notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Acts 16 - Liberation from corruption
Good Shepherd Morning Communion 20/5/2007
Acts 16.16-34, John 17.20-end
There are many different ways of talking about today's bible passages. I'd like to focus on the astonishing set of stories from the book of Acts, about the various adventures of the apostles Paul and Silas.
There's the story of their release from prison caused by an earthquake sent from God - and the liberation of the prison guard who came to faith - he and all his family - after inviting Paul and Silas to their home to hear the word of God.
You could say that the jailer was actually imprisoned himself - a prisoner to the authorities who he was so frightened of that he was ready to commit suicide rather than face their punishment for letting the prisoners escape. So we could say that the guard was a prisoner liberated by God.
And there's the story of the slave-girl possessed by a fortune-telling spirit - and her liberation from that spirit which oppressed her from within and caused her to be exploited from without, by people who used her fortune-telling to make money for themselves. She, too, was a prisoner liberated by God.
The background to both these stories is a society where corruption was rife. That's why Paul and Silas were landed in prison - because by healing the girl of her spirit-possession they cut off the money supply to the people who owned her. So these people reacted quickly by dragging Paul and Silas into the market-place, bringing them before the magistrates accusing them of 'disturbing [their] city ... advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.' This enticed the crowd to attack Paul and Silas, and caused the magistrates to have them stripped and beaten with rods, thrown into the innermost prison cell with their feet fastened firmly in the stocks.
That's the sort of thing which happens in a society dragged down by corruption. If anyone is caught trying to do good, working for peace and justice, trying to release the oppressed, and that interferes with the agenda of those with power and wealth, then those with power and wealth act swiftly and if need be violently to remove the troublesome ones from the scene.
But the slave-girl's story, the story of the jailer and his family, Paul and Silas' own release, all speak of the liberation God gives to those who recognise him, turn to him, seek to serve him in the power of his Holy Spirit. Liberation, even in the most corrupt places.
Now we have been thinking and praying recently for Romy Tiongco, formerly our Christian Aid Regional Coordinator. Many people from across the north-west of England know Romy and his wife Linda through their work with Christian Aid. Both of them have worked in a variety of positions for the organisation over the last sixteen years. Linda spoke at our harvest festival service here in 2005. Recently Romy has been active in his native Philippines, on a timber harvesting project - a money earner for locals and something which is really good for the local ecology.
Romy and Linda have been in tight spots before; but tend to worry more about the local people than themselves. But the present danger is something else. When Romy returned briefly to the Philippines in October last year, he was persuaded to stand for the post of Mayor of Damulog at the elections this month.
Damulog is a municipality in the Province of Bukidnon, on the island of Mindanao, about 500 miles SSE of Manila. It is a place perhaps similar to Phillippi where Paul and Silas were imprisoned, a place with a political climate plagued by corruption and intimidation.
It's Romy's home town and Romy's concern was to challenge the corruption in the area. His ability and integrity began to win the hearts of the less privileged members of society. Other likeminded people agreed to stand for the Council, and Rogelio Estudillo, a life-time friend, became the group's political organiser.
But on January 4 this year, Rogelio was shot to death at his home. Since then Romy and other candidates have been threatened. Two withdrew from the contest, only to be replaced by others Ð brave people! Rogelio's death looks like a political assassination; and Romy feels in considerable danger. Some of his supporters are angry, but they won't cause any violence because they respect Romy's principled pacifism. Romy hopes that non-violence will overcome violence and that the ballot box wins over the bullet.
We know that Paul and Silas spent quite some time in prison, and suffered a lot of beatings and abuse because of the stance they took for the kingdom of God. And we have in our New Testament many letters which Paul wrote, some of them from prison, which speak of the liberation of Jesus Christ in the face of corruption and violence.
The Phillippine elections were held last Monday and Romy was elected as mayor of Damulog. It's the second time he has been mayor of this area, the first time was about 20 years ago. So he is not in prison today, but he recently wrote a letter to his supporters over here which I would like to share with you now..... 
A TESTIMONY TO NON-VIOLENCE
This a general letter I am sending out to all companions in the quest for justice for Rogelio Estudillo's murder and for clean, honest and non-violent elections. I went through the mill of emotional turmoil. It was only six days after I received news of mother's death when I got a mobile phone call that the political organiser of the group I was involved with to challenge the incumbent Mayor in the May elections had been brutally murdered a few steps from his home. It revealed the utter vulnerability of our group.
I was 18 when I read Henry Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. It opened the world of non-violence and I read books about Gandhi and Martin-Luther King. It made me take a second-look on the life of Jesus. It led me to authors like Graham Sharpe and Ron Sider. I wanted to know more about the Quakers and Mennonites. When Linda and I thought first thought of establishing a development agency, we chose the name 'Kalinaw' - Bisayan for 'Peace'.
I made a poster which read: ' WANTED REVOLUTIONARIES: Men and women who are willing to die in the process of building what they love, not men and women who are willing to die and to kill in the process of destroying what they hate.' Our group didn't have goons or armed bodyguards. I don't even own an air-rifle or a waterpistol.'
When I received the news of Rogelio's death, I just felt numbed. That night I could hardly sleep. Then I felt helpless, afraid, discouraged. But I also remember feeling very angry. I experienced murderous thoughts of revenge. Day in and day out, friends and acquaintances expressed their sadness and anger. As days passed fears were still expressed but there was a growing dominance of anger and revenge.
So many came trying to talk me into agreeing to hit back before 'they' hit again. They said that we should get the 'head', and not bother with the 'tentacles'. There were at least two very serious offers to carry out the 'job'. But I had other friends deeply committed to nonviolent action. For the time being, we had our way. If violence must be used, then it must be the last resort. We hadn't exhausted all the non-violent means possible and within our reach.
I want the campaign for justice for Rogelio to take off the ground and to succeed. If the authorities move quickly enough, there is a very good possibility that we will enjoy a relatively free and honest elections. But if any member of our political group becomes another victim of violence, some people will make their own move. Through a chain of whispers, I was told, 'Buhay ang inutang, buhay din ang kapalit.' (Life was owed, life will be the repayment.) My greater fear is if I become the victim of violence, I will not be around to stop them declaring a 'clan war'. I cannot allow political violence to take root in Damulog.
The Justice for Rogelio campaign must succeed. There is no choice if non-violence is to prevail. And I believe we will triumph. In the past weeks and month, I prepared myself to die. I made myself believe that I can do more for Damulog dead, than alive. Looking back, this was the one reason big reason why I couldn't tell Linda, Aisha and Zac by phone or by e-mail about my decision to run for Mayor. The possibility of death loomed so high that I couldn't think positively.
I went back to my catechism for strength. I was taught that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the the church. If I am killed, I do not want anyone to take revenge. Let my death be my sermon that belief in the after life demands the quest and the struggle to enable everyone, no-one excluded, towards enjoying fullness of life before death. Wealth, power, worldly goods and pleasures are not worth killing for but equitable access to them for everyone is worth dying for.
Some said that I am brave. I am not brave. I am afraid. I don't want to die. But I am not allowing my fear to freeze me into in action - to stop me from doing what I believe my situation is asking me to do - because death can be a service to people. I see a lot of meaning in this kind of death and I think I can accept it, if and when the time comes. May God give me the strength to make this my offering.
During the past few days, I received feedback of what you have been doing. I am deeply moved. I am inspired. Two nights ago I told Linda, with growing conviction, that every letter, every petition, every media coverage demanding justice for Rogelio Estudillo was making the possibility of another political murder in Damulog more and more remote. I started to believe that non-violence will triumph over violence. I began to dream of winning the election. I grew in hope that I will serve again the people I served as a priest 30 years ago and, 20 years ago, as their Mayor.
You made me believe that Rogelio's dream that I would come back as Mayor of Damulog can come true. Thank you. Thank you very much. 'What good can come out of Nazareth?' 'What good can come out of Damulog?' The seeds of 'engaged citizenship' has been sown in the different parts of the country. The emergence of democratically mature citizens is unobtrusively taking place. May Damulog contribute and hasten the process. Once again, to one and all - daghan kaayong salamat (thank you very much)!!!
Romy's story brings the message of Paul and Silas right up-to-date. In a society dragged down by corruption his story speaks of the liberation God gives to those who recognise him, turn to him, seek to serve him in the power of his Holy Spirit.
Now being mayor again means that Romy remains in a vulnerable position. Just as continuing their mission meant that Paul and Silas were always likely to come across corrupt and violent opposition again. So we continue to pray for Romy, Linda and family; and we continue to take encouragement from the many stories in scripture and today, of people who were prisoners, liberated by God.
 Romy Tiongco letter from MouthPeace, magazine of Shrewsbury & Liverpool Justice & Peace Commissions, Issue 57 (Spring 2007) [pdf]