The Rise of Decolonial Theology in the Philippines to Promote Climate Justice

(Introduction: I am delivering this talk on June 9, 2022 (at a panel from 6 to 8 PM Philippine time) for the World Theology Forum. The theme of this international conference is – ACTION AND PROMISE: STRUGGLING AGAINST VIOLENCE, BUILDING JUSTICE AND RETHINKING RELATIONALITY IN THE TIME OF CLIMATE CHANGE. It is simultaneously translated into English, Spanish, French and Portuguese).

Today the Philippines is third in the list of countries with the most number of Catholics. Of a total of 105 million people, 89% are affiliated to the Roman Catholic Church in terms of their faith. To include those among Protestant denominations, there would be 93% of the entire population who are Christians. The rest would be Muslims and those who continue to adhere to their indigenous faith tradition and a sprinkling of Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. 

In 2021, the Philippines celebrated the 500th year anniversary of the arrival of Christianity to the islands when a tribal settlement in Cebu (in central Philippines) agreed to take part in a mass baptism initiated by the captain of the colonizing expedition, led by Fernando Magellan whose journey constituted the first to circumnavigate the globe. 

However, it was the expedition led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565  that cemented Spanish colonial rule in the central and northern parts of the archipelago leading to the establishment of the institutional/hierarchical Church across the colony. Taking into context the close interfacing of the Vatican and Madrid (as manifested in the passage of Papal Bulls establishing the legitimacy of Patronato  Real) – in what can today be considered the union of Church and State – there was a close collaboration between the processes of colonization and evangelization.

The colonial rule was abusive in regard to how the colonizers treated the native population. First they established the reduccion system, patterned after their colonial strategy in Central/Latin America to hasten proselytization. This led to the setting up of the encomienda with its in-built mechanisms to force the people to pay tributes, be constricted to do forced labor and be subjected to the iron rule of their colonial masters. Even the friar congregations were also provided land grants converted into haciendas.

Unfortunately the friars (mainly the Augustinians, Recollects, Dominicans, Franciscans and the Jesuits) served as conduits of the Spanish King and rode on the colonial governance system for conversion purposes. In many pueblos, the friars served as the alcalde de mayor. Given the theological and pastoral praxis of the medieval Church, this meant an aggressive drive to vanquish all aspects of the indigenous belief system practiced by the indigenous communities for thousands of years. Worst hit were the indigenous babaylans (shamans) seen by them as Enemy No. 1.

Eventually as a result of their brutal subjugation, there erupted hundreds of revolts across the archipelago. Some of these were led by the babaylans who had very strong influence over their constituencies.  In the course of history, a greater sense of unity evolved among some of the lowland peasant communities – especially in central Luzon in the north (the area today closest to Metro Manila) –  that consolidate the collective will of the oppressed to rise up against their oppressors.

This led to the establishment of a grassroots revolutionary movement that eventually coalesced with those in urban Manila along with a group of intellectuals – many who were educated in Madrid including native clergy – to form the Union of the Humblest and Highest Group of  Sons/Daughters of the Nation (Kagalang-galangan, Kataas-taasang Katipunan nga mga Anak ng Bayan or KKK).The Union waged a revolutionary war against the Spanish colonial forces for five years until finally the Spanish rule was vanquished which led to the establishment of a Republic, the first to be declared in Asia.

However, in the late 1890s, the nascent colonial power of the United States of America was in search of their own colonies which led to their interest to occupy both Cuba and the Philippines. Despite the resistance of the Filipino rebels, they were defeated by the more superior American military forces which led to the establishment of the American colonial rule in the Philippines which lasted for half-a-century (1898-1946). But this is another story.

The colonization-evangelization campaign by Spanish colonizers in the Philippine archipelago would eventually led to the mass conversion of the indigenous people mainly in the central and northern parts of the country, which explains why today the majority of Filipinos are Catholics. The Islamized population in the south resisted Spanish rule and thus remained Muslims. Whether or not, the friars were abusive, and no matter whether they may have used coercive means in their proselytization goal,  they did manage to convince the natives to embrace the Catholic faith. This unfolded despite what can be referred to as a “chauvinist Christianity” resulting from an evangelization process which interfaced with the manner the colonizers violated the natives’ rights.

The first seeds of what could be referred to as the beginnings of a “native liberation theology” arose in various forms with some of the insurrections that erupted against Spanish colonial rule. The one that has been fully documented by historians and now appropriated by Filipino theologians is what took place leading to the establishment of the KKK in the 1840s. Confradias were established by some of the prophetic local leaders of Christian peasant communities who began to “theologize on their oppressed situation and read the Passion narrative as a justification of their engagement in the struggle to end colonial rule” (c/o a book written by Rey Ileto – Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines 1840-1910 and Vicente Rafael’s Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in the Tagalog Society under early Spanish Rule).

This constituted the nascent decolonization of the manner of interpreting the Bible highlighting its liberation content which would reach a new height in theological circles in the Philippines in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). In the 1960s, the political-economic-social structures of the Philippines – which were in the hands of the native elite or the oligarchy that arose in the post-colonial rule – worsened in regard to its governance system. This led to the worsening poverty situation of the majority and the lack of social justice in all fronts. Vatican II and eventually the declaration of martial law by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who ruled from 1972 to 1986 heightened the development of what would be decolonial theologizing.

The Marcos dictatorial regime was eventually vanquished through a People Power revolution which erupted in the streets of Metro Manila in February 1986 which led to the restoration of democratic practices in the Republic. However, despite the reforms which began with Mrs. Cory Aquino until today, the poverty situation worsened owing to the neo-liberal policies  imposed by the State apparatus. This was further worsened with gross human rights violations and in-attention to the need to push for ecological justice under President Rodrigo Duterte who won the elections in 2016.

Owing to the persistence of this kind of socio-eco-political situation, a movement within faith-based institutions has once more arose with a strong decolonial with a theological perspective advocating for a militant response that listens to both the cry of the  oppressed poor and the harassed planet!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: