Archive for May 2011

Spirituality and Philippine Politics: Part Four

May 18, 2011

 The brief last part of my talk on Spirituality and Philippine Politics.

Justice and Forgiveness    

A spirituality for justice motivates us to take sides with the poor and disadvantaged, against unjust power. In a situation of repression, there is little space and energy to even consider the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.

But when a country gets a democratic government after a long period of dictatorship, what is the place of forgiveness, and even reconciliation?

That is the setting and heart of an award-winning play by Ariel DorfmanDeath and the Maiden. It dramatizes a crucial challenge to our spirituality and politics for justice.

Paulina Salas is a former political prisoner who had been raped by her captors, led by a sadistic doctor whose face she never saw, and who played Schubert’s composition Death and the Maiden during the act of rape. Years later, after the repressive regime has fallen, her husband had a visitor whose voice and mannerism Paulina recognized as that of her rapist and torturer. She takes him captive in order to put him on trial and extract a confession from him.

Paulina’s husband is a member of the newly formed human rights commission, and the play is an extended debate about justice and reconciliation. One line of argument is that the country must move on, and not insist on exacting strict justice for all sins of the past. But how can a country move on, runs the counterargument, if the sins of the past are not brought to light, and justice is not meted out to those who are accountable?

I don’t remember anymore when and where I saw the play. What I remember is wishing it could be mounted in the Philippines.

While in prison, I had time to think about forgiveness, using Daniel Berrigan’s play on words: To “fore-give” is to give before. Instead of first waiting for the offender to repent and confess, forgiveness should be offered ahead as a gift, a grace that leads to repentance, if accepted. Of course, the offender may refuse to accept it.

The idea challenged me, since it seems contrary to what human beings normally understand by forgiveness. Perhaps that explains the saying “to forgive is divine.” But I believe that forgiveness is the right and privilege of the victim/survivor. No one should forgive for them.

When I was released from prison, I spoke about this theme at a forum in the Carmelite church. I talked of wanting to bring the soldiers who may have been responsible for disappearances (I think of Caloy Tayag and Fr. Rudy Romano whose bodies have not been found) to a room where the parents and relatives would offer them forgiveness, and ask them to lead them to the burial sites.

Another newly-released prisoner spoke after me. As he talked with raw pain about his sister who is a desaparecido, I questioned myself: Was I able to talk about forgiveness only because I had no equivalent personal tragedies? What if I had a sister who is missing, reported to have been tortured and raped before being killed? Would my prison ideas and feelings about forgiveness survive?

When I was in the UK, I was invited to a forum on the Philippines, but missed it. Afterwards, the organizers told me that a colonel who was training in the UK attended the forum because he wanted to meet me. I asked why. The colonel supposedly said: “So Fr. Ed can scold me to my face. I was the one who punched him in his prison cell.” That made me smile, since I had forgotten, and presumably forgiven that prison incident. Perhaps he needed to confess, and ask for penance?

When the ANC assumed power in South Africa. Nelson Mandela proposed a policy of truth and reconciliation. Those who came forward to tell the truth were assured immunity. That policy was a strategic political decision, but the whole process, chaired by Bishop Desmund Tutu was emotionally gripping and draining, especially for the victims/survivors.

Between Honesty and Hope

There is more to share, but I need to end. Let me wind up by citing the theme that I find relevant to our continuing effort at renewing our spirituality and strategy for justice: “Between Honesty and Hope.”

The title is from the declaration of the Latin American Bishops in 1968, the same year I was ordained to the priesthood. Hope is the driving energy. Honesty grounds it in reality. This applies to both spirituality and politics.

The theme of Between Honesty and Hope is closely related to one important lesson I learned from my prison years – “patient impatience.” The driving energy in our struggle for justice is impatience. For greater justice, soonest. After all, “justice delayed is justice denied.” But we learn to discipline our impatience with patience, realizing that structures take time to change and build, and that justice encompasses both final outcomes and also processes.

Because of the tension represented by Between Honesty and Hope and Patient Impatience, a spirituality for justice tends to be associated with a readiness for self-sacrifice. It is true that countless lives have been offered in the struggle for justice. But that is only one side of the truth. The other is that the struggle for justice brings self-fulfillment. This sense of self-fulfillment does not come only from knowing that we are serving a noble cause. It also comes from experiencing growth and development of our personal and communal potential.

Daniel Dennet is a declared atheist, but his advice on how to find fulfillment and happiness resonates with me: “Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” From my experience, I would add: “And in so doing, you fully become what you can be.”


Spirituality and Philippine Politics: Part Three

May 18, 2011

Part Three of my talk on Spirituality and Politics addresses the issue of renewing our spirituality for justice. It has expanded a bit, so the concluding part will be in a Part Four posting.

Renewing our spirituality for justice

Although spirituality has immediate religious overtones, I prefer to understand it first at a very elementary level, as energy. A crisis of spirituality manifests itself as a crisis of political energy.

In the immediate aftermath of EDSA, many left activists couldn’t identify with what they judged as disproportionate claims about what EDSA represents. Feeling “left out,” they were both resentful and disconsolate, yielding to inner doubts and outer recriminations. After a while, they regrouped their energies to reposition themselves politically, and relaunched the call for revolution. But the inner and outer struggles persisted.

On the opposite end were anti-martial law activists who were full participants in the heady celebration of EDSA, and soon after shifted their energies to pursuing “normal” lives and commitments. In their view, martial law was an exceptional situation that called for exceptional response, that basically ended with EDSA.

In between these two poles, other activist energies underwent repeated renewal because of disappointments with a succession of elite coalitions and unresolved divisions among the radical opposition. They tried their best to avoid yielding to weariness and cynicism, and persisted in political engagements, not out of sheer doggedness and inertia, but with a new clarity of purpose and a fresh flow of energy and hope.

In a political context, the question of spirituality is a question of solidarity: Whom do we include in our “imagined community” ( a phrase coined by Benedict Anderson for another context ) of fellow activists and kindred spirits, and whom do we exclude from it?

Renewing our spirituality is therefore both very personal and also communal. Our journey within, to recognize our inner core energy and recharge it, is not a solitary task. We always have companions, even if we do not consciously acknowledge them. Our most crucial conversations are not only with ourselves. They always involve significant others.

In this search for personal and communal spirituality, I find the categories of Sikolohiyang Pilipino useful: Loob and Kapwa, our inner being and our various relationships, make up who we are – our Pagkatao. Our kapwa include our kamag-anak, kabiyak, kaibigan, kasama, kakosa, kababayan. Even those whom we choose to consider as our kaaway.

During the Grassroots Leadership Course of the Education for Life Foundation, one exercise we ask participants to do is to draw a flower – with as many petals as relationships and communities they consider meaningful to themselves. The process usually induces quiet and thoughtful reflection, followed by insightful conversations among fellow participants during the gallery viewing of their personal “flower.”

Another set of concepts from Sikolohiyang Pilipino help us understand and map the changing levels of our relationships with our different kapwa. The two main categories are ibang tao and di na ibang tao.  Our relationship with those who are ibang tao begins at the level of  pakikitungo and peaks at pakikisama. We cross over to di na ibang tao when we achieve pakikipagpalagayang-loob which permits us to go deeper into pakikisangkot, up to the level of pakikiisa.

I particularly like the gender undertones in Dr. Ver Enriquez’ critique of claims that pakikisama or SIR (smooth interpersonal relations) is the central Filipino value, and his counterposing of pakikiisa or SIS (shared inner spirit).

For political activists, the felt need for spiritual renewal usually leads to expanding vocabularies and new channels of energy. But we can also be tempted to shrink our circle of concern to a much smaller zone of comfort, and the face-to-face interpersonal relationships of what Germans call Gemeinschaft. But  if our spirituality is to relate to politics, we need to get engaged at the level of Gesselschaft whose structures and dynamics may be impersonal but have impact on the personal and the interpersonal.

This is not an easy task. Philippine politics post-EDSA can often remind us of the definition of politics in the Devil’s Dictionary: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

Consequently, it is tempting to denounce politics as irredeemably “dirty,” and “withdraw to the desert.” Or cite the spirit of the biblical text we used for radical choices during the martial law years: “Go up to the hills from where salvation comes.” Others may choose to go, not to the guerrilla countryside, but to the “country outside” to find their own way of serving their families, communities, and country.

Taking a cue from our South African comrades, politics is better seen as an “arena of struggle.” It is a crucible for testing and distilling a spirituality for struggle. It challenges us to find ways to combine the “power of principle” and the “principle of power,” an insight I retain from FFF’s Jeremias Montemayor, one of my first mentors.

Since 1992, I have also used Stephen Covey’s three circles as a framework for political engagement. He says that except for those who are very selfish, people tend to have a much bigger “circle of concern” compared to their “circle of influence.” This is especially true of activists, who take on more and more causes even if their energies and capacities remain at the same level.

To avoid sinking into a sense of “learned helplessness,” his advice is to work on expanding our circle of influence to keep pace with the expansion of our circle of concern. We need to reach out to other energies working on similar causes, learn new skills, link with different networks.

But as we seek to expand our circle of influence to address our expanding circle of concern, we need to be clear about the third, inner circle – our “center of focus.” This is the lens through which we look at our various concerns and engagements.

This center of focus is the deeper common ground for renewing our spirituality. For myself and many activists of my generation, this continues to be the struggle for social justice. In theological terms, this is a continuing call to have a “preferential option for the poor.”

For the last part of my talk, let me share some methods and practices for renewing our spirituality for justice.

Discerning the Spirit

When I was introduced to the language of spirituality in the seminary, it was linked to the regular practice of an “examination of conscience” and the motives that drive us. I think it was the Jesuits who developed this further into a discipline called “discernment of spirits.” In addition to regular prayers and meditation, we had monthly recollections and annual retreats. I read related books on developing an “inner life.”

Those experiences led me to associate spirituality with meaning and motives – making sense of life and what I do, and being aware of what drives me to do what I do.

Renewing our spirituality for justice can benefit from similar practices. Activists need to integrate regular periods for reflection, individually and in groups, into their schedule, instead of being forced into it by setbacks, sickness, or waiting until they burn-out.

On the issue of discernment, there is an interesting convergence of the religious and the secular left tradition on a common focus – the purification of motives. Both traditions ask us to examine our motives, to eliminate those that are base or selfish. We are asked to aim at nobler and selfless motives. In the Christian tradition, the highest motive should be A.M.D.G. – Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, the greater glory of God. In the Maoist tradition, the highest motive is STP – Serve the People unselfishly and wholeheartedly.

I have worked with the practices of both traditions, and even found a bridge between A.M.D.G. and STP in St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s aphorism: “The greatest glory of God are human beings fully alive.”

And yet, after more than 40 years of activism, I have questions about both perspectives and practices. The goal of purifying motives remains valid. But it needs to be balanced by another, complementary framework.

We humans are complex beings, and we are driven consciously and subconsciously in ways that neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology have only begun to unravel. My experience with a one-sided emphasis on purifying our motives is that it is fraught with perils – either frustration at honest acknowledgment of failure, or illusions of premature claims to have achieved purification.

To complement this lifelong pursuit of purification, I have arrived at a three-part process for renewing our spirituality: Recognize. Organize. Re-organize.

Recognize. We are driven by many motives, We discover and also create meaning in our work, for our work. Not all of these are as pure or noble as we would want, but they are real, and drive us to act. That’s why they are called motives. It is best to recognize that we have multiple (not mixed) motives.

Organize. It is not enough to acknowledge that we have many motives. We must find ways to organize them into some synergy. A key element in organizing multiple motives is identifying what we may call our “lead motive.”

Re-organize. The synergy of our many motives and the choice of our lead motive are not fixed for a lifetime. We undergo changes over time. The world and the contexts of our engagement change over time. Hence from time to time, we need to review our motives and possibly re-organize them.

With benefit of hindsight, I think that during my early years of activism, through the martial law years and after, my lead motive in the struggle for justice was “righteous anger against injustice.” This may have been grounded in the biblical prophetic tradition, combined with a middle class intellectual’s resentment against oppressive elite, and a compassion for the poor that was transformed into anger. (During my first detention, my jailer confiscated a poster I designed, because of its text – “There is greater love in anger than in pity.”)

Anger against injustice continues, and even flares up on occasions. But since the late 80s, it has ceased to lead my other motives. Gradually, another lead motive has emerged – “discovering and developing the full potential of the grassroots.”

The struggle for justice is the center of focus to which my lead motives and the constellation of many motives drive me. But now, instead of being driven to directly denounce unjust power as my primary mode of activism, I prefer to invest my time and energy in helping the grassroots develop their potential: Their critical-creative consciousness through popular education, their collective energy through community organization, and above all their leadership, so that they can confront unjust power, assert their rights, and bring about greater justice in their lives, communities, and in the country.

This shift in emphasis is alluded to in the title of one of my talks: “From Theology of Struggle to Education for Life.” Will there be need for another re-organization in the near future? It’s hard to tell, but I do not discount it.

Spirituality and Philippine Politics: Part Two

May 16, 2011

The second part of my talk on Spirituality and Politics reflects on the search for appropriate political strategies after EDSA 1986.


EDSA after 25 years

In 2011, the Philippines will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of EDSA 1986. During the electoral campaign for the presidency, I told friends: “If Noynoy Aquino loses, that could symbolize the exhaustion of the EDSA spirit. If he wins, that could represent a second wind for the EDSA spirit.”

Noynoy Aquino is now the new president of the Philippines. Does this mean a second wind for the spirit of EDSA?

To address this, let us look back to EDSA1986, and the different ways we responded then to the challenge it posed to the task of renewing our spirituality and strategy for justice.

Within hours after my release from prison in 1986, I was peppered with questions from journalists and activist-friends: “How do you feel, what do you think, about EDSA?”

My standard answer was simple: “Of course I’m positive about EDSA. Together with other political prisoners, I have been released much sooner than I expected.”

The standard follow-up question probed deeper: “But you are an activist, and you don’t judge a political event only on the basis of your personal advantage. What about your struggle for social justice? What about the national democratic revolution?”

The Magnificat gave me a framework for an answer. (I still don’t know the thought process that led me to that bible text. This may be an example of the biblical assurance that “words will be provided” by the Spirit).

God has put down the mighty from his throne / And has lifted up the lowly / God has filled the hungry with good things / And has sent the rich away empty.

The first two lines are about changes in the political sphere; the other two lines are about social and economic change.

One of the changes in the political sphere is evident. The mighty has been put down from his throne; the dictator is gone. That is surely something we can celebrate. The second change, however, remains a question: Will the lowly be lifted up?

In secular terms, elite dictatorship is gone. But what will replace it? Will it be merely a restored elite democracy, with “competing factions of mighty ones,” taking their turn at ruling? Or will there be openings for a more participatory, popular democracy, with more meaningful roles for the middle class and also for the grassroots to exercise their rights and duties as citizens?

The potential is definitely there, but only the potential. It is up to us to harness and develop “people power” and institutionalize it in a system I proposed to describe as popular democracy.

The social and economic changes are more ambiguous. True, some of the rich were sent away, but not empty! They brought quite a bit with them in addition to what they had already salted abroad. The rest stayed behind, switched sides, or negotiated compromise agreements to keep what they already had. That is why most of the hungry are still waiting to be filled with good things.

The lines from the Magnificat represent two important interwoven discourses about EDSA – democracy and social justice. The discourse on democracy is more dominant, and continues to be debated. But the main disappointments about EDSA revolve around justice, as retribution and as redistribution.

Justice as retribution is expected to break the culture of impunity, by confiscating ill-gotten wealth, and filing charges against those who are responsible for human rights violations. Justice as redistribution means asset reform, especially agrarian reform, as a necessary though not sufficient condition for “feeding the hungry with good things.”

Searching for political strategies

Before EDSA and under political repression, the struggle for social justice and the struggle for democracy were closely linked to each other. It was understandable that with democratization, there were high hopes that the struggle for social justice would have a better chance.

But how do we pursue the struggle for social justice in a restored democracy that is dominated by the elite?

There were three main tendencies (with different variations) that vied for influence among those who continue to value both struggles – for democracy and for social justice: 1) One tendency emphasized the gains of EDSA and argued for the need to mobilize support for the initiatives of the new ruling elite, and defend it against various stripes of opposition. 2) A second tendency emphasized the limitations of EDSA, took an oppositionist stance, and called for a resumption, as soon as politically feasible, of the revolutionary struggle. 3) A third tendency acknowledged the limitations of EDSA but decided to pursue the new possibilities of the changed political context, both independently and through selective “critical collaboration” with reform initiatives of the coalition government.

All three tendencies drew support from the political energies that were generated in the struggle against the dictatorship. But the “unity in diversity” of such energies could not be survive in the face of legitimate disagreements on what political strategy is more appropriate post-EDSA.

Even hindsight does not provide a definitive resolution about which political strategy has been more appropriate. Questions remain: How much did we miss out through sins of omission? Or how much time and energies did we waste, pursuing paths that were blocked from the start?

The 25th anniversary of EDSA is a good time to address a major challenge to political activists – to sum up and draw lessons about the struggle for democracy and social justice during the 25 years of post-EDSA experience. Compared to the 14 years of martial law and resistance, this experience is more recent and spans a much longer time span. But I sense that among many activists of my generation, it is the framework of repression and resistance (revolution) that still dominates our political imagination.

Within the framework or repression and resistance/revolution, there is a tendency to dismiss struggles for reform under an elite-dominated democracy as futile or opportunistic. Some left activists even entertain the wish for an outright dropping of the “democratic façade,” believing that it would be easier to agitate for a revolutionary struggle against naked repression.

And yet, there are gains that have been achieved post-EDSA. Among those I find most promising are the achievements in the field of participatory local governance. When Filipinos meet for political discussions, they tend to bemoan the unsatisfactory leadership at the national level; but they usually take comfort in LGUs like the awardees of Galing Pook. Clearly these are “islands of hope.” But will there be enough of them so that we have a whole “archipelago of hope”?

The twin vision of democracy and social justice have also been expanded, or shall we say “enveloped,” by the challenge and vision of sustainable development and climate change. When Odette Alcantara invited me to join the Earth Day Network, I initially begged off. “I have not been involved in environmental issues,” I told her. “I identify more with the struggle for social justice.”

“That is not a problem,” she said. “Just consider yourself an activist for environmental justice.” That is the political equivalent of the watermelon – green on the outside and red inside.

There is another major issue that impinges on political strategy: How do we re-imagine and rebuild the nation in the context of corporate-led and finance-driven globalization? Given our limited capabilities, how do we take part in the global movement for global justice, and contribute to realizing the vision that “Another (better) world is possible”?

The search for appropriate political strategies is intertwined with the renewal of a spirituality for justice.

End of Part Two. The third and last part will discuss a Spirituality for Justice.

Spirituality and Philippine Politics: Part One

May 15, 2011

Last Friday, when I got back from a workshop in Bukidnon, Girlie relayed to me the reminder from the Institute of Spirituality in Asia to submit the edited version of the talk I gave at a forum last August 2010.

Editing the transcript proved more difficult than I thought. I am posting the final text in three installments:

Can we bring spirituality and politics together? They seem to be quite far apart, belonging to different realms. Consider our images of spirituality – meditating in a quiet space, looking inside ourselves, seeking insights. Compare these to our images of politics – street protests, public advocacy, elections and governance.

How do we bring spirituality and politics together? My immediate answer is: We do not. Spirituality and politics are not to be fused together at one fixed moment. Any attempt at a synthesis of spirituality and politics cannot be static and permanent. There is a dynamic interplay, a rhythm in their relationship – of action and contemplation, of public life and “withdrawal to the desert,” of moments for reflection and moments for raising our voices and for public engagement.

The Institute of Spirituality in Asia wants to develop formal scholarly discourse on spirituality. I propose to approach the topic through a series of reflections on my life experiences of the interplay between spirituality and politics.

Renewing our spirituality and strategy for justice

In 1988 to 1989, I was part of an international group who worked on an “International Kairos” project. Fr. Albert Nolan from South Africa and I were co-coordinators of a process that led to the publication of the document, Kairos and Conversion: The Road to Damascus.

For over a year, theologians and activists from seven countries – South Africa and Namibia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, the Philippines and South Korea – met to address the “kairos” facing us, in our respective countries and in the world.

When Christians like us take the side of the social movements, especially those aligned with liberation movements, we are attacked by conservative Christians not just politically but theologically. They accuse us of not really being Christians anymore, just crypto-Marxists. And this is used as justification for repression, including murder.

And yet, when we critique conservative Christians, we somehow concede that they are still Christians. We may denounce their politics, but we generously grant that they are still believers, only misguided in the political application of their faith.

We seem to separate politics and theology, and by extension, politics and spirituality. So we worked on articulating the links of our politics and our faith.

That task was relatively easy when defending the political options we had taken as theologians and activists, to take the side of the poor in their struggle for justice, even when this expressed itself in explicit left and revolutionary political choices.

We floundered for a while when it came to denouncing those Christians who took the conservative political option and viciously attacked us. Do we hit back in equal measure, denounce them as heretics, condemn them to hell? Despite our activist partisanship, we agreed that we can not do this as Christians. Hence the title of our final document – Kairos and Conversion. We may be skeptical about their chances of conversion, but we need to call on them, instead of dismissing them as hopeless.

The subtitle The Road to Damascus, is a biblical reference for our hope, no matter how slim, for conversion. After all, before he became Paul, Saul was on his way to Damascus to pursue his mission as a self-righteous persecutor of Christians.

Kairos and Conversion had an international launch in the UK in 1989. But in a subsequent reflection session, Albert Nolan suggested that we need to work on another project to address a new kairos. “We must re-read the biblical texts through the lens of economic justice,” he said. “We have been reading the bible mainly through the lens of social and political oppression.”

For my part, I proposed as our possible theme: “Renewing our spirituality and strategy for justice.”

This was before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and what that symbolized for traditional left imaginations and movements. It was also before the release of Nelson Mandela and the negotiations that led to a peaceful assumption of political power by the ANC in South Africa. In the Philippines, post-EDSA peace talks between government and the NDF had collapsed, and there were attempted coups against the new government. Similarly, the political situation in the countries of the International Kairos participants and in the world as a whole were changing, creating more complex political contexts for the struggle to promote justice.

Faced with such complexity, the need for renewing our strategy, or strategies, was easy to recognize. Why add the call for renewing our spirituality?

The call to renew our spirituality is linked to a crisis of activist energies. People may remain committed and ready to act, but they also experience some loss of enthusiasm and recurring questions about the meaning of individual and collective efforts. Various attempts to do the analysis and synthesis needed for more effective strategies, and to explore innovative tactics, have strained solidarity relationships, often leading to antagonistic divisions.

These two processes of renewal – of spirituality and strategy – need to be interactive, and not in a linear sequence. But their common focus is still on the struggle for justice, and our partisanship for the poor and the disadvantaged.

This global framework is one reference for these following reflections on spirituality and politics in the Philippine context.

End of Part One. Part Two discusses Philippine politics after EDSA


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