Bible Study

by Ed dela Torre


Scripture Text: Luke 9:10-17; Mark 8:1-10 6:30-44; Matthew 14:13-21; Jobn 6:1-14

I tried to develop Jae-Shik’s theme of paradigm shift but I could not find the text. So this is a continuation of the theme of "feeding the hungry". It is one of the few texts in all four gospels. I chose Luke because instead of eschaton (final judgment), he focuses on the "interim".

In the text, whether Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, there is a strong emphasis on compassion. I also draw your attention to the fact that before Jesus addresses feeding, he spoke to them about the kingdom of God. There was first a teaching, a preaching and then healing — so a lot of services were already there. Here it is clear that he did not start with bread first but teaching the word, healing.

But then it reminds me, in a sense, of (social) activists. We talk, we educate, we heal in terms of bringing people together. But part of the crisis that has been addressed to us especially social activists, more radical activists, is — do you ever feed? They say, "You raise consciousness, do you ever raise income?" We have these large visions; feed the heart; liberate people; make sacrifices. What do you do when people get hungry, get weary, the in-between?

The second point I want to raise is that the text mentions wilderness. Of course it has many connotations in the Bible but for contemporary concerns, you talk of a situation of diminished resources — desert. And if you were in a desert you will not talk about food. You will worry about drink -water. And also, with reference to Jae-shik’s talk yesterday about peace being North-centered, justice being South-centered and integrity of creation as both, made me also think yes, why bread and fish. You would expect if it is North, it is bread and meat or if it is South, it is rice and fish. But they put together bread and fish. This is an interesting combination. Anyway, these are just unwieldy thoughts stimulated by what is happening outside.

I’d like to move one step further — people are hungry, what is the impulse of the disciples? Send them away. Let them fend for themselves. Self-reliance. I would say that if you think strategically: if you give a person a fish, you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish! Develop the wilderness! That is fine strategically but what do we do immediately, urgently? Obviously we cannot be feeding them forever. You will be reinforcing dependence. Some people say, "Release, not relief." But I say some people need relief first. It is not an either-or thing.

I am struggling with this because I am trying to capture this "in-between" mood we have where, including Jae-shik’s challenge for alternative visions and basic strategies for empowerment, and we have to deal with moments like this — people are hungry and you are in the wilderness. Jesus said, "Let’s start with what we have." And the answer is, "We have even less than last year. What do we do?" His answer is, "Let’s start with what we have, break it up and distribute it." In the process it gets multiplied. Now there is where my own critical-rational background and faith clash. It is nice to make that leap, not just miraculously but rhetorically and say, "Yeah, it’s in sharing that we multiply." There is some truth there but it’s a little bit more than we can grasp with our limited minds and our limited spirit.

One of the heresies attacked by the Catholic church was the rationalist school which "de-constructed" this miracle story saying, "If it did happen, is there another explanation for it? It is an interesting miracle story but we should not look at it as ‘shazzam’. Isn’t it more rational to think that if people are going to listen to someone for three days, even if the men were foolish enough meaning, impetuous, head-strong, very politicized, not worrying about technical debates — at least the women, being more practical, will tell them to bring some food with you. So they brought some food enough for themselves but no one would bring it out. And then there is this little boy in John who foolishly enough gave his five loaves and two fish. I look at that little boy as symbolizing the second generation of URM. Foolish because it is not enough but he gives it anyway. And everyone gets so ashamed, they bring out their food. It turns out there is more than enough for everyone."

What is the greater miracle: to multiply the finance or to open the hearts and therefore the eyes that there are more resources if they were shared and if you took the risk of investing the little you have on a larger enterprise.

I am fascinated by that interpretation and I want to take off from that because in a sense it forces us to think through quite a lot of contemporary and very conjunctural issues in URM: limited resources, urgent need and compassion. I’d like to start with compassion. There has been a reaffirmation on mission starting with people in pain. And that is compassion - to feel with. I like to pose that that is only one-half of compassion. The other half of compassion is not just to identify with pain and suffering, but also to feel the potential and the power of the people. That people are in need but they also have what I call, at the very minimum, residual power and potential. That there is no structure so terrible and no situation so exploitative that people are left with absolutely zero. But you must have compassion for that, you cannot be just analytical. And then of course, obviously you must also feel some power within you just as you must feel pain within you to really feel compassion. And we need both.

But in our own self-criticism we say for example in the community organizing tradition in the Philippines, "We have over-emphasized the leader, the organizer, the support group. Almost to the point of saying that we are responsible for the empowerment of people rather than saying that we are the stimulus, we help, but in the end they must see it as their contribution, their feeling together, their resources. To quote from Lao Tsu, ‘There are three kinds of leaders. The bad leader, people hate. The good leader, people praise. But the really great leader, people say we did it ourselves!" And I think this is an important question and a very difficult one especially when we are asked as URM what did you do? Is there any direct relationship with what the people did themselves and the money you spent and the training you gave and the leadership you provided? Because in evaluation, we are evaluated and not just the net result which would probably come. from so many other sources including from the people themselves. How much credit can you take? Especially when you have to take some credit in order to justify your continued existence. It’s a dilemma. It’s a tension.

But the bigger tension is a commentary on this text which I would like to bring in from Central America. in Nicaragua, it came from a discussion we had with a theologian there who was part of the previous Kairos project we had, and we were thinking of a second Kairos process. We were having exchanges of initial views on the situation of respective countries and he was saying that the situation in the progressive movement in Nicaragua is almost like — because he was a clinical psychologist the situation of collective depression. And we said, "What is that?" And he said, "Like when you put a mouse in a box and whatever it does you inflict pain on it, it reaches a point when it is completely paralyzed because whatever it does, it gets hurt. Whatever it does is a mistake. Some of us are feeling that way." I said, ‘Well, we are not that bad." But then he wrote later and important reflection. He says, "This preferential option for the poor was there but it was underpinned and reinforced by an ideological-political analysis that gave it further power Marxist analysis, socialist analysis, revolutionary strategy. But this preferential option for the poor is not just some romantic affirmation of the poor. It is reinforced by analysis, history, strategy. Now that ideological-political analysis has either been undercut or abandoned by so many groups. So what about this preferential option for the poor that is not reduced to this ideological and political analysis. What remains there?"

And I think that is the issue of compassion. Because compassion is not just a matter of saying, ‘Well, I still stick with the poor. I still think with those suffering. I owe it to them." No, I don’t think it’s that. If that is all, it’s condescending. It is even some form of "shared-martyr" complex. Compassion is not just belief but an actual shared experience of some residual power. And not just residual power but power that can grow, develop and multiply, if shared.

That is the initial connection that the text has provoked in my consciousness in a situation where I was trying to grapple with our own interim evaluation and the situation of various progressive movements many of whom, explicitly or not, could fit in the URM tradition. How do we continue? How do we pursue not just in terms of clarifying visions, although that is crucial, but in terms of generating power to survive, to imagine, to explore, to debate? How do we provide leadership? How do we feed?

I read a commentary on the role of faith and the function of leadership. Christ did not say, "I healed you.". He said, "Your faith has healed you." Their faith is the one that has healed them. It is important to know that this question of belief means there is something in us, that there is power in us power that is not isolated but is linked with others in our case, religiously with the power of God, linked with friends, community. This dynamic, creative tension; a necessary stimulus; supportive from outside, enabling; but also a basic faith and then a methodology that really relies on people’s resources of spirit, material, financial and other resources.

One of my favorite texts in the bible is, "Lord I believe but please help my unbelief." Because I believe but analytically sometimes there is not much evidence and yet we have to believe whether it is in your people, in your community. For me it is a very meaningful and honest prayer for URM. We reaffirm, we reassert but we also say, "Have we invested in the right enterprise? Have we been deluded by ideology rather than faith? Have we interpreted our faith correctly? Could we not do something else?

Let us move on to my next and last point. To talk of faith and compassion is to explore not just vision but one of the keywords of URM and the difficult word is power. We talk of people’s power, people’s empowerment. Power as has been de-mythologized and demystified because it has been associated so much with unjust power and oppressive power in the Alinsky tradition, was simply the ability to act. I found an interesting definition from an American theoretician who did a study on leadership. He interviewed around 90 corporate and political leaders and is able to distill what they said about leadership and power. And he has an interesting definition of power which I think is good and I’d like to share it with you. He starts with a description. He says, "Power is basic energy to initiate and sustain action. Power is the capacity to translate intention into reality and sustain it." Now that is the challenge to us. Although the earlier challenge is to refine our intentions/vision. But even in the face of that challenge we have some basic intentions and visions that we hold onto. Where lies our capacity to translate intention into reality and especially to sustain it?

I do not have very clear answers. But I have two exploratory points. The first one is the key capacity that we have to recognize and build is the synergy that comes from a combination of bits and pieces. It is not separate building up. I don’t think there will even be a totally new element that we don’t know yet. The elements are all there but they have to be reorganized in a different way. I think we have to identify the elements and put them together. We have to challenge the local to be good but to link with the national, regional and global. But these are words and Jae-shik challenges us what is the infrastructure? What is the architecture and construction of that? But those are technical issues. The first issue is: where will the power come from? Will it come from something totally new? Will it come from a sudden increase of separate elements? Or will the new power come precisely because we have dared to combine in a new way which means risking; which means taking out your loaves and saying, "This is not enough but I’m willing to put it in a larger enterprise," and believing that the others have too and are willing to. And we might just get pleasantly surprised that we have more than enough. But again, "I believe but I doubt! I believe but help my unbelief." But where will be the guarantee? None. We will have to take the risk. And this is what we mean by leadership. Yesterday we had a very sharp comment from Jae-shik about the ecumenical movement saying, "There is no leadership!" Is that true? Will that apply to URM? Will it apply to all of us? Because it will not come so neatly a clear vision and then we work out the architecture and then we take the risk. It will happen simultaneously the visioning, the debate and yet the risking must already happen and will be literally an experiment. And as in real experiments, it has the possibility of failure.

But my point is we are talking interim. We are not talking final. We are talking transition. But if you take transition seriously, if you hold on, playing safe, with what you have, you will lose it anyway. But to risk it, there is at least a chance not only to keep it but to multiply. But can all these texts be engaged and drawn into very practical and strategic discussions in URM? Because these are the results of our faith. We have to tap ideologies, organizational analysis, etc. What do we tap from the resources of our faith that are more than inspirational? Are these useful, practical principles for action? I cannot say right now that I am absolutely convinced. I am scared. But then that is the whole point about digging deep into: what have I got that is really distinctly Christian-biblical even if my reading is informal, my experience have read so many other texts. And these are crucial elements.

Just as yesterday, Jae-shik challenged us to forgive. My God! It is contrary to wisdom contrary to short-term wisdom. But short term for us can mean 30-40 years. But here we are not to make decisions for the next 100 years but for the next decade, just entering into the 21st century. What kind of resources can we combine? What risks can we take? And what calculations of -7 success can we expect reasonably? But reason is a second act. Faith seeks understanding but it doesn’t begin with understanding -- it begins with commitment that it’s worth doing this together and that there is a promise that, "You risk it in my name, the least of my brethren, you will find it - find it and multiply it. You will not lose it. But if you play safe, you will lose it." Now, that is where the tension comes within me, and I’m sure within you because in a sense we deal with two mental worlds - one that dares to almost be mystical and one that is very calculative and pragmatic. And how do we put these two things together. I am glad I’m doing this in a Bible study7 so I’m allowed to be a little bit more messy than if I were giving an evaluation report which has to be more calculated. But I think that while we do evaluation and planning, there is an element of renewal that we should not miss. And that is the serious looking at each other but not just serious of challenging one another but a real affirmation of basic faith. What do we really believe in together? Because this is a shared thing.

The last item I want to talk about is a framework from Peter Drucker:



Judgement on Self




Protest or Career Change (+ -)

Effective Leadership

(+ +)


(- -)


(- +)


Judgement on Outcome

Our judgment are always at least two: on ourselves (collectively) and on the possible outcome. And depending on your combination, you will have four moods. We either think we are impotent or we are unworthy. So we cannot do it or we don’t deserve it. A feeling of a realistic self-confidence. And the other is: what do we think is the impact or the net result not only of our action but linking with other actions. So it is a dialectic in a sense, believing in God and believing in God within us in communion. In URM tradition, we are used to criticizing apathy low self-esteem, despair, resigned. It can even be misinterpreted religiously as sacred indifference.

The interesting ones are despondency and effective leadership. Some activists would say, "Things are going to change but I’m not part of that change." Or "I’m not the one who did it." You get despondent rather than be happy. But because your whole point is you do not only want changes but you want to be part of the changes, to be the ones who help bring it about, be the agents. But if you are not part of it, you get despondent. We can even turn on one another blame and criticize one another. The second one is - - the situation is not about to change but it’s worth changing but we simply cannot do it, so we emphasize protest, grievance. Or, career change because this project is not about to result in something immediately but I still have a lot of potentials so I shape it elsewhere.

The challenge is to combine a sense of hope that we can change things and hope that hings will change. They are inter-related but distinct. One is a process of affirmation of belief, of taking risks, community. And the other includes analysis, calculation, but it’s not a purely rational process. This is what I mean by vision is really ultimately formed by faith. It is reinforced by analysis like faith seeking understanding. But it is not a conclusion. And faith, in this case, is not simply believing in God, Jesus Christ but understanding that in a wholistic, communitarian, trinitarian sense of being part of this conception of power; that we are drawn into it. And that’s why strategically, the implication is to look for new forms of relationship, community and synergy. Look for a trinitarian architecture for our network, if you want to be explicitly Christian about it. On the other hand since we are in Asia, we interact with different religious traditions and language, it might not be so useful to make that primary emphasis. But I think within the Christian tradition, it’s good to explore that because in a sense our theology and images about God and Christ influence our conception of power, salvation and community. I used to wonder why so much energy was wasted on the discussion on trinity. Now I’m realizing that it is actually a very central issue because if we are made in the image of God and God is a basic Christian community rather than a unitary power — that has implications even for models of society and politics. The divine economy - the relationship to us and the eternal relationship of the trinity - is relevant to our search for new combinations and new paradigms.

Well, it’s a long way from multiplying bread and fish — the architecture of URM in the transition. The bottomline is we have to address both the strategic visioning, architecture and the tactical interim. But these two are not separate asking for two different disciplines. There are certain commonalities that are essential, crucial if we are to remain what we are. In our strategies we can do various compromises. We can differ in approaches but there are certain things we must agree on. What we say is not enough but share it even if you think it’s not.enough. You must dare bring it out and you must put it in the community. You set the example. You do it.

My own dissatisfaction or uneasiness in anticipating tomorrow s discussion on evaluation is that we were not able to address explicitly: with these nice discussion about future directions, are we going to do it with existing resources? With less resources? Or with more resources? And what will be new resources? Do we mean only money? Do we mean people, generation? Or do we mean technologies-methodologies? And in the end, for me, the key resource is the spirit. Are we still committed? Do we still believe? Do we intend to persist? Or are all these discussions, calculations, debates happening in a situation of diminished faith, energy, hope and sense of fellowship, community? Because if that is diminished then, I think, we are in a bigger crisis. But if that is something we renew, with a reaffirmation and faith and sharing that, I think we can solve the others. Not automatically but with hope.

If you look again at Matthew 25 there was so much about visiting, taking in - this solidarity; this whole sense of community. It is a very fragile thing. It’s very soft. It’s very hard to give it definition. You know that — URM cannot be put in a very strict box. But it’s real. Now what we are being challenged to do is to identify the levels of interaction and sharing and to use money as only one indicator. Or even use programs as one indicator.

I’ve gone beyond the mandate of biblical reflection. But I thought that part of setting example is also taking risks. So I take another risk to challenge us. But not just to challenge but when we do our theology, we are offering to the churches not simply as a challenge to their consciences. That is expected. We do our theology as a resource for renewal. So that we don’t just blame or challenge or ask them to do more but we also communicate a resource and help them open their eyes to the power that still remains waiting to be tapped within our Christian tradition, within the Christian community and especially in our interaction with the larger human community.

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