe the others didn’t. And we ask ourselves, "How come we never thought of the Eucharist like that before?" It is related to a moment of crisis. A possible loss of leadership. A possible breaking up of companionship because of what was going to happen. Christ was going to be taken away and the whole group is going to disperse, under strain, and the designated second leader will waver, "I don’t know this man." And maybe these two hotheads who wanted to hurl fire on people who could not be converted now, ran fastest away. Including one who tentatively followed from afar. When you think of the impact of that crisis, I could understand perhaps what was going on in Christ’s mind and heart, from his own dilemma, ""My gosh, can this cup pass from me please." More important as any person fears, he wondered whether the work will continue. "Who will continue? In this community that you have carefully nurtured with love and exasperation. How long do I have to bear with you? How can I teach you? Why are you quarreling? And my time has not yet come. These people still need training and formation."

And then come, arrest and betrayal by one. Very painful. In that setting, we ask ourselves, "What was the message that Christ wanted to leave behind?" Now, here comes a problem of translation. Because I don’t know how this translates in different languages - "Whenever you do this, you do this in remembrance of me."

In our case, we were middle class activists, literate in English, read the Bible in English rather than in our native language. Someone remembered a phrase that Jewish American Daniel Berrigan used when he was in prison for civil disobedience. He celebrated the Eucharist with some prisoners and played being a poet on the meaning of "re-membering". Remembering in contrast to forgetting and re-membering in contrast to dis-membering. Like I said, it’s a matter of translation. It’s a clever thing. The essence of it is valid. Why "do this in remembrance", why not just say, "do this again..." When you call people to remember, the premise is they have forgotten, and so you ask them to remember. It is not a simple, "do it again" or "say it again". Remembering is based on the premise that people will lapse into forgetfulness and regrouping means that they have been dispersed. The Eucharist is no longer personal reflection but a kind of liberating experience for many of us. We ask ourselves what has happened? We came together in a movement with high hopes, with idealism, with almost romantic ideas about "being together" like a family or church, saying, "This movement of dedicated people, this is my home. Here, there are many companions in struggle." When we were young, fine. Now we are older and we have a crisis. Then what happens? From outside, a fist strikes you - the state, maybe even the church, corporations, and even companions who pledged life and commitment, proved weak. In extreme cases, there is betrayal and conflict in the group.

But then you keep starting afresh, starting almost na´ve. It’s always a search for the perfect, romantic, innocent, love and relationship and always, leaving the others behind. Do you think there is a message here for us about regrouping? Recommitting ourselves? Remembering. Well, in my case we said we have no choice. We are stuck in this prison. Let’s ask one another, do we still want to continue when we get out of here? Together? Or, do we say, sorry, after this, our roads will separate. Because you proved weak. The one who had the hardest time was a trade union organizer who, when he was arrested was ironing his pants in an apartment. When they arrested him, the military wanted to find his link to me. And he wouldn’t give information, so they took the flat iron and ironed both soles of his feet. For three months, we had to carry him around because his soles were so blistered. But he never uttered a word. He also found it very difficult to forgive and accept another person who had been tortured and who had given information that led to my arrest. He was taken to the highway in the evening. In an army jeep, traveling at full speed, he was forced out just enough so he could hold on. His body was out of the vehicle. Later, he told me, "Ed, my wife had just given birth to our daughter. At that moment I broke." The other one said, "I suffered more! I didn’t break, how come you broke?" How will a strong person understand weakness?

In crisis, the dilemmas reshape our old concepts. Is there still a meaning there? What is the meaning?

Secondly, with whom do we rebuild and renew relationship and companionship. Now, it’s not a simple thing to say we are all companions anyway. We are all human beings, with weaknesses, come together and let’s try again. It’s not as simple as that. Some people say we opt out. Some people say this is beyond heroism to accept each one. The common element there is, there has to be a serious looking at one another, regrouping and recommitting and as I mentioned yesterday, the first element before you start a sum-up and CSC is an initial commitment to unite again and to continue. The decision doesn’t come after sum-up and CSC. It precedes it. That was the reason why in another setting, it was in prison that I first struggled on the issue of forgiveness. Again, playing with the English word, forgiveness is not something granted after repentance and reparation. It is something given before that is why it is grace.

For example, I remember looking at the person who betrayed me. I was really mad at him. Later I found out his wife was someone I trained in the Catholic youth movement. So for her sake, suddenly my hostility left -- "I forgive you." We will settle accounts later. But I have already accepted you as a companion. We will have to settle how fragile this companionship is. His problem was, he couldn’t accept that I had forgiven him. And he asked, "Are you really not angry at me anymore?" Of course I’m angry! Once when we were on hunger strike, he offered to be the one to collapse. In hunger strikes in the Philippines, it is theater and ritual. You would not collapse after 14 days, especially if you do body-building exercises everyday which we did. So some people have to be weaker and not take dextrose so that they collapse and make our strike more dramatic. I never qualified because I had a big body. Not credible. You must have someone who was thin to provide the negotiations. If no one collapses, the authorities do not negotiate. So he offered to be the one to collapse. And he nearly overdid it. He got dehydrated and we were afraid he would die. In a way it was a kind of self-imposed penance. Look, I was weak before, I now prove myself strong.

I think if we review our companions, if we review the strains in the fellowship of many of us especially in Korea, Philippines who fought in an anti-dictatorship setting will find many companions in transition, in confusion, or who have dropped out. Others have taken different options. The strain is so great. This is happening in Philippines, Korea, maybe in other countries too. My concern is you should not let go so easily of companions.

If doesn’t mean that the rebuilding, regrouping is easy. It will not happen at all if it is preceded by a settling of accounts and an agreement on everything. That is why I ask, "What unites us?" Not just a wish for the return of old times. Let’s go back to what do we have to recall and remember, that we still agree on. It may not be as precise, since it is a paradigm. It’s not a political line, it’s not a strategy, it’s a paradigm and within that, with whom are we willing to invest more emotion, intellect, time, resources because we want to regroup and rebuild.

I don’t want to force too much into the theme. But it has become more and more central to me, even more than in the 70s period because when we came out of prison in 1986, the strains were even greater. It’s easier in prison. The struggle is clear. You go out of prison and people are moving in seven different directions. You wonder whether it is not a much more difficult task to regroup and to recognize who are our companions. That is related of course to responsibility for leadership. As I mentioned yesterday, without falling into a kind of self- centered, self-complacent - "We are leaders." The ecumenical movement and the broader popular movement in addition to revitalizing and renewing the spirit, need to address a crisis of leadership. We need leadership that helps forge a new direction, helping renew language and method. Is there something we can get from this paradigm or theme in the Bible? If you have a Christ figure going away, what’s the next, who are the disciples? 12, well 11. They had to replace one, because of their paradigms of the 12 tribes of Israel. A kind of stronger guru to more collective leadership perhaps but no less a leader, not the masses but leaders. A more collegial, not necessarily co-equal type of leadership. Is there a lesson there? In general terms, there is room for pioneers still but is this perhaps precisely the phase where we are being challenged. It is not a question of one key figure here but many key figures in different locations but considering themselves a community of leaders - and, leader- companions.

I throw that hypothesis at you. I wasn’t thinking too strongly of the Philippine context. I was thinking of Asia.

Yesterday, we were asking each other - exactly where you’re at, where are you located? How do we define URM not in terms of large masses of movements or resources being gathered but just talking of URM loosely. Who is in URM? Who is a companion? There is particularity in URM. You don’t quite know who is on the URM list. But you more or less know your companions. You know more or less when someone is out. Of course, that can be dangerous - looseness and sectarian - but it’s true. My own formal relationship was never there. I simply knew I was in URM. I was not only in URM, I was in other things as well. But there was a big portion of me that had meaning, acceptance, purpose in URM. And I knew others. So can we improve on this mutual recognition and remembering.

In relation to our search for theology, spirituality, ideology, let’s talk about a core framework within which we locate ourselves. Not something we create overnight. Something we have to remember. And one is, I offer new contextualization, rethinking of this process of Passion, Death, Resurrection. I think it is easy to say it but when we talk of structures, methods, power, it is difficult. Secondly, regrouping, remembering, recognizing companions for the journey ahead means you cut your loses too, if necessary. URM is not the only vehicle of companionship in struggle. URM has its distinct place.

Last closing reflection. I’m turning 50, I keep thinking of the past. This is dangerous. In 1972, there were 12 of us priests, Christians. All young. All with Christian background. All engaged in different peasant, urban poor organizing but all challenged by radical currents including Marxist. All assaulted by questions about theology, "Where do your ideas come from? Where are the roots in reality? Are you scientific? Are you radical and committed because of your faith or despite it?" We say "because of’. If "because of’, are you sure your interpretation is the orthodox one? Because you are the minority. Maybe you are heretical. If that is the real, authentic interpretation, how come the rest of the Christians don’t believe it? How come you haven’t convinced your leaders yet? Very taunting questions from Marxists.

Then they say: "We are communists. We are revolutionaries. Those who are not, they are the heretics." But you Christians who want to be radical, you are a minority so maybe you are misinterpreting your faith. Or maybe you haven’t worked on your churches. Thus, we were assaulted. We looked at each other. We had long discussions, the 12 of us. What will happen to us? Do you think we will continue as Christian radical activists? Or will we become Marxists? Very interesting period. 6-6. Six said we will be Marxists. So what will happen to your Christianity? Well, when I was a child, I spoke like a child. The other six said, we will be Christians in struggle. But we will be a different kind of Christian. We will be like Christ whom Mary Magdalene did not recognize because we look different. Our paradigm: there will be a struggle. Dying. And rising again. Even on the level of explicit theological consciousness.

What is common to both sides whether a "withering away" or a period of very scary ‘‘dying’’ was our commitment to go through the passage together. It is less scary when you have companions. While it is a very personal passage, you need not be alone. To be together, is to guarantee it will be less scary, lonely, more fruitful. In that romantic period, we used to sign our names. "From the tomb." In my deepest crisis, I held one text: "Those who want to save their life will lose it, those who are willing to risk it for my sake, will find it." I applied it even to my theology. If you are so concerned about keeping theology, you will lose it. If you are willing to risk loosing theology, you will find it. "For Christ’s sake," what does that mean? We will not only find it but find it reborn, renewed. That made it exciting again.

We start with people in this room. Who are our companions through this passage? And to what will we call one another to remember? If there is some aspect in URM I feel drawn to, it is this renewal of mutual recognition, appreciation basis for mutual challenging.

It was Malaysian poet, Cecil Rajendra who said, "If I loved you less, I would not criticize you this much. But since I love you so much, I will call you to account."

Is this the self-conceit, self-pride of URM? I don’t think so. It is a message that should be delivered to all Christians. But we hesitate now. It seems falsely heroic. You sound like a charismatic preacher. Without that, what’s the point of faith? Of risk? Wisdom and calculation will come but the core of it is a call to renewal and remembering, reaffirmation of a mutual challenge of companions who are trying to continue/assume the responsibility of being part of the development of refocusing of a leadership group for the ecumenical movement and as part of the popular movement. Maybe I’m allowed my illusions as a Roman Catholic outsider. This 20-year relationship with URM, I had never looked at it seriously except when Ahn asked me to give this Biblical Reflection assignment.

Discussions:

Delphine: Who is strong? Who is weak? And who betrayed you? A similar thing happened to me while I had to go to prison for 11 days because it would appear someone had betrayed me. Though at this point this person is my only witness. I feel like taking him to court. But how could I? He was a companion. In your case, that man who betrayed you was the stronger one, his strength was for his family and a new-born life. He had to make a choice that might have been the hardest choice he had to make. If he had not told on you, it might have been the wife and infant who would have been tortured with the absence of the husband/father. So who is the stronger one? How do we really journey along? Who is the stronger one?

Ed: The trade union leader who proved strong, was with me when we moved to another prison. The prisoners planned an escape. But only four could be allowed to escape out of 16. The rest of us worried about the consequences of a successful escape. We will surely be interrogated, tortured to give information. We who had not been tortured had no memory of what pain was. This person remembered and he couldn’t face the prospect of feeling the pain again so he started withdrawing psychologically. He wouldn’t talk to us. Later when it worked out, he told us, "I was afraid I would break if they tortured me again. I knew you would isolate me then. So I started isolating myself before the escape." While the other person (who broke) continued working after his release, got arrested again, got released and worked again.

So who was the stronger? We don’t know. Sometimes I imagine what I would have done if I was the one tortured. Would I have proven strong and not given information? I really don’t know. People make a lot about my being in prison for a long time. Yes, it’s terrible but still, torture, the sharp physical moment, I haven’t experienced that.

The second time I was arrested, they blind-folded me and kept me sleepless. At 2 a.m., someone fired a gun nearby while uttering threats that they would kill me. I calculated, "They don’t kill priests. But maybe I’m wrong. May it’s time they kill a priest. What will I do?" I said I’ll work on their superstition, "If you kill me you will go to hell," or "I will haunt you." If that will not work, then I’ll say, "Well, before you kill me, could you give me 5 more minutes of silence?" They did not kill. So, I will never know what I would have done.


[This Bible Study was presented at the 24th URM Committee Meeting held in Hong Kong from 28 January - 1 February 1993]