30 Years of URM in Asia - A Critique

by OH Jae Shik


A Generation of Witness

"Nearly all the friends and comrades of my youth are dead, hundreds of them: nationalists, anarchists, terrorists, communists. But they are alive in me. Where their graves should be, no one ever cared. On the battlefields and execution grounds, on the streets of city and village, their warm revolutionary blood flowed proudly into the soil of Korea, Manchuria, Siberia, Japan and China. They failed in the immediate thing, but history keeps a fine accounting. A man’s name and his brief dreams may be buried with his bones, but nothing that he has ever done or failed to do is lost in the final balance of forces. This is his immortality, his glory or his shame. Not even he himself can change this objective fact, for this is history. Nothing can grant him escape. His only individual decision is whether to move forward or backward, whether to fight or submit, whether to create value or destroy it, whether to be strong or weak."--- Kim San, Korean.

I begin with this quotation to pay homage to martyrs of the struggle in Asia. They are nameless. They are faceless. They don’t even have numbers that we can refer to. But they represent a multitude of people and ideas that have expressed faith in humanity and shaped the irreversible movement of history. Kim San was a patriotic fighter of Korean independence during the 1920s and 30s. His stage of activity was mainly in China and he died in his 20s. Owing solely to Nim Wales who recounted faithfully her dialogue with Kim San we are now able to meet him. No matter how one defines his stance in history, I was deeply touched by her account of Kim San’s activities. Kim San could have been one of the nameless had it not been Nim Wales’ journalistic curiosity. So let me invite you to pay tribute to our predecessors and especially our contemporaries who have advanced the history of Asia this far. It is most appropriate for us to do so before talking about a movement of human liberation in Asia that URM movement is related to.

The Korean URM celebrated its 30th anniversary last year and Indian UIRM is not far behind in terms of age. While it is difficult to pinpoint a specific beginning of Asian URM history, if one recalls 1958 Asian industrial missioners consultation in Manila, then it goes back 30 some years. It was in 1968 when the forerunner of CCA, EACC began to have a part timer on urban industrial mission in the person of Rev. Harry Daniel. In any case, we are talking about a generation or more in this ministry. It has been an inspiring but costly ministry when we trace the footsteps of our forerunners in light of historical context in Asia during the period. Many of those who came before us were murdered or disappeared. Some were tortured and physically destroyed. Some suffered from burnout and felt isolated.

Many we have forgotten and kept outside of camp and being blamed. We are also responsible for the pronouncements we made and agitations we advocated in a process of organizing. These were taken by many people as a sign of our commitment, generating rather genuine expectations on the part of many people. In retrospect, we were not faithful to what we have stated and we were not realistic in presenting an ideologically tinted projection of a new society yet to come. Of course, there is a dilemma in history between the ideals to which we subscribe and our capacity to realize them. Realization of such dilemma and shortcomings should not, however, discourage us from engaging in historical situations. This acknowledgement will make us more realistic while riding on ideals.

Furthermore, we must also register our appreciation for our numerous supporters all over the world. In general they have supported us in trust without knowing exactly where their support will lead us or them. Lastly, but by no means least, let us bear in mind those who are still paying the price for their involvement in the cause one way or the other, but have fallen and out of contact. It is in this context and with these thoughts that I begin my remarks on the strengths and weaknesses of URM.

1. Dogmatization of ‘local’

No doubt, the emphasis on local action has been the strength of the URM movement. There would be no dispute that URM made its impact and contribution for the entire ecumenical movement on the basis of its support for local action. As time passes, however, a double-edged dilemma has risen around the notion of ‘local’; that is on the one hand one had to make ‘local’ an ideology and on the other to put local as subordinate to national or international. In many cases ‘local’ has been understood as a basic human community which has universal implications. The anthropological dimension of local rather than geographical has a universal character that cannot be placed subordinate to national or to national politics. In other words, basic human needs, for instance, as seen in the local setting have universal claims over those arising out of national politics. The limitation of nation-state politics of accommodating basic demands and general aspirations of people at the community level has been exposed vividly over the last three decades.

I realize that there is a latent but sometimes overt tendency of making local an ideology. By this I mean an attitude which is emphasizing the ‘local’ exclusively thereby making it an extra-territorial. The defense of the local exclusively tends to isolate it. An ideological perception of the local tends to close it, thereby limiting its openness to building wider coalitions. An emphasis on local and authentic involvement should be confined to the geographical limit.

Another dilemma is to make local subordinate to the national. An ideological or dogmatic perception of local would result in a similar situation. This attitude is more of a conventional or traditional understanding of local. In a situation where political powers are concentrated at the center, the local agenda becomes more vulnerable and people tend to think that any and all solutions must start from the center. This is also true in a traditional society where the web of social organization is more authoritarian. In such situations, the tendency is to move to the center for any solution of local problems making local a stepping stone or a jumping board.

My point is that neither isolating the local or making it a transitional locus is helpful in perceiving our action on local level. Like in any other area of action, a dogmatic perception of an issue tends to limit our capacity rather than enhance it. Needless to say, local action and initiative cannot survive without support from the national and international side especially in an authoritarian society. Any shortcomings of URM in this respect should come from a fact it insists on remaining as a peer group and resists institutionalization.

2. Charisma and Institution

Normally charisma is associated with individual talents or gifts and is related to the personality of leaders. Therefore, the rise and fall of an individual can determine the wave of a movement which is tied with that charismatic individual. URM was initiated in its inception by committed individuals in response to inhumane situations of urban and industrial societies. In general, it remained as a voluntary movement based on individuals’ decision for the movement. Voluntarism has its strength, insofar as it is inspired and charged by altruistic religious spirituality. The weakness of voluntarism is in its tendency towards spontaneity rather than discipline, personal taste rather than collective decision and its romanticism than rationalism. This has damaged many movements.

The first generation of URM activists dedicated their lives for the cause. Their charismatic leadership was the main source of inspiration for the next generation to take up the cause. But charisma cannot be succeeded unless it is institutionalized. Without institutional succession, original charisma will become distorted and privatized, left at the whim of the next generation. It is in the interest of the following generation to do away with image and influence of the previous generation. But in so doing, it tends to destroy the charisma as well. Elimination of the charisma of previous generation does not necessarily mean creation of another, for charisma cannot be manufactured at will.

This is one kind of dilemma URM is facing today, in my opinion. For many good reasons, URM is reluctant to institutionalize itself. Moreover, it does not have the means to inherit the charisma which initiated the movement. URM’s reluctance towards institutionalization flows from different reasons. Perhaps one would be a nostalgia for its earlier self-image. No doubt URM was prophetic and courageous and brought profound inspiration to the ecumenical movement as a whole. Second, it is conscientious about the church institutions that it has to work within. There is legitimate fear that in the institutionalization process it might be absorbed into mechanism of the larger institution, thereby losing its creativity. Third, a growing awareness of ideological self-understanding has become more manifest in recent years. An ideological understanding of self, however, needs to be differentiated from an ideological stipulation of goal. An ideological understanding of goals is a unifying factor, generating systematic driving force towards the goal. But an ideological manifestation of self leads to self-justification, putting oneself over against the other. There is a pitfall in an ideological self-portrait for it tends to standardize oneself and seriously limit one’s creativity.

The question still remains as to how best URM’s spirit and its strength may be carried forth without being co-opted by institutions. My tentative response to the question is that it should institutionalize itself to a certain extent. URM must realize the fact that it has come for more than a generation and there is a need to rationalize its charisma for the sake of continuity. In general, it is the case of any social movement. The success of its original goal will then depend on its willingness to change rather than assertion to remain the same.

3. Organizing Others But Self

URM’s advocacy for organizing the poor for power has been its strength. The poor, organized and motivated, fighting for their own destiny has been a living testimony of the validity of URM’s existence. There is no dispute that the methodology of organizing has been one of the most positive aspects of the churches’ role in the industrialization process.

Having said that, however, let me now look into some negative aspects of URM’s efforts in organizing. First of all, organizing others for power should mean to organize oneself out of the situation. Unfortunately, there are only a few instances in which this principle is being implemented. In other words, while helping others organize locally, URM does not organize itself accordingly. Consequently, its capacity to adjust itself to a new emerging situation is lowered. Thus URM remains static and its relationship with the community remains the same. To put it in more harsh words, URM romanticizes local organizing by leaving the basic local community on its own once it is organized. Leaving the local community without creating backup measures makes it vulnerable target of either bigger power games or internal conflicts of interest that inevitably emerge with success. Multiplying local organizations, therefore, cannot become a point of credit unless such organizations are made sustainable.

Organizing without wider political goals would make URM guilty of another, more sophisticated form of paternalism. Setting the goal of local organizing per se, and ending there would be analogous to the theory of ‘invisible hand’ in market economy. I realize that my argument at this point may look like a contradiction to my earlier remark; -- that one should organize oneself out of a situation. Let me try to illustrate. Suppose we need to have 3 stage system to attain some degree of assured change in modern socio-political setting. Perhaps, we know intellectually what steps need to be taken but in actual process we only go the first step and stop there. Now this is not to say that URM gives up hope beyond that point. On the contrary, it entrusts its hope in ‘invisible hand’ -- in this case the ‘power of people’. But the ‘power of people’ is a myth, and this myth plays a dynamic role in the first stage booster. But when it comes to a matter of sustained change or the lasting effect of change then the myth often betrays its aspirations. In other words, URM does not prepare the local community for the second and third stage booster. There lies my reason of calling it ‘romanticism.

Such romanticism is three-fold. It goes with the idealization of local action in the first place, then organizing and lastly with moving from the first stage to the subsequent stages of power building. URM was a pioneer in breaking the churches’ romanticism about charity work. But URM became trapped by the same romanticism in ending with the first stage-organizing. In the Machiavellian jungle of the power game it is indeed romantic to expect that the first stage -- an organized local community -- can survive by its own right and power.

4. Struggle for Social Change, National Politics and Local Organizing

Local organizing has validity in voicing people’s demands for justice. Many times, people make their demands moral ones through their dedication and sacrifice in the struggle. To have moral demands heard, however, there must first be moral authority established in a society which can hold the power elite responsible. But experiences have proven that setting up moral standards is not a powerful enough tool for effecting social change. Moral authority must be built on a broad legitimate base. But it is difficult to build such authority in a society where state power controls the means and steps of legitimatization process. Control of the media, suppression of intermediary groups and the manipulation and rigging of elections are some such measures. Thus the focus of the people’s struggle is centered around the legitimacy of people’s demand for more justice as opposed to a state-manufactured legitimacy in defense of the power elite’s interests.

Anyone who is for social change which is sustainable through peaceful means will see a dangerous point in people confronting state power directly especially when it is manifested in military forces. Often this pattern ends in paying the high price of the loss of innocent lives. Even if ‘people’s power’ brings the state power down, the task of building democratic institutions remains yet to be done. At that point furthermore, it may already be too late to start to build those institutions after the change of power because interim vacuum may be filled by worse evils.

In light of such situation, I would like to argue for the importance of organizing the second and third stage boosters for social change. Social institutions such as trade unions, the press/media, cooperatives, universities, lawyers organizations, medical practitioners, women’s organizations and any other interest groups need to be touched and built properly for each one of them, separately or collectively will play a role in establishing democratic system of governing. In saying this, however, I am fully aware of a pitfall that those intermediary groups once organized will seek their own self-interest over against those of the poor and the powerless. Such pitfalls may be lessened to a large extent, by placing a priority emphasis on the first stage of booster. Of course, there is no guarantee that any social institution will develop as was expected at its inception. We have to live with the evil nature of human beings and institutions when it is a necessary process.

Because grassroots organizations do not have support from intermediary groups, people’s demands on structural and policy changes at national level tend to take the form of the student movement model. I am aware that in many Asian countries proper democratic intermediary groups are either non-existent or being co-opted by the state powers. Having these factors in consideration and perhaps because of the very fact that people put little trust in any of the national platforms, including political parties, they themselves champion national issues. Student movements can be contrasted with, for instance, trade union movements in this respect. Students tend to advocate an ideological stance but with no organized political power to implement it. They claim moral demands without necessarily having the support of religious or other organizations. They aspire to be a national platform in themselves but without clear members or followers. Such an approach tends to make demands of an ultimate nature and places less importance of negotiation. Their advocacy is aiming more at general mobilization than organizing solid members. Finally, the leadership is very much on ad-hoc basis and last for a short period.

In summary, the more one group is organized the less it become idealistic in putting its demands. Also a group with power will know that coming to negotiating table is more realistic than putting ultimate moral demands. Needless to say, immoral power must be challenged on moral grounds. The point I am making here is to stress the importance of organizing as much as possible. Local organizing is not enough for meaningful social change. We need to think of building people’s power more systematically and realistically. Otherwise, our advocacy for empowering people can create further frustrations on the part of people, and it is they who have to bear the heaviest cost when such efforts fail.

5. Caring for Vision

Vision does not emerge in isolation or out of context. It is an outcome of the collective efforts of those who are in common struggle. Vision, therefore, does not automatically succeed from one generation to the next. It needs to be nurtured and cared constantly. Especially for URM when it is facing a change of generation , this question of upholding the original vision becomes a matter of importance.

On this subject, I would like to draw URM’s attention to the generation that preceded it. In that category there are people who have devoted a good part of their lives to the URM movement yet feel that they have failed and are being left out. There are those who are exhausted and become physically ill. There are those whose families have fallen apart because of their persistence to commitment. There are those who have been destroyed, physically and mentally due to torture and persistent intimidation. I would say that caring for them is related to nurturing our vision. It is as equally important as we go out and recruit new cadres for combat. In a simple military strategy one has to consolidate the rear constantly lining up engineers and logistics properly as the front line expands. No strategist would indulge in expansion of front line alone, forgetting logistic supply lines. By the same token, a generation before you is an important spiritual reservoir for your morale in combat. An air of exhaustion is contagious and plays divisive role in a movement. The spread of this exhaustion can be faster than a call from the battlefield. Therefore, vision for the URM movement is something to be nurtured and cared for. Vision is not an accidental happening but an outcome of strenuous collective efforts.

Thank you for caring and for your attention.

[This paper was presented at the CCA-URM Committee Consultation: 20-26 January 1989, Taipei, Taiwan]