Friday, August 25, 2006

Of Gardens and Weeds

Voice 1:

Almost 30 years ago, the whole UTS community—those who believed in what the “school of the prophets” stood for—rose up and resisted the planned merger of the seminary and PCU. Dr. Levi Oracion cautioned that the merger cannot vouchsafe the kind of autonomy and integrity that UTS has enjoyed since 1907. He added: “The administration, the faculty, the staff, and the entire student body of UTS are opposed to the merger.” Unfortunately, their collective voices were set aside.

Within ten years of the merger’s implementation, the graduating class of Union Theological Seminary held, what I would like to call, a commencement exercise of protest. They marched with placards, streamers, and a coffin, and with their black armbands, they mourned the death of theological education.

In December 12, 2002, seminarians, staff, faculty, and administrators challenged church leaders to remember that “God gave UTS stewardship of this land. This covenant constrains us to be faithful caretakers of this land. In the name of Christian unity, justice, and sanctity of theological education and ministry, we request and pray the return of the land to its rightful steward.”

Today, UTS continues to be trapped within a system that has robbed it of control over the land and other resources it was entrusted to use for ministry, a system that has turned it into a colony, subject to the whims and caprices of the powers-that-be based in Manila, a system that operates with utmost disregard for transparency and basic decency, a system that has turned it into a willing accomplice to a host of unjust and oppressive labor practices.

The merger did not work then. It does not work now.

If the once great UTS died with the implementation of the merger in 1978, what do we have now? A ghost of the past? PCU’s divinity school or department of religion? Or an executed seminary being raised back to life?

Voice 2:

Gaius Plinius Secundus (or more popularly known as Pliny the Elder) in his Natural History 19.170-171 wrote that “mustard [sinapi kokkos] …grows entirely wild… and when it is sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

The mustard in the parable was a wild weed shrub that grew to about five feet or even higher. Even in their domesticated form they were a lot to handle. Mustard in a well-kept garden not only spread beyond expectations but also attracted birds of all forms thus disturbing the natural balance of a well-manicured garden, with the birds’ unpredictable feeding habits, and worse, their droppings. St. Francis of Assisi, who, as legend has it, was very close to wild creatures, and who, as the story goes, would not even hurt a fly, was also against the pulling out of weeds.

Gardeners, of course, did not want weeds in their gardens. They did not want wild mustard at all cost. They spend time creating the perfect balance in their gardens: putting in the best, throwing out the worst. A well-manicured garden has no room for wild mustard so they cut mustard young and at the roots. The mustard weed though have a way of coming back. They always do.

The parable likens God’s reign, God’s empire to a weed. It grows where it is not wanted and eventually takes over the place.

Voice 1:

Jesus, who advocated an alternative culture of radical egalitarianism, an open commensality of free healing and eating, of miracle and meal among the peasant and marginalized communities of Galilee was executed at age 30 when his vision clashed with that of the urban religious and political structures of power in Jerusalem.

The wild mustard that sprung in the domesticated garden of Judea, that attracted all kinds of birds gardeners despised, was swiftly cut down. Do not forget this—The God we worship is an executed God. He was executed by the empire for the life he lived in solidarity with the poor and the stories of compassion he told.

Many scholars of first century Palestine now agree, enemies of Rome who were executed by crucifixion had their naked bodies left hanging on crosses for the vultures and wild dogs to feast on, thrown into mass graves, or hastily buried in borrowed tombs.

Nobody really knows where lie the bodies of scores of students, church workers, comrades who disappeared during the Marcos Regime. And the countless more who have disappeared during the Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, and especially the Arroyo regimes. Philippine soil from the Cordilleras to Mount Apo is nourished by the blood of fallen sisters and brothers in unmarked, mass, shallow graves. Just like Andres Bonifacio who at 34 was shot with his brother and whose bodies were robbed of garments and then thrown naked into a hastily dug grave.

All were wild mustard that had to be cut down lest they disturb the domesticity of the gardens tended by the rich, the powerful, and the religious the majority of whom take pride in calling themselves, their institutions, and their structures “Christian.”

Voice 2:

But Jesus’s vision lives on. And those of the others live on—Noli Capulong, Eden Marcellana, Joel Baclao, Raul Domingo, Edison Lapuz, and countless others—in the collective experience of communities who struggle and strive in the everyday living out God’s empire of compassion and solidarity.

And weeds have a way of coming back when you least expect them. Ask any gardener. You can never completely eradicate wild weeds like mustard. They have a way of sprouting in places where they disturb the status quo.

If UTS’s vision died when the merger was effected in 1978, what and whose vision sustains it now as it nears its 100th birthday? Is it a new vision from God, the wild weed returneth? Or a vision from PCU’s Board of Gardeners—or rather Trustees? Or even a vision from the master development planners who want to transform the Dasmarinas campus into a profit-generating enterprise?

Of course, a vision from God can get you killed and fast like a weed, but better a short life lived in solidarity with others ensuring immortality in humanity’s collective memory than a long life of greed that eventually sends one into oblivion even before one is dead.

Do not forget—wild mustard have a way of coming back.

Voice 2: The empire killed Jesus.

Voice 1: But within three days God raised Jesus up from the dead.

Voice 2: The merger buried UTS in a tomb. UTS has been in that tomb for almost three decades.

Voice 1: The Day of Resurrection is at hand.

People say that Union Theological Seminary is a seedbed: a seedbed of what—garden variety plants or wild mustard?

[This entry is based on the sermon I co-preached with Melinda Grace Aoanan, Program Secretary of the NCCP's Christian Education and Nurture Unit, my spouse, at Union Theological Seminary, 20 July 2006.]

Friday, April 28, 2006

Easter Surprise

Most of us love stories with surprises. The women in Mark 16: 1-8 were in for a few surprises themselves. They went to the tomb that early Sunday morning bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body worrying about the stone blocking the tomb. Unlike many doors here in Sweden—with its specific locks and numeric codes—the women had no key to unlock the door.

The women expected a locked tomb, they expected a dead body inside, and they expected to use the spices they brought to anoint that dead body. But, and we all know this already, when they got there the stone had already been rolled away, the tomb was empty, there was no dead body to anoint—Jesus was not where they expected him to be.

Like the women at the tomb, we want Jesus in a box, with a lock, where we could do whatever we want to do with him. Moreover, like the women we expect Jesus to be in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is supposed to be a holy place. It is where God is supposed to be. It is a monument to faith and the faithful. Do not forget this—the women went to the tomb expecting a dead Jesus. Over and over in the Markan story, especially in chapters 8, 9 and 10, Jesus told his followers that he will rise to life. Jesus’ followers did not believe him. They went to the tomb to visit a dead person.

Dead people have no power over us. Sure we visit their graves once or twice a year. For many Christians, churches have become tombs—where they visit Jesus an hour or two once a week. A dead Jesus has no power over us; he cannot make demands on our lives, on our work, on our time, our talents, our treasures, our plans and commitments. A dead Jesus is a safe Jesus.

But alas, Jesus is not dead and he is not where we want him to be. He is risen. And he is not in heaven nor is he in Jerusalem. He is back in Galilee—where we don’t want him to be, among the sick, the poor, the demon-possessed, the marginalized. He is back in Galilee along the path that ultimately led to his crucifixion, along the path that ultimately led to the offering of his life.

And he is already there waiting for us.

Do we have the faith and the heart to go and meet Jesus in Galilee. Do we?

(Based on Meditation shared 19 April 2006 at Teologiska Högskolan Stockholm, Sweden)

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Anumang Hiram, Kung Hindi Masikip ay Maluwang

Seminaries and divinity schools have, for years, been described as
marketplaces of ideas. Unfortunately, many such institutions have been
marketplaces, or more appropriately, malls of Western ideas. In other
words, if one were to go “shopping” in these “malls” of theological
education, one will be amazed by the number of stalls, stores and shops
offering “imported” goods: from theologies, to liturgies, to libraries, to
models of hermeneutics.

Romy del Rosario, President of Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines, laments: “I cringe at the thought that the more we train our students, the further they are drawn away form the poetry and the arts, the thought forms and patterns, the hermeneutics, the sentiments and feelings, and the imaginative and visioning processes of their own people.”

Anumang hiram, kung hindi masikip ay maluwang. Anything borrowed is
either too tight or too loose. The saying is true with clothes. It is equally
true with theology. Carlos Abesamis, author of A Third Look at Jesus, points out: “Panahon na upang iguhit ang sariling palad. Panahon na upang lilukin ang sariling hugis. Ihabi ang sariling talambuhay.” I agree. We need more “shops” that proudly offer the depth and the breadth of diverse Filipino articulations and constructions of theology.

Anumang hiram, kayang iwasto para ‘sakto. Nevertheless, the Filipino has
the ability to transform anything borrowed to fit him or her perfectly. We
also need more “stores” that showcase the Filipinos’ religious imagination
that empowers them to beat swords into plougshares, to turn weapons of
mass destruction into instruments for mass celebration, and to transform
jeeps into jeepneys.

A long time ago in a barrio far away came a very old woman. She was
probably just passing by because she took the dusty road that bordered the
small community. Because it was almost dark, she stopped by the roadside
and began to build a fire. She took out an earthen pot from the bag she
lugged around and, after filling it with water, set it over the fire. Out of the
same bag she brought out a small river stone and a pinch of rock salt and
put these in the pot.

An old woman alone by the road is hard to miss. Soon children were upon
her. “Lola (Grandma),” they asked, “what are you doing?” “I’m cooking
soup,” she answered, “why don’t you join me?” They sure did and after a
while there was a huge circle of children gathered around the fire as the old
lady narrated stories about elves and fairies and dragons.
It was late. It was dark and the children were still out so their parents
began looking for them. They eventually found them with the old lady.
“Lola,” they asked, “what are you doing?” “I’m cooking soup,” she
answered, “why don’t you join me?” They sure did and after a while there
was a huge circle of children with their parents gathered around the fire as
the old lady continued telling stories of elves and fairies and dragons.
“Lola, “ a mother volunteered, “I still have leftover meat at home. We can
put it in the pot.” “We have vegetables we can add to the pot too!” another
remarked. And so everyone brought back what they could and put these in
the pot. Eventually, the whole community shared not just stories but a hot
pot of soup that began with a cold river stone and a pinch of rock salt.3

As one member of a community of about 85 million Filipinos scattered across 7,107 islands, where scores of languages are spoken, I don’t have the soup. Nor does Union Theological Seminary where I teach. What we all have are ingredients to share and these are ingredients we should always be ready to offer.

In a country whose traditions are both pluri-form and multi-vocal, we are among the many who have faith stories to share. And there are many, many more whose stories of faith are yet to be shared.

[From Anumang Hiram, Kung Hindi Masikip ay Maluwang: Iba't-Ibang Anyo ng Teolohiyang Pumipiglas (Cavite: Union Theological Seminary, 2006)