New Internationalist

Too Many Thieves

Issue 153

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SOCIALISM | Christians and change

Too many thieves
Christians and Marxists often find themselves on the same side in the
fight for social justice. But they do argue over the best way to achieve this.
Australian writer George Fisher sets his story in a Filipino village.

The storm came with some ferocity from the Mindanao Sea, uprooting the less secure trees and scattering old sheets of roofing iron. A mud-caked domestic fowl, which had been decapitated by flying debris during the squall, ran in circles around the feet of the children as they began the task of rebuilding their shanty town.

Kerima and Mary drove into the village as the last lashes of rain passed. They were welcomed like family at chore time, and began to help collect bits and pieces of the strewn households: plastic basins, thin blankets which somehow always managed to land in puddles of water: here and there a sandal, a tin mug, a shirt.

Kerima, a Filipina nurse, had a strong association with the New People’s Army (NPA) - the liberation movement fighting the corrupt Marcos dictatorship. Mary was an aid administrator from Australia, who had come to the Philippines with a Christian agency.

They had worked together in several of the country’s provinces. Local people referred to them by a range of phrases which in most cases translated as something like chalk and cheese.

A few men and women sugar workers had run back to the hillside village from the haciendas - large sugar plantations. Given a more simple target for their long-felt frustration, the villagers were shouting at the children. Another setback. Another year’s work, perhaps two, merely to get back to the relative wealth that was theirs before the storm.

When Antonio approached the jeep, both Kerima and Mary saw the tears clinging to his pitted face. As the village’s oldest male, he was the official message bearer.

‘Have you any word of Enrico and Reynante?’ he said.

Mary looked quickly around at the bustle of activity. ‘Where were they? Have they been injured?’

‘No, no my friend. Not this.’ Antonio waved his arm at the surroundings with little energy. Not the storm. The weather can be harsh but at least it can be trusted. The police took them yesterday. We fear they’ve been salvaged*. Their father was taken last month.

For the rest of the day Mary and Kerima set up their aid station from the back of their jeep. Kerima carried out routine first aid, joking with the children as she collected data on health and nutrition levels. ‘Another report for the government to overlook,’ she thought to herself.

Mary turned to Antonio who stood by their side as they worked. ‘Nearly 80 per cent of Filipino children are malnourished,’ she said, ‘and the government says there’s no immediate problem.’ Antonio nodded slowly.

The sun moved lower behind another arm of cloud. Kerima pointed out beyond the first line of hills to pails of smoke rising from the nearby hamlet. ‘More hamleting?*’

‘Probably,’ said Antonio. ‘They want to control these hills.’

The trio sat and ate their own rice and drank some tea.

Kerima threw her dregs into the mud at her feet, glanced at Antonio, then turned to Mary. ‘I still can’t work out why you’re here an Australian.

'Same as you, probably,’ she replied. ‘I see a need.’

‘If the NPA were victorious,’ said Antonio, ‘there would be no need for people like you to come here and get your hands dirty.’

Mary smiled, then paused. ‘Dirty hands are the least of my concerns. But if there’s still need or suffering even with a different kind of government, I’d be trying to do the same thing. Surely you would too, Kerima.’

‘After a while there wouldn’t be a need,’ said Antonio.

‘I can only speak from what I know and what I see: said Mary. ‘I can’t see how everything bad exists only in the system and not somehow in each person.’ She paused and listened to the sounds of the village and saw again the smoke rising in the valley.’... I think Jesus would say there’s as much greed and selfishness in the hearts of communists as in the hearts of capitalists.’

‘Greedy capitalists?’ Kerima gave Mary a friendly punch on the shoulder. ‘So now you’re on my side.’ They laughed, and Antonio joined them with an uncommitted smile.

‘I don’t think that extremist governments can be "of the people",’ said Mary. Left or right. Any system which puts human beings at the centre of an achievable ideal misses out on something crucial. In one sense everything we undertake is tainted if - personally and as a community - we fail to do what we know is right.’

Kerima interrupted: ‘Those feelings of failure and guilt arise out of the way we work - the way we produce things, the fact that that men and women have become machines.’

‘Yes, I know, Marxists look for a time when what people are and what they do is in complete harmony - when people are not "alienated". But isn’t this in a way just your version of "salvation"?’

‘We make utopia with our own hands,’ said Antonio You Christians are too easily sidetracked by your belief in heaven. By making a real community of all women and men we’ll build a better utopia than you’ll ever see.

A brief volley of gunfire echoed from the lower valley. Terrorists, the government will say: the police, more likely.

‘Sure,’ replied Mary. ‘But how much are you really changing? It’s not much use just making people want more. A person’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of their possessions. Change works from the heart outwards. Christians still want to change structures, there’s no doubt about that. Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, called the poor the "microphones of God". was assassinated for publicly pleading with the National Guard to stop killing poor peasants for demanding their rights. That cost him his life.’

Antonio continued more energetically. ‘One of our own Filipino theologians, Father Ed de Ia Torre, said 'To be a Christian is not just to denounce injustice, but to seek to remove the roots of injustice". That cost him his freedom.’

Mary nodded. But both men preached that love comes first. Love has to be the governing principle of justice. It must be both a political and personal principle.’

‘Marxism at some points,’ she continued, ‘is nearer to Christianity than any other philosophy. But Marxists don’t realize that the heart they are seeing the world with is the heart of a person made in the image of God.’

Kerima answered sharply. ‘That’s not God. It’s the image of mankind at full potential.’

Mary almost whispered, ‘I know myself too well to agree with that as even a remote possibility.’

‘You disappoint me sometimes,’ said Antonio, ‘but you have a strong feeling for my people. You’ve come to our country expecting nothing. You’ve won many hard hearts. But your Christian love suggests submission and patience - and my people have suffered for too long.’

‘I don’t want to hold back your notion of justice. I want to enlarge it,’ said Mary. ‘Marxism has provided an incredibly valuable tool for Christians to use, I’m thankful for that. Your New Peoples Army are doing some great things like your crop sharing and rent policies. Our Basic Christian Communities are trying to do the same sort of thing. In dozens of areas we can share ideas and work together. Your groups have high ideals on freedom and human dignity. But you accommodate violence too readily. I can’t do that. Along the way it becomes a contradiction.’

‘Today’s liberators can become tomorrow’s oppressors. Is that what you’re saying?’ asked Kerima.

Mary crouched down and leaned against the wheel of the jeep. She nodded.

Antonio continued: ‘The leader of the Christian Community of Kabankalan and his sons were killed recently by the anti-communist militia. Their bodies had been covered with banana leaves and trussed up like roasted pigs. They would have been better off not speaking out against the government.

‘Many Christians are already too silent,’ responded Mary. ‘We should be saying more, not less. But the church grows strongly when under persecution: Russia, China, Africa, Central America, ideology or location doesn’t seem to matter much.

As Kerima and Mary began loading the jeep, an opening hand of cloud sent sheets of rain across the valley, quelching the nearby blaze and ushering a deeper silence onto the village.

‘Friends,’ said Antonio, ‘Enrico and Reynante were talking of setting up a Basic Christian Community. On the night before they were taken, Enrico said to me, "Don’t set up treasures that thieves can steal. If your treasure is stolen you’ll forfeit your heart".’

He paused. ‘And there are always too many thieves.’

There were tears in Antonio’s eyes when Kerima and Mary left for the next village.

Antonio was half way to the hacienda the next morning when he saw the overturned jeep. Gunfire had been heard in the valley late into the night. At the edge of the road, under some bushes, were some notebooks and a first aid kit.

* Salvaging is extra-judicial killing by military or government forces.

* Hamleting’ is the forced re-organisation of rural residents into special camps. It often includes the destruction of property by military authorities.


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