The Theological and Ecumenical Significance of URM:
Some Suggestive Notes

by Dr. FelicianO V. Carino
National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP)



"Suggestive notes" is what this paper is about. It is not meant to establish a theological agenda or to preempt theological discussion by others already providing a theological perspective of Urban Rural Mission (URM). It is rather offered to provide a background for some exploration into the theological and ecumenical significance of URM by looking at some antecedent discussions within the ecumenical movement, in general, and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), in particular, and to suggest within that background some areas of future work and affirmation. I am assuming here that the primary interest of this consultation is to examine where URM is, or might be, within the present configuration of ecumenical concerns and within the present context of realities and conditions of the Church and society in Asia.

URM Concerns in an Ecumenical Context

The words "poor" and "people" recur constantly and dominantly in all the activities and reports of the work of URM. They constitute the pivotal points around which the concerns of URM have been riveted and towards which URM’s energies have been directed. They have also constituted the focal points of entry for URM’s contribution towards the understanding of ecumenical work and the renewal and transformation of the meaning of the theological enterprise. Some historical notes of the ecumenical interest of these two themes are instructive as we look into what needs to be done in the years ahead.

i. Strange as it may seem, in the history of the ecumenical movement, references to "poverty" or to the "poor" are relatively recent. Hans J. Van der Bent in Vital Ecumenical Concerns notes that it was only after 1968 that even some minor allusions to "poverty" and the "poor" began to appear in ecumenical considerations. One single sentence in the report of the assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948 stated: "Christians who are beneficiaries of capitalism should try to see the worldas itappears to many who know themselves excluded from its privileges and who see in communism a means of deliverance from poverty and insecurity." The WCC New Delhi Assembly in 1961 produced one rather awkward sentence on poverty: "The Christian is not afraid of change, for he knows how heavy are the burdens of poverty and privation carried today by the majority of mankind." A Conference of Church and Society on "Rapid Social Change" at Thessalonica, Greece, in 1959 concluded that modern technology makes possible the eradication of poverty and that the right use of world resources and partnership in world development is imperative. Earlier assemblies of both the East Asia Christian Conference (EACC) and the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) yielded only a single insignificant mention of poverty. Even the World Conference on Church and Society held in Geneva in 1966, concerned with the technical and social revolutions at the time and global economic development, surprisingly bypassed the issue of poverty.

ii. It was only at the consultation "Ecumenical Assistance to Development Projects" held in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1968 that reference to ‘injustice and the cruelty of poverty" began to dramatically enter ecumenical consciousness. Samuel L. Parmar, a prominent leader of CCA, was among those who provided dramatic input that drew attention to the issue of poverty among nations and the ecumenical challenge which this posed.

From this point onward, the issue of poverty as the fulcrum from which the question of justice must be understood became a dominant theme of ecumenical life around which both the meaning of ecumenical witness and ecumenical fellowship began to be revised. The "patterns of poverty in the Third World," "to set at liberty the oppressed" and "towards a Church of the poor" began to be the dominant themes of ecumenical discussion. It was around these themes, for example, that an ecumenical understanding of development began to emerge in which development was defined as a historic process in which people as the subjects and primary beneficiaries of development struggle for economic survival and growth, self-reliance and independence, liberation and human dignity.

It was also around these themes that a new understanding of the role of the ecumenical movement, of the churches and of the task of theology began to emerge. The churches and the ecumenical movement are: first, to join in the struggle of the poor against domination and oppression rather than try to direct it along predetermined lines; second, to incarnate in their own lives and in their theological affirmations the central role of the poor in history, God’s special and preferential option for the poor as the Medellin Conference of 1968 has so eloquently proclaimed; and third, to interpret "the reality of the Gospel through the experience of the poor in their struggle for justice and wholeness and to amplify these experiences so that others can hear."

The lines from Richard Dickinson’s Poor, Yet Making Many Rich summarize the theological and ecumenical import of these themes:

"The strength of the people themselves is transformed as that struggle [the victory of the justice of God over evil in history] is revealed to be the dynamic of the messianic kingdom. People discover themselves as the subject of the Kingdom, moving through their actions towards justice, koinonia and shalom for all humanity."

iii. Within CCA, the recognition of the "poor" was immediately linked with the affirmation of a theological and political option for "people" as the starting point for its work.

Early in its history in 1964, CCA hinted at this affirmation by adopting as a theme of its assembly in Bangkok, Thailand, "The Christian Community within the Human Community." This was followed by similar themes at succeeding assemblies: "Jesus Christ in Asian Suffering and Hope" in 1977 in Penang, Malaysia; "Living in Christ with People" in 1981 in Bangalore, India; "Jesus Christ Sets Free To Serve" in 1985 in Seoul, Korea; and "Christ Our Peace: Building a Just Society" last year in Manila, Philippines.

Between assemblies, various program units of CCA pursued the theme of "people as the subjects of history" that later led to the "subjects of the Church’s mission." For example, the CCA Commission on Theological Concerns held a Consultation on Political Vision in Hong Kong that centered its discussion on the theme of "Towards the Sovereignty of People." The consultation was held in response to a mandate from the Bangalore Assembly:

"Living in Christ with people obviously means that we need to give more concerted attention to the question of how and in what shape we may give an account of the hope that is within us in the political life of our societies. It poses questions about the idiom and character of our political theology; about the ethical dimensions of power and political life; about the theological evaluation of ideologies, cultures and political visions; and about the shape of the social order towards which we want to work."

What the consultation, in short, tried to answer was the question, "What theological and political shape may be given to the affirmation ‘we opt for people’?"

Indeed, over the past two decades, the one theme that has provided focus to the varied activities of CCA has been the commitment "we opt for people" and the effort to explore and give active expression of this commitment in the understanding of the life and mission of the Church.

The Role of URM

What is clear and unquestionable in all of these activities is that URM has been one of the primary vehicles through which these emphases and concerns have been initiated, maintained and pursued in the ecumenical movement in general and in CCA in particular. It has been at the forefront, not only by the theological perspectives and positions it has espoused and enunciated and the programs and activities it has undertaken, but more importantly by the organizational work it has done among the poor, the marginalized and oppressed sectors of society and the linkages of solidarity it has built among people who "suffer and are oppressed but who struggle and seek their liberation," and who, "in their struggle, become the bearers of the struggle for justice and humanity." It has been apart of the prophetic edge in the life of the ecumenical movement and of the icon through which the suffering, struggles and aspirations of the poor and the oppressed have been concretely presented in theological and ecumenical life.

i. Beyond any other contribution, the active organizational work of URM and the support it has given to the linkages of solidarity among the "poor," e.g., industrial workers, peasants, the urban poor - even shoeshine boys, bar girls, peddlers and beggars - has been its main source of influence and power. It has made the issue of the "poor~~ and of "the people" not a theoretical and an abstract issue but an organized presence in the life of the Church and the ecumenical movement, which both can neither escape nor neglect.

In providing an organized presence of the "poor" in the ecumenical movement, it has also instigated the necessity in ecumenical and theological life of looking at reality and religious life from the perspective of those who are the victims of the present economic, social and political structures of society. The URM network has been both the seed and the vehicle out of which a broader and more socially conceived ecumenicity has been presented as a challenge to, if not an alternative for, the present conception of ecumenical life. It has brought to ecumenical life in the process various people and groups that were not there previously, giving substance to the vision that the ecumenical movement is and, indeed, should be about the "whole inhabited world."

ii. The significance of this organizational practice and solidarity with the "poor and the marginalized" to the theological and pastoral life of the Church constitutes one of the primary cutting edges and frontiers of the life and mission of the Church.

a. From the standpoint of content, it has presented a way of looking at the Gospel and of understanding the meaning of the action of God in history. The report of a consultation on "Christian Option for People," of which URM was one of the principal sponsors, summarizes succinctly what this involves:

"We opt for people because we see in their suffering and struggle and in their aspiration for an alternative social order the logic of the Gospel itself, the Good News of God ‘who brings down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly.’ We opt for people because God opted for people, because God in Jesus Christ was among the people as their pastor, companion, comforter and advocate and as the bearer of the ‘good news’ of their liberation. We think.. .that in opting for the people we are touching in its depths the meaning of God’s work in the world, Christ’s ministry and our calling and the roots of renewal for the life and mission of the Church. In this sense, to opt for people is an imperative of the Gospel and constitutes the cost of discipleship for the Church and the Christian."

b. From the standpoint of method, what this means is exemplified in the theologies of struggle in the Philippines and of the minjung (people) in Korea. As David Suh has written, "Minjung theology is an accumulation and articulation of theological reflections on the political experiences of Christian students, laborers, the press, professors, farmers, writers and intellectuals as well as theologians in Korea" who have been involved and have suffered in the struggle for the transformation of Korean society. It is a "theology of the oppressed, a theological response to the oppressors and the response of the oppressed to the Korean Church and its mission."

Similarly, what is involved "in the emergence of the theology of struggle is the active discovery of, and immersion by, Christians in the primary reality of Philippine society. That reality is the collective, majority existence of millions of hungry, poor, deprived and oppressed people who for so long have often been the invisible objects of Christian Concern and charity but who have remained in the margins of social and political life. ..It is precisely out of this active discovery and immersion in the suffering and struggles of these millions of poor, deprived and oppressed people that the primary shape and character of a theology of struggle has emerged. It is also from this pathetic anguish and prophetic struggle of the people that the theology of struggle takes on the primary commitment from which it reflects upon the logic and meaning of God’s love and redemption for the world,"

Methodologically, what this means is that theology is a "secondary" and not the "primary act." A previous act, a commitment on the social plane, precedes it and becomes the substance and the locus out of which the meaning of God’s action in the world is understood. To put it more politically, theology is reflection upon one’s immersion and involvement in people’s suffering and struggle undertaken in the light of God’s purposes for human fulfillment and the redemption of the whole of Creation. Furthermore, it is words and deeds rendered for the purpose of releasing the resources of power within the people, of making available the resources of the Church and of the Christian tradition for them in order to enhance their participation and "sovereignty" over their lives and their societies.

iii. The ideological import of both the organizational practice and theological formation of URM is considerable. The ideological question is inevitable because in any act or proposition that has any social import the questions by whom, for whom or against whom and in whose behalf such an act or proposition is being undertaken are always involved. The ideology of a social actor or a social proposition is the response to these questions.

Ideology can thus be either direct or indirect, explicit or tacit. To raise the ideological question in this context is to make explicit what is tacitly assumed or to make direct what is indirectly held regarding these questions. As the Penang consultation on "Political Vision" stated, "The ideological question is vitally important in the work of social transformation because it involves (1) the naming of the structures that need to be changed; (2) identifying those who will support change and those who will oppose it; (3) an overall strategy for achieving change; and (4) alternative economic, political and cultural structures that are to be put in place."

Thus, URM has been in the forefront of the ideological discussion in CCA. By its organizational practice with the poor and its theological perspective that God opts for people, it assumes a basic organizational, theological and ideological principle from which it moves and undertakes its work. The theological principle that God is with and opts for people becomes also the ideological principle of being with and opting for people. URM cannot, without changing its basic character, be restricted by the increasingly prevalent notion that we need to simply deal with practicalities and not with ideologies. Social and economic practicalities do have ideological components.

URM In the Future?

The theological and ecumenical legacy out of which URM has grown and which it has spawned and contributed is clear, critically important and crucial to the life and mission of the Church and the future of the ecumenical movement. The commitments it has made and the options it has chosen are equally clear. We need simply to echo the words of the Singapore consultation on "The Christian Option for the People" in 1987:

"We reaffirm that commitment and would like to commend to the churches that our theological task as Christians and our efforts at understanding the mission of the Church in Asia today be located within this basic and primary option. We think that it is only within this option that we can give birth to new and relevant theological perspectives; grasp more fully who Jesus Christ is for us today; give shape to new expressions of the life and witness of the churches; and name a common political future that is faithful both to the people and the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Keeping this basic perspective in mind, there are a number of considerations that need to be openly examined that are outlined below.

i. The organizational work and solidarity network of URM must be maintained and strengthened. There are signs that people’s organizations have been weakened and their linkages and medium of solidarity have not been as solid as they have been in the past. If this is the case, then it must not be allowed to continue.

On the contrary, the organization and linkages of people’s organizations, which has been the forte of URM, must be expanded into countries where they have not been present in the past and through structures and strategies that have not been explored previously. In an environment where considerations of structure in ecumenical life have tended to stunt prophetic ecumenical vision, in a world where preoccupation with armaments and realignments of power and alliances have tended to make people’s voices inaudible, people’s suffering and oppression invisible and "people’s power" nothing more than fodder for the manipulation and utility of traditional powers and principalities, the task of insuring an organized, vibrant and coherent "people’s presence" in the ecumenical movement is crucial. The same task is also crucial in insuring that people’s suffering and aspirations are not overlooked and given "benign neglect" in a world where people’s suffering and oppression still constitute the majority reality of social and political life.

ii. The "option for people," of which the URM has been the primary bearer in ecumenical life, must be pursued with greater cogency and rigor than in the past. The question of looking critically into the shape and vision of political life that is commensurate with the "option for people" that was investigated by the Commission on Theological Concerns and URM in the past remains an unfinished task. The political and ideological condition of Asia and the world makes vital and urgent the pursuit of this question.

In addition to its active organizational work, URM must become part of a more concentrated study to give substance to the "hope that is within us" in the arena of political life. A more vibrant theological exchange and exploration must be put into motion of which URM must be involved to insure that the "view from the underside" cannot be avoided or overlooked.

iii. The ideological task must not be abandoned. While we cannot afford to be locked into old ideological formations that may have become effete, if not irrelevant, it is profoundly dangerous to allow presumed concerns for practicalities to cover pernicious and bankrupt ideological presuppositions that are patently anti- people.

While the expressions of socialism of the past, for example, may have lost their appeal if not their efficacy, we need nevertheless to lay hold of the "socialist dream." This dream has at its core the belief in the widest political freedom and participation possible that is buttressed by an equitable distribution and ownership of the instruments and benefits of economic life. It insists on the idea that ordinary people can rise to articulation and self-rule. Formerly, what this has meant, for the most part, is the working class. Now it must include a much wider range of the population: all of the exploited and misused - the racial minorities, women, the indigenous peoples - the largest mass of humanity.

Furthermore, what is involved here is faith in the capacity of ordinary people, not necessarily to become experts in politics or economics, but to reach sensible, humane conclusions about the major directions of common life and of government policy. This approximates as closely as possible to what it means theologically to say that "God opts for people." Without this, not only is socialism dead but democracy also and all that we have in mind when we talk about the "subjectivity and sovereignty" of people.

iv. Although URM must continue its dogged pursuit of justice based on its commitment to people, it must begin to place this concern within the emerging ecumenical concern for the interrelatedness of justice, peace and the integrity of Creation. While it must continue to "opt for people," it must also affirm the peace of Jesus Christ" and join in the search for the "full meaning of God’s peace." Furthermore, it must affirm in its life and work that "Creation is beloved of God" and that "the Earth is the Lord’s."

URM must begin tobepart of the search for a "theology of Creation" and to affirm in all that it does and insure in all that it seeks for the future of the world and of people that Creation, as God’s handiwork, "has its own inherent integrity: that land, waters, air, forests, mountains and all creatures are good." By adopting such a theology, all of these forces of life maintain their own "dignity" and assume a social aspect that needs to be recognized as an essential element in the social and political life of humanity as it transforms itself. This is in addition to its contribution to the maintenance and renewal of a sustainable natural order. In this context, URM must build resistance into its program and work against anything that claims that "Creation is merely a resource for human exploitation," and it must challenge any plans or policies by anyone which contribute to the disintegration of God’s Creation.

In summary, a stronger organization and network; a continued and more concentrated exploration of the meaning of the theology and ideology of people; and a sense of the interrelatedness of justice, peace and the integrity of Creation should, in short, be the theological and ecumenical hallmarks of URM as it moves from what has been a major role in the ecumenical movement to an even greater theological and ecumenical significance in the future.

(This paper was presented at the Consultation on the Theological/Ideological Basis of URM in Asia, September 1991, Bangkok, Thailand.)