Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Biblico-Theological Reflection

Below is the text of the Biblico-Theological Reflection of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines' General Secretary during the opening of the seminar on Building HIV/AIDS Competent Churches in the Philippines.  This seminar is a cooperative endeavor of the NCCP and the Christian Conference of Asia.

A Biblico-Theological Reflection
Padi Rex RB Reyes, Jr.
General Secretary, NCCPhilippines
September 14-16, 2011

Last Saturday, the Executive Committee of the Christian Conference of Asia listened to the testimony of Pastor Ponsawan Khankaew. It was a powerful and moving testimony. Moving because it was a first person story – her life story. She told of her blindness and how one eye eventually gained sight. She talked of her isolation from her friends, from the hospital staff and above all her isolation from her own pastor and the members of her community. She was dismissed as a hopeless case, a sinner and her community talked about rituals and customs related to her impending death. She also told of how her love for her two sons and the apparent love of her sons for her carried her through the painful ordeal. It was powerful because her testimony is a challenge to the church and Christians about our notions of sin, mission and pastoral responsibility. There she was - well recovered singing of her faith in a Jesus who stood by her and healed her. There she was opening up a ministry for people bearing the suffering she underwent by putting up the Adonai Church in Pattaya and the Glory Hut Foundation out of nothing but her indomitable spirit to minister to people isolated by others. There she was receiving, without resentment, referrals from pastors who still think they have nothing to do with people living with HIV and AIDS. May she live much longer than the fifteen years she prayed for. There she was singing of the victory that was hers in Jesus Christ and the joy of watching her two boys grow up in a hostile world. There is no other profound and genuine witness to the love of Jesus and His command to love than the testimony of our own lives.

When her colleagues and friends ask her why she visits bars in Pattaya which is a popular tourist destination in Thailand, she counters “Why not”? Indeed, why not? Pastor Ponsawan proclaims God’s love and healing in a place where it matters most – where love and healing is not felt, utterly hidden by the vicious cycle of people who exploit those who are already marginalized and vulnerable for profit. In this case it is called tourism. Last week, the cover of the in-flight magazine of an Asian airline caught my attention (that is what in-flight magazines are supposed to do – catch attention, of course). Tourism is a dollar-earning industry in many parts of Asia. The magazine cover projects a certain aspect of tourism in an Asian country and targets a particular section of tourists. It is very subtle but the message is there. We have our own in the Philippines – pictures of beautiful and “submissive” women and projections of our hospitality.

The stories of healing and perspective-setting for people of faith in Matthew 9 are instructive for our purpose today. We have a situation here where the religious leaders, contained as they are by their concept of ritual purity, religious rigidity and their authority fail to see the divine agenda of healing. Healing does not only address the issue of physical wellness but also those that cause broken relations – people being cast into the margins, isolated and made more vulnerable in their vulnerability. Our text does not provide the reason or reasons how one got paralyzed, how is it that the woman suffered hemorrhage for years, how the two men became blind or how one person became a dumb demoniac. But, it does tell of how they drew near or were brought near to Jesus. Drawing near or being brought near suggests not just physical nearness but a conversation that results into conversion and healing. To the paralytic Jesus says: “take heart, your sins are forgiven. . .rise, take up your bed and go home”. To the woman, he says “Take heart. . . your faith has made you well”. To the blind men, he says “according to your faith be it done to you”. There is less of “moralizing” but more of compassion. He says “take heart”. None can be more compelling for a sick person than the desire to be healed and not be a social outcast. Jesus knows that and acts on that basis.

At a cursory glance, physical unwellness is caused by sin. To hold on to this view is to confine a portion of the total self as bad – in this case sexuality – and must be conquered at all costs so that we do not sin. This leads to a tendency to moralize – that one gets sick because of sin. Moralizing tends to espouse segregation or perhaps generates hatred or attitudes of domination or superiority and blocks the way for rendering loving service and creating an inclusive community. It complicates relationships. It is not uncommon to find people who hold the view that people contract HIV and AIDS because they are sinful, that regions are hit by tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes because the people there are sinful, that Padi Rex has not grown any taller because of his sins, etc. . . . . Such posturing defies and denies the place of scientific breakthroughs, which are also the results of another of God’s gift – the human mind.

I believe that our text is also intended to humble the Pharisees in their constant moralizing and hypocrisy. Because Jesus knew that they are consumed by “evil in their hearts” he healed people “that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”. But beyond that is the lesson that Jesus wants to impart to the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’. Jesus sees mercy from the perspective of those who suffer, instead of from the perspective of those who are in the position to dispense of it. In this way can genuine compassion come about – solidarity with those in pain. This suggests an approach our churches can take in dealing with the issues that matter most to people. First, to be with them, and, second, to be for them. It emphasizes the “Word (which) became flesh and dwelt among” us. If the Word remained a Word, would Christianity be there or would God be relevant? I surmise that if God did not come to be in solidarity with us in Jesus Christ, we would still remain like the people of old, each tribe or nation having their own god with no mission to speak of. As it is, even the first Christian community recorded in Acts was marked by the genuine concern of its members to attend to the needs of the weak – “not one of them was hungry”. Paul, addressing the Romans gives some practical advise, too. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8.1). . . . You are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you, Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (8.9).

At the heart of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines’ self-understanding is faithfulness to Jesus who said they who want to be great must serve. Service or diakonia is the hallmark of the church. Service is extended not only to our own members but especially to others. “Others” does not just refer to non-members. “Others” refers to those to whom that service is most needed – those who are denied opportunities to live abundant lives, those who are isolated/ignored by their families, friends and even by their own members and pastors/priests, regardless of who they are. The NCCP’s self-understanding also seeks to be consistent with the definition of Paul of what churches are – communities built upon “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” and Jesus being the chief cornerstone, in that order. Apostles teach the essentiality of service and prophets call us all, especially those powers and principalities, to repentance and to love peace and justice. I have earlier cited the cover page of an Asian Airline in-flight magazine. Things like those are where the prophetic witness of the church comes in. Any demeaning or diminuition of human life is always a violation of human rights and should be exposed and denounced.

HIV and AIDS are not a curse. The first is caused by a virus like tuberculosis is caused by bacteria. The other is equally a serious condition gravely affecting the body’s immune system. Those who have contracted the virus and those with AIDS need care and not condemnation. A loving church will try to understand and know what these are in order to seek the people living with the HIV or PLHIV and people living with AIDS (PLA) out so that not one of them is lost. The book “Building HIV Competent Churches” is a valuable resource material for the churches in the Philippines and elsewhere. Every church should have it. A series of Bible studies could be formulated from its pages. After reading it, one is faced with the undeniable reality of HIV and AIDS and of the compelling need to respond. PLHIVs and PLAs are not faceless. They too, are the image of God.

It is not late for the churches, or the ecumenical movement for that matter, to extend loving service to the PLHIVs and PLAs and key affected populations. Let it be said that this concern is equally for our sake as it is for them. Now is also the time to engage in prophetic witness such that the many myths about HIV and AIDS, how they are contracted and how to prevent the same can be more objectively known and addressed. The fact is clear: the number of PLHIVs and PLAs is increasing in our country and the environment that allows that number to increase is also widening. We should not wait until the numbers reach thousands upon thousands.

Pastor Ponsawan has had a very personal experience of healing. Her faith has made her whole again. That wholeness goes beyond herself to the restoration if not renewal of social relationships. Her love for life is not only her personal claim but also propelled her to live out and express that love to those who have been made outcasts by their own kind. The Bible which is our source of personal and private devotion is the product of the engagement of God’s evangelists and prophets of the real issues that made people behave the way they did in those days. The faith that we claim, wrestles with the issues of power relations, of vulnerable people and of the gap between people – and proclaims a community of love, of hope, and of salvation.

photos: ian ileto

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