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Preparing the soil: notes on liberating theologies in Asia.

To war, we respond with life To atrocity, we unleash justice To inequity, we thunder with liberation We are leading the way to prepare the soil for our people's fruit.

These words by a group of Filipino women point to a new theological energy at work in Asia today. The setting for this new theological energy is not the cathedral or the classroom but the rice fields, the urban slums, the prisons. It is the struggle for a more just and humane world which gives shape and form to this theology. It is also the theology of a minority of a minority. Christians represent less than 2 percent of the total population in Asia. Almost 50 percent of that 2 percent are found in the Philippines alone. Hence in relative figures, Christianity would not appear to be particularly significant in Asia; but in absolute figures the picture is quite different. There are well over 100 million Christians in Asia, with approximately 14,000,000 in India alone and over 17,000,000 in Indonesia.

Christianity is by no means a new movement in Asia. According to the Malabar tradition, Christianity was introduced by the Apostle Thomas in A.D. 52, and by the year 200 the Orthodox tradition is considered to have been established in South India. Nestorian missionaries first went to China in 635.

The main thrust of Christian mission, however, occurred in partnership with the Western imperialist expansion of the last two centuries. Thus Catholicism appeared with the French and the Spanish, while Protestantism arrived with the Dutch, the English, the Germans, and the Americans. After the Second World War formal colonial relationships were officially terminated, but a different form of imperialism in the area of cultural and economic relations continued. In the 1960s a growing sense of Asian nationalism and desire for autonomy forced Asian Christians to consider what a truly Asian Christianity might be. Institutionally, this challenge marked the end of direct control by North American Protestant denominations over Asian churches. A new era of mutuality emerged--a mutuality still deeply troubled by unequal economic relationships.

The development of the church and its theology in Asia has followed two general paths. One has been "emotional, conservative, individualistic, and otherworldly, emphasizing individual piety and ignoring the inequalities and injustices in the Asian social reality. In the words of Jeffrey Abayasekera of Sri Lanka: "The churches and Christians in Asia are largely the product of missionary enterprise in the colonial era.... Our stance has hitherto been that of a supporter of the status quo." This conservative trend is still strong and growing, often fed by money and support from conservative evangelical Christians in North Americans churches.

But there is another voice in Asian Christianity--a vocal and insistent voice. It is the voice of those who, recognizing their minority position, choose to become involved in the struggle of the majority--the 85 percent of the population of Asia who are poor, powerless, and marginalized. Through participating in their poverty, sharing in their suffering, joining their struggle for a more just and humane society, these Asian Christians are creating a new theology. It may not be a theology of the majority of churches, yet it speaks to the hopes and struggles of the majority of the people. In a real sense it is a "people's theology."

Two fundamental realities determine the context for this new theological reflection in Asia. One is the widespread structural inequities in the region and the other is the religious pluralism. STructural inequities include both economic and political polarization and are manifested, on the one hand, in the concentration of political power in the hands of a ruling elite and on the other, by the widespread, dehumanizing poverty which stands in sharp contrast to the affluence of the few. Such structural inequities, of course, are not unique to Asia, but are common to all third world countries.

The other reality, the multifaceted religiosity of the region, is more distinctly Asian. Some of the world's most ancient religions are found in Asia, and religious beliefs permeate the societies in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to seperate religion from life.

Common structural inequities include, first the destructive impact of colonialism, experienced by all but Thailand, and neocolonialism, experienced by all Asian nations. Moreover, military regimes and/or authoritarian governments are common throughout the region. For most countries these regimes have meant the control of the media, the suppression of the rights of workers to organize or to strike, the arrest, torture, and detention of those who refuse to conform or who dare to act against injustices. It also has meant for most countries, a disproportionate amount of money being spent for military purposes at the expense of social services and basic human needs.

A third factor, related to both the socioeconomic and political reality in Asia, is the invasion of technology. Not only has this "invasion" denied the value of the major asset of Asian countries--human power--it also has brought with it environmental pollution and cultural distortions. A fourth experience is the oppression and inferior status of Asian women. In part this stems from customs and practices that can be traced far back into the religious and cultural history of the people, but with the coming of capitalism and modernization, "the oppression of women has become all the more evident by their absence in decision making positions even in issues and events that radically affect their lives." Low pay scales, sexual exploitation, women in the "modern" sector in Asia.

Within this context a new theology, about issues of social justice and political liberation, began to emerge in the 1970s. It would be more accurate to say new theologies emerged. One characteristic is richness and diversity. Liberating theologies in Asia are contextual theologies; they emerge from particular contexts and are formed by those who take very seriously their particularity. Hence as each context is different, so too is the theological reflection which emerges from a deep involvement in the context. A liberating theology in the Philippines, for instance, will be somewhat different from that in Taiwan, and Taiwan will be different from Korea. Thus in the Philippines where liberation is viewed largely in political and economic terms, the emerging theology is called a "theology of struggle." In Taiwan, where there is little opportunity for political expression, the emerging theology is called a "theology of powerlessness," in which the "power of powerlessness" is emphasized as in the Chinese folk tale, "Tears of Lady Meng." In Korea, where there is a renewed effort to get in touch with the stories of the "little" people, the minjung, who have endured centuries of domination without losing their capacity to struggle and to hope, the emerging theology is called "minjung theology."

Thus, though there are many different voices and emphases as well as some real tensions in theologies of liberation emerging in Asia, there also are a number of commonalities. Perhaps most important is the method of doing theology. Methodology is no abstract concern but the very heart of a liberation practice. In cultures where the way of doing or living is integrally connected to the goal, "the Asian method of doing theology," contends Aloysius Pieris, "is itself Asian Theology."

Following the analysis of Carlos Abesamis and a group of grassroots Philippine activists, we have chosen six base points to describe the methodology of Asian liberation theology: (1) contemporary life experience, (2) socioeconomic analysis, (3) biblio-historical faith, (4) dialogue with other faiths and wisdoms, (5) transformative vision and action, and (6) option for the poor/the poor as agents.

For all theologies of liberation, the starting point is the concrete historical reality of the poor, and Asian liberation theology is firmly rooted in the Asian socioeconomic situation and the Asian culture. Thus much traditional theology "prepacked" by the West becomes irrelevant, and new forms are sought which are responses to experience, rather than dogma. The first step is to take "a long meditative look" at Asian life and history, taking into account the impact of the West, the strength of Asian indigenous cultures, the poverty, and the struggles.

The foundation, then, for theological reflection is the daily life experience of the people, found in the ways they live their lives. These views are mediated through concrete bodily feeling, the total human response. It is "all that we do and...all that happens to us--dating and mating, joking and weeping, producing and consuming, buying and selling, planning and organiing." The Korean concept of han perhaps express best the density and complexity of life from the viewpoint of the poor. Han is the "suppressed, amassed, condensed experience of oppression" as known both by the individual and the group, experienced both in history and in the present moment. Such experience encompasses the power of resistance and survival as well as the powerlessness of suffering and poverty.

From this base point of experience, Asian liberation theology steps back to make a systemic and systematic analysis of the social reality, in order, as Abesamis says, "to understand the hidden forces at work in human life and society which, without analysis [remain] hidden from our day-to-day consciousness." Sociological, political, economic, and historical tools of analysis are used to articulate the structures of oppression. The "personal and psycho-spiritual factors" are not ignored, but emphasis is placed on "societal and socio-political dynamics." Evil, to be sure, is found in individual sin, but it is especially apparent in the structures of society where it must be named and confronted.

Aimed at a goal of "critical elaboration" which will lead from "a critical formulation of truths already discovered" to "vital action," Abesamis' method of analysis is obviously indebted to Marxism. Many Asian Christians would stress, however, that such analysis is used only as a tool "to be tested by life and experience" and does not presuppose a Marxit commitment. Though some Christians are openly Marxist, others, particularly those in Korea where the accusation of Marxism is an accusation of treason, are careful to specify their differences with Marxist goals. Some Asians also criticize the Western biases of Marxist thought, noting the dualistic philosophy of a dogmatic Marxism with its disdain for the Asian cultural heritage. Thus, as Aloysius Pieris writes, a "liberation theopraxis" in Asia which uses only Marxist tools of social analysis will remain "unAsian and ineffective until it integrates the psychological tools of introspection which our sages have discovered." The final criterion must be whether the analysis is able to clarify the life and struggle of the oppressed and help bring about a more human life.

Liberation practice is also informed by a biblical faith that links political with theology. Biblical stories provide images and symbols for Asian struggles. In Korea, Christians under the Japanese occupation saw the Exodus story as a symbol of their oppression. Filipino Christian activists also draw on the Exodus story when they describe President Marcos and his regime as the "modern Pharoah." In New Zealand, white and Maori Christians disrupted the commemoration of the treaty signed with the British by reading from the Book of Amos ("I hate, I despise your feasts"). The Burakus, the oppressed caste of Japanese society, use a crown of thorns evoking the crucifixion as the symbol of their liberation movement. Moreover, Ruth, Rehab, Martha, and Mary have all served as models of liberation for Asian women.

But Asian liberationists, perceiving that most theology has been brought to them from the West, also practice a hermeneutics of suspicion toward the biblical texts. The realities of Asian life are set in dialogue with the faith history embodied in the texts. The history of Israel is to be followed insofar as it is a sign that Asians must be similarly accountable to their own history. Thus the biblical story becomes a catalyst for change as the text is "re-discovered and re-interpreted in the context of human struggle for historical and political liberation today." (Asian liberationist theologians would agree, it seems, with Jesse Jackson when he proclaims that "text without context is pretext!" A pretext, that is, for those in power to continue to exercise their patterns of domination and oppression.)

It is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, reinterpreted in the light of the present suffering and struggle of the poor and the marginalized that determines the action and reflection of the faithful. Jesus represents God's preferential option for the poor and the marginalized. By sharing in their poverty and participating in their struggle, one encounters Christ. There is an intense effort to discover the "Asian face" of Christ, and, given the dominant reality of Asia, that face will be found in the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. "The poor," writes Levi Oracian, "symbolize God's own body in the world--that body against which all economic and political injustice, all acts of cruelty and torture to man, all forms of human oppression are directed. Jesus was not using a figure of speech when he said, 'If you have done it to one of my little friends, you have done it to me.'"

The liberating practice of Christians in Asia takes seriously Asian religions and folk culture. In the words of the Filipino theologian, Virginia Fabella, Christian theology "cannot simply brush aside the world views, religious experience, and cultural aspirations which have given to countless millions the meaning, unity, wisdom, and strength of life as well as inspiration for their struggles for full humanity." A theology that fails to incorporate the cultural patterns and religious history of the people would be an "esoteric luxury," a rootless theology. Such a theology could never adequately embody the vision of the Asian people themselves nor motivate them to action.

The dialogue with the other religions in Asia, then, involves an attempt to discover the "liberating core," the transformative theme, in the religious traditions. Most Asian religions, writes Aloysius Pieris, contain a "future that is attainable as the present moment of total human emancipation." Thus liberation is understood as liberation from selfishness both within each person and in society. In Buddhism, for example, the demand for radical social change is to be achieved through the abolition, not of poverty but of greed, in favor of a community based on true mutuality. Hindu theology offers the image of Arthanareesvara, a male/female deity expressing both the masculine Siva (absolute love) and feminine Sakti (absolute power) which could provide the possibility of "engendering non-dualistic, non-competitive modes of thought and action." The non-dualistic nature of the cosmologies, in which the material and the spiritual, the subject and the object, are not seen as separate or antagonistic entities, can provide a foundation for a critique of

Western technology and scientific knowledge. Spiritual wisdom can be called upon to guide scientific knowledge in a "unified view of revolution, religion, and cosmic evolution."

The Korean scholar, Suh Nam Dong, shows how the "liberating core" in Maitreya Buddhism, empowers the Korean people to resist the Amita Buddhism of the ruling class. The latter, by emphasizing the transitoriness of all forms of material existence and by claiming that wealth was the result of one's former good life, was used to gloss over the injustices in Korean society. In contrast, Maitreya Buddhism taught that Maitreya, usually portrayed holding an axe, would come to realize the new Youngwha world of justice. Throughout Korean history Maitreya has been invoked to incite revolution against the prevailing dynasty and thus has contributed to revolutionary practice and belief as the people sought a just and ideal society in the present world.

Liberating theologies, then, approach all Asian religions critically, as containing the potential for either emancipation or enslavement. The Hindu caste system, for example, can be described as a "socioeconomic slavery 'religiously' enforced by Brahmin orthodoxy." confucianism fostered an elite and stultified bureaucracy of scholars that dominated Chinese life for centuries. To speak specifically of Asian women, they have had little guide for liberation in either Western or Eastern religions. As one Asian woman writes, "there is one fairly safe historical generalizations to be made and that is that women have been raised to be passive ... all ancient religions provided a basis for female inferiority." Confucian culture taught ancestor worship through male lineage and assumed that women had no existence beyond that given through relationships with men. One of Mao Tse-tung's most famous early pieces concerned the "iron nets" of family and Confucian culture that forced the suicide of Miss Chao on her way to an arranged marriage.

Underlying, yet differing from, these religious traditions is the folk culture of the Asian people. Pieris writes of the "conscriptural or regionalized traditional religiosity," one, that is, which is not frozen into written formulas but flows with time, thus exhibiting the "flexibility essential for social change." Stories rising from the lives of the people--expressed in story, song, symbols, and drama--become more valuable for liberation practice than biblical themes or Christian dogmas. In Korean minjung theology, mask dances and Pansori (folk operas) are sources for theological reflection, the means through which the minjung reveals its own reality. The base Christian communities and the small slum churches all begin their work with the narration of the people's own experiences, which are then worked into popular liturgies and worship services. Telling stories helps to empower people because through sharing stories people come to realize the validity of their own lives and experience. In liberating theology, the distinction between "superior" theory and "inferior" common wisdom is abolished.

Abesamis places these three "components" of a theology of liberation (analysis, Christian faith, and native religion) in a dialectical relationship with one another. "Social analysis," he writes, "helps native wisdom and religion to understand the very real, though often non-conscious, economic and political forces that rule modern people and society, especially that rule the lives of the unsuspecting poor." It reveals the domesticating and oppressive role that religion can and often does play in society. Native religion, on the other hand, can offer a corrective to social analysis by reminding us that "any liberational action must take into account the culture of the people, their ethics and way of behaving." Scripture "calls us to an awareness that God is concerned with justice and reminds us of the all-pervasive reality of sin." Social analysis helps people to see "the structural injustices of our time." By discussing the interrelationship of these three components of a liberating theology, Abesamis points to the holistic way in which Asian theologies approach reality. They are deeply suspicious of all that does not take into account the complexity of human nature and societies.

Context, analysis, and faith all lead to transformative action, the dynamic participation in a process of liberation. Action (praxis) provides the historical process whereby persons themselves are transformed while working toward the transformation of their environmental of things, persons, structures. Praxis involves not only action but also passion: "passion-from as openness to the mystery of life, and passion-for as striving for values, ideals, and goals." Such praxis is in keeping with an Asian understanding of the message of the gospel, namely, that the primary locus of the God encounter is in the concrete contemporary historical situation. Thus Bishop Claver can write: "Commitment, concern, service; not in the abstract but in the concrete; not in the past but in the present; commitment to people, concern for people, service of people--these spell out for us what the gospel is." By keeping gospel and action inextricably bound together, Asian Christians have become increasingly familiar with arrests, interrogations, imprisonments, and numerous other forms of harassment.

In spite of the consensus that praxis is the crucible of liberation theology, there is no precise common vision of the future society. Generally speaking, however, Asian liberating theologies start with a sense of justice, the aspiration of the oppressed toward full humanity, which includes the just distribution of food, wealth, work, land, as well as full participation in political processes. It is a vision that includes all peoples, respecting their individual dignity and cultural identity. The vision rests on a critique of the "crisis-ridden," acquisitive and consumerist" capitalist order which has brought underdevelopment to Asia and perpetuated preexisting inequalities. Yet it also includes a powerful critique of the style of socialist countries, which participate in the arms race and which have lost the "liberative and humanistic dimensions of essential Marxism." The political option tends to be for a socialism influenced, but not dominated, by Marxism. Thus Asians are seeking a third way, an independent Asian socialism that would avoid both the domination of state capitalism and the dangers of Marxist fundamentalism.

The Poor As Agents

Since radical involvement with the poor and the oppressed is what creates theology, the theology which is emerging in Asia today comes from the vantage point of the poor. They are the "doers" of theology. The way in which the poor are defined is debated among liberationists in Asia. In the Philippine context, the term "grassroots poor" is used and refers to "peasants, workers, fisherfolk, poor urban dwellers, cultural minorities." In Korea, however, the term "minjung" is used. Though many Korean scholars hesitate to define the term specifically, Dr. Han Wan Sang asserts that it includes "all who long have been politically oppressed, economically exploited, and socio-culturally marginalized by the ruling groups." Such a definition would include dismissed professors, imprisoned journalists and writers, as well as peasants, slumdwellers, and factory workers. Dr. Han also distinguishes between "the poor" and the "struggling poor," or between "the minjung in-self" and "the minjung for-self," it is the latter who are the agents of the new theological formulations and praxis.

However one defines the poor, there is general agreement that a liberating theology in Asia must be the work of the poor and the marginalized. It is they who must reflect on and state what their faith experience is, seeking to combine experience, analysis, biblical reflection, and action in a transforming and liberating process.

Asian liberating theology is emerging out of a deep involvement in the struggle of oppressed people for personal and societal liberation. It is a lived theology which has little room for isolation, indifference, or elitism. Claiming that "weak involvement produces weak theology," one group states: "WE ARE CHRISTIANS. We are directly involved in the situations of despairing turmoil and explosive conflicts in both rural or urban contexts of Asia. We intend to live 'deeply' in these situations.... Our basic identity pushes us to the 'depth.' We realize that our Christian witness receives nourishment to grow as we do this."

But simply to state that it is a theology of action does not say all that is implied in the action. The Asian action for liberation also includes passion, compassion, and contemplation. Perhaps because of Asia's religious pluralism, this dimension of theology is given an emphasis not found in other theologies of liberation. Pieris writes that it is the "inner harmony between world and silence" that is the test of Asian authenticity. "Indeed," he continues, "it is the spirit, the eternal energy which makes every word spring from silence, every engagement from renunciation, every struggle from profound restfulness, every freedom from stern discipline, every action from stillness, every development from detachment and every acquisition from non-addiction.

This peculiarly Asian statement could introduce an important critique of Western ways of thinking and action.

A tension exists between the religio-cultural and the socio-political approach to the Asian reality, a tension coming from differing theological and political convictions. Some theologians use their concern with inter-religious dialogue and with indigenous cultures as an excuse for their indifference to critical social analysis and action. Liberating theologies, however, strive to hold these two dimensions in creative tension. Only in this way can theology take with utmost seriousness structural poverty and religiosity, the two major aspects of Asian reality. Pieris has expressed the two dimensions of the involvement: "To regain its lost authority, the Asian church must be humble enough to be baptized in the Jordan of [Asian] religiosity and bold enough to be baptized on the cross of Asian poverty.

Such a baptism has exacted a heavy cost. In Korea hundreds of Christians have been arrested and imprisoned for their participation in the continuous struggle for a more just and participatory society. And in the Philippines some 35 church workers, including three nuns and seven priests, were arrested in 1982 alone. C.M. Kao, the general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, has been Taiwan's most prominent political prisoner. The size and visibility of Christian participation has been far greater than their relative numbers would indicate. Yet these Asian Christians try to see themselves simply as part of a larger force for liberation. In the words of Father Edicio de la Torre, imprisoned Filipino priest, "We should realize that the church and Christians will always be a minority in Asia, even in the Philippines. It is wrong to think of the church leading a mass movement. We are to be the leaven, the critical element, the dynaic, creative, independent voice...." He concludes that the role of the Christian in liberation will have to be that of a "humble servant."

The dynamism of the new theological energy in Asia draws on cultural tradition, political realities, and Christian belief. It is an energy generated by centuries of struggle against oppression, and it will not be exhausted easily. The voice of Kim Chi Ha, a Korean Christian poet speaking from prison, sums up this mixture of faith, endurance, and vision: What is it here that is falling down? What is it that cries out? Driven before the lonely winds, white waves drenching the hot earth, the empty fields of Hant'alli, What is it that little by little here is crumbling away? This is the sound of ancient mountain ranges falling, of the flowers and wild berries pouring out their mad red over the plains where ruined castles stood. And this sound of the brass trumpets tells of the long battle between withering and the force bursting again into bloom.... --from "The Empty Field"
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Author:Palm, James E.; Bounds, Elizabeth M.
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jul 1, 1984
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