The Quest for Lasting Peace - Full Report

Full report of the update on the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and its work for human rights.

Full report of the update on the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and its work for human rights.

The Quest for Lasting Peace
The UCCP Experience
Edna J. Orteza
12 December 2005

Context, Conflict, and Creativity
The struggle in the Philippines has been long and costly.  Tensions continue to build with the combined forces of globalization and the ongoing war on terror, in which scheme such values as truth, justice, freedom, and dignity have no reality.  The US remains bent on extending its empire, disregarding the sovereignty of nations, the rights of peoples, and conveniently ignoring all other ethical and humanitarian considerations. 

This is an attempt to provide an overview of how the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) deals with conflicts in society and within the church itself.  What sorts of conflicts do we address?  What methodologies and strategies do we use in dealing with these conflicts?  What are the implications for a continuing partnership and solidarity?

In May 2005, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in a meeting with business leaders in Makati whom she addressed as her “most important partners”, claimed “sound economic fundamentals”, which constitute a “solid foundation for recovery” and “positive momentum” despite “political noise”.  She took pride in reports that, in 2004, growth rate registered at 6.1%, the fastest in over a decade; the Supreme Court had ruled on the complete foreign ownership of mining operations to pave the way for mining investors.  The proposed Expanded Value Added Tax (EVAT) law was anticipated to be a major breakthrough towards fiscal stability.  Major business groups have come out strongly in support of the law.  And, though rather cautiously, multilateral funding agencies, international credit rating firms, and foreign investment banks are responding favorably.  As it is, foreign transnational corporations account for 70% of total manufacturing output.

Yet, in spite of all these “economic achievements”, the people’s welfare has not improved.  We are at a point where it is now virtually impossible for a greater number of the people to survive.  With the increase in oil prices, way beyond the anticipated rate, many businesses are expected to collapse.  The implementation of the EVAT will, perhaps, ease the government budget deficits, but not the ordinary households that are now experiencing more problems with their inability to cope with everyday expenses, monthly electricity and water bills, education and health needs.  Even public schools registered a decrease in enrollment this year. The people find escape in migration, prostitution, drug addiction, robbery, kidnapping, and in other criminal acts. 

It is difficult to imagine how we would find solutions to these problems.  To say that corruption in government is rampant would be an understatement.  Human iniquities, scandals, corruption, deception and the betrayal of public trust have become a way of life. We are now drawn to believe that these are how things should be, that this is the natural order of things, and that, our destiny as a nation can be determined simply by numbers. Honor and integrity are now values of the past.  Children learn from television and media that lying is normal, a way of getting people out of trouble, and a means to keep oneself in power.  Words have been transformed either into swords or lumps of dirt that leaders of the country hurl at each other.  Religion, for most government officials, has become a political strategy; for many Filipinos, an escape from reality. 

In the streets and in the countryside, people wage a different kind of war, some in protest movements against legislative policies, systemic corruption, violation of human rights, the “jueteng” scandal, and outright lying and mud-slinging; others, in armed confrontation with those that launch terror and bring death to individuals who ever speak of injustice and accompany the oppressed.

Meanwhile, the Arroyo administration continues to be preoccupied with its fiscal crisis, which burden, unfortunately, falls on those already heavily weighed down by the problem of survival. To ensure debt payments, the government is raising taxes, cutting back on social services, laying-off government workers, and freezes public sector salaries.  Success indicators are limited to increase in credit ratings to enable the government to borrow more money.  As of March 2005, public sector debt stood at P6 trillion.  Interest payments and amortization of the principal could amount to 94% of the total national budget (IBON).   Are these not the result of economic failures?

In her State of the Nation address in July 2005, Pres. Arroyo again insisted that the country is on the verge of a take-off, but that it is being blocked by a political system that has become increasingly dysfunctional.  The solution: charter change, and the shift to federal parliamentary government.  To some extent then, she was able to diffuse attention to the scandals involving her family, systemic corruption, election fraud, and the clamor for her resignation or impeachment.  

The President dismisses these issues as nothing but “political noise” instigated by her “detractors”, “de-stabilizers” and “economic saboteurs” who want to undermine the government.  Any protest is met with suppression through economic and political maneuvers (of the carrot and stick sort), and military aggression.  Even peaceful, non-violent forms of resistance are labeled as acts of terrorism, providing the state legal bases for denying them their rights.  The video footage of the water cannons hitting former Vice-President Teofisto Guingona, Sen. Jamby Madrigal, Rep. Satur Ocampo, Rep. Riza Hontiveros-Baraquel, Fr. Robert Reyes, Roman Catholic Bishops Labayen, Tobias, and Yniguez, nuns and other religious, students and members of people’s organizations keep flashing on television as I write this.  Then, in another scene, policewomen are complaining of the violation of their human rights, reporting that some of the protesters turned back at them and hurt their arms.  They claimed that if activists have human rights, the police and the military have human rights, too. 

The literal drowning of protesters is part of the government strategy known as the Calibrated Preemptive Response (CPR).   As even her closest allies warn, the hard-line approach and strong-arm tactics of President Arroyo will only help radicalize a greater number of people and steel the people’s passion and resolve against her.  Indeed, some analysts predict that it is just a matter of time when the water loosed on the protesters will turn like a tsunami into her direction.  

Coherence and Commitment
Our life and work as a United Church of Christ in the Philippines is shaped and challenged by these developments.  The responses vary.  Many of our members are apathetic about the situation and would rather pay attention to the survival needs of their families.  Some bring these concerns in prayer, studies and reflection.  Some church workers perform their pastoral and priestly functions; others, their prophetic role.  Some local churches and church-related institutions provide sanctuary to those who seek refuge; others close their doors to anything that is “politically related”.  Some participate in rallies and protest actions or join organizations that actively advocate for peace and justice.  And there are those who have opted to take arms and be part of what for them is a higher form of struggle.

This variety of gifts and commitments constitutes who we are – the UCCP, a church constantly and tirelessly in pursuit of meaning and the realization of justice and peace in the world.  This diversity could work most fruitfully if there is a shared understanding and a common acceptance of the variety of roles that different members must perform.   But, the reality is that in these differences, which present the potential for both conflict and creativity, some of our members have chosen to regard this as a source of division and not as a basis for convergence.  Hence, the question always has been: What do we choose? 

As many of you must know, the UCCP has been confronted with threats of division and separation.  The issues are, basically, on “the teachings of the church not being biblically-based” (Why should there be specific bias for the poor?  Why the emphasis on human rights?  Why include the phrase “a new social order” in the UCCP Statement of Faith?), and on the leadership of the church (i.e., bishops and pastors’ membership in people’s organizations and movements, and the issuance of statements on public issues).

In response, the UCCP initiated a series of dialogues with local churches and groups.  The Bishops and members of the Faith and Order Commission met with some local congregations to discuss and reflect together.  It was the position of the Bishops that engagement in social issues is part of the ministry of the church (Luke 4:18-19), as articulated in the UCCP Statement of Faith, and that the church respects the individual’s constitutional rights to political beliefs.  The groups, on the other hand, insist that the Bishops should disengage themselves from membership in any organization outside the church, and should admonish church workers to stay out of their political involvements and give more attention to evangelism, and that people’s organizations with which they associate themselves must go through an accreditation process established by the church.  Long debates and painful discussions… However, there was a suggestion that the UCCP should come up with strategies that will empower local churches to be at the forefront of social engagement.  

These issues manifest a clear disparity in the interpretation of the gospel mandate and a lack of unity in the understanding of the UCCP historical tradition, beliefs, thrusts, priorities, and social commitment.  In a context like the Philippines, it is easy to lose sight of the more profound issues confronting Christians today.  The internal dynamics extends to other relationships and manifests more acutely in the prejudice and animosity existing between Christians and Muslims.

But, we continue to strive to be a church which path leads to the strengthening of a community that must live out its faith amidst pervasive greed and terror, suspicion and mistrust, violence and conflict, fragmentation and alienation.  The UCCP maintains that if we are to witness effectively, we must focus on the larger issues of LIFE and to experience new dimensions of understanding, rather than labour on our own internal differences.  This implies coherence, arising from a breadth of vision, and from a clear understanding that unity requires commitment to correct all forms of division, conflict and separation.  This implies grappling with issues and overcoming divisions in society, based on a common reading of historical realities and the immediacy and urgency of responding in a manner that is prophetic and just, and an acceptance of the cost of such discipleship. 

Given this clear commitment, the UCCP has not been spared of military atrocities.  In the prophetic fulfillment of our community ministries, some of our local churches and pastors have been subjected to harassment and other forms of violence by military forces.  We had documented cases of human rights violations and brutal murder of church workers and members.  There are evidences that the killing of UCCP peace advocates is premeditated and systematic. 

On 28 April 2004, Isaias Manano, 23, son of a former Moderator of Mindoro Conference, and an active leader of the Christian Youth Fellowship, was shot and killed while walking home with a friend.  He was the 40th murder victim in the province of Mindoro.

Mary Ann Vibat, 28, pastor of the UCCP in Tayug, Pangasinan, was abducted on 06 November 2004, along with eight (8) other civilians.  Until now, they are still missing. The family of Mary Ann, whose mother is also a UCCP pastor, has been searching for her and her companions.

Four (4) days after, on 10 November, Joel Baclao, a lay leader in UCCP Albay was shot in front of his house, and in full view of his wife.  His face was riddled with bullets and was rendered beyond recognition.  He was a member of the PCPR (Promotion of Church People’s Response) in Albay. 

Then, 6 days later, on 16 November, Juancho Sanchez, the eldest child and only son of Rev. Gabriel Sanchez, was among the fatalities in the violent dispersal of the joint forces of police and military in Hacienda Luisita.  Rev. Sanchez is the pastor of Balete Evangelical Church, which is located right inside the hacienda.  Most of the members of the church are sugar workers.    Juancho was giving water to the rallyists when he was mauled, shot and killed by military elements.  In the same incident, four other UCCP members were severely wounded.  In the aftermath, ninety-five (95) sugar mill workers were reported wounded, 115 were detained at Camp Aquino, 327 workers were dismissed by management. 

Thirteen (13) civilians suffered violent death in Hacienda Luisita.  Fr. William Tadeña, a priest of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) and Tarlac Councilor Abelardo Ladera, both known supporters of the sugar workers, were also killed.

On 12 May 2005, Rev. Edison C. Lapuz, 38, Conference Minister of the North Eastern Leyte Conference was killed in the presence of family members and friends.   Rev. Lapuz was the main convenor of a civil liberties group composed of lawyers and concerned individuals in Tacloban City, a founding member of the Promotion of Church’s People’s Response (PCPR), and an adviser of KAMAS, a farmer’s organization in San Isidro.  Rev. Lapuz featured prominently in the investigation on the assassination of Atty. F. Dacut, a well-known lawyer of a small farmer’s organization, and who fought for cases of human rights violations in Eastern Samar.

Rev. Raul Domingo, 43, a pastor in the UCCP Palawan Associate Conference was the latest victim.  He was shot on 20 August 2005, and sustained two (2) bullet wounds from a .45 caliber gun.  The bullets pierced through his stomach, damaged his liver and spinal cord.  He was comatose for two (2) weeks and finally died on 04 September.  Rev. Domingo was General Secretary of KARAPATAN and Chairperson of BAYAN in Palawan.  Prior to his death, he led a fact-finding mission for Vicente Olea, also a UCCP member who was also murdered in Palawan.

The Council of Bishops had issued public statements, and is now planning to meet with the President to bring up issues surrounding the killing of UCCP church workers, lay members and peace advocates.  Meanwhile, Bishop Elmer M. Bolocon, UCCP General Secretary, has called on all members to take initiatives when incidents of violence happen in their localities.  He encouraged them to participate in such activities as:
*       prayer vigils, candle-lighting rituals for victims and their families
*       awareness-building and education activities – dissemination of information materials, discussion groups, peace fora -- in the church
*       organizing Mercy and Solidarity Mission to provide emergency assistance
*       organizing or joining in Fact Finding Missions to gather information on the particular violation for possible legal action or administrative complaint
*       filing legal action for the indemnification of victims

In July of 2004, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), represented by former Chief of Staff, General Narciso Abaya, and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, through Bishop Elmer M. Bolocon, signed a joint statement signifying that both sides reiterate their “mutual commitment to pursue the ways of peace, justice and understanding for our country and people”. 

Time and again, the UCCP has been accused of being a “communist front” and has been tagged by the military as among the “enemies” of the State.  The Council of Bishops denounced the accusation and called on the military and police “to stop all acts of name-calling and labeling of individuals, groups and organizations as the enemy”, as these could be used to legitimize further harassment and killings.  The Council asked the military to respect and abide by the essence of the mutual accord signed by both.

Admittedly, as a Church, what we have done so far is to join prayer vigils and public protests, give donations to the families of victims, issue statements of concern, organize fact finding missions, and supporting legal actions filed by families of the victims.  We still need to consolidate our efforts, to work together to effectively promote justice and peace, and to protect the rights of all people, not only our members. 

All these developments bring a sense of alienation and hopelessness, of being too far away from the possibility of being in the Kingdom of God.  How then do we manifest signs of the Kingdom?  What do we see and what do we listen to?  Do we remain silent or do we raise our voice to speak about what we see?  And how do we give voice to those who daily live unspeakable misery?

In his address to the UCCP National Council in Midsayap, Cotabato, in August 2005, Bishop Bolocon recalled that during the period of intense violence and racial discrimination in the US, a voice came out from among an oppressed people: that of Martin Luther King, Jr.  We need not be reminded of the extent of suffering that African Americans had to endure over centuries of slavery and bondage, which features evolved into new forms in recent history.  Martin Luther King, Jr. came as a light in the dark, and shared with his people a vision -- a dream -- that was what he said, and gave them a voice.  He spoke words of wisdom on many occasions:

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Initiatives for Peace-Building and Conflict Transformation
In the last quadrennium (1998-2002), after a three year process, we have come up with the UCCP VMG and Strategic Plan, which provides the framework for the initiatives undertaken by the various judicatories and constituency at different levels.  The vision of a transformed church and society where abundant life is enjoyed remains as the basis for the pursuit of such goals as the strengthening of the faith community, enriching the life-work of communities where local churches are located, and deepening the impact of the collective response to issues and concerns in the larger society.

Rootedness in the Faith
In a consultation on the theme The UCCP: Grappling with Critical Points in its Faith, Life, and Ministry in this New Millennium, in 2001, critical questions were raised on some of the fundamental issues.  There was recognition that in our attempt to achieve unity as a church, we have made ourselves open to diverse and often opposing theological traditions and political persuasions.  This openness became both a source of strength and weakness, which created confusion and tension within the church, and posed a serious challenge to our continuing survival as both an evangelical and ecumenical body.  What is our identity as a church?    

In 2002, the FOC and the Commission on Church Unity and Union (CCUU) had a joint planning workshop to put flesh into the theme Proclaiming the Gospel in a Pluralist World: Towards a Dialogue of Life.  In the meeting were representatives from indigenous and Muslim communities.  There was recognition of the Church’s inadequacy in understanding the history and context of the struggles of Muslims and other Indigenous Peoples’ communities.  We learned that encounters with people of other faiths can provide focus on the human spirit as the seat of cultural identity, worldview, values and meanings, and expresses itself in the diversity of cultures according to diverse historical paths.  But, people can be bound together by a common human spirit, which enables them to transcend barriers and limitations.  The UCCP resolved to proclaim healing and wholeness, and work towards a dialogue of life.  

In retracing our steps, we put into focus some of the initiatives undertaken over the years concerning other communities of faith.  This ministry started with the coming of Protestantism in the Philippines at the turn of the century.

Long before the United Church of Christ in the Philippines came into being, early Protestant missionaries had established schools and hospitals in the remotest parts of the country.  These institutions provided for the educational and health needs of families, including Muslims and tribal communities in depressed areas.  Particularly in the Cordilleras, the schools served students coming from surrounding provinces, which necessitated the putting up of dormitories and student centers.  Complementary medical and health services, disaster relief, agriculture and livelihood projects benefited whole communities.

In Mindanao, the adult literacy programme started by Dr. Frank Laubach among the Maranaos gained international recognition and became a model fro an integrated approach to community work.  Such mission endeavors undeniably brought Muslims as well as individuals and families belonging to certain tribes – Bagobo, B’laan, Bontoc, Higaonon, Ifugao, Isneg, , Kalinga, Kankanaey, Mangyan, Manobo – into the Christian fold.

In the years that followed the formation of the UCCP in 1948, several statements and policy documents helped articulate the Church’s positions on issues and concerns affecting the social, economic, and political life of poor families and ordinary people.  Evident in these documents is the desire to discern the currents of the time and define the Church’s role in society, including how to relate with the “neighbor who is different”.  There is also the recognition of the Church’s responsibility to participate in efforts to bring about the transformation that is needed. 

Several factors compelled the UCCP to confront these issues and come up with policy statements, among them “the great lack of social justice and evidence of prejudice” as well as well as “the outbursts of lawlessness and the rampart disregard of order, which disrupt national unity and solidarity” in areas where its churches are, and where its workers and leaders are deeply engaged.  The statements encouraged initiating ways and approaches to bring about peace and reconciliation.

In areas where there has risen a strain in the relationship of Christians and those of other faiths, we urge the local churches and conferences to take the initiative in bringing about a dialogue, or series of dialogues, where problems are brought into light, and efforts at promoting unity and understanding achieved (Statement on Missionary Concern, Law, Order and National Unity, 1970).

Several other statements, significantly even in the critical years of Martial Law, affirmed the church’s commitment to the concerns of “cultural minorities” and repeatedly advocated the engagement of the churches in “bringing about a dialogue for peace, unity and progress among aggrieved groups” (Statement on National Issues, 1974).  In 1975, the Statement on Cultural Communities reiterated the concern about the inadequacy of the Church’s understanding of the history and culture of “cultural communities” at the same time that it affirmed its commitment for justice.  Dialogue was encouraged. 

These statements found concrete expression in programmes and services provided at the national, jurisdictional and conference levels.  Exposure programmes, Muslim-Christian dialogues, cross-cultural exchanges, education initiatives, advocacy work, and other such activities provided energy among the constituency.

However, in spite of these efforts and initiatives done in the past, problems remain.  There is hostility existing among peoples and communities.  Government “peace” initiatives, particularly in the Muslim provinces have generated further division and conflict.  The UCCP, in the meantime, has been unclear as to how these things might, if at all, relate to evangelism, causing confusion about programme priorities and methods.  The Southeast Mindanao Jurisdiction, for example, reported on the UCCP’s contribution of “substantial moral, financial, material, and human resources towards advocacy programmes, but noted the “little impact” of its economic projects.  It is evident that we in the UCCP still do not have a common understanding of the complexity of the issues involved.  The faith perspective has been not been adequately articulated.  And, therefore, the responses have simply been reactive, fragmented, and incoherent.  On the part of the UCCP constituency, the reliance on foreign funding manifests the lack of understanding and ownership of the process.  Social divisions and political conflicts will continue to haunt us.  We need to clarify our vision, sharpen our focus, articulate our aspirations, and find ways to carry out dialogue with those belonging to other faiths.  We need a dialogue of life.

In June 2005, another consultation, took place on the theme Living Together in the Household of God involving theologians and other sectors of the UCCP constituency “to clarify, affirm and strengthen our theological foundation, and provide coherence and direction to the life and witness of the Church”.  The consultation focused on the church’s understanding of the nature, life and ministry of Jesus, and the concepts of sin and salvation, the mission of the church, and how it is to be a church in the world.

The FOC is currently working on a commentary on the UCCP Statement of Faith.
 
Education and Nurture
Initiatives in this area are intended to enhance education processes within the church and local congregations through resources and materials for all age groups that integrate the values of justice, peace, care of creation, unity and solidarity in the study of our biblical faith and historical heritage.  These materials help foster an appreciation of, among others, Philippine history, cultural heritage and tradition, indigenous spirituality, and the struggles of the Moro people.  There are training workshops for teachers.  

These are complemented by the Vacation Church School (VCS) materials for children published by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), which focus on relevant themes such as overcoming violence, children and militarization…  The writers of the VCS materials are mainly UCCP.

Communications technology is harnessed. While we are just beginning to move towards the installation of computer programmes at least at the jurisdiction level, we have come up with video presentations on the UCCP Statement of Faith, the UCCP Journey of Faith, and on the UCCP and Globalization.  Apart from the United Church Letter, we also have the Bulletin Alert, a news update on emergent issues as with what happened in Hacienda Luisita, the killing of church workers, fact-finding missions and other ecumenical initiatives around the issue of peace...

Given the phenomenal rise of charismatic groups, there are suggestions coming from some conferences to call for a consultation on mission and evangelism, which should include sharing and discussion on the understanding of the varying forms and expressions of mission, and on questions on the nature of spirituality. 

Community Ministries
Under the new UCCP structure, there are conscious efforts to shift the orientation of organizational programmes and processes from the national offices to the local churches where mission expressions could be most meaningful.  Apart from providing adequate opportunities for integrated teaching-learning experiences for families and members, and supporting local programmes, the UCCP is encouraging the opening of new areas of mission by local churches and conferences.  These involve ministries with farmers, fisherfolk, workers, the urban poor, migrant settlers, indigenous and Muslim communities, usually integrating education, organizing, common action, networking and advocacy.  Some communities engage in income generating activities to increase family income.  There are cooperatives in some conferences, like the seaweed cooperative in Bohol.   The South Luzon Jurisdiction has a programme towards the rehabilitation of sex workers in Metro Manila.  

Institutional Ministries
The UCCP is not the National Office.  The UCCP is every local church, conference, jurisdiction, organization, educational and health institutions.  In this sense, the task of peace-building and conflict transformation are carried out in specific areas and contexts.

Educational institutions, hospitals and service centers are viewed as mission arms of the church.  In the Cordillera region, we have schools that serve indigenous families and communities.  In Mindanao, 99% of students in Dansalan College Foundation, Inc. (DCFI) are Muslims.  DCFI is a UCCP-related institution in Marawi City, in the Lake Lanao region of Mindanao, which is predominantly a Maranao-Muslim area.  DCFI is recognized as a partnership of Christians and Mu