Blog about United Theological Seminary's Global Justice Trip to the Philippines.

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Peddler

by Anthony Jermaine Ross

From the patio of Caffé Poli in downtown Manila while reading modern midrash, I see a brown man in well-worn cargo shorts and a white t-shirt a few days from fresh. He was raising something to sell and fishing for the corner of my eye. I know he knows that I see him, but I  keep reading and he comes closer calling convincingly- “Hi friend!” I know it’s just for a sale but I’m tempted all the same to meet his offering- just to keep his call from falling flat. And without a purchase, we do exchange. Isn’t it strange to look without seeing?

Good Father

by Anthony Jermaine Ross

            From my patio seat at Caffé Poli I saw arms flailing and coltish faces nudging at the back of a tricycle named the Star Queen parked on side of the busy street. My guess is that the two were father and son. The son was splashing about in the intimacy of his father’s flesh. The boy screamed with happiness and giggled in the dusty cloud-filtered sunlight suspended in time waiting for his father’s nose to brush against his own again as I squinted and asked myself:

            “Could this eros mediate the world?”

Then I thought,

“Surely nothing evil can touch him.”

            Watching the two of them from a distance, I remembered what a pastor recently said in a lecture on Womanist Theology. During an exegetical exercise, we read a text in which a prophet named Elisha attempted to raise a dead child back to life by ordering his servant to place the prophet’s magical staff against the child’s body. This did not work, of course. In fact, life did not return to the child’s limbs until the prophet showed up in the flesh, “got up on the bed and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands.”

Only then did the child’s body warm and then return to life.

Then our professor turned to us men and said: 

“Men who want to lead congregations in this day and age are going to have to get over themselves and re-learn intimacy. Only then will you give birth to new life.”

Esther’s Theology: A False Witness Comes of Age

by Anthony Jermaine Ross

​            It takes time to find oneself in the world: to get the feeling of oneself as a person on the planet with other people who are just as real as oneself and not mere shadows of one’s own bloated self blocking the sun. I thought about this in the Philippines. I thought about the distance between myself and Filipinos. There are numerous connections between Southern peoples and the long genealogy of Western objectification. There remain myriad complications associated with that history. However, spending time in the Philippines with liberal white students reminded me that for the purpose of relevant theological reflection it would be vital to appreciate the difference between my situation and that of Filipinos.

            Black theologians in the United States do not need to be informed about the oneness of humanity. If at any point in time our people have forgotten that fact it was at our own expense: a self-negation that was the result of our memory as Protestant America’s chattel, novel investment instruments. Ironically, visiting the Philippines as a student preparing for parish ministry forced me to think very specifically about the internal religio/political dynamics of the contemporary American context rather than view the Filipino struggle as another fetish object in the endless list of liabilities lining America’s moral ledger.         America is a crazy marketplace that wants to be a nation. Too much of our contemporary theology, I am afraid, betrays a desire to function as a nagging Market Chaplain-balancing unwavering respect for universal goods like capitalism and democracy, reassuring the right people that what is needed is simply to perfect America’s benevolent potential, all the while keeping vigil over and whispering prayers for increasingly conspicuous deposits of human collateral. As it turns out, I don’t personally need to do any of that. Faith in the status quo is not my gig. Neither is hatred or any other preoccupation with the world that capital built.​

            Nevertheless, I will be an American pastor. I will wear clothes made by children in a sweatshop while watching a sad DVD about clothes made by children in a sweatshop. I will get the irony of that without much of the guilt. I will not push guilt away, nor will I pick at it like a scab before groping anxiously for immediate expiation. Yes, I’m serious. My ethical position in the global church is quite interesting, then, is it not? Within the United States I occupy a spot near the bottom of the social ladder. In a sense, that is. In this hemisphere, however, my position is higher. From a global perspective, I am a capitalist whore hanging out in the palace with the rest of the fat cats. I work in the Big House. I’m cool with that.

            Theologically, there are few alternatives. It would be false in everyway for me to embark on a series of actions designed to atone for my existence on this planet, to move from being human capital, to capitalist par excellence, to what? -an urban monastic wearing sack cloth and ash, a faux fur loin cloth and eating (fair trade, of course) locust and organic honey? Possibly. But I don’t think so. Still, to those who must: more power to you.​

            Ultimately, I learned something about ministry in the Americas while travelling and reflecting with my white seminary colleagues in the Philippines. There are enough justice issues to keep tender consciences awake at night for the rest of all our lives. Certainly, if white folks keep looking for more to be guilty about, heaven, earth, hell are not short supply. I wonder, then, what would happen if church was the kind of place where people could learn to accept the fact that American dominance is in our blood- that no American Christian (or disgruntled defector) is any less a whore of king capital than any Wall Street billionaire.

            That’s my vocation- to help lead the church toward understanding that it stands in exactly the place of Queen Esther. The church is ensconced in the American empire. The difference is that, like Queen Esther, the church and is its members must be reminded that it has await further instruction rather than flailing about with solipsistic guilt like a demon-possessed child. Like Esther, the church will have to teach its people how to stop manufacturing and distributing fractals of guilt and begin to embrace the paradox of participating and not belonging, being looked at and not being seen, listening without believing. Then perhaps the American church can begin to mature by discovering that it must stand unapologetically in its compromised position for precisely a time such as this.

Globalization Gospel

by Anthony Jermaine Ross

            On the plane ride from Manila to Tokyo I sat next to a middle aged Filipino lady wearing eye glasses from The Gap. She was in a talkative mood and asked me whether I was in the military. I told her that I was not. People always ask me that when I’m in Asia or when I say I have been there. I actually hate that a lot. “I’m a student,” I told her hoping that my answer would be sufficiently banal that she would immediately lose interest in further conversation. I was wrong. She wanted to know what school?, why the Philippines?, what church?- enough information to completely compromise my pre-flight solitude!

            Her name was Lillian and she wanted me to know that there were many wonderful resorts in the Philippines and that I should have at least visited some of them.

           “I visited Mindanao,” I said. “They have great beaches there.”

            ‘I heard it was dangerous there,’ she said softly with raised eyebrows and wide eyes.

             “Oh, really?,” I replied, feigning ignorance. “Everyone was so nice.”

            ‘Oh, good,” she said. She seemed satisfied. Suddenly, she leaned in toward me, surprisingly     close and whispered ‘You know, politics is killing us here.

            I relaxed a little believing that the conversation, if it had to go on, was about to get interesting. She continued, her voice lowered to a cool hiss.

            ‘If only America would come, then everything would be ok.’

            “Hmm,” I grunted. I hoped she could search my labored ambivalence for    whatever meaning she needed.

            Her next topic, however, was her church. She whipped out a thin and glossy magazine titled God’s Message. She opened it to photographs of large sanctuaries filled with transfigured parishioners reaching rapturously for the sky. The pictures looked as if they were taken with a fish-eye lens to create a sense of grandeur. Together the two of us flipped through articles with titles like “Give thanks to the Lord,” “Thriving on the Works of the Lord,” and “What are the Historical Facts of Christmas and Upholding God’s Commandments.”

            Eventually she asked me where I lived. I hoped that she was planning to mail me back the portion of my life she was in the process of destroying. She actually just wanted to discover whether there was a church in my area where I could hear God’s Message in person.

            ‘See, we have churches all over the world,’ she informed me as she pointed to pictures of wedding cake-looking buildings that could easily have been sketches for Barbie’s International Dream Church.

            ‘Our preachers always teach from the Bible. They never give their opinion. They just say what the Bible says,’ she said as she pointed to an article entitled “What God Expects from His Ministers.”

 Clarity is comforting.

            Lillian told that I could keep the magazine, that she had multiple copies of several issues. I thanked her and began to flip through the pages hoping that both of us enjoyed silent reading.

            The article detailing God’s expectations of ministers caught my eye. It discussed the seriousness of deserting the ministry as all Christians are involved in a war in which ministers constitute the center. This war, the article assures, is not against the material world but the spiritual world. God’s penalty for desertion, according to the author, is similar to the U.S. military’s maximum penalty for desertion at wartime- eternal torment, which good dispensationalists will recognize as the dreaded the Second Death.

            I smiled to myself and wondered if desertion during spiritual warfare included discontinuing arbitrary dichotomies in favor of something new. Those “spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” the article mentions are not necessarily a matter of mere metaphysics. Those ‘high above places and mysterious forces’ could also have something to do with the full-page advertisement for GEM TV on the back cover of my new magazine which “offers programming that will enrich your spiritual life and guide you to live out your reason for being” if you “first subscribe to a DIRECT TV international package plus any WorldDirect Package.”

              Interesting.

Plenty

by Anthony Jermaine Ross

            I had a vision of a vision on the airplane coming back from Manila and I did not know where it came from. It was of a sanctuary full of children, friends, old women, husbands and wives and I was the pastor contemplating worship and alacrity. I had just preached a sermon that landed somewhere between blessing and bullshit. The Eucharist was a table with just a little bit of food at first that grew and grew and so did the people. Suddenly, everyone was eating and laughing and I almost burst with what some call the fullness of joy, some call hysteria, some call trance. I wanted nothing more than to shrink small enough to crawl into a grandmother’s lap and weep like an old man at the edge of these- tears for the waste of all those years of famine among riches: tears for the joy of unexpected plenty.

            When God gives, you should take without the obligatory “Thank you.” Premature gratitude is a calculated delay that steals the flavor and introduces exchange.  Consume it with bare, dirty hands and wet fingers like a beggar! Gratitude can be your religion.

Gestell: Hunger and Thirst

   by Anthony Jermaine Ross

            One afternoon we visited a farming community in a valley bowed before the feet of soft, blue mountains spread across emerald rice paddies. It was there that we heard an unfortunately familiar story: a mining company was collaborating with the relevant governing bodies to procure the permits necessary to begin goring into farm land in search of minerals to sell to foreign suitors. Our classmates were told that not only were large scale mining projects instigated by transnational corporations with only a conjugal relationship to the object of its brief desire, there was also the problem a limited water supply. Both the mining company and the farmers have one source of water at their disposal. The needs of the two are, we were told, mutually exclusive. Hydrating the mines will effectively dehydrate the land that tens of thousands of people directly depend on for their livelihoods and daily sustenance Neither the state nor the mining company were offering the kind of compensation that would give displaced farmers any living option beyond becoming just one more surge of uprooted landless urban peasants drowning in a flood of a strange, new poverty.

            The farmers told us that they plan to fight for their access to water and we believe them. They’ve done it before and aren’t the only ones in the Philippines fighting to keep hungry visitors from taking too much.

            May God bless them in their battle with flesh and blood and also in their spiritual battle against the melancholy and ennui living in us­, the ones for whom the miners of the world disembowel the planet. Perhaps it is our collective understanding of happiness that demands that around the clock, without rest, someone is set to extracting life out of the womb of the earth as a sacrifice to the insatiable sadness of our people. I wish there were enough wealth for that.

Terrorism: Bearing False Witness

 “Over time it’s going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity.You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               -George W. Bush, November 6, 2001. 

Only since George W. Bush became fond of pithy statements like that have I been able to grasp what terrorism really does once states understand how to reach out and terrorize through the commercial media’s magic wand microphones and trick-mirror monitors. It doesn’t take theological genius to detect problems inside a culture in which all of creation is defined according to the perceived security needs of a young and hyper-militarized government. It is a familiar trick, however. All the greats have done it at least once.

 I remember feeling as if I had aged 30 years overnight when between commercials for Viagara and Vagisil, I was treated with the first night vision green-screens of Shock and Awe for my viewing pleasure. The attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were like a repeat of Desert Storm entertainment from my childhood when Sadaam was the new Satan for American mythology and the Kuwaiti people provided evangelicals and their silent neo-conservative counterparts with a new market for salvation export with a matching heroic spectacle included. 

But I was in my twenties during the Little Bush era. Reruns from the nineties are rarely as good as they seemed back in the day. I had read somewhere that George W was born again. It was not that I was jealous of his enlightenment. I just wonder what things would have been like for a few folks had he waited longer to go about his father’s business-perhaps until his new found faith had a chance to get tested in less costly circumstances. 

Soon after, the with-us-or-against-us theology spread and seeped into the vernacular of loyal countries like the Philippines where, I am told, the Bush dichotomy has provided much needed clarity in identifying the friends and enemies of the state. 

One of the most theologically significant moments for me in the Philippines took place on our visit to Barangay Waan in Davao City, Mindanao. There we listened as members of an organization called Khadija offered us testimonies of their struggle for continued existence on the land they inherited from their foreparents. 

“Because we are labeled terrorist we are not allowed to work,” one woman told us. Although our communication took place via translators, a steady, rising tension was palpable through her chest. “We are not terrorists,” she insisted.

Suddenly, I could see. The women in that village just wanted to prove to another human being that they were human, too- not terrorists. I get the feeling they believe that our paltry testimonies will resurrect them from a kind of social death. As simple as it sounds, I forgot that people really do need that. What do poor people without the goodwill of their own leaders and compatriots do once they get erased by the sorcery of the American Terror Era? What is left for poor and isolated millions to do once the word of global empire becomes a theo-political rhetoric that closes the curtain on all unyielding flesh not willing to play their assigned role in the drama of globalization?

AnthonyJermaine