LIBERATION THEOLOGIES IN POPULIST REGIMES: THE PHILIPPINE EXPERIENCE
Presentation at the 11th International Fu Jen Academia Catholica Conference - International Concilium Conference: "Asian Theologies and Theologies in Asia" (Taiwan, June 1, 2021)
1. Liberationist Strain in Philippine Contextual Theologies
In another article, I have mapped contemporary contextual theologies in the Philippines into three: mainstream, cultural and liberationist (“The Craft of Contextual Theologies”, 2004). First, mainstream theologies are those that start off with the positions of the Magisterium and from their extrapolate their relevance into contemporary times. Though there are theologians who parrot the teachings of the Popes and encyclicals almost literally, many are in fact doing contextual applications of the Papal themes as they are needed on the ground. The more popular ones are done by bishops, pastors and religious who are in the heart of the pastoral field.
The second trend is a response to the challenge of inculturation. Many of these theologians start with cultural analysis as basis of their theological reflection. Aspects of the cultures—either from the lowland or indigenous population—become the sources of theological themes as they are correlated with the Christian tradition. Linguistic analysis or thematic exegesis decisively shapers the structure of contextual theologies.
The third trend—famous in the 1980s during the Marcos dictatorship—is liberation theology. Born from the theological developments of Latin America and occasioned by the repression of the Martial Law and the poverty of our people, they call their liberationist trend “theology of struggle”. Some theologians belong to the communist resistance movement which is outlawed until today; others just base their theologies on the prophetic challenge of the gospel without any ideological affiliation. But in the context of the cruel repression in the 1970s where people are just killed or made to disappear, these two directions do not have a substantial distinction. They were all fighting a single enemy: Marcos.
Let me focus on this liberationist thematic in the contextual theologies in the Philippines. Though the theologies of the Spanish regime in the Philippines was mainly in collusion with colonial power, there were cracks in the iron curtain that gave way to resistance theologies even under colonial rule.
Contemporary authors like Ileto point to the oblique resistance practiced by revolutionaries by employing religious rituals like the Pasyon (which ends in the resurrection) to envision a new world of freedom and equality outside the colonizers’ gaze. In fact, the local population welcome the Spanish priests into the locality to fight against the abuses of the soldiers. At a later stage, there were “enlightened and educated elite” who after having studied abroad came back and launched the revolutionary uprising against Spain. The history of our revolutionary clergy is a well-documented phenomenon of Philippine history. Social action that directly responds to the needs of the masses, e.g., fight against exorbitant taxation, military abuses, and later the abuses of the friars who have also amassed wealth for themselves. Responding to these problems of local communities led to the uprising of disgruntled masses now called the Philippine Revolution against Spain.
My point is simple: since the encounter of Christianity and the Philippine cultures 500 years ago, liberation and resistance theologies can already be discerned from the beginning. This is an assertion that we need to assert in these times when majority of Christians—bishops, priests and religious included—are allergic to liberation theology.
2. Populism and Religions
Populism is a political direction that has been active for a long time now. But recent events, Trump, for example, made it infamous worldwide. Growing populist governments worldwide are discerned in Recep Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India, Norbert Hofer of Austria, Marine Le Pen of France, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, Narendra Modi of India, Donald Trump of the United States, and many others. All these populist leaders who surprisingly gained massive support among their peoples display the necessary rhetorical but also physical/real violence needed both to keep people “in place”. Ironically, populism identifies politics with “the will of the people and anchors the political world in the vertical opposition between two homogeneous, fundamentally antagonistic groups that are judged differently: the people, who are good, and the elite, who are evil. This good-evil spectrum is common practice of theologians and religious thinkers as they resort to the ‘Manichaeist’ worldview in reference to “the ancient religious movement whose radical worldview divided the world into the diametrically conflicting principles of Light and Darkness to describe the centrality of such dualism in the populist worldview”.
Already in this moralistic framing, populism exhibits its intrinsic relationship to religions. Religious populism is two-dimensional. One of its dimensions is overtly religious; also called “politization of religion”. This “manifestation of religious populism proclaims to be following, or fulfilling, the will and plans of the Almighty—with whom the groups feel, and believe, that they have a privileged relationship”. It looks at itself as fighting Godless enemies in this world in the name of God. The religious language of the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement reminiscent of the Trump era is a good example. I will contextualize the Philippine response later in the paper. The second dimension is the “sacralization of politics” in contemporary societies which aims to pervade modern politics with the experience of the sacred in order to “fundamentally change mundane everyday evil politics”. A good number of conservative faith affiliations coming from evangelical but also in the mainline churches which anoints rightist politics can be cited as example. These dimensions look distinct but they actually overlap on the ground.
These seemingly unbreakable relationship between religions and populist politics already makes it hard difficult for liberation theology to prosper.
3. Theological Responses to Populism in the Philippines
During the last four years (since 2016), the Philippines finds itself in the international headlines as sharing in a distinctly populist climate. The present government led by our President Rodrigo Duterte exhibit identical characteristic of all other populist leaders worldwide. (1) He exhibits paternalistic governance; his followers call him “Tatay”. (2) The act of othering (us vs. them) characterize his policies. Those who did not fit their schemes are “othered”, many of them silenced, others are eliminated. (3) This is not only rhetoric; but violent action. He has imprisoned his main critics; he killed 35,000 drug addicts because they do not fit his banner program of a drug-free Philippines. He has eliminated human rights activists, indigenous peoples, their lawyers, etc. This continues even in the midst of the pandemic. (4) The implementation of the politics of fear and terror present in populist regimes worldwide is the same style of governance you find in the Philippines.
What I am interested with is the theological scene: what are the theological responses to the populist movement in the Philippines? I can characterize three distinct responses: (a) spiritual response (the place of conservative churches); (b) socio-political response (the place of liberation theologies); (c) non-involvement response (majority of the population; they are not really Duterte supporters but their theological position does not also warrant to oppose him and get involved; this is the majority position.
Let me focus on the first response: a good number of the population belong to the so-called megachurches whose theology provides the characteristically populist response. The theological direction in these churches have common characteristics.
First is its notion of divine authority which props up violent regimes. Many of these churches hold on Romans 13: 1 to the letter: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” So Duterte is truly God-sent. He is an anointed leader to heal this nation because our situation needs such divine intervention. A research done in Payatas where I work on weekends has one pastor saying this argument on Duterte’s War on Drugs: “Duterte as president is clearly an act of God to ‘teach the country a lesson’. He believes that drug addiction is a sinful condition that has its own consequences. The violence of the War on Drugs is at one level a divine judgment and he leaves it up to the government to fully execute it. At another, the anti-drug campaign is meant to convince the rest of the public of what sin does in the end.” (cf. Cornelio and Medina, “Christianity and the War on Drugs”, 2019).
Second is this theology’s apolitical dimension. Many of these churches fosters apolitical theologies. Since the world is ambivalent, Christians better no engage the world — almost literally applying “we are in the world but not of the world” discourse in the gospel of John (17: 16). If there is prophetism, it is not found in political engagement; it is in serving as “contrast communities”, living a totally different life than the rest of the world around. However, in the experience of the Philippines, many of these Churches anoint Christian leaders (in the spirit of Romans 13:1), pray over them, endorse them in elections (some in exchange of political favors), etc. This dualistic theological frame makes their members all supporters of Duterte’s regime.
The third characteristic is the belief in prosperity theology among the middle class members. The middle class and higher income demographics already hint at its politically conservative position. If business is good, why rock the boat? This theology also looks up to the bible for support, for instance, Deuteronomy 8:18: “Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors.” Prosperity theologians asserts of having the right believing, right thinking and right doing to achieve wealth (Medina and Cornelio, “The Prosperity Ethic,” 2021). And since Duterte, at least in the beginning, campaigned to create economic prosperity in the Philippines, these Christians are automatically Duterte supporters, even if the pandemic has sent the Philippines way down in the economic ladder.
To sum up: first, all these characteristics are present in the megachurches from different denominations — evangelical, mainline Protestants, and Catholics alike. Second, though distinct theological arguments, they all converge to preserve the status quo, thus support the present populist government. Third, the majority Christian population who are seemingly neutral and non-engaged in fact find this dualistic, privatized theology convenient to their political non-involvement regardless of this government’s corruption and incompetence, killing and violence, violation of human rights and blatant disregard of human dignity.
4. Challenges to Liberation Theologies in our Times
This brings me to my last point: the uphill climb of resistance and liberation theology in the context of populist regime like the Philippines. The waning of liberation theologies worldwide is not a new phenomenon. It has been experienced in Latin America and elsewhere caused by many factors. Philosophically, we know of the collapse of metanarratives in postmodernity; there has also been the turn to culture discourse in the social sciences that rejects the hard Marxist economic analysis reminiscent of the first periods of liberation theologies. Theologically, we have also experienced the anti-liberationist stance of the long pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The “ad intra” concerns for doctrine, liturgy and church discipline during these times have eclipse the need of engagement with the world and the poor characteristic of Vatican II — something that Pope Francis only starts to recover. All these the present cultural phenomenon of populism have eclipsed liberation theologies in the churches and academe.
In the end, let me outline some of the challenges to liberation theology, in particular, and to the Church and theologies, in general, of our times.
a. Prophetic Theologies. In the context of blatant disregard of human dignity in populist regimes, together with real poverty among our people, there is a need to recover prophetic theologizing in our times. The forms can vary, and they should, but the "prophets" need to stand up to the "kings" as it was in the Old Testament, in the time of Jesus and the courageous voices of martyrs in Christian history.
b. Catholic Social Teaching as Resource. This prophetic task in modern times does not need to start from scratch. The Catholic tradition has a long tradition of the Social Teaching of the Church which outlines the contents and positions consistent with the gospel. Our Protestant brethren also have a parallel body of prophetic writings. How to bring this “best kept secret of the Church" to our grassroots communities should be a service theologians and pastoral workers creatively strive to do.
c. Restructuring of Theological Formation. If theologies prop up populist regimes, theologies should also ground resistance in our times. A restructuring of theological curriculum in seminaries and access of the laity to theological formation are necessary towards making liberation theologies speak again to our times. We need to ask what kind of theologies are taught in our seminaries and theological centers.
d. Resistance from Below. Resistance does not necessary start with theologians and church authorities. Theologies of liberation can only start from the lives of the victims, from the ground of suffering itself. They are the real prophets today; their lives are lives of resistance. Theologians need learn from them.
e. Theologies of Bits and Pieces. This is not time for voluminous and comprehensive "summas". The demise of metanarratives—scholastic or Marxist—does not attract people to arduous logical and theological argumentation. Moreover, our grassroots communities do not have access to such theologizing. We do not have time for hair-splitting distinctions. People are hiding or on the run — afraid, dying, sick and hungry. The great Filipino theologian, Catalino Arevalo, SJ calls this as the challenge of theologizing “bits and pieces”, a theology on the spot, done in an ad hoc manner, a theology in via, of a people also on its way.
In these difficult times, Arevalo writes, we need a theology that is “done together in hours of doing and suffering, in emptiness, in confusion and paralysis, in struggle, sometimes in anguish and despair, sometimes with the shedding of real blood and tears.”
Daniel Franklin Pilario, CM
St. Vincent School of Theology
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