Our Christian duty to defend persecuted indigenous brethren

I was tasked by the organizers of this conversation to share some biblico-theological reflections on “Theology Against Discrimination: Our Christian Duty to Defend our Persecuted Brethren.”  But first of all, let me thank you for this invitation. This is the first time that I have this conversation with you in Mindanao in this capacity. Related to this is my thanks to the churches and people organizations in Mindanao as well as the national minorities themselves, the Lumads for the inspiration that we continue to draw from your struggle.

Let me share with you briefly where I am coming from. I was born and raised in the valley of Sagada, Mountain Province. My parents were both teachers so I would say my middle class upbringing in that community proceeded from an agricultural background. The Episcopal Church was the only church in town and in the vicinity so we thought early on that there was only one church. It was when I went to the city that I realized there were churches I could not go to because they were different from mine. It was also in the city where I first heard stories about my being Igorot – “uneducated, backward, dirty, headhunters, ignorant”. Having no way of putting those comments in perspective, I began to hide that part of my identity. My name is not Igorot-sounding so it was also a convenient cover. Later while in college in Manila, a classmate somehow found out and at one instance said: “Igorot ka pala. Can I see your tail?” We were characterized as having tails perhaps because of the g-strings my forebears wore. (It is still worn today, though largely on ceremonial occasions.) But more so I think from the stereotype those days that Igorots were “less humans and a bit more than apes”. The exposure of my well-kept secret was too much for me. I felt betrayed and dropped out of school.

While a drop-out, a couple invited me to join study sessions about the Cordilleras and about Igorots. The couple of course was as Igorot as I was and in those days everyone was considered family. It was at that time that I heard about the plan to construct massive dams along the Chico River, the river that began from my home province that wound its way down to the Kalingas, joining the Cagayan River and on to the Pacific Ocean. We were told that the dams would provide irrigation for the region and electricity. So we thought it was good. But, we learned later that in the case of some other dams built in the region, the people were dislocated from their lands, agricultural lands and communities were submerged and they did not have the benefit of electricity. The electricity was for the cities. It turned out many of the tribes along the river opposed it precisely because of the human dislocation and the destruction of rice fields, villages and other prime areas. We are not talking here about one or two communities but of several and the dam’s impact on the accessibility of other communities. Even the idea that our dead ancestors already buried would be inundated by water was unacceptable. There, in the community meetings that I attended, the people wrestled with the question “Development for whom?” It was clear to them in the end that they were to be collateral damages and that they would not benefit from this multinational project. The people rallied against the project. It was in one of these mass actions that I met the man who responded to the name Macliing Dulag. He would personify the opposition. The church soon joined the opposition to the Chico River Dam project. Along with the dam was another multinational project proposed in the Cordillera. A certain man called Desini came one day and declared that all the trees in the Cordilleras were his. To Igorots it was an astounding claim. And we thought all along that Kabunyan (God) planted those trees and we were to use them wisely to build our homes and nothing more.  The government’s response to the opposition ranged from deception to outright suppression and human rights violations by the government military. How would they not know that government itself would become the best recruitment agency for membership to the New People’s Army?

That day on, I was never prouder to openly declare myself an Igorot. Never again will I ever hide my identity. I have truly learned what it means to be one when I learned the correct history and the struggle of the Igorots. I will not countenance any discrimination any more. This translated easily into the defense of my right. It was already impressed upon me that it was as much the right of any other as it was mine. Furthermore, under circumstances of development aggression it is a right to be fought for – a struggle to be waged.

I returned to college decided to be like my parents. I ended up being a priest/pastor. In all those years however, my sense of struggle against discrimination and for my rights broadened. I saw the relationship of the Cordillera struggle to the wider struggle of the people in the country. It was not only about social discrimination but more so about the violation of human rights.

Since then and more so as a staff of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) I see discrimination as a violation of human rights and therefore to be resisted in all its forms. My formation in seminary and engagements after that provided additional impetus for such a struggle. My formation included integration in the hinterlands of Upi, Maguindanao where I encountered and learned about a distant relative, the Tirurays or Tedurays. My engagement on the rights of indigenous peoples brought me in contact with indigenous people around the world. Aboriginals, first nations, tribal or hill tribes or whatever and however they are called, it is the same story of marginalization and of struggle.

The title of our conversation is directed to the taong simbahan or to church people so I will apologize to the national minorities who are here. But beyond the apology is a question that I will raise in this conversation: If the national minorities are the text, how does Christian theologizing read the text?

The first point that I wish to say is that Christianity or the Christian faith is necessarily a critique against those in power who abuse their power.

Given the understanding of discrimination as directly related to human rights or the absence or denial of human rights, there are sufficient stories in the Bible. But let us start with Jesus Christ. The birth of Jesus Christ into a hostile world is described vividly in Luke’s Gospel. The climate was bitterly cold and “there was no place in the inn”. The story about the latter may have been different had Mary and Joseph enough cash to go by or that the emperor did not require that everyone in the empire had to register.

 The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.29-37 is not only a story of being kind to strangers and the evangelist’s response to the question “who is my neighbor?” It is also a story of “othering” which is a form of discrimination. We Christians need to work on this “othering” as it has become a convenient excuse for conversion on one hand and exclusion on the other hand. The disciples had this sense often wherefore Jesus would tell them “Do not forbid him, for he that is not against you is for you” (Luke 9.49-50). Going back to the story, what shall we Christian do, as we see Lumads being robbed, being killed and being sent out of the land they have occupied for so long a time only they could remember? With all the resources the churches have (e.g. sense of justice and claims to peace), shall we pass by? Has it not been said that our silence is a promotion of that violence against the Lumads?

The other angle of discrimination if we may call it so is that one about Zacchaeus in Luke 19.2-10. This tax collector knew he was isolated from the rest of the people because of his own action. In his house, a conversation did not even begin. It sufficed that Jesus told him he was going to his house. Immediately, he said he will return twice the amount he defrauded. Jesus response was salvation to his household. Similarly, had not Christians for years shouted to the rich and the powerful to return what they stole? Is there any reason why we should stop shouting now?

The second point I would like to share in this conversation is to affirm the correctness of the view that we need constant conversion as Christians because of the reality of human abuse brought about by fellow humans and not by any other through the systems that they built and continue to build. It was been proven right then and it is right to this day that integral to this conversion is integration or being with the people. Imagine for a few minutes that the word remained a word and did not become flesh. As it is, the word became flesh and dwelt among us. And not only that, the word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. Jesus is asking us today the twin questions he asked his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” There is simply no way we can answer both questions truthfully if we are not grounded on the struggle of the people. There can be no guessing game with Christ when we consider the end times. (Matthew 25).

The third point I would like to share is that our solidarity (dwelling among) with those discriminated against is not only about our being churches in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Rather it becomes now churches in solidarity with the victims and the survivors. We have seen how the indigenous peoples have marched all the way from the communities where they are to the streets of Metro Manila; we have seen how survivors of disasters marched to tell of the neglect inflicted upon them; we have seen how survivors of human rights violations in the past poured to the streets to denounce the interment at the cemetery for heroes, of the remains of that dictator who caused immeasurable pain and who was ousted from his office years ago. But we have also seen how the churches have responded to these uprisings as in the case of Spottswood Methodist Church, the Haran center of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and the accompaniment program of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente to the Lumads as well as the welcoming compound of the Baclaran church and other churches in Metro Manila during those occasions.

A new level of rising up or uprising was born. This is the SANDUGO or the unity of national minorities and the Moros against their discrimination and oppression. Where this will take us remains to be seen given the other details that national minorities and Moros will have to settle among themselves. Beyond these, however is the common desire to break free from the afflictions imposed upon them by the multinationals through local lackeys in fact through the state in their attempts to grab their lands. Land is life is a common thread that will bind them as opposed to the capitalist view of land exploitation for profit. These two perspectives are dialectical. The former celebrates life and the latter denies it.

These uprisings are resurrection narratives and the people are showing us how it was and is done. Divine Wisdom has been with them all along. Verily in these people’s actions, the church may well experience her own resurrection.

 

REV. FR. REX RB REYES, JR.

General Secretary VII

National Council of Churches in the Philippines

 

[This piece was delivered by the author during the Biblico-Theologico Reflection at Jocel’s Graden Suites, Valencia City, Bukidnon on December 14, 2016. The Reflection forms part of the activities of the ‘Healing the Hurt’ Project implemented by RMP-NMR and partners, and supported by the European Union]