A Spirituality of Taking Sides and Solidarity
When my children, Lauren and Noah, were eight and four years old, they would quarrel very often. When Noah who is younger cries, I would scold Lauren because she is the older one. One time she confronted me, “Why do you always scold me when Noah cries? Why do you always think that I am the one at fault?” After some thought, I asked her, “So do you want me to scold Noah more than I scold you? Do you want me to tell him to just let his “Ate” have her way so that there will no longer be any quarrel? Do you want me to remind him that “Ate” is bigger and stronger and so he should just be quiet and submit to her all the time?” Lauren was not happy with my response but I think she understood better why she as the older and stronger sibling must be held accountable, and why Noah, the younger and smaller child, must be protected and defended. As parents, we share this sacred task of teaching our children to protect and take the side of the weak. Justice and charity begin in our homes.
On a larger scale, Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Furthermore, the very essence of our faith is about taking sides. In the Exodus narrative, God chose the Hebrew People because they were slaves, the poorest and most oppressed. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor….” It was not followed by, “and then blessed are the middle-class or the rich.”Jesus only and always took the side of the poor. Today, in the face of injustice and inequality, hunger and suffering, we must take sides. Matthew 25: 31-46, explicates that in the Day of Judgement, those who helped the poor, hungry and suffering will enter the Kingdom of God, while those who did not will suffer eternal damnation. Especially in scriptures, it is very clear what is demanded of us in the face of inequality and injustice. Laws may be used against the poor, but the Bible is clear about God and Jesus taking the side of the slaves and the poor.
It is simple. But is it really?
This Bible Study on II Samuel 5: 1-18 will have four phases or movements: Crying-out, Resisting, Asserting, Celebrating. It is intended to challenge us more deeply to look at the text and to determine whose side we must take. Because often, even people with the greatest intentions fail to see the most vulnerable and who needs God the most. The text is familiar to us as it narrates the story of the healing of Naaman, the victorious commander of the King of Aram, from leprosy. He and his people are enemies of the Israelite people and had in fact taken a young girl from her family and home in Israel as a booty of war. Without a doubt, she is just one among many. Despite her situation as a slave, she proposes healing for Commander Naaman, saying, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”(v.3) Her desire for his healing brings together the most powerful men in the land. The King of the Arameans and the King of the Israelites, despite their distrust of each other, put aside their fighting to cure a military man from leprosy. At a time of war, two political leaders create an alliance for one man. A third man, the prophet of God, Elisha, consummates this act.
Who is crying-out?
There have been many interpretations about this text but I think there is a need to re-readthe text. Let us begin by asking – Who is crying-out in our text? In Christian tradition, the narrative is interpreted as the conversion of a commander of the enemy by a slave-child. Thus, we say, it was all for a purpose. God’s purpose. Her cries are drowned in the triumph of our faith. But really, what does it mean for the slave-girl-child to be taken from her home? Were her parents and siblings killed as they tried to protect her? Was her house burned down so that she will not have anything to return to? Was she violated and abused so that she would submit? Was an entire village destroyed to subdue her people? Were they dispossessed of and driven from the lands that they have lived off for generations? Who is the nameless and forgotten slave-girl-child among us today? In Old Testament times and today, she is not one but many.
Last month, the Manilakbayan ng Mindanao brought in our midst about 700 of our Lumad sisters and brothers. They travelled long and hard, and endured the sun and rain, the heat and cold, to be heard by us in Manila who do not know their suffering. They cry-out to us, their Filipino sisters and brothers, to stand with them as they call to “Stop Lumad Killings,” “Save Our Schools,” “Pull Out the Troops from Mindanao,” “Disband Paramilitary Groups,” and “No to Mining.” These are urgent cries following the brutal killings of three men in the presence of their relatives and friends inside a Lumad community school campus in Surigao del Sur on September 1 this year. Emerito Samarca was the school director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development. (ALCADEV) Dionel Campos and Bello Sinzo are indigenous leaders. The Lumads are crying-out. To God and to us.
The Hebrew word for ‘cry-out’ is ‘za-ak.’ It is not a cry that is weak and hopeless. It is a cry that demands justice. Thus, it is followed by resistance.
Why should we resist?
Resistance is grounded in the Biblical texts. In the Exodus story, the Hebrew people in slavery cried out to God and resisted. Shiprah and Puah, Jochebed, Miriam, and Bithiah, all resisted when they conspired to save Moses. Their escape from Egypt, from an oppressive power, was an act of resistance. Jesus’ preaching, feeding, healing and forgiving were all acts of resistance to the Roman Empire. In fact, every time Jesus proclaimed that he was the son of God and preached about the “Kingdom of God,” he was resisting Caesar, who also declared himself to be the son of God, and resisting the powerful Kingdom of Rome.
Christians should not be fearful of resistance or a resisting reading of the Bible as an uncorrect or unfaithful reading. According to a literary critic,“the most faithful reading of all is a resisting reading.” It has been practiced by peoples struggling for dignity, justice and life. A spirituality grounded on resistance is an essential expression and movement towards the reign of God.
Going back to our text, Naaman’s slave also resisted. We must remember that she was a foreigner, a girl, a child and a slave. It took courage to speak out as the most marginalized person in the household of Naaman. She proclaimed her faith and the power of Elisha, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria…cure him of his leprosy.” How many times did she have to say it before she was heard? How many people rejected her before somebody listened? What kind of humiliation and persecution did she have to endure to even propose such knowledge to those who believed they knew more? Every word she uttered was an act of resistance to those who wanted a slave to be silent. Resistance is vital in our task of working towards liberation. Resistance is essential to uphold life and dignity for all.
In Mindanao today, over 500,000 hectares of land are covered by mining concessions. Over 700,000 hectares of Mindanao land are covered by banana, pineapple, oil palm, rubber and other plantations. These lands are ancestral lands of the Lumads which are now militarized. Over 50 % of the Armed Forces of the Philippines are now deployed to Mindanao to secure the interests of investors in the government’s Oplan Bayanihan. Furthermore, over 20 indigenous paramilitary groups called Alamara, Magahat, Bagani Force, among others, have been unleashed by the AFP and are sowing terror and division in Lumad communities. The Lumads claim that they are the targets because of their resistance to the plunder of their lands. Over 40,000 Lumads have already been forced to flee their own ancestral lands due to militarization. Their livelihood has been disrupted and their communities, schools, clinics and farms have been destroyed. And out of the 71 indigenous leaders killed under the presidency of Benigno Simeon Aquino, 56 are Lumads. They are peace-loving people and their act of resistance is to flee. The Lumads are not very different from the Israelites who escaped Egypt where they were oppressed. These acts of resistance are necessary to defend life and dignity.
For whom do we assert?
Now we go to ‘asserting.’ Elisha asserted his authority as a prophet of God. Showing no prejudice against a commander who had killed his people, he summons the commander to come to Israel, saying, “Let him come to me that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” Then orders him, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” An assertion of authority is never intended to exhibit power but to manifest God’s vision of wholeness for all. In this act of healing, Commander Naaman proclaims,“Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”(v. 15)
The education of Lumads have been neglected for years. For decades they requested for schools to be established in their communities because their people have been left behind in their development. There were cases where they experienced being cheated and robbed of their lands because they did not even know how to read and write letters and numbers. In recent years, in partnership with religious institutions and other non-government organizations, they established alternative schools to equip and empower their people,especially their children. About ten years ago, they were even awarded and acknowledged by the Department of Education for their brand of alternative education. The Lumads take pride in how they have built up their own schools without the help of the government. They thought the government would celebrate their initiatives and triumphs. Instead, after a few years of success, their schools were attacked. To date, 87 indigenous schools in Mindanao are being attacked by the military through encampment and outright demolition and burning of their buildings. There are also over 230 documented cases of human rights violations perpetrated against Lumad children. Finally, the Department of Education Memorandum 221 empowers the military to teach and occupy the Lumad schools!
It is necessary to critique Elisha in our text. Elisha’s assertions fall short in our task of working towards liberation. When he was being offered gifts by Naaman to thank him for the healing, he could have asserted for the freedom of the slave-girl-child. Instead he says, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will receive none.”(v. 16) When the Department of Education asserted their power to educate the Lumad children, their act only exhibited their power but failed to do what is right. Like Elisha who failed to hear the cries of the slave-girl-child, the DepEd Memorandum denies the call of the Lumads to “Save Our Schools.” They no longer need a school from the government. Much less a school run by the military! They assert their right to an education that is truly for the development of the Lumad children. The Lumads assert and demand to “Save Our Schools!”
What is there to celebrate?
In the healing of Naaman, our traditional interpretations celebrate the two kings, a prophet and a general. Even God proves to be the one true God who denies no one mercy and healing. But they forget the cry of a slave-girl-child. Perhaps, when she voiced out the healing through Elisha, she envisioned her own liberation from slavery. For how can she wish for the healing of her enemy and not want freedom for her oppressed self? The most powerful men in two kingdoms and the most powerful prophet of God came together to heal a man of privilege and yet do nothing for a slave-child.
So what is there to celebrate? A celebration of life must include ALL. Not just of commanders, prophets and kings. True celebration is not a celebration of privilege but a celebration of life and dignity for all.
The Lumads cannot celebrate. We too cannot celebrate. Like us, they pray to go home to their lands, see their children get an education, have confidence that everyone is safe in their communities and obtain justice for the families of those who have been killed. Like us, they envision a future where their children can inherit the earth and live in peace. Until the Lumads can celebrate, our celebrations are only a celebration of privilege.
Possible Guide Questions:
Who is crying-out in our churches? In our communities?
Is it an issue of life and dignity?
Who is responsible for their suffering?
How can we respond as individuals and as a church?
For the Philippines Annual Conference
United Methodist Church