Weekly Reflections: Indigeous peoples and the new evangelization


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.” — Luke 4:18-19

Evangelization and domination

I was invited onetime to give a lecture presentation on evangelization in an international consultation workshop held in Geneva, Switzerland. Before my presentation, five case studies on the relationship of popular religion and the Gospel were shared from the various contexts of indigenous peoples in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Listening to the case studies, I noticed several things said in common. Firstly, the presenters were all one in saying that evangelization is a very bad word for the indigenous peoples. Evangelization supposedly comes from the word “evangel”, which means good news. It is the process of bringing good news to the people.

However, from the experiences of the indigenous peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, who presented the case studies, and who were supposed to be recipients of the “good news”, evangelization brought “bad news” rather than good news for their people. For them, evangelization was equivalent to foreign domination and exploitation. For instance, Vicenta Mamani of the Aymara Tribe of Bolivia in Latin America had lamented the fact that evangelization had destroyed their rich Aymara culture and had alienated their people from their own cultural heritage.

Nelson Akinola of Nigeria was also raising the question as to why the missionaries taught them to close their eyes and bow their heads while praying. After recounting how their lands and other natural resources were taken away from them by foreign interests, he arrived to a conclusion that the reason why the foreign missionaries taught them to close their eyes and bow their heads while praying was perhaps because the missionaries did not want them to see their lands being taken away from them. Nelson concluded saying, “They gave us the Bible but they took away our lands.”

The Philippine experience

The experiences of indigenous peoples in Africa and Latin America were not actually new to us Filipinos. Evangelization in our country is also identified with foreign domination and exploitation. Various forms and expressions of Christianity were brought to our country under highly questionable circumstances. For instance, the Spanish colonizers introduced Roman Catholicism as an ideological justification for their conquest of the Philippine archipelago. The record of the First Synod of Manila (1581-86) would show us that the members of the synod could not find any human or legal reason for the conquest of the islands. But nevertheless, the Synod decided to continue with the conquest, because they wanted to evangelize the Filipino people.

Then, at the turn of tine 20th century, the American colonizers also brought Protestantism as part of their “manifest destiny” and “benevolent assimilation” strategy. The great American theologian, Reinhold Niebhur, told a famous story about a group of Methodist clergy who paid a courtesy call to then President McKinley before coming to the Philippines as missionaries. According to the story, President McKinley said to this group of Methodist clergy:

“I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you gentlemen that I -went down on my knees and prayed to the Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night it came to me this way – that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ also died” (Reinhold Niebhur, Moral Man and Immoral Society, New York, 1932, p. l02).

This pious talk about humanitarianism, civilization and peace was meant somehow to mask the economic and strategic motives behind the American occupation of the Philippines. Commenting on the McKinley’s story, Parker Thomas Moon, a historian of colonial policy, said:

“The decision did not come quite so suddenly or so mysteriously, as the President’s words would indicate. Mr. McKinley communed not only with his conscience, but also with his advisers. Divine light and guidance had to be confirmed with detailed reports on the economic and strategic value of the islands before the final decision was made.” (Rolando Simbulan, The Bases of our Insecurity: A Study of the U.S. Military Bases in the Philippines, Quezon City, 1983, p. 62).

Then, in recent years another form of Christianity, which is popularly called Charismatic Christianity, proliferated in our country, especially with the coming in of big multinational corporations. There seems to be a close connection between charismatic Christianity and foreign big business interests.

In any case, all the case studies presented in the international consultation workshop in Geneva, Switzerland, were one in affirming that the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ must be freed from all the enslaving cultures of domination and exploitation that somehow imprisoned the Gospel for so long.

Our time and situation calls for a new evangelization. If the old evangelization has been domesticating and enslaving, this new evangelization must be liberating and life giving for our indigenous peoples.

Jesus and the New Evangelization

Luke 4 talks about the first sermon Jesus preached at the beginning of his ministry. It is one of the shortest sermons I ever read. After reading the passage from the Book of Isaiah, Jesus said to the people inside the synagogue in Nazareth: “This passage of the Scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read”(v.21).

Jesus’ understanding of his mission was no different from that of Prophet Isaiah. Like the Prophet, he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will serve his people “(vs. 18,19, cf . Isaiah 61:1-2).

The new evangelization we are talking about is an attempt to recapture the essence of this mission statement of Jesus. And in that sense, it is not actually new. There are at least three things we should mention regarding this new evangelization. Firstly, it must be accompanied by a new fervor. This new fervor is no other than the courage to confront all forms of difficulty with joy and cheerfulness. It is aroused by identifying a great cause – the cause of making known the good news of Jesus amidst a social reality in ruins.

The good news will be good only if it transforms the miserable social realities we are in. Instead of being unfair they become humane; instead of being unjust, they give birth to justice and people’s participation.

This new fervor transforms the entire church community into a collective agent of evangelization. It fosters the emergence of poor indigenous people who are socially conscious and freedom loving; it causes the appearance of prophets filled with a holy wrath at the iniquity of the socio-political order implanted in our land.

New methodologies

Moreover, this new evangelization must be new in terms of methods, not only of content. In other words, the way in which we produce the good news belongs to the very nature of the good news itself. Deeper understanding of the person and message of Jesus ought to generate an atmosphere of benevolence, of growth in everything that is human, worthy, and desirable for body and soul.

This could be achieved only if the message is participatory; only if the dichotomy between the evangelist and the evangelized is overcome; only if we renounce all cultural impositions in the name of the gospel; only if we foster the inculturation of the good news of Jesus into the various cultures present in our land, beginning with the culture of the indigenous peoples and other victims of domination, since it is they, evangelically, who must always be the first subjects or prime agents as well as objects of evangelization.

Furthermore, this new evangelization must be new in terms of its expressions. The expressions of evangelization must be products of the indigenous cultures themselves, and not simply – as they have been over the past centuries – reproductions of European and American cultures to be adopted by Filipinos. Evangelization must begin to respect the inalienable rights of indigenous people to know, to praise, and to serve the God of history with the instruments of their own culture and the symbols of their own traditions.

This new evangelization must produce the fruit of a Filipino ecumenical Christianity, one that portrays the cultural profiles of all who live in this land. This new evangelization must generate life for the great masses of our people who languish in scandalously miserable living conditions. The first thing that evangelization will mean in our country today is saving the lives of the poor indigenous people. Without this liberating dimension, there would be no good news worthy of the name, no good news representing the memory of the practice of Jesus and of the apostles.

Subjects of Evangelization

And finally, this new evangelization must regard the indigenous people no longer as mere objects, but also subjects of evangelization. It is interesting to note that the Psalmist declares, “I look to the mountains; where will my help come from? (Ps. 121:1). Mountains are very significant in the Biblical traditions. People in the Bible encountered the reality of God in the mountains.

For instance, it was in Mt. Sinai that Moses encountered God and received God’s instructions that helped him guide the Israelites into freedom. It was in Mt. Zion that the city and the temple of God had been established. It was in the Mount where Jesus taught and equipped his disciples. It was in the Mount of Transfiguration that Jesus and his disciples were transfigured for mission. It was in Mount Olives that Jesus and his disciples started their triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was in Mt. Golgotha that the Son of God was crucified for the sins of the world.

It may not be a coincidence that indigenous peoples live in the mountains. Even today mountains are believed to be the homes of the gods and goddesses – Mount Kabunian, Mount Pinatubo, Mount Apo, Mount Makiling, and so on. Like the Psalmist of old, we could learn from the spirituality of the indigenous peoples in the mountain areas of our land. They could teach us a lot not only in preserving the beauty and integrity of God’s creation, but would also help us to relate genuinely to the God who made the heavens and the earth.

Indeed, we could have an evangelization in reverse, wherein we could learn about God from the indigenous peoples in the same manner that we could also share our faith with them. And thus, we can be mutually evangelized. We can be mutually blessed by each other’s faith experiences. # nordis.net


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