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The Church stands with the poor. Corrupt leaders, beware

16 March 2018

A world of misery, oppression, and hatred cannot be the Kingdom of God, writes Rex Reyes

USPG/Leah Gordon

Galle Dagyo holds some of the fresh bean crop in Ur-urtuut field, near Basao, Kalinga Province, in the Philippines, where the Anglican Church is running a community-generation programme

Galle Dagyo holds some of the fresh bean crop in Ur-urtuut field, near Basao, Kalinga Province, in the Philippines, where the Anglican Church is runni...

IN THE quest for global justice, the Church must listen first to the voices of those on the margins: the vulnerable, the poor, and the oppressed. These are the people who have a moral claim to social justice. The Church must stand with them against those who abuse power. The last shall be first.

This solidarity with the vulnerable involves not only prayer, but action. Of course, all have fallen short of God’s glory, but the truth must be pointed out that, more often than not, those who hold power and who have been corrupted by it bear the greater burden to amend their ways.

Faced with human degradation, the Church must be brave enough to point to the emperors who have no clothes. This is no small responsibility: speaking the truth about human suffering caused by a system, structure, or principality that commodifies people is not easy when this system employs repression, falsehood, and structural violence to protect itself.

In this quest for justice, the Church struggles with an anxiety similar to that faced by the disciples when they found themselves surrounded by crowds of people in need of Christ’s help. The common impulse is to fret about where to get the resources to respond, before sending people away.

But Jesus’s response is: “Do not send them away.” God wants us to go beyond the questions “Where can we buy food that these may eat?” or “What are these among so many?” We are being instructed on the goodness of sharing. The bread of life and the water of life are for all, regardless of race or social-economic standing.

In Christian praxis, then, sharing ceases to be a consequence of our being Christian. Rather, sharing is what makes us Christian. Without the capacity to share, how can we ever begin to know what love is?

Fortunately, Christ suggests a method: “Make the people sit down.”

From our experience, a first step with vulnerable people is to organise them. It is necessary to take stock of the situation, understand underlying issues (often these go unnoticed because of people’s desperation), and discover a more organised way of dealing with situations of want. This needs to be a collaborative effort between survivors and those who minister to their needs.

“And he began to teach them.” If we are to mobilise people successfully, they must know their rights, and demand those rights in an effective way. Those in power also need to be taught a lesson: do not wait for imploring hands to turn into clenched fists.

The command “Make people sit down” is a chief reason why the Churches in the Philippines persist with their demand that the antagonists in the long-drawn-out war resume the peace talks, and see it to its successful end.

iSTOCKA mother begs with her children at a church door in San Pablo City, Laguna, in the Philippines

ANOTHER lesson from the Gospels is that there are other boats in the lake. The disciples’ net was almost breaking; so “they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them” (Luke 5.6-7).

Gargantuan tasks demand partnership. Christianity, being global, should be able to produce a global response to even the most local of human needs.

The Churches in the Philippines have been involved in the campaign for human rights and civil liberties, the care of displaced people, and seeking justice for migrant Filipino workers separated from home and subject to abuse in their host countries. The burden is heavy, and almost impossible to bear.

Through the National Council of Churches of the Philippines (NCCP), member Churches and associates are united in faith, witness, and service. At another level, the NCCP collaborates with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches.

These three largest Christian federations in the Philippines have formed the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform; they fight human trafficking and serve migrant workers through the Philippine Interfaith Movement against Human Trafficking; and they pool resources and lessons in humanitarian work through the Faith-Based Forum.

We have also beckoned to our partners in boats on the other side of the lake, networking with Christian groups in many parts of the world. Each has need of the other.

In partnership, the unity in Christ is nurtured and made real. The people’s struggle, and the willingness of the Church to be part of that struggle, is what turns ecumenism and, I would argue, Christianity itself into a movement.

And it is an eschatological movement. The Church’s solidarity with people’s struggle is spurred on not only by our sense of social consciousness: it is profoundly evangelical, a proclamation of the gospel. “I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me” (John 17.23).

Together, we can model partnerships that are life-affirming and that call to account death-dealing forces, agents, and structures.

The Church radiates hope in situations where it is wearing thin. We know that a world with so much misery, oppression, violence, and hatred cannot be the Kingdom of God. A Church that appreciates this fully is ready to become salt and/or a lighted candle. For the NCCP, God’s mission in Christ is focused on the vision of abundant life for all (John 10.10).

With this as our vision, we are forced to confront difficult questions. Why is a country such as the Philippines, known to have bountiful resources, home to millions of hungry and vulnerable people? Why is this a country whose citizens seek opportunities for work overseas at great risk, at the rate of 6000 people each day? Why is peace elusive, and why is there so much inhospitality, violence, oppression, and impunity in this country — one of only two Asian countries where Christians are in the majority?

These questions touch on justice and its denial. They are, of course, asked by people in many parts of the world.

 LEAH GORDON/USPGA demonstration in support of Bishop Morales in Ozamiz City Philippine Independent Church

THE quest for global justice is thus at once a mission and a vision. It is a mission inaugurated by Jesus Christ. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4.18-19).

And, just to be sure that the verses he quotes from Isaiah sink into the hearts of his listeners, Jesus adds: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21).

It is a vision, because we see the movement for just and lasting peace worldwide accelerating towards fulfilment. It remains a vision: as yet, the world knows him not, and people receive him not. But we pursue global justice because we recognise the possibility of better social conditions in the world.


The Revd Rex Reyes is the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines.

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