Bible Study

by Ed dela Torre


Scripture Text: Matthew 25:31 -46, 14-30

When I was preparing for these bible studies, as usual I tried to locate myself in a context. At what historical and psychological moment am I reflecting on a certain text? I thought that as we are doing a preliminary evaluation, so I am in an evaluative context. And just as our report is an interim report, this is an interim reflection.

There were three events that conditioned my thinking and reflection on the text I have chosen. The first one was one year ago when I was invited by a funding agency, Oxfam, one of the biggest in the U.K., to talk to their partners and the question they posed is this: "After 25 years of development work funded from the North, what have you to show for it?" The second event is more recent, and that is my mother’s 75th birthday. And when all the tributes and discussions were going on, I was looking at her and asked myself, "If we are to be evaluated by God after our own respective lives, I wonder if I would be found very wanting compared to what she has done." She fed a lot of very hungry people because she was in-charge of the kitchen of the seminary from 1960 to 1972. For 12 years she fed all the priests and seminarians of the Society of the Divine Word. She visited me in prison for nine years. And of course the third is URM. I did not realize until I went through this evaluation process of URM that even though I did not start with it, the bulk of my social movement activism is linked with a history of URM in Asia.

Let us look at the Matthew 25:3146, the text on final judgment, final evaluation. I knew this text before and in Catholic theology, it was classified as the "seven corporal works of mercy". And it was even considered as inferior to the "spiritual works of mercy". What is interesting in Montemayor’s initial challenge to us was two things: (1) strong emphasis on very material services and (2) this is linked to the ultimate question, ""‘Will you be saved?" So this is not marginal nor peripheral. He said, "If this text means anything, you will be judged not according to whether you said mass or prayed the rosary but salvation is in helping people materially." And we were excited as seminarians for we could justify not studying theology. On the other hand, it also disturbed us. In fact, one of the seminarians eventually left and said, "I will be a labor leader. Maybe that vocation is better." I decided to stay. But the question I posed to my professor in exegesis was "Do we take this literally?" And he says, "We never really discussed that in Rome."

Is this it really? And it’s not so much about this positive thing but the negative one that used to draw controversy especially in pious Catholic circles. Consider this image: a nice, devout, well-meaning Catholic student in one of the convent schools who goes to mass faithfully every Sunday, wears a blue dress, praying a blue rosary, riding a blue car and being very good to her family and kind to everyone. And then he says, "In the last judgment, she will go to hell." I say that’s too much. Then he says, "Because maybe they own land and they did not give proper share to tenants and they did not distribute land."

And in another situation, at the end of Montemayor’s speech on social justice a very pained, young woman rushed to the stage, took the microphone and said, "That is unfair. Christianity is love. I love my brother, I love my mother, I love my classmates. And you are telling me I am going to hell." There was a brief moment of embarrassment. Maybe we over-emphasized it. We cannot answer it but at the same time we were saying that if you do not get involved in organizing farmers, supporting agrarian reform, the Gospel says you are not quite safe.

In Montemayor’s reading of the final judgment, the criteria is whether you have done justice to the poor. It is not simply feeding the hungry -food, drink, clothing is the basic needs approach — but the other three. "Stranger and you took me in" that is more than shelter, it is integration. "Sick and visit," not sick and you cured me, it is health and solidarity; healing is not just medicine, it’s wholeness. And of course prison, that is quite political.

Our dilemma in URM, especially after undergoing this evaluation, is more than stewardship over resources, more than discussions over future directions, the first question we ask ourselves is: What have we to show for it? Have, we made any impact? What kind of impact?

Permit me to trace my life interwoven with my understanding of how URM has developed over the years. In my case, the starting point was the simple proposition by the Federation of Free Farmers saying that there are many poor people but in a country like the Philippines which is mainly agricultural and majority are farmers, you have to address the issue of farmers, not simply productivity, not technology, but justice in relation to ownership of land. But that will not happen voluntarily from the powers so you must organize the farmers so they will have power to pressure. It was not at all radical, in fact it was quite reformist. It was even meant to prevent a revolution especially a communist-led one. It was meant to prevent violence. The whole idea was to pressure for reforms. So this was for me the preparation for the message of URM. And the message of URM was "It is nice to talk about organizing but do you really know how to do it?" — the technology of organizing, starting with specific issues, the methodology of forging people’s power to conflict confrontation, the identification of very specific winnable concrete issues and not just the abstract, big goals to total democratization, total development.

But if you look at it, it was quite remote already from directly feeding the hungry, directly giving drink to the thirsty; it is addressing something else. It is addressing what I would call in contemporary terms, empowerment. It is like, "Yes, we will do that but let us not do it directly. Let us help people work at it themselves." Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, is a very complex question now. It is not a matter of simply redistributing resources. You have to talk of organizing, policies, structures and designing policies and programmes that feed as many as possible in the short and the long terms. What seems to be a simple message if you contextualize it in our contemporary world is quite complex. It is not just the direct feeding and harnessing of resources that is in the spirit of the gospel but includes human development, policy reforms, etc. But if you pursue what happened to many of us — basic emphasis on education, organizing, leadership formation, struggle for reform, cooperative movements — we went to challenging the governments as the instrument that can legislate or at least implement legislation of reforms. And then when these governments turned authoritarian and dictatorial, our commitment to feed the hungry took the form of resistance. And URM’s mission is resistance. Well it is more varied but for many of us especially Korea and Philippines in the 70’s, India and to some extent Indonesia.

Resistance almost as a privileged expression of this commitment to the poor. Resistance to authoritarian politics which implements anti-people development policies. Our recognition in many circles as URM was on that basis — that we were resisting and helping establish hopefully a more democratic government which would be more open to participatory proposals on better development.

And then we get a more democratic government. And now there is the dilemma. Do we work to push for maximum reforms? Or do we work outside it and say "That is not enough, let us have something better." And there we have if not a parting of ways, a complicated relationship among former companions in the URM. But the bottomline is not are you in government or out of it? Are you resisting or reforming? The question is: What is the net impact in terms of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty? How do we do an evaluation that takes this into account and takes this complex history and the collective, cummulative wisdom of what it means to feed the hungry into account.

I am reminded of another passage saying "If that is what it means to be saved, then who can then be saved?" Or Michael Novak’s critique of liberation theology saying "It does not really liberate." I think our mood is to be really harsh on ourselves and say, "Not so much of the money. Money is secondary. The more important is the lives dedicated, energy, wisdom, passion. Have our lives been poured into something that has contributed to the fullness of life for others?"

And above all, in the process of this struggle for democracy, resisting authoritarian politics and linking it to anti-people development policies, that became more explicitly posed as a kind of anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist politics and development thinking. And one way or the other, some form of socialist alternative. Some more centralized from above, some more socialist from below mixed with a little bit of anarchism.

And then the changes. It is not just us growing older. It is not only getting a government better than before but not as much as we hope. It is a crisis of our own thinking on what really nurtures life. And it is in that context that there are discussions about another word, not empowerment, but civil society. So not a state, not parties, obviously not corporations although there is a stream of thought that will come in and not Michael Noyak’s theology of corporation. They say "Maybe civil society is the proper project of Christian energies. We have to transform governments and corporations. But civil society, discussed vaguely as maybe direct building of communities not only of resistance but of solidarity. And it is within these that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and nurture each other."

In December 1993, there was a meeting in Palawan (Philippines) of activists of 20 years together discussing civil society and its relationship to our previous political project. And then in June, there was a second meeting and they invited me. There was an interesting mixture -political activists, urban poor community organizers, Minsky tradition, Basic Christian Communities, integrated area development and a crusading doctor who is the chairperson of the Federation of Coops of Davao. But the debate was that the coop movement were challenging us political activists. What have we to show for it, and then accusing the NGOs of always getting funds from abroad and adding to dependence, while they (the coops) claim to be able to generate surplus from the people. They criticize us for having reinforced, wittingly or unwittingly, dependence, either politically when we say "We will liberate you, lead you," as a political left party or "We will support and help you but we will get money from abroad. They say why cannot we get money from within. And then the NGOs criticize them and say "You are not an alternative. You make money. You are doing business. You are expanding capitalism." It goes on and on. It is an unfinished conversation.

I want to relate another text to that conversation. This is also an old text from my young years and I hated the text then. It is Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the three servants. The master goes on to the long journey. He leaves behind money to servants to take care. In Matthew each had one talent. One produced five, the other produced two and the third hid it in the ground. In Luke they were cleverer, one multiplied it to ten, the other multiplied to five and the third hid it in the ground to play safe. And of course, the master berrated the one who played safe and rewarded the ones who made profit. I hated it the first time I heard it because it was being interpreted by the gospel of power and wealth to justify capitalism and profit-taking. The contemporary translation is about trading and investment.

But I cite it today because in that discussion with the coops, I was forced to rethink how will I interpret my attitude toward money and the money we used in this long struggle for empowerment, feeding the hungry, organizing, etc. On the one hand, it is easy to say, "We are just recycling money that was taken away through other channels to the North. And then we invest it in some form of human capital. And even if some of it is wasted, that is our money anyway." On the other hand some people tell us about self-reliance and sustainability. But deep down have we really sat down and asked, "How can we generate resources not just outside our activity but through our own activities so that it gets sustained?" Is profit-making and surplus by itself the one that is wrong and is capitalist? Or is it, as others technically say, the private appropriation of the surplus. And that in the process of rejecting private appropriation of the surplus, we have also rejected surplus production and have seen as almost dirty the whole of getting more value in the form of price and money for what we invest either as services, products, etc.

I pose it not as something easy to resolve or even a kind of slow slide to accommodate capitalism. A writer said, "If it is an unjust system anyway, better be the beneficiary rather than the victim. Even while we work for a system that is just." I do not think it is that at all. It is more a realization on my part that, properly interpreted in contemporary terms, in fact we have been doing that. And what do I mean? I do not know if you have heard the term social capital. Capital, especially as traditionally counterposed to labor, generically means caput, head, meaning it generates more. And many contemporary economists and ecologists are simply saying, "Human-made capital— financial, technological — it is only one capital if you have to take capital in its full sense. There is ecological capital — resources, not human-made. There is human capital in terms of skills. But there is a special capital which is called social capital — the organizational skills, the putting together of energies and of these different capitals. Social capital is really what is productive. Not just the human-made capital alone and not just human capital. It is the combination of these and the skill to combine these comes from people who can organize, put them together, manage them well and synergize them.

After 25 years, we have built-up considerable social capital in the Philippines. except that we invested that for a political project, and like a lot of capital invested in political projects, some of it got wasted. And if it does not get channeled to different appropriate enterprises, it will get frittered away. It is not permanent. It could dissipate. But I don’t think I am forcing an analysis when I say that yes, we have received quite a lot but we have invested it well. But like some good investors, there are some losses. I am sure some of our projects were poorly conceived and poorly implemented. But if you put it altogether, if the investment of people, money, resources and skills over the 25 years were some kind of a growth fund, we did not simply let it go to sleep. We risked it. And like all risks, maybe lost some. But like all risks also, produced not just vague satisfaction that we have done our bit but we have contributed to the building of capacities of people not only to survive, not only to resist but especially to participate, to negotiate, to create spaces. And in some cases, if we get lucky, even to achieve some measurable reforms and results.

Is this self-serving, defensive, almost clutching after straws? I don’t know. My own hypothesis is that if we break it down even into measurable items, I think we will come out not too bad. Of course, some things we could have done better. As a last point, I’d like one more insight. Here we talk about final judgment. But we are not talking about final evaluation. There is a discussion in the Philippines on sustainability that has moved from ecological, justice, or even financial to that of sustainable processes. In the end, how much of projects and programmes can we really handle and control? And how much of it is really bad temptation to say, ‘This is our project. That is our organization. These are our leaders."?

Maybe the business we should be in and the framework we should be using for evaluation is: Have we contributed? Have we helped design? Have we enabled participants to go into sustainable processes so that it is literally a movement?

At least a movement have indicators and milestones but what is more important is that it is continuous. It does not stop or worse, it does not rest complacent. If we talk of sustainability of processes, finance is part of that. But of course at the core of it are people, community, mutual-support, accompaniment and above all, spirit, energy, vision. And not just the vision of anger and dissatisfaction railing against injustice but also hope. If you look at the gospel, the whole thing about reward and punishment, the anger at those who oppose us or do us harm and the joy and feeling good having companions and achieving something.

There are actually two sides of the same spirit. I remember one of the earlier texts that spoke to me well was Brecht saying, "We who wished to establish kindness could not always be kind ourselves. And so when time has come when man has become brother to man please remember us with forebearance." And it was preceded by a statement saying, "Even railing against injustice knits the brow and therefore we who are supposed to celebrate hope and love and empowerment sometimes look frustrated." Counterposing the two, I think the spirituality — the sustain ability of the spirit -that we need for these sustainable processes still has to combine a sense of dissatisfaction, frustration, impatience but also more and more an appreciation, a celebration, in tact. And a putting ourselves in context saying, ‘We do our part. Of course we could do much better. The movement goes on. We are still part of it." And there is something there. But what forces us to have a final judgment? What we are having now are stages which are necessary conditions of the human consciousness. We are like cameras that can only take snapshots. But life itself is a process. And evaluation is like you freeze the frame and even while we have to do that, we should not stop and we should not have the illusion that our evaluation is a series of freezed frames. But rather, our evaluation should be "Have we contributed to and are continuing to con tribute to sustainable processes?" Because in the end, the judgment and the evaluation is not about us. It is about the people who we say we are part of. This one of the healthier developments over 25 years. There was a time the emphasis was on the organizer, the leader, the sponsors. Now we are saying that we are part of it too. We are also being fed, literally. We are also being sated in our thirst. We are also being accepted into the community. And that is also why this struggle, this movement is not simply something that promise a reward in the next life. As in the Bible, there is already a hundred-fold now.

As one of my fellow prisoners told his girlfriend, "Of course we have problems. But admit it, without your relation to me your life would have less drama. You will be less alive. You would have played too safe prematurely." Too safe, not taking risks. And therefore not also receiving and experiencing reward. And despite our frustration and looking at you here, I think not everyone comes with here with good news and interesting stories. Some are coming here with problems. But our story is a story of a very living, dynamic, exciting, controversial. But nice to talk about. And not just nice to talk about, forces us to dig deep into ourselves and to be as much as we can be. And that, I think, is also what we have contributed, in our own stumbling way, to people who we have touched through our URM-related programmes. We brought more trouble to their lives sometimes. But I think we have also stimulated, aroused and forced them to think through even if we do not fully agree right now.

What we agree on and what we should agree on is that after this not only do we continue learning lessons, taking risks, but also counting with blessing and with gratitude the rewards that have been promised and which we have experienced for those who take care of resources well, risked them not for risking’s sake, not for rewards’ sake but in this enterprise which remains valid of how to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter strangers, visit the sick and those in prison, in our times.

[This Bible Study was presented at the 26th URM Committee Meeting held in Bangkok, Thailand from 12-18 February 1995]