The little cross that sits on my office windowsill is heavy in weight and meaning. It’s a replica of a stone cross that has stood outside the abbey at Iona, Scotland, for over 1,200 years. Images from Scripture are carved on one side; on the other, images from the natural world, Creation. The cross embraces both hope and sin.
I don’t often talk about sin. I talk much more about blessing and hope. But it’s worth talking about sin sometimes, if only to be sure we remember how to recognize it.
A few years ago at the Five Oaks Centre near Brantford, Ont., Kathy Galloway, then leader of the Iona Community, was asked why we wouldn’t replace all talk of original sin with original blessing. We can’t stop talking about original sin, Galloway said, because we are each born into a world of sinful arrangements and systems; of inequalities and behaviours that destroy God’s creation, God’s people.
When I visited the Philippines last December, the truth of Galloway’s words resurfaced. This is one of those places where the broken, sinful arrangements into which Earth’s children are born are especially evident. There was a lot that I wanted to turn away from. I would rather not have been forced to see how the people of Smokey Mountain live on a reeking garbage dump, harvesting its meagre goods to survive. But in the same place I saw the bright faces of children in a mission school, cared for by a teacher trained with mission funds. The symbol of the cross reminded me that I could not turn away from sin without losing sight of hope.
I was part of a Living Letters team, requested by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines and inspired by 2 Corinthians 3:3 — to be the letters of Christ to one another, written with the Spirit of the Living God. The World Council of Churches sends these small ecumenical teams to visit Christians in difficult situations; to pray, act and offer encouragement.
Since 2001, the Filipino people have suffered extreme political repression and human rights violations, with well over a thousand “extrajudicial killings,” as well as abductions, disappearances and intimidation. Hundreds of political prisoners are in detention without trial. Hopes ran high last year as presidential candidate Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino promised he would reverse the culture of impunity, but things have not improved since his election win. Yet resilient hope meets tenacious sin at every turn.
Filipinos risk their lives daily for the preservation of their land and water. The local fishing industry on the island of Luzon is now threatened by government plans to dislocate two million people (400,000 families) from around Laguna Lake. The cleared territory will be developed by international corporate interests into a major business hub — and provide access to a new source for bottled water.
It’s both surprising, and yet somehow predictable, to discover that The United Church of Canada is right in the middle of this conflict. Local organizers showed me around villages where I was greeted as a friend. “We’re so proud of you!” one organizer told me. “You sent us food and helped us build new fishing boats after the typhoon.” Villagers tried to show me every one of “our” 12 fishing boats, distributed across six communities.
PAMALAKAYA, a United Church partner, is building a movement for fishers’ rights. “Are your lives threatened?” I ask. “Of course, it’s part of life here,” is the response. Twenty-three local fishers have been killed.
A priority of our Living Letters delegation was to make the case for the “Morong 43” — health workers who were arrested in February 2010 on suspicion of being communist rebels. The health workers’ focus on helping the poor automatically made them suspect. I was shown an armed forces manual which declared that all religious organizations have been infiltrated by communists because liberation theology teaches that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.
After meeting with the secretary of justice, we visited the detainees in prison, carrying a tender hope that the government might soon drop the charges against them. Our visit was well timed, and this hope was fulfilled. The following week, on International Human Rights Day, the president announced that charges would be withdrawn. Before Christmas, most of the detainees were free, including two women who had given birth while in detention.
Their beautiful babies are blessed and blessing. Like Jesus, they have been born into poverty and injustice — systemic sins we meet with the hope of the cross.
More than once, the partners I met told me, “To say that The United Church of Canada is our most enduring partner is an understatement.” In response, I say that our Christian sisters and brothers in the Philippines are among our most faithful and courageous partners in the way of the cross, the way of resurrection. Together we recognize sin and respond with hope, discovering who we are as Easter people.
Mardi Tindal is the 40th moderator of The United Church of Canada.
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