Sunday, May 24, 2009

The World Needs Soup

Poverty: Bane or Blessing of Ecumenical Relations
Maryhill Mission Lectures, 25 May 2009

"...When Jacob had cooked soup, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; and Esau said to Jacob, 'Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.' Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, 'First sell me your birthright.' Esau said, 'Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?' And Jacob said, 'First swear to me"; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil soup; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright." (Genesis 25: 29-34)

The World Needs Soup

The world needs soup. Unfortunately, millions of people cannot even have or afford a decent cup of hot soup. Many in this country are so poor they gargle water for breakfast, take hot water for lunch, and force themselves to sleep at night in place of supper. Mas emphatic sa Tagalog: Marami tayong kababayan na mumog ang agahan, nilagang tubig ang tanghalian, at tulog ang hapunan.

Kailangan ng mundo ang sopas. When Esau, in the Genesis text above, came to his brother, he was close to death. And he asked for soup. For billions of dispossessed people today who struggle against death forces everyday, John 10:10’s ”abundant life” is soup. When our sisters and brothers’ homes and livelihood are destroyed by flash floods, our relief operations bring soup. When we offer feeding programs to our malnourished grade school children, we bring them soup. When our churches and church-related institutions welcome the homeless and street-children into our “soup kitchens,” guess what we offer them?

But as Matthew 25: 31-46 and Luke 4: 18-19 remind and challenge us, soup is more than food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. It is also just wages for workers, homes for the homeless, justice for the oppressed, care for the sick and dying, welcome to the stranger, land for the landless, liberation for those in bondage and captivity, solidarity with those whose only hope is God.

The United States of America has resources to feed 40 billion people. That figure is six times the current population of the world, yet, according to UNICEF 25,000 children—5 years old or younger—die each day due to poverty. UNICEF estimates that it will only take 6 billion dollars annually to make sure that every one on earth receives basic education. It will take 9 billion dollars each year to make sure that everyone gets safe water and sanitation. 12 billion dollars a year would ensure that all women will receive reproductive health services, while 13 billion will ensure that each human being will receive basic health care. Yet, we know that three out of every four people in the world survive on 1 dollar or less than 50 pesos a day. The world—especially that larger part of the world that calls itself Christian—apparently does not prioritize or find important to allocate funds, services or resources to provide the “soup” for food, education, and basic health care.

Consider these figures: The United States spends 8 billion dollars each year on cosmetics. Europe spends 11 billion a year on ice cream. The US and Europe spend 12 billion annually on perfume and 17 billion a year on pet food. Japan spends 35 billion annually on business entertainment. Europeans spend 50 billion a year on cigarettes and 105 billion on alcoholic drinks. And, most unfortunate of all, the world spends 780 billion each year on weapons of mass destruction, on the most effective and efficient implements to kill people.1

And to bring these figures closer to home: Filipinos spend 7 billion pesos a year on whitening soap. Pitong bilyong piso taon-taon ang ginagastos natin para sa sabong pampaputi.

What Ecumenism?!
Over half a century ago, in Prapat, the very first regional ecumenical organization, the East Asia Christian Conference, was organized. At that time many in the West seemed against the conference that brought together ecumenical leaders from Asia and Africa who were united against colonialism and Western hegemony. Prapat become a landmark in Asia’s ecumenical history as it set out to overcome the West’s domination of the ecumenical journey. Prapat made clear the direction that the Asian churches intended to take: to become the subjects, not objects, of ecumenical history. The united declaration was “working together for our common task.”
Unfortunately, the Congress of Asian Theologians’ meeting in Chiangmai in 2004 noted that Asia, almost 50 years after Prapat, remains “dependent on financial support from mother churches in Europe or America, and that the present state of ecumenism and the churches in Asia reflect the fragmentation of these churches and their limited, exclusive theologies. It is ecumenism tending towards stagnation and the protection of the status quo of churches in the Pax Americana. D. T. Niles’ “Christianity as a potted plant” in Asia is, today, actually more of a transplanted forest! Ecumenism in Asia has become an “us” and “them” affair.2

Laura Donaldson, a Cherokee, writing in Semeia 75 convicts us when she asked, “What civilization invented the most brutal system of conquest and exploitation the world has ever known? Christian. Who made slavery the basis for capitalist expansion? Christians. What religion has been the most responsible for the genocide of aboriginal peoples? Christianity. In my view, the Christian church has a much more substantial record of pure evil than any final good.”

The first one thousand years of Christianity was one millennium of war and destruction in the name of Jesus Christ. And those “civilizing missions” have not stopped. Even today, the most oppressive and dehumanizing societies are led by “Christian” centurions who have no qualms maiming and destroying those who are not “one of them.” And we know at least two of these Christian “centurions.” One was in the White House for two terms. The other is still in Malacanang.

The July 2006 Manila Declaration3 of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches says:

Western Christianity has been closely related to empire since Roman days. Since then it has spread throughout the world, and now it is being used to provide ideological legitimization for today’s empire. Globalized Christendom and the ‘crusades’ it embarks upon today are symbiotically intertwined with global capital and the power of the global empire. In its triumphalistic pursuits, it discounts if not condemns all other religious faiths and cultures. The indigenous religions of many communities are destroyed and Islam is vilified.

The convergence of Christian religion with Western modernity has destroyed the religious and cultural life of peoples and their communities throughout the world. The powers and principalities of the global market and empire are being baptized by these theological distortions of ‘Christianity’, which promote religious conflicts and bigotry globally.

The Christian religion of empire treats others as ‘gentiles’ to be conquered, as the ‘evil empire’ to be destroyed, or as the ‘axis of evil’ to be eradicated from the earth. The empire claims that the ‘goodness’ of the empire must overcome these ‘evils’. Its false messianic spirit is imbued with the demonic.

These false claims destroy the integrity of faiths, and radically erode the identity of Christian faith in Jesus Christ. As the spirit of empire penetrates souls, the power of global empire possesses the bodies of all living beings. Lord of its domain, it builds temples for the global market to serve Profit (Mammon).

The empire uses ‘democracy’ as an umbrella term for the kind of political regime that it would like to see installed all over the world. Bringing democracy to countries that do not yet have it is claimed as the defining purpose of US foreign policy. For the US, democracies abroad are regimes that support or follow its dictates.

IS POVERTY A BLESSING TO ECUMENICAL RELATIONS? NO. IS IT A BANE OR A CURSE? NO. POVERTY IS OUR FAULT. MANY OF US, WHO TAKE PRIDE IN BEING CALLED CHRISTIAN, HAVE EITHER COLLABORATED WITH EMPIRE OR HAVE PRETENDED IT IS NOT OUR RESPONSIBILITY OR HAVE SIMPLY DID NOT CARE.

In the Feeding of the 5000, found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus seeing the hungry multitudes, tells his disciples, tells us—who love to call ourselves his disciples—to give them something to eat. And what do the disciples do? They tell Jesus, “Send the crowd away” and “Are we going to spend our own money to feed them?” and “Six months wages worth of bread would not be enough to feed them.” It has been 2000 years. We are still coming up with excuses. In the story, a young child offers what he had, five loaves and two fish, in response to Jesus’ challenge.

Today, the multitudes are still hungry and we are still making up excuses.

Which Jesus

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine Jesus, the one many of us call our Personal Lord and Savior. If the Jesus we imagine looks like an American or European movie star, white, blond, and with blue eyes, then we’re following the wrong Jesus. If the Jesus we imagine is the same Jesus who told McKinley to take possession of the Philippines, and told Bush to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq, then we’re following the wrong Jesus. If we imagine the same Jesus that Gloria Arroyo prays to before she gives the orders to General Jovito Palparan abduct and harass our priests, nuns, pastors, church workers, and militant grassroots organizers then we’re following the wrong Jesus. If the Jesus we imagine tells us to build huge buildings and air-conditioned chapels in his honor instead of reaching out to the poor and the marginalized among us, then we are following the wrong Jesus. If the Jesus we imagine has prepared a mansion in heaven for us, and wants us to spend eternity with him in an other-worldly place, and has no problems when his followers kill people and cultures in his name, then, definitely, we are following the wrong Jesus.

If the Jesus we imagine has no problem with poverty, does not care to address its root causes and its eradication, and believes that being poor is either God’s will or is a result of indolence or is a test of faith, then we are following the wrong Jesus.

Millions of people worship this Jesus, what the World Alliance of Reformed Churches calls the Constantinian Jesus. Patron. Emperor. King of Kings. Lord of Lords. Master of the Universe. Millions follow this Imperial Jesus. Millions have been killed and massacred in the name of this Jesus.

We are so used to that word "Gospel," that it has lost its original meaning. But in antiquity, when the Roman empire went off and conquered another land in the name of their god Caesar, and killed all the men, raped all the women, and destroyed all the homes, the soldiers would come back parading throughout the land announcing "the Gospel according to Caesar," the Good News of the latest victory of Caesar, that another land has been conquered for their god Caesar, and that Caesar's enemies have been killed.4

When the Gospel of Mark announces the “beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” he actually announces the most radical, subversive proclamation during that time—Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar; God’s reign has come, and Rome’s has come to an end. Put in another way, in Greek the empire was called basileia; the emperor, basileus. For almost everyone in the empire, Rome was basileia; Caesar was basileus. I said, almost, because for Christians, God’s reign was basileia; Jesus was basileus.

In Jesus’ alternative or counter-empire, there was only one commandment: love for neighbor, especially the least. In Luke 10:28, Jesus tells a lawyer that love for God and love for neighbor is one commandment. He tells the parable of the Samaritan to make his point.

Paul summarizes all the commandments in Romans 13:9 as love for neighbor. James is more explicit in 2:15-17 when he wrote, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace… and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” The message of the Johannine letters is straight-forward: if you say you love God, whom you do not see, but not your brothers and sisters, whom you see, then you are a liar. In Mark 17: 21, Jesus tells a rich young man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come follow me.”

Now, if the Jesus we imagine is the Jesus of the Gospels, the compassionate Jesus whose insides were crushed at the sight of injustice, the Jesus who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, who visited the sick and the imprisoned, who welcomed strangers, and clothed the naked, who proclaimed liberty to the captives, and who gave his life so that others may live, the one who told the rich to sell everything they have and give all the proceeds to the poor, then, my dear friends, we are following the right Jesus.

The WARC calls this Jesus the Galilean One. The One who left heaven to be with us. The One who is not in Jerusalem where we expect him to be. The One who is in Galilee where we don’t want him to be, among the poor and the marginalized are. The One who left his followers only a single commandment: “Love your neighbor.” The One whom the Empire eventually executed.

And those who follow this “Executed God” are persecuted, harassed, and, yes, like him, murdered. And many of his followers in the Philippines are called communists or, worse, terrorists!

The world does not need pre-cooked or instant noodle soup. This is the recipe of the Constantinian Jesus and his followers. Dole-outs. Always with strings attached.

More importantly, the world does not need people like Jacob who used soup to take advantage of his famished brother.

God’s Oikos: We are Family—All of US

More often than not, we define ecumenism as about “us” and “them.” Insiders and outsiders. Saved and unsaved. Christian and not. Now, if God is our parent, as Jesus taught us, then all of us are brothers and sisters. All of us.

Contrary to what Cain said, we are each others’ keepers.

God’s household is God’s project. Who are members of God’s oikos depends on whom God chooses to be part of it. It is, and never will be, our choice. Let us look at four episodes from the biblical narratives that are quite familiar to most of us:

1. 1 Samuel 16 : Jesse and his seven oldest sons under-estimated David. No one, not his father, nor his brothers, not even David, thought that David was worthy to be king. But God chose the least of Jesse’s sons. God’s oikos include family members who are in the margins.
2. The Story of Jonah : Jonah disobeys God because he wanted God to destroy the “evil” empire. But God saves Nineveh. God saves whomever God wants to save. God’s oikos include those we hate and despise.
3. Luke 10: 25-37 : Samaritans were bastards, demon-possessed, and worshipped the wrong God. It is the Samaritan who serves as keeper of his wounded brother. God’s oikos include those we think don’t deserve to be God’s people.
4. Matthew 25: 31-46 : Both blessed and cursed were judged with one standard—being each other’s keepers. God’s oikos include those who do not expect to be part of it yet do exactly what brothers and sisters should do for each other.

The blessed were not blessed because they did what they did for God’s sake. They were blessed because they did what they did for people’s sake. A parent’s greatest joy is for his/her children to care for each other, not to outdo each other in gaining the parent’s favor.

The Jeepney has been described as a Filipino home on wheels.5 There is always space for the unexpected visitor, the complete stranger around our dining tables. There is always space for the unexpected passenger in a jeepney. “Ang siyaman nagiging sampuan.” God’s oikos has space for the most unexpected, even the most unwelcome member because, let me reiterate, God’s oikos is God’s project, not ours.

If God is our parent, then we are brothers and sisters. We are family. Sa pamilya ng Dios, walang anak sa loob at anak sa labas. Lahat anak. We are each other’s keepers. We were during the time of Cain, during the time of Jacob. We are now.

Every moment of our lives, God, our parent, is asking us—where is your sister, where is your brother?

ECUMENICAL RELATIONS IS FUNDAMENTALLY ABOUT BEING EACH OTHER’S KEEPERS.


The Parable of the Stone Soup

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.6

The world needs soup. But, the world does not need pre-cooked or instant noodle soup. The soup that can meet the world’s hunger, as Mother Mary John Mananzan7 puts it, is the soup we cook together. Each one contributing what each can. Because we are each other’s keepers. That soup could mean food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, just wages for workers, homes for the homeless, justice for the oppressed, care for the sick and dying, land for the landless, liberation for those in bondage and captivity, solidarity with those whose only hope is God.

Those of us who call ourselves Christian do not have the monopoly on soup.

Cain was wrong, Jacob was wrong. We are each other’s keepers. We are—all of us—brothers and sisters. Kapatid, igsoon, kabsat. Kapatid is from Patid ng Bituka. We are parts of one gut. We, all of us—Christians, Moslems, Jews, Buddhists, and those who are so unlike us—are family. God’s oikos.

Joan Baez’s song was right. It has always been right. No one is an island. No one stands alone. Each one’s joy is joy to me. Each one’s grief is my own. We need one another so I will defend. Each one is my brother, each one is my sister.8 Each one is my friend. Kapatid, igsoon, kabsat.

THERE IS MUCH TO DO.

COME, IT IS TIME FOR US, SISTERS AND BROTHERS, TO COOK…


Revelation Enriquez Velunta
Union Theological Seminary, Philippines






NO MAN IS AN ISLAND (Joan Baez)

No man is an island,
No man stands alone,
Each man's joy is joy to me,
Each man's grief is my own.

We need one another,
So I will defend,
Each man as my brother,
Each man as my friend.

I saw the people gather,
I heard the music start,
The song that they were singing,
Is ringing in my heart.

No man is an island,
Way out in the blue,
We all look to the one above,
For our strength to renew.


When I help my brother,
Then I know that I,
Plant the seed of friendship,
That will never die.

NOTES
1 Statistics available from Anup Shah, Poverty Facts and Stats, GlobalIssues.org, Last updated: Sunday, March 22, 2009
2 From discussions and presentations at the Hong Kong Consultations of the Rerouting Ecumenism in Asia Project of the Christian Conference of Asia, 9-12 November 2006.
3 Presented by Kim Yong Bock at Philippine Christian University, 21 July 2006. The document is available online at http://www.peaceforlife.org/resources/faithresist/2006/06-0715-ecumenical.html.
4 Available at http://www.fatherjohndear.org/sermons_homilies/repent_believe.html)
5 For more on decolonizing readings of the Bible and Jeepney Hermeneutics, please check out the Union Seminary Bulletin, Volumes 1, 3, and 4 (UTS, 2002, 2007), The National Council of Churches in the Philipppines’ journal Tugon Volume 14, Nos. 1 and 2, or visit http://jeepney.blogspot.com.
6 From Anumang Hiram Kung Hindi Masikip ay Maluwang: Iba’t-Ibang Anyo ng Teolohiyang Pumipiglas, Revelation Velunta, Ed. (Union Theological Seminary, 2006), pp. 4-5.
7 Aside from Mother Mary John Mananzan’s ideas, many arguments in this brief essay resonate with insights from John Dominic Crossan and the members of the Jesus Seminar, Mark Kline Taylor, Ched Myers, Daniel Patte, Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Renate Rose, William Herzog, Laura Donaldson, Elizabeth Dominguez, Melinda Grace Aoanan, and Fr. Carlos Abesamis.
8 Full lyrics at the end of the essay.