Indigenous Peoples, Inculturation and Power

By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario

Cardinal Baldisseri, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Synod of Bishops, your Eminences and Excellencies, sisters and brothers from the Amazonian basin and other parts of the world, I thank you for inviting me from the far islands of the Philippines in order to respond to the paper of Bishop David Martinez on inculturation and indigenous peoples at the Amazons.

I do not know anything of the Amazons. But reading about it, we have one common experience: we were both colonized and evangelized by Spain. Maybe there is something common that we can discuss together.
I fully agree with the main point that Bishop David Martinez has forwarded in his paper: that the indigenous peoples themselves are the main agents of the inculturation of the Gospel message into their own cultures. The missionary is only the messenger, the translator, or to use another image, the midwife. The real mothers who give birth to an inculturated faith are the local communities themselves, the indigenous peoples, in the case of the Amazons.

I remember an old Latin dictum from my seminary days which goes: “Quidquid recipitur secundum modum recipientis recipitur.” And the Roman Latin Church sometimes forgets it. The indigenous peoples are the main protagonists because it is they who accept, interpret and take the lead roles in their local churches in order to make it bear fruit.

In order to continue the discussion, let me forward two methodological points that might help us frame the theme of inculturation: (1) the relationship between incarnation and inculturation; and (2) the relationship with inculturation and power. I am aware that I am coming from my perspective as a Christian with an Asian, particularly Philippine, experience.[1]Incarnation and Inculturation Inculturation, a church-constructed discourse, has always been defined as the “meeting of the Gospel and cultures”, the official framework of which can be found in Gaudium et Spes 53-62, even if you cannot really find the word there.
http://www.vatican.va/archive/... principles of this encounter are found in GS 58. The discourse smoothly slides from the “encounter of the Incarnate Son with the culture of each epoch” to the “Church and its encounter with different cultures”. This unsuspecting conflation of Christ Incarnate into the world and the Church relating with different cultures gives us an idealist discourse of inculturation that is not helpful in understanding inculturation on the ground. The principles of this encounter evinced by Gaudium et Spes in effect gives us a one-sided view in favor of one pole over the other (the Gospel over the cultures it encounters).

“The Gospel of Christ constantly renews the life and culture of fallen man, it combats and removes the errors and evils resulting from the permanent allurement of sin. It never ceases to purify and elevate the morality of peoples. By riches coming from above, it makes fruitful, as it were from within, the spiritual qualities and traditions of every people of every age. It strengthens, perfects and restores them in Christ. Thus the Church, in the very fulfillment of her own function, stimulates and advances human and civic culture; by her action, also by her liturgy, she leads them toward interior liberty” (GS 58).

The verbs used in this paragraph all refer to the “Gospel of Christ” as renewing, purifying, strengthening, combatting and removing evil, perfecting and restoring cultures. Cultures, here seen in the abstract becomes a passive reality. It merely receives, as Vatican II suggests. In my humble opinion, the passivity of indigenous peoples that Bishop Martinez Aguirre mourns does not only come from the high handed attitudes of the missionaries. The source of this passivity is deeper than the personal; it is theological. It is connected with the way we theologically frame “inculturation”.

This makes “incarnation” an ambivalent paradigm. Incarnation is not the meeting of Christ and cultures. The Gospel of Christ does not also meet cultures in the abstract. There is no “naked Gospel”. The Gospel always comes to new lands through the cultures of its missionaries. It has been like this from the beginning of the Church starting from the debate in Jerusalem when the Jewish-Christians meets the new Greek converts. It was not a meeting of Christ and the Greek culture; it was a meeting of Jews who accepted Jesus and the new Greek Christians.

First, inculturation thus refers to a meeting of two different cultures and religions – one maybe “Christian” and the other called “pagan” cultures. Here, we must recognize that the categories – “pagan”, “foreign”, “animist” – come from us, not from them. On the ground, what you see is just a meeting of two different cultures – both beautiful and sinful, both with strengths and weaknesses, both full of dangers and promises.

Second, such a meeting is not an innocent and neutral encounter. The missionary even if he is the most humble person in the world, is often seen as more educated, more capable and more articulate by the indigenous peoples. They defer to him and to what he says for most times. Moreover, the countries from where he or she comes from is seen as the richer and more powerful by these receiving cultures. Thus, what we call inculturation does not happen in a vacuum.Inculturation and Power Why is the above framework important? It makes us realize that inculturation is enmeshed in power. This brings me to my second point: the relationship between inculturation and power.

Now, I speak from our experience of Christianity in the Philippines. In 2021, we will be celebrating 500 years of the coming of Christianity to the islands. We thank God for the arrival of the Gospel in the land that did not know of Christ. The Spanish missionaries were an indefatigable lot. They did everything humanly possible. They learned the local language, write Catechism in local scripts, travel to far flung villages where some of them died of disease or were murdered in order to proclaim the Gospel. But it cannot also be denied that such program was part of the colonial project. “El servicio ad ambas majestades” was a phrase present in many official documents at the time. The Filipino Jesuit historian, Horacio de la Costa, wrote:

“The Church was primarily concerned, of course, with the service of God, the State with the service of the King. But it would be a great mistake to imagine that this meant a division of labor or of powers. In the constitution of Spain and the Spanish empire, each served both Majesties, God and King, Church and State might be distinct, but they were not divided. They were integral parts of one massive structure, which might be viewed either as a civilizing Church or a missionary State.”[2]

As the missionaries were tending the parishes, they were at the same time the functionaries of the King (as certifiers of cedulas, supervisors of forced taxation, inspectors of forced labor, etc.).

But contemporary philosophy and social theories - from Foucault to Derrida, from Weber to Bourdieu - also attest to the fact that any personal, social and cultural encounter is always enmeshed in the dynamics of power: the doctor and the patient, the teacher and the student, the employer and employee, the pastor and his parishioners, the missionary and his people. In a world of capitalist globalization, encounters of cultures are not innocent; there is a neo-colonial ring to them. Not to take this into account into our framework for incultuation will result in a naïve analysis.

What repercussions does this have to the project of inculturation? Let me forward three: (1) the need for an analytic of power in our in inculturation discourse; (2) the recognition of the “double-truth” of our missionary practice; and, (3) the reflexivity necessary in our missionary work.

First, if we want a realistic discourse of inculturation, we need an “analytic of power” in the way we assess cultural encounters. The mystery of the incarnation, even if it is a nice way to exhort missionaries to “kenosis”, is an ambivalent paradigm on the ground. There is a temptation to see the missionary as “Christ” and the indigenous peoples as the receiving humanity where Christ incarnated himself. This conflation of signification is problematic as we asserted above.

Moreover, an idealist way of looking at cultures or missions – both in its romanticized or reductionist forms – do not in any way help the inculturation process. For example, a romanticized way of looking at indigenous cultures by relegating it to its past expressions (which we often use in liturgical inculturation) forgets the resistance it presently undergoes with the inroads of global capital. Another example: if one is not aware of the politics of cultures and religions in the Indian context, the Hinduization of liturgy in India can push the Dalits, who have been oppressed by Brahminic cultures for centuries, towards further marginalization.

Second, we need to recognize that all human practices, be it in society in general (economy, politics, culture), or in the Church in particular (“missions” or “evangelization”) is enmeshed in power, thus, containing a “double-truth”, to borrow a category from Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist.[3] For instance, the time-tested missionary strategy of the reducciónes adopted from the experience of the New World proved helpful on double fronts in the Philippines: one the one hand, for protection from natural and lawless elements and the more effective preaching of the Gospel; but on the other hand, for easier colonial control and administration. To live “bajo de las campanas” is an ambivalent really. If this is true before, it is also true now.

Third, because he or she exercises power, most often unconsciously, the missionary needs to be reflexive. Reflexivity, a famous word, in contemporary social sciences, simply means “to step back”, to look again, to put ourselves into question, and not to utter the last word.[4] The last word belongs to the indigenous peoples, as Bishop Martinez Aguirre wants us to realize. This brings me to my conclusion.Conclusion: An AppealI would like to end with an appeal. If the indigenous peoples are considered as the main protagonists of the inculturation of the Gospel, we need to come up with a theological framework that is respectful of them. Mere contrition and apology do not suffice. The past Popes already asked forgiveness from the indigenous peoples. Pope Francis did the same in Puerto Maldonado on January 19, 2018.[5]
Beyond the apologies, however, I appeal for a reflexive theology of inculturation and dialogue with indigenous religions. To my knowledge, aside from the recent speeches of Pope Francis, the most recent official document from the Vatican that deals with indigenous peoples and their “traditional religions” as a whole was issued by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue on November 21, 1993.[6] The title is quite telling: “Pastoral Attention to Traditional Religions”.

http://www.vatican.va/roman_cu... know that indigenous peoples do not feature in many interreligious dialogue meetings. It appears the interreligious dialogue is only among monotheistic and grand religions. There are many reasons to this, the Vatican document states: indigenous religions are localized, not organized, there are secret elements in them, etc. But one reason could be this (on this the document is quiet): we do not really consider them as our equal partners in the search of the divine.

The document does not hide its negative view of indigenous religions: “inadequate ideas about God, superstition, fear of the spirits, objectionable moral practices, the rejection of twins (in some places), even occasional human sacrifice.” Thus, dialogue with these traditional religions is ambiguous, the Pontifical Council states: “To undiscriminating persons it can sometimes seem as if a stamp of approval is being given to these religions.” All we need to render to them, the document concludes, is pastoral attention, pastoral care, “which is our expression of charity which knows no boundaries”. This is quite a condescending statement and patronizing attitude to millions of indigenous peoples worldwide.

If the above is our theology for inculturation and dialogue with indigenous peoples and their religions, the vision that Bishop Martínez talks about – that is, the protagonist role of indigenous peoples in the Amazon regions and worldwide – will never come to reality.