Come Near, Stand in the Center!
Reflections on the Political Dimension
of the Basic Ecclesial Communities
Emmanuel S de Guzman, PhD
Second Plenary Council of the
This essay describes the experience of lay-led base communities in the Philippine Church in the area of politics. It highlights the key elements in their praxis that make them potent political agents, including the breakthroughs as well as difficulties in transforming their communities and larger society in accordance with Gospel values. The approach of this work is socio-phenomenological as witnessed by people who have been involved in BEC and narrated in written texts. The documentary resources show us “cracks in the parchment curtain” (W. H. Scott), illustrating how the BECs perceive, understand, interpret, and act upon aspects of life, their world, and the faith as it is lived in their concrete social and historical circumstances. This essay is also a tribute to the members of the BECs, their lay leaders, and their animators, who in the last four decades have risked their lives towards the crafting of a new way of being church.
Surveys have shown that the BECs are engaged in
several activities, of which reflection and prayer on the Bible is predominant,
with developmental projects, and as well as actions towards social
transformation at the local level.
Although they may differ in their priorities, there is a conscious
attempt on the part of the initiators, organizers or animators to instill a sense
of social awareness and involvement.
This social orientation of the BECs is not limited to
Their use of the Bible and tools of social analysis mediate the BECs’ understanding of the social order. These have come in handy to people who lack formal education, but possess a deep religiosity. Through their regular communal reflection, they acquire an education that is integrally linked to the reality of their daily lives. They interpret the "signs of the times" based on a hegemonic postulate -- from their own socio-historical experience of poverty and injustice. This process is in contrast to the way knowledge had been "handed down" to them by church and civil authorities. The production of ideas by the BECs, and the plausibility of their purchase do not arise in a vacuum; rather, they are situated in the matrix of principal conflicts and issues of the day in which they find themselves.
In their attempts to express themselves, the BECs tend to employ a discourse that makes use of various sources, such as the Bible, native wisdom, as well as schemes borrowed from the social sciences. These help them in the interpretation of their situation and in the articulation of their visions, expressions, symbols, thoughts and behaviors. The vocabulary of the BECs then, is not bounded to one single source. What is involved is a process of borrowing of elements from diverse sources that can enable the BECs to effectively communicate with others and to speak with authority.
Through social analysis and their study of the Bible, the BECs realize that poverty and oppression is not simply a result of individual faults. They become aware that sin has a social dimension. As one lay leader in San Andres, Quezon, puts it:
In short, here is the mistake. Sin is the exact opposite of God's original plan. Unfortunately, this has been reduced to personal and original sin only. But the truth according to the Holy Bible is more extensive and embraces the personal and chaotic society.
Not only the dismal situation is seen in terms of the "opposite of God's original plan," but also the BECs are seeing more and more that the problems they are facing are interrelated and thus, must be looked at as a whole. They point to the structures of society as key factors that bring about a social order, which they perceive as characterized by chaos and inequities.
Hence, the BECs see the problem of poverty as
human-made. The late BEC leader Sofronio Roxas of Kidapawan,
Being poor is not our fate. It is not a question of having 'swerte' [luck] or not. It is not God who put this poverty on us. This poverty is created by somebody. It is created by corrupt systems.
The leader's views have two aspects. On the one hand, poverty is not a matter of destiny that one simply has to accept and be resigned to. God does not will that people be poor. Poverty couldn't possibly come from God. On the other hand, poverty is a creation of "somebody" -- the corrupt systems. The wicked is personified; evil makes itself visible in the manner structures are arranged, in the way people relate to one another through individual persons, groups and institutions in society.
Moreover, a striking aspect in the BECs' critique of the social order is their observation that not everything is a product of structural injustice, and that the people themselves share the blame. That is, the ways of living of people, their outlook, values, and attitudes also contribute to the prevalence of poverty and oppression. For example, they describe the situation as being governed by a "society-page" mentality. Gossip, intrigues and factionalism thrive among the people as they try to compete for fame, prestige and status over one another. Like the society-page section in daily newspapers, they carry masks around to hide their misery. Those who have this disposition are like "dead people" or "thorns of a plant."
In addition, the BECs claim that poverty and exploitation persist because the people lack the initiative to change their situation. According to the BECs, many people are still not aware of their rights as human beings, and they do not get involve in the affairs of the local community. The process of forming a critical consciousness has not been easy for the BECs because of the many obstacles they face, especially the attitude of resignation among the Filipinos, whereby the state of social relations is accepted as natural and therefore cannot be changed. Although there is an acknowledgement of the BECs that there is already the inherent power within people to shape their own life and history, the forces of domination have made it difficult for the people to release their inner energies, and their creative responses are made dormant.
In most cases, the BECs explicitly spell out the social realities in its negative aspects. There is an apparent lack of appreciation for the positive elements present in economic, political and cultural institutions. After all, socioeconomic and political relationships are institutionalized at the service of humanity, or they should be providing a sense of identity, dignity, security and continuity to society. The lack may be attributed to the analytical tools that the BECs employed. The emphasis on criticizing the unjust structures of society was called for by the increasing poverty and repression, especially during the days of the dictatorship (1972-1986). Given the historical context from which they have made their analysis, the BECs cannot but be critical of the prevailing social conditions.
In all of this, an important contribution of the BECs is in bringing the social issues into the open, making people aware of their suffering and its causes, and motivating them to do something for their own betterment. The BECs are breaking down the "culture of silence" that has made the people nonresistant and docile. From a Freirean framework, the BECs are educational vehicles whereby people are aided to transcend their state of naive transitivity characterized by fatalistic consciousness towards a critical consciousness that is geared towards changing their own social situation. From being kept submissive and apolitical, members of the BECs are able to criticize the social order and their selves as well. They now try to avoid oversimplifying social problems or turning to metaphysical explanations that trap them in apathy and noninvolvement – the "religion of poverty," as Segundo Galilea calls it. From a defeatist attitude, people have acquired a new sense of self – deciding and participating in the making of history. The BECs are facilitating the emergence of a people who are critically aware of the social reality and are taking responsibility for their own lives.
The efforts of the BECs announce the good news that the grassroots are now becoming subjects of their own history. The importance of the BECs cannot be stressed enough. Political and church authorities have to face the fact now that there is a segment of the population who are critical of what they say and do, especially with regards their misuses and abuses of power. At the base level, the "small people" are standing up to repudiate forms of domination and imposition that trample upon the dignity of people.
Centrality of human dignity
The BECs have the potential to become "genuinely the space where freedom, growth, and authenticity for human beings become possible" At the heart of the campaign of the BECs is the human person and the central value they assign to human dignity and human life itself.
The members of BECs have reported the changes they have undergone on the personal, family, interpersonal and group levels. Inspite of their marginalization in society, they have restored a positive self-image of themselves and have developed a high regard for their inherent dignity and rights as human beings. Members have claimed to have stopped or reduced vices (such as drinking and gambling) and their marriage and the family life have been strengthened as communication between the couples and between parents and children have improved. Likewise, there is more intimacy and support among neighbors, while participation in group assemblies became more spontaneous and comfortable. Their existential conditions, including its negative and positive aspects, are the vessel, as it were, where the BECs try to discern the actions of God and to respond it in a communal way.
In and through the BECs, people have understood their intrinsic power for self-determination. They have taken upon themselves to live a moral life, with the duty and responsibility to take care of one another and their communities. This way of looking at themselves and the human person, in general, is different from the technocratic mode of thinking in society which has reduced the human being to a mere instrument of structures, a passive observer of history, and dependent on the economically and politically powerful. For the BECs, the belief that human dignity must take precedence over anything else demands that s/he actively participates in the making of history. S/He is also called to protest and challenge the dehumanizing situations when necessary.
The BECs uphold the human person and his/her dignity on deep religious grounds. To miss this point is to underrate their praxis as a mere sociological fact. This conviction is rooted in their faith that God made the human being in his/her image and likeness, so that s/he too must co-create the world in the image of the divine. This is what gives the BECs confidence in themselves, as individuals and as communities, as well as motivates them further to build a desirable world.
This faith conviction has strong ethical implications for the BECs. The members understand their involvement with their own families, their neighbors, or larger society as something that is demanded by God's action on human history. When they begin to affirm their own dignity as God-given, the work for upholding and defending the dignity and rights of others become a logical consequence. This is attested by the people's changing images of the human person before and after joining the BECs: from a "self-serving person" to a "person for others," from "selfish interests" to "a life of self-giving," from "passive beneficiary" to an "active proponent," from an "object of change" to "subject of change."
Yet, the promotion of human dignity and human life has to go beyond the family and the peer group. For the BECs, their mission includes the work for social justice in their own locality, in the socioeconomic, political and cultural problems of the wider community, and becoming more vigilant and militant about their rights. This posture towards change is in stark contrast to the bourgeois mentality with its primal values of having, accumulating and exhibiting at the expense of merciless disregard for the other human being. In the BECs, the significance of their programs and activities rests on an ethical conviction that their world can and ought to be better. Amidst defeats and opposition, the BECs do not give in to discouragement. They try to use their energy to create alternative designs of living in their communities, using their own limited resources and from which the future is crafted.
Integral to the BECs' stress on the centrality of the human person are the rights of the poor, or those at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic and political pyramid. As discussed in the preceding section, the BECs see poverty as human-made, a sinful situation that is a product of both structures of society and the people themselves. The situation calls for a moral and practical stance to side with the victims of poverty and injustice. There are two ways by which the BECs exercise their concern for the poor and powerless, that is, the unemployed, the sick and disabled, the neglected aged, the exploited women and children, the displaced peasants, squatters, and indigenous tribes. First is by offering themselves to those in need even as the members themselves lack the material resources. They do this through small monetary assistance, personal visitation and comfort, the creation of community support system and socioeconomic endeavors. Being poor is therefore not a hindrance to the involvement of people in and through the BECs. The BECs' "option for the poor," as ethics, has become a commitment to the promotion of human dignity as a value, a vision, and a lifestyle.
Secondly, the BECs exercise their concern for the victims of social injustice by fighting for their own rights. They clamor for the restoration or strengthening of their civil liberties (the right to speak, to form association, etc.). Equally important are the fundamental social rights: food, land, work, housing, clothing, medical care, education, and so forth. The two kinds of rights are closely interlinked. The attempts of not a few BECs to develop projects that respond to the concrete needs of their poorer members demonstrate the overarching priority for the rights to fuller life. The struggle for, in defense of or to regain civil liberties is necessary to ensure that the rights to fuller life are guaranteed. The BECs express their reclaimed dignity in their worship gatherings, socioeconomic endeavors, in their letters to their priests and bishops, in public rallies, forging alliances with people's organizations, and the like. These are exercises of self-determination; the BECs are asserting their right to be responsible for their own affairs, to be agents of their own transformation. One may say thus, that an "irruption of the poor" is taking place among a believing people amidst an unjust social situation.
The ideals of community, service, solidarity
Another central theme in the praxis of the BECs is the value for community life, with its correlate values of unity, oneness, service to others, and solidarity. In the logic of the BECs, the building of a community flows from the fundamental regard to human dignity.
At this point, it may help to elaborate a bit the phenomenon of "social individualism," which the BECs identify as a crucial problem in their communities. An interdisciplinary group of researchers has related this phenomenon in the Filipino context to the kanya-kanya syndrome or "to each to his/her own." One basic manifestation of the kanya-kanya syndrome of Filipinos is the tendency to regard the welfare of one's own small group (the family or circle of friends) as either above the well being of the larger community or society or in competition with other groups. There are many reasons which account for the kanya-kanya syndrome of the Filipinos. Briefly, for one, the home environment is an influential factor. Parents tend to over-protect their children from outside forces, and extreme family-centeredness creates an in-group to which the Filipino is loyal to the detriment of concern for the larger community or the common good.  In the Filipino setting, one can thus speak of the phenomenon of social individualism: social because the family is a social unit; individualism because the family considers only its own stakes.
The social environment plays another big role. The pressures of society force individuals to struggle for survival by relying on their own groups, peers, or kins against the threat of others. Where distrust of other groups and families develop to protect one's own interests, the paradoxical effect on the Filipino is to be caught in the web of a "culture of insecurity." That is to say, s/he lives and works to have security but in the process, s/he becomes more insecure because the needs are never satisfied and s/he sees the other person as a threat.
Another factor that contributes significantly to the phenomenon of the concern for the larger community is the impact of rapid urbanization and industrialization that is taking place in the country. The incursion of a consumeristic society is threatening small communities in a subtle but forceful way. As in many Asian societies, the impact of consumeristic and utilitarian values is affecting traditional loyalties in the villages, such as collective responsibility, community solidarity and interdependence.
The BECs are an antidote to the assault of social individualism that is undermining the weft that holds Filipino society. In the members' dealings with one another, they are showing that it is still possible not only to know one another but also to relate in an intimate way and work as a community. The face-to-face interaction characterizing almost all their activities invites openness, trust, care, and support. They experience a sense of fellowship and oneness, so that no matter how difficult life is, they feel assured that there are always others who will stand by their side to help them ease up life-stresses or assist them in their needs. Karamay (one who emphasizes with the other), kamanlalakbay (one who journeys with another), and kasama (one who accompanies another), alagad (one who cooperates with another) are local words used often by the BEC members to call one another. They signify the spirit of companionship that characterizes the Filipino's social orientation.
Through the BECs' regular meetings, the families are formed not only into a community of families but also as families-for-others. By getting together regularly -- to share on the Gospel, to celebrate the Eucharist, to discuss community undertakings, or to share common meals -- families form a common life, a sense of common purpose, a common human project, and a common ideal.
The BECs instill in their members a commitment to nonutilitarian ideals, such as the love of neighbor, service to others, solidarity with the poorest of the poor and the victims of injustice. Even their songs, dramas, poems, sketches, posters, which they bring into the worship gatherings or are expressed in seminars, echo the summon to community, service, and solidarity. In the base groups, the healing power of prayers and collective action reflect the emergence of "communities of hope" in our times. As anthropologist Ponciano Bennagen illustrates:
In their coming together, they will share the collective pain of their unrequited labors and transform their experiences of pain and their separate prayer for justice and democracy. In this newly-community of hope, awa [mercy] and gawa [action] shall be one in the complex task of taking control of their lives.
.... (The) very survival of the poor and their preservation of their dignity suggest very strongly an indomitable spirit which could be a rich and potent cultural resource for surmounting their wretchedness. Indeed, the germ of the desirable and feasible world lies in the lives of those, who, by, their individual and collective efforts, have sustained a viable, if still highly unstable, community life.
Furthermore, the BECs are the new contexts where indigenous Filipino convictions (paninindigan) are best exemplified, such as pakikipagkapwa (relating with another in a more humane way). Through their joint activities and programs, the members learn to interact with each other as co-equals and as sharers in a common identity. Cooperation and concerted action are natural consequences flowing from this conviction that the "kapwa," the other, possesses inner worth and dignity. And what is pakikipagkapwa in terms of respecting the human person between individuals and in small groups, could be transformed into pakikibaka (joining a struggle) with other groups and organizations in the face of injustice and adversity. It is thus not strange to witness BEC members consoling one another in times of distress, and in another, on the picket lines or staging a mass action to protest the abuses and injustices in society. The members of BECs regard themselves as the salt of a new social order.
Food is tasteless without salt. We are that salt in our community that provides kalami (delicious taste) to the food that is the community, because we offer ourselves for the transformation of our community. We have this power as salt. But some of us, like salt put aside in a corner of the kitchen, allow ourselves to melt and become useless. We refuse to provide salt-service to our community. However, others make themselves useful in the community like salt as a preservative of food, to sustain the faith-life of our community in search for transformation.
The BECs see their usefulness as the "salt" that will provide "delicious taste" to the larger community that is seeking transformation. They have a role to play, a small but valuable service to society through their local communities.
In strategic terms, the BECs invoke the importance and urgency of building a community in order to mobilize the people for whatever cause, be it liturgical, economic, or political. People need to be motivated that they can do something about their situation, taking into account their priorities, the risks and benefits, their resources, skills and techniques, and institutional support. Certainly, people are aware of the problems of poverty and oppression, but these problems may be too big and difficult to resolve by those who do not have all the resources or access to the solutions. Because of this, BEC pastors and lay organizers have utilized various points of entry that are more appealing to people. Most often, it is worship gatherings (Bible sessions, celebration of the Eucharist, popular devotions), which attract a large number of residents in a village. The gathering becomes an event of life, a proclamation of a vision, an experience of community and solidarity.
Moreover, by focusing on issues such as the
welfare of the larger community versus social individualism, solidarity versus
isolation, service to others over self- interests, BEC animators are able to
strike deep chords in the Filipinos' way of living and relating. These tensions spring in the
Structures of people's empowerment
The BECs are also sources of genuine people's power from the base level of society. By qualifying the power that the BECs exercise as "genuine," it discards the spurious use of power that violates the dignity and rights of people or that co-opts and exploits, especially the low-income groups, to serve the interests of a privileged few. This latter kind of power is no stranger to a nation that has a long history of colonialism and in recent decades, had lived in a political situation in which power is wielded through the barrel of the gun.
In the context of the BECs, power is rooted in and committed to the interests of the people. When people organize themselves to advance their own collective interests, power becomes an instrument for fuller human and social development. This power relies on human power but not in the same manner that some political leaders manipulate people for a show of numbers. More importantly, this power involves the dynamics of awakening, mobilizing and organizing individuals and interest groups so that they can respond to their needs and problems, with the end view of eliminating tyranny and attaining prosperity and justice. Genuine people's power may be defined thus as "the capacity of people to intervene directly in problems they are concerned with and to 'control' the choices of their own futures; that is, to decide their collective and individual destiny or, simply, the choices concerning different aspects of their lives."
The BEC are grassroots structures for empowering the “small people.” Because they are relatively small (in size and membership), the sense of belonging, fellowship, mutual reciprocity and fraternal correction are more palpable in an atmosphere of affective care and concern. With minimal structures of organization, people can easily take upon assignments that they can handle given their resources and limitations (materials, time, priorities, etc.).
To accomplish the task of nurturing their communities, the BEC members engaged in dialogues. They formulate what they refer to as "shared vision and mission" which becomes the basis of their decisions and actions. In their assemblies, they try to arrive at common agreements through reason and consensus, however painstaking at times. One's sense of responsibility for the other becomes the measure of one's growth and maturity. In the process of building up the communities, group cohesiveness is mobilized and teamwork is stressed.
Sharing of responsibility strongly implies active participation. The kind of participation emerging from the BECs is popular, self-critical, and purposive. It is popular because the BECs encourage the involvement of the common man and woman in issues that concern their very lives. They consider their participation as a calling arising from their common sense of peoplehood and, in the light of faith, from their calling as baptized Christians. Likewise, the popular character of the BECs is expressed in the movement away from the town proper towards the outer barrios, from the parish center towards the inner streets. This makes the BECs more genuinely a grassroots organization both in membership and in leadership.
Participation in the BECs is self-critical because the members allow themselves to undergo constant evaluation. Knowing that they are prone to mistakes and errors, the members submit themselves to ongoing formation and training, self and group correction and criticism, and to various forms of spiritual enrichment. Furthermore, they study their attitudes and behaviors via-à-vis those that enforce or help change the prevailing social conditions. Thus, leaders are evaluated by their communities based on whether they tend to promote further dependency among the people or facilitate their growth towards greater freedom.
The BECs also seek to instill purposive participation among the members. They involve themselves in discussing and analyzing issues, needs and problems, in setting goals and mapping out steps, and in the implementation of their programs. These actions are continuously monitored and evaluated so that they can be redesigned or improved in a continuing process of action-analysis/prayer-correction-action. Furthermore, members of the BECs see and feel the need, for their survival and well being, to relate with other communities so that they become part of a wider web of Christian communities through the parish, as well as to collaborate with other grassroots organizations to become part of the larger community. Lines of communication are open between the BECs, between the BECs and the parish, and between the BECs and other popular groups. In doing so, the BECs are avoiding the tendency to be self-contained ghettos that characterize traditional lay associations and sect-like evangelical groups.
Perhaps a great challenge for the BECs is how to live up to their pluralistic character, especially in the light of the differences in socioeconomic, familial, ethnic, linguistic, educational, political, and religious backgrounds of the people, compounded by their gender, generational, and geographical experiences. The BECs are trying to foster in the people common interests in the sense of aspirations towards the common good and a strong regard for service for the whole community. Thus, notwithstanding the differences that may hinder people from participating, the role of the BECs is to provide the meeting ground where people of different backgrounds can freely speak out their ideas, reflect on their situations, pray for guidance, and help one another in a communal way.
One may say then that the BECs are good examples of fora for the formation of public opinion. They are able to elicit the participation of the inarticulate as regards their own local affairs and even of the nation as well. By affirming and stimulating the right of the people to express themselves, the BECs are encouraging the plurality of thoughts and options which otherwise have been made latent or suppressed by rigid, unilateral, and ethnocentric directives from above.
Of utmost importance in the potential of the BECs as catalysts of "people's power" is the role of lay leaders. Leadership in the BECs is exercised in different ways. Despite the variations, the BECs have the potential to develop a leadership that is based on service. The lay leaders are the lifeblood and workforce, who as volunteers, serve their communities without financial compensation but only armed with the commitment to the Gospel and to service the other.
In the BECs, performance rather than prestige is the emerging criteria for leadership. People are not only trained to use their right to elect their officers but to elect leaders who have credible moral lives. The BECs give a high regard to the fulfillment of their leaders' tasks in the community. In fact, some BECs have established sanctions for leaders who do not perform their duties, or for members who have failed to meet the minimum requirements of membership, like attendance in meetings. These sanctions are not meant to degrade the individual or to isolate him/her from the community. They are meant to be reminders and corrective measures to emphasize the notion that community life means both presence and involvement. Moreover, the tenure of office of the leaders is within a given period, normally one to two years. Before they serve, the leaders undergo training as regards their specific tasks and the community through the priests commissions them. After their term, they are evaluated by the communities to determine whether they are to serve another term or whether the community needs to select new leaders. Ongoing formation and training is likewise provided for the leaders to develop further abilities.
In all of this, the BECs are serving as avenues, the center, as it were, through which people, at least at the local level, can come together to participate and intervene meaningfully in decisions that directly affect their lives. Indirectly, the BECs are helping strengthen democracy by empowering the powerless. They are bringing into the mainstream of society the weaker sections of people who otherwise are marginalized and discriminated. The BECs thus function as a leaven where people could become responsible, involved citizens towards the establishment of a more democratic polity. They provide the vehicles for the formation of public opinion, the mechanisms for dialogue and consultations, a leadership at the grassroots level, and the methods of organizing and mobilizing. These are essential components of a change process seeking to empower the people as agents of their own human growth.
Multidimensionality and Self-reliance
Furthermore, the BECs also bring a "newness" to Filipino society in the way they live up to their multidimensional character and their attempts to be self-reliant communities. The multidimensional character is reflected in the various activities and projects which the BECs incorporate as integral to their mission as Christian communities. However different they may be in their priorities, the BECs are concerned not only about the worship and religious life of the people, but also as regards their family relations, health, education, livelihood, and political matters as well. This all-embracing concern is notable, as for instance, in their Gospel reflections when people relate the text they read or hear to the text of their daily lives. No life-issue or concern is censured; one member prays for her unfaithful husband; another prays for a sick friend; another prays for good harvest; while one prays for violence to stop.
Local structures are also set up so that there would be permanency and stability to their communal life. The needs of the people are not looked upon as fragmented and compartmentalized. On the neighborhood or sectoral level, the religious, social, political, economic, cultural needs are interdependent and mutually re-enforcing. With this view, different kinds of leaders are chosen to take care, at the meso-level, of different responsibilities. As has been seen elsewhere in this study, there are coordinators who maintain the organization of the BECs, moderators of Bible sessions, liturgical leaders who take care of the Eucharist and paraliturgical celebrations, as there are also catechists, youth leaders, family-enrichment facilitators, health and social service workers, and so forth. They consider this diversity of talents, charisms and functions as comprising an integrated whole. Nothing seems to be peripheral to the BECs when it comes to the welfare of the local community (i.e., not just the BECs but the wider community they are inserted). In short, from the platform of the meso-structures (i.e., the local community), the BECs are interested in the totality of human life.
This feature of multidimensionality makes the BECs unique from other church and grassroots organizations. While lay associations like the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Women's League specialize just in on one area of apostolate or service of the church and which have specific gender-membership, the BECs are open to all Christians and they intend to meet the multifaceted concrete needs in their own locality, right in the village or neighborhood.
The BECs are also neither prayer and Bible groups, Cursillo and Charismatic movements, nor social development or nongovernmental organizations. The prayer groups tend to be concerned with only one dimension of the people's lives, whereas the nongovernmental bodies seek to accomplish a work or project for the disadvantaged populace. In the BECs, there is a tendency to be concerned for the whole life of the community, with profound human relationships, and to create an environment where people can come together in a personal way and respond to one another's totality as human beings.
Likewise, if the Barangay Councils are political branches of the government at the grassroots level, the BECs make use of the traditional barangay social-geographic locus as venue of their organization. This shows that their concentration goes beyond the religious to include other spheres of life which are related to the social and political.
Accordingly, the efforts to respond to the concrete needs of people direct the BECs to rely on their own resources. Self-reliance in the BECs has both internal and external aspects. Internally, the BECs' activities and projects are organized and collectively undertaken, something that goes against the impromptu and individualist (or "privatized") method of apostolate. Externally, the base cells contend with and grapples with the social realities surrounding them, especially the material conditions of poverty. The members know that they must break the shackles of dependency and apathy, and they must count on themselves to change their own situation. Especially the more socially oriented and prophetic BECs respond to the situation by undergoing continuous education as awareness building (social investigation and analysis, Gospel reflection, and mobilization) and by employing the methods and techniques of community organizing (focus on social issues, sectoral formation, negotiation and pressure politics, alliance-building with other groups). Moreover, they build structures for the consolidation of the internal resources of the BEC members and for cooperation with other BECs units in the parish and other parishes as well. Thus, as also observed by one author, what is remarkable about popular organizations with predominantly religious orientation like the BECs is how they elaborate upon native wisdom and forms of community work and solidarity in ways that respond to the present material needs without being absorbed by the encroaching profit-oriented economic system.
It is not difficult to imagine how these forms of community life at the grassroots level are transforming social structures and the way of living of the people. In the assessment of Jose Mario Francisco:
Because basic church communities structure themselves more like a circle rather than a pyramid, this structural change tends to spread to the other social structures affecting the people's lives. Once the people experience true equality and participation in church structures, whether this be on the level of the small cell or the entire diocese, then they will no longer be content to being passive victims of socio-political, economic and cultural systems. (Francisco, 91)
The question of "politics" and "political involvement"
The BECs also become vehicles of change in relation to the political life of their communities. In this author's estimation, while the BECs are generally critical of the political situation in their villages and in the country, they are cautious of getting involved in "politics."
It appears that the word "politics" for many BECs is approached with very little distinction between concerns that involve moral values or the general public domain and partisan political activity that side with a particular group or ideological movement. The existential reasons for the confusion over politics and partisan politics are quite complex. In the context of the BECs, and based on the author's personal experience of working with them, a crucial factor is the violent reaction of the government and the military to suppress any suspected activity of resistance. The experience of being subjected to terrorism and intimidation from both the Left and the Right has engendered fear among the simple innocent civilians. This directly limits the involvement of people in confronting the power-holders. Another factor is the cynical attitude about formal or institutional politics in general and of politicians in particular. Such an attitude contributes to the people's tendency to shun issues that concern government projects or political leaders since to deal with them would be fruitless anyway. A third factor is the cultural value for interpersonal relationships. There is a perception that involvement in political issues tends to divide people and crack the harmonious relationship in the community. All this has made the question of "politics" or "political involvement" an unresolved matter for many BECs. Except for some BECs in Mindanao and the western Visayas, as well as the sectoral-type of BECs, a big segment of the BEC population in the country are still ambivalent towards, if not disinclined to engaging in actions or programs which confront the structures of power in their localities.
In the author's investigation of the documentary materials, the BECs do not pretend that they are perfect, even as sociological communities, and much less as faith communities. They do not present themselves as having a complete understanding of society, of life and of faith, and neither do they claim to have all the answers to the problems of human life, nor are they only possible means of liberation. In a more positive light, however, the BECs see themselves as always in the process of becoming, a people on the road, a pilgrim church seeking to make the reign of God a reality in their lives and communities. This is the reason why they insist on the continuing education and organization of their communities. They also recognize the importance of relating with other BECs and grassroots organizations in order to broaden their share of social transformation.
Additionally, the BECs generally do not have in their possession a particular political ideology and there is no hard evidence as yet that point to any explicit support given by any BECs to an ideological group or party. The task of effecting mutations in the structures of society carried out in the political arena belongs not primarily to the BECs but to people's organizations, movements, parties, interest groups, and the more organized social movements. The BECs have their own identity as church while secular forces of change have their respective theories, programs, strategies and plans of action. Yet, the BECs, wittingly or not, are being challenged to participate in the broader movement of societal change, and not without difficulty.
The relationship between the BECs and people's movements is a specifically intricate problem. Bishop Julio Labayen puts forward the problem in these terms:
The BEC is basically Church; the people's movements are basically secular. They follow different laws and dynamics; yet, the same Christian belongs to both and there is great danger that the two will be confused. The BEC may attempt to control and dominate the people's movements, which is the old temptation of Christendom; or the people's movements may attempt to make the BEC nothing more than their local chapters.
Very tentatively, what can be offered are possible orientations or directions for the BECs as they exercise their mission of being church in their social context. Firstly, experience has shown that the BECs are vehicles for increasing the social awareness of the people, especially as regards their intrinsic human dignity and rights. As prophetic communities, they are moving towards becoming witnesses to the living Gospel, especially in denouncing injustices and violence and at the same time in proclaiming the good things that facilitate the total development of the human person. The BECs can maintain its relevance not simply as a social and political forum, but also in providing a space for encountering and celebrating God's liberating presence. As discerning communities of faith, they can criticize or legitimize the actions of people's movements in the light of the Gospel values.
Secondly, the BECs help in awakening the innate and liberating potential of the religiousness of the people. As priestly communities, the BECs can help match the people's prayers for wholeness in their liturgies, symbols, and worship gatherings with decisive action that are life-giving rather than death-dealing. They can be the loci for affirming the transcendent and deeply spiritual, something people's movements may have overlooked or considered peripheral in the task of social transformation.
Thirdly, by virtue of their kingly mission, the BECs create structures of leadership which are guided by participatory ethic and service for the common good. The transformation of social structures and the collective psyche of the people must go hand in hand. The structures that the BECs construct can help in the reorientation of values of the people and facilitate their involvement in the area of decision-making. At the same time, the BECs can be reminders to secular groups for social change of the importance of pluralism and the multidimensionality of human life. For the BECs, they are political in a deeper and perhaps in a more genuine sense than what is commonly understood under politics insofar as they are committed to the communitarian aspect of the polis (the city), to the well being of the people and welfare of the community.
Concluding Reflections: BEC – Dream or Reality?
In summary, this essay sought to describe the praxis of the Filipino BECs that bear the potential for their becoming an important political actor in the Church and society. The BECs are creating new "mazeways," whereby they are making new patterns of behavior and ways of thinking and interpreting the world, a world that promises healing and wholeness in the midst of a dysfunctional society.
As a conclusion, we are reminded Mark about a person with paralytic hand who sought Jesus’ help (Mk 3: 1-6). The day was Sabbath and the place was the synagogue. These two are sacred in Jewish customary life; on Sabbath, people were to do nothing else but to worship God, and the synagogue was the place for that action. We are also told that a group of Pharisees were following Jesus to gather evidence against him for breaking the customary laws. Now, on that sacred time and sacred place, Jesus did something. First, he called the person to come near him (in other editions, Jesus called the person to “stand in the center”). Then, Jesus said something to this effect, “Ano ba ang mas mahalaga sa Araw ng Panalangin: ang pumatay ng tao o magbigay-buhay sa tao? ang gumawa ng kasalanan o gumawa ng kabutihan?” He then looked at the Pharisees “mula ulo hanggang paa.” Jesus must have sensed the Pharisees as “mga walang pakiramdam.” With those words and behaviors, Jesus stretched the person’s arms and the sickness was healed.
On various levels, Jesus erased the boundaries that divide and exclude people. In his world, a sick person was considered poor and unclean, because sickness was seen as a curse or a consequence of sin. A sick person could not contribute economically to society, and consequently, was dependent on others for food and sustenance. But Jesus called the person to come near or stand in the center. We have here a world turned upside down: a person considered outcast, is now respected with worth and dignity by Jesus’ act of inclusion.
Moreover, whereas the Pharisees were expected to interpret the law by the letter, on the assumption that they hold the correct interpretation, Jesus interpreted the spirit of the law. For him, the law is made for humans, not the other way around (see preceding Markan pericope). More importantly, for Jesus, the world of the sick person became his “punto de vista” for understanding the law and its structures. What is at stake for Jesus is the life of the sick person. This is the reason why Jesus had many meals with the excluded, to the extent of being accused as a glutton and drunkard. In that culture, to share and eat meals with another is to be responsible for the life of the other. In today’s theological language, Jesus granted an epistemological privilege to the different who are different and suffering from exclusion.
Additionally, it seems that it was the person in a condition of powerlessness who provoked Jesus to act out his life-giving dynamis (power). We may say that Jesus too was transformed as much as the person who sought his help. Otherwise, in very human ways, Jesus would have not done anything if the other person didn’t affect him. Jesus opened himself to be touched by the poor, the weak and the excluded, and he let them enter into in his theological discourse on the Sabbath.
This story has connection with the stories of the BECs as presented in this paper, albeit in an analytical, systematic manner. As one who also has participated in the promotion of the BECs, I have witnessed how the communities are spaces through which the poor, the outcasts, and marginalized in our society have found their voice and power. The social and cultural boundaries that excluded them have been redefined that now give them a sense of dignity and worth as humans, Filipinos and Christians. Anchored on the Word of God and led by lay people, the base communities are exemplifying a religious praxis that is both faith-centered and outwardly directed. There have been various ways how this praxis is exercised by the base communities, ranging from simply liturgical activities, to mutual aids and self-help projects, as well as involvement in community organizing, human-rights advocacy, and political actions. The important thrust, however, is that these small communities of faith are renewing the local church towards becoming more attuned and responsive to the demands of the times, especially to the expectations of the peasants, workers, and urban poor. For these people, the appeal of the base communities rests on their innovativeness to tap the innate religiosity of the people and to address real life concerns. The base communities are pulsating with hope in making Christianity a transformative or liberating power in the midst of a dehumanizing situation.
During the national assembly of BECs held in November 2002, at Cebu City, I sensed there were moments when many participants, especially the “veterans” of BECs, felt uneasy about the way some in the assembly, particularly the speakers, repeatedly downplayed the place of BECs in the renewal of the Filipino church. At the center of the discomfort is the view that the BECs is “not” or “not only” “the” “new way of being church.” There is nothing wrong in this view; in fact, it may be argued that there are many “new ways” of living the church in our times, and the BECs is just one of them. What the participants felt however, as I felt it also, is a tendency to belittle the efforts of the BECs and their animators. In a forum that gathered more than a hundred-fifty of their representatives to reflect on their experiences and discern their future, it was expected that, at least, the atmosphere would be appreciative or respectful of the past and hopeful of the things still to come.
I shared the story narrated by Mark to make a point in another direction. The BECs is not a dream anymore; it is a reality of trials and breakthroughs, successes and joys, as well as mistakes and disappointments. The words of PCP II echoes the role of the BECs in the political field:
Prophecy by word and act must be stated then as a principle in the Church’s playing of its role vis-à-vis society. In the concrete this means enhancing, encouraging, supporting what is good in Philippine society; criticizing, condemning, doing all that it can to lessen what is bad in it. This means the Church must act as conscience to society; more, it must help in the binding and healing of its wounds. The role of prophetic preaching is one that the Church in its leadership has played in recent times, at least as far as speaking is concerned. Much still has to be done in the participative manner of preaching by doing, that we say is Christ’s way. (para. 347)
See Patricia B LICUANAN,
"Basic Christian Communities as a Force for Social Change," in Church of the People: The Basic Christian
Community Experience in the
Per FROSTIN, employing Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony in "The Hermeneutics of the Poor - The Epistemological 'Break' in Third World Theologies," Studia Theologica 39 (1985): 12-50, speaks of hegemonic postulate in reference to the challenge of the poor in constructing their own worldview arising from the reality of their material life.
The words of Michael
That is, language in use, consisting of an interpretation of events, actions and expressions to make sense of oneself and others. See John B THOMPSON, Studies in the Theory of Ideology (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1984), 133-135. For a study of discourse as link between motives and actions, see Michael W FOLEY, "Organizing, Ideology and Moral Suasion: Political Discourse and Action in a Mexican Town," in Constructing Culture and Power in Latin America, edited by Daniel H Levine (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993), 227-266.
As Pierre BORDIEU in "L'économie des échanges linguistiques" points out, language is not only an instrument of communication but also an instrument of power. Cited in THOMPSON, Theory of Ideology, 131.
Cited in Victor R BALTAZAR and Joselito P RIVERA, "The Basic Christian Community Experience of San Andres, Quezon," in Church of the People, 54-55.
For a survey of the perceptions of the BECs on social realities, see Manuel G GABRIEL and Emmanuel S de GUZMAN [comps.], Inter-BEC Dialogue: A Philippine Experience (Quezon City: Lay Formation Institute, 1984); henceforth cited as Inter-BEC Dialogue. Also, Victoria P CRUZ and Manuel G GABRIEL, "The Urban Poor Situation in Metro Manila: Toward Effective Pastoral Action," in Manila 1986 (Manila: Blowick-Galvin Research Fellowship, 1986), 23-34; and Isang Dokumentasyon ng mga Naganap sa National Ecclesiology Forum [A Documentation of Events During the National Ecclesiology Forum], Cebu City, 20-24 May 1986 (Quezon City: BEC-CO Inter-Regional Secretariat, 1986), 13.
Sofronio ROXAS was a lay leader
of the diocese of Kidapawan,
page" is a section in a daily newspaper in the
National Ecclesiology Forum, 10.
Paulo FREIRE makes the difference,
as in for instance, in the two types of educational approach: "Whereas the banking method directly or
indirectly reinforces men's fatalistic perception of their situation, the
problem-posing method presents this very situation to them as a problem. As the situation becomes the object of their
cognition, the naive or magical perception that produced fatalism gives way to
a perception which is able to perceive itself even as it perceives reality, and
can thus be critically objective about that reality... A deepened consciousness
of their situation leads men to apprehend that situation as an historical
reality susceptible of transformation."
FREIRE, Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
Segundo GALILEA, The Challenge of Popular Religiosity (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1988), 45-46.
Brendan LOVETT, On Earth as in Heaven: Corresponding to God in Philippine Context (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1988), 39-40.
See also LICUANAN, "Force for Social Change," 28-34.
For Bishop Francisco F. CLAVER: "The ultimate basis of the power of people formed into BECs is none else but their human dignity. A truism, to be sure, but also a challenging principle of action under circumstances in which people have to assert it, in order to realize it. The active asserting of and the struggling for this dignity certainly do not start nor happen in BECs alone. But it is in the process of building up such religious communities that this dignity is likewise built up in a communal manner and on religious grounds. CLAVER, "Basic Christian Communities: Strategy for Social Change," Ministry Today 1 (Philippines, 4th Quarter 1985): 53-54.
For a survey of the notion of human rights, see Wolfgang HUBER, "Human Rights - A Concept and Its History," Concilium 124 (April 1979): 1-10.
According to the late Senator José W DIOKNO, there is an indigenous understanding of the concepts of "rights" (karapatan; root word, dapat = fitting, appropriate, correct) and "justice" (katarungan, root word, tarong = straight, upright, appropriate, correct), both of which are intimately related in Filipino anthropology. To struggle for the rights of a people so that they may live a life fitting to human beings, is to demand that society must create the material conditions and constitutional laws that give preeminence to justice for all. See DIOKNO, "A Filipino Concept of Justice," in New Directions in Indigenous Psychology, ed. Allen Aganon and Ma. Assumpta David, RVM (Manila: National Book Store, 1985), 271-285; henceforth the book is cited as Indigenous Psychology. The legal embodiment of rights in the Filipino context is reviewed historically by Joaquin G BERNAS, "Filipino Consciousness of Civil and Political Rights," Philippine Studies 25 (1977): 163-185; while Vitaliano R GOROSPE, SJ, approaches the question of justice based on Philippine literary in "Sources of Filipino Moral Consciousness," Philippine Studies 25 (1977): 278-301. Dionisio M MIRANDA, SVD, though not dealing directly with human rights, probes into the metaphor of "loob" (inner self) as basis of the Filipino's moral-ethical life, in Loob: The Filipino Within, A Preliminary Investigation into a Pre-Theological Moral Anthropology (Manila: Divine Word Publications, 1989).
The phrase is taken from
Gustavo GUTIÉRREZ, "The Irruption of the Poor in
Patricia LICUANAN et al., "A Moral Recovery Program: Building a People -- Building a Nation," in Moral Recovery and the Democratic Vision in Philippine Context, ed. Richard L Schwenk (Manila: Seed Center, 1989), 10-33.
In the assessment of sociologist Mina RAMIREZ, Due to
the unbalanced social structures, the indigenous
and western values may be used for one's
family and small group interests. The interests of the country are
subordinated to the interest of the family.
The family could become the
highest norm of morality. Thus, this has created a social paradox -- Filipinos
who proclaim universalistic values
practice them in a particular way. The
individual is social-minded, but
this social-mindedness is limited to a small group. The Filipino lives
in a small group family-oriented
society. RAMIREZ, "The Dominant and Popular Cultural Systems in
José M de
See Felix WILFRED, Sunset in the East? The Asian Realities Challenging the Church and its Laity Today, FABC Papers No. 45 (Hongkong: Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, 1986), 7-9.
Manuel G GABRIEL specifies the BECs as "the alternative lifestyle that the Philippine Church can offer the Western world, including our Westernized Filipino elite, who are caught in the dehumanizing influence of multinational corporations." GABRIEL, "Basic Filipino Christian Communities," Philippine Priests' Forum 10 (1978): 27.
Felix WILFRED, "
There have been attempts
to compile the products of the BECs and other popular organizations; see, for
example, Mga Awiting Pambasag sa Kultura
ng Katahimikan [Songs
to Break the Culture of Silence] (
Ponciano L BENNAGEN, "Will a Country that Prays Together Stay Together?" Kalinangan 10 (Philippines, March 1990): 8-9; henceforth cited as "Country that Prays Together." Professor Bennagen's cultural anthropological essay is based on the Filipino proverb, "Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa" (literally, "Mercy is with God, action is with human beings"). The author identifies the BECs as one of the signs that people at the grassroots level are bearers of hope of a new humanity.
Prof. Virgilio ENRIQUEZ, a Filipino social psychologist, advanced the idea that the word "value" does not exist in the Filipino mind-set; rather it is "conviction" or paninindigan which expresses what the Filipino prizes in life. According to ENRIQUEZ, pakikipagkapwa is a fundamental conviction that guides Filipino in their human relationships. See ENRIQUEZ, "Kapwa: A Core Concept in Filipino Social Psychology," in Indigenous Psychology, 259-270; reprinted from Philippine Social Science and Humanities Review 42, nos. 1-4 (January-December 1978).
Quoted in Karl GASPAR,
Sociologists inform us that it is not enough for people to see the need for change, but they must also be convinced that they can act on their situation based on the resources available to them. This is particularly adhered to by proponents of the so-called "resource mobilization" theory to social change. See Mayer N ZALD, "Theological Crucibles: Social Movements in and of Religion," Review of Religious Research 23 (June 1982): 317-336, for an assessment of the relevance of resource mobilization theory to religion. For earlier experiments, see Luther P GERLACH and Virginia H HINE, People, Power, Change: Movements of Social Transformation (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1970). The representative theorist of resource mobilization is Anthony OBERSCHALL; see his Social Conflict and Social Movements (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1973).
As one priest remarked: "Rather than confront, we have created alternative structures: while authoritarianism prevails in our political life, the BEC is an exercise of democratic participation; while the economy is marked by gross inequality, we practice sharing. We are not yet ready to challenge and demand a change in the unjust structures existing in our society." Quoted in José T DELES, Jr, "The Basic Christian Community Experience of Malangas, Zamboanga del Sur," in Church of the People, 231-232).
A good introduction on the uses of power in the Philippine context has been given by Ponciano BENNAGEN, "People's Power as an Evolutionary Process Towards Social Transformation," in Synthesis: Before and Beyond February 1986, edited by Lilia Quindoza Santiago (Quezon City: Interdisciplinary Forum of the University of the Philippines, 1986), 101-104; also John J CARROLL, SJ, "Social Theory and Social Change in the Philippines," Pulso 1, no. 1 (Philippines, 1984): 34-47; "Church Power and the Revolution (Episcopal Reflections," EAPR 2 (1986): 104-110.
Zsuzsa HEGEDUS, "Social Movements and Social Change in Self-Creative Society: New Civil Initiatives in the International Arena," International Sociology 4 (March 1989): 32.
In this connection, confer the study of the base communities in Latin America by Daniel H LEVINE, "Popular Groups, Popular Culture, and Popular Religion," in Constructing Culture, 171-226.
It is purposive not so much in the sense that the BECs are guided by clear purposes, but, as Anthony Giddens points out, in the sense that people are "knowledgeable agents who are capable of accounting for their actions." Cited in THOMPSON, Theory of Ideology, 151.
Bishop Francisco F CLAVER, SJ, "The Diocese and Parish as Communities of Faith," FABC Papers No. 33c (Hongkong: Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, 1982), 8. See also, John J CARROLL, SJ, The Church: A Political Force? (Philippine Context), Human Society 25 (Manila: Human Development Research and Documentation, 1984), 25-27.
Ruben BIRONDO, "The
Small Christian Communities of Nabunturan
Diocese," in Basic Christian Communities in the
The thought of Antonio GRAMSCI may be helpful to illuminate on the BECs’ experience, in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, eds. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 28-43. Gramsci makes a distinction between instruction and genuine or true education. Although he speaks about these two things in the context of formal schooling, the thoughts are nonetheless important for any educational undertaking. According to Gramsci, Instruction (or indoctrination) tends to instill passivity and submission to authority, which is enforced from without; a magical conception of the world that is devoid of critical analysis; and an ahistorical treatment of language and concepts of life and the world as static realities, rather than as developing through time. On the other hand, true education entails the gradual cultivation of the "democratic citizen." For, "democracy, by definition cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can become skilled. It must mean that every 'citizen' can 'govern' and that society places [him/her], even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this. Political democracy tends towards a coincidence of the rulers and the ruled (in the sense of government with the consent of the governed) ensuring for each non-ruler a free training in the skills and general technical preparation necessary to that end" (ibid. 40-41). For Gramsci, real education strives toward emancipating the self from external authority and trains the self for civil rights and duties, which views the legal order as either to be freely assented to or to be altered by human beings.
On this point, see Cardinal Leon-Joseph SUENENS and Dom Helder CAMARA, Charismatic Renewal and Social Action: A Dialogue (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1979).
BENNAGEN, "Country that Prays Together," 8.
José Maria FRANCISCO, SJ, "Two Currents of Filipino Christianity II," Landas 2 (1988): 191.
This statement is made as far as the local documentation suggests. The BECs report that some ideological groups (both from the Left and the Right) tend to ride on their structures, but they do not report whether or not as communities they lend support to any political group. It is possible though that individuals join political groups voluntarily to express more their chosen political commitments.
Bishop Julio X LABAYEN, To Be the Church of the Poor, ed. Denis Murphy (Manila: Communication Foundation for Asia, 1986), 51. See also idem, "Basic Christian Communities," AFER 30 (June 1988): 135-144.
ecumenical delegation to the Third Asian Theological Conference, held in
In this connection, Otto MADURO criticizes Marxist political reductionism of ideologically oriented groups in his article "The Desacralization of Marxism within Latin American Liberation Theology," Social Compass 35 (1988): 348.
Barbara HARGROVE, "Religion, Development, and Changing Paradigm," Sociological Analysis 49, Supplement Issue (December 1988): 33-48, especially 45-46. HARGROVE follows Anthony WALLACE's theory of "revitalization movements" to explain the emergence of social and religious movements for change. For WALLACE, the term "mazeways" refer to changes that people experience as they learn things as children and as they are incorporated into the adult life (see WALLACE, "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropology 58 : 264-281). In HARGROVE's application, in times of major cultural transformation in the world, new forms of religion push people into a new way of understanding the world, their lives, and history.