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INTEGRAL ECOLOGY: A Liberative Approach to the Evangelization of Indigenous Cultures (1)

1st of two parts

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 25 July) — Our concern for cultures and religions is essentially part of the present understanding of integral ecology. The particular context of this article is the experience of seminarians and priests from St. John Vianney Theological Seminary (SJVTS) in Cagayan de Oro who visited the Higaonon community in sitio Alawon to distribute relief goods on July 1-3, 2020.  This Lumad community is located at the foot of Mt. Kitanglad, which is about eight kilometers away from barrio Sil-ipon of Libona, Bukidnon.

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The Higaonon Community in sitio Alawon of barrio Sil-ipon, Libona is situated at the foot of Mount Kitanglad. Photo courtesy of Fr. Rey Raluto

Since it was my third time to visit this community, I asked its tribal leader why he still did not perform with us their native rituals, like the Panampulot or the sharing of food to welcome the guests. He sadly replied that he stopped performing their native rituals after a visiting Pastor told him that they are not acceptable to the Christian religion.

The religious prohibition imposed by that Pastor on this Lumad community has disappointed me. It simply shows that until now many indigenous peoples (IPs) continue to experience religious and cultural oppression. Historically, under the shifting colonial governments, they were forced to abandon their animistic beliefs which the Spaniards considered to be based on “superstitions and errors of the devil.”[1] To resist the forceful evangelization, they had to flee to the remote mountains where they could practice their ancestral culture and religion.

To correct the historical injustice, I explained to the tribal leader that the present teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is quite different. In fact, Vatican II fosters “a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people” (Gaudium et Spes #44). It also promotes religious freedom so that “nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will” (Dignitatus Humanae #10). After listening to my explanation, he promised to perform with us the Panampulot ritual during our next visit.

25Tribal Leader
Listening to the Higaonon tribal leader in Sitio Alawon as he explained the abundant sources of springs insider their ancestral domain.

The Limitations of the Colonial and Restorationist Approaches

The Biblical mandate to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19) has been traditionally interpreted to mean bringing the Gospel to all human beings, including those outside the fold of the Church. Along this line, let me highlight three shifting approaches to evangelization throughout history.

The first is the colonial approach, which tends to forcefully convert indigenous peoples to closely conform their ways of life to the Western cultures of the colonizers. This approach, therefore, turned out to be an implantation and an extension of a European version of the Christian faith.

The second approach emerged with the shift to a pluralistic empirical notion of culture in Vatican II (e.g., Gaudium et Spes #52 & #58). The Belgian Jesuit Georges De Schrijver called this approach “restorationist Catholic culture” as it basically promotes a defensive and suspicious attitude toward non-Christian cultures, including both indigenous and modern cultures.

Apparently, this second approach is quite sophisticated as it recognizes the divine elements (read: “seeds of the divine Word”) present in other cultures and religions. However, this approach has been criticized due to its tendency to absorb only what Christianity judges to be holy, lovable, and good of other cultures while maintaining a suspicious and defensive posture toward the non-Christian elements. It uses its particular Christian standards to purify and correct the values of the other that are judged to be incongruent with the Christian culture.

Embracing the Liberative Approach

The third approach is aptly called liberative because it seeks to liberate IPs from colonial mentality by recognizing the equality among human beings and their respective cultures. In the words of Mexican-American theologian Virgil Elizondo (1935-2016), “no one culture is superior or inferior to other cultures; all cultures are simply particular expressions of being human.”[2] Affirming this claim would certainly overcome the hegemonic and arrogant approaches to the evangelization of cultures.

We need to heal the historical stigma that falsely perceived the indigenous religions as based on superstitions or paganism. In reparation, we should strongly encourage the remaining Lumads to creatively retrieve and nurture the best elements of their cultures that have allowed them to survive for millennia as a community. The Christianized Lumads should not be made to believe that their Christian baptism has eradicated their indigenous identity and race.

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Lighting a Salong as a substitute for candle as I performed the anointing of the sick with one of the tribal members.

The insights of Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff can help us deepen this liberative approach to evangelization. He presupposes that all cultures—as creative responses to God’s proposal of communion and fullness of life—are “already impregnated with revelation, gospel, and God.”[3] Thus, for Boff, it would be unjust to deprive the indigenous cultures of the same space given to the Western cultures to freely exercise their own assimilation of the gospel.

Christianity cannot monopolize and exhaust the gospel proclaimed by Jesus Christ. Like any other culture, indigenous ones are equally capable of delivering good news and expressing Kingdom values. In light of authentic dialogue, the Christian faith can thus be enriched and catechized by the “gospel” of other cultures and religions. IPs, therefore, should not be treated as mere passive objects of evangelization. In the spirit of inculturation, Pope Francis teaches clearly that Christians can creatively appropriate in their liturgy “many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their contact with nature, and respect native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols.”[4] It is imperative to listen to the Lumads and allow them to be evangelizers of their own culture!

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He is the Academic Dean of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Cagayan de Oro where he also teaches fundamental/systematic theology and Catholic social teaching. He is the author of Poverty and Ecology at the Crossroads: An Ecological Theology of Liberation in the Philippine Context (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015). His ecological advocacy includes planting/growing Philippine native trees, mountain climbing, and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples.] 

[1] Cited in John Schumacher, Readings in Philippine Church History, 2nd edition (Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 1987), 13.

[2] Virgil Elizondo, “Culture, the Option for the Poor, and Liberation,” in Daniel Groody, ed., The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007): 157-68, on 161.

[3] Leonardo Boff, Good News to the Poor: A New Evangelization, translated by Robert Barr (Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates, 1992), 34.

[4] Pope Francis, Querida Amazonia: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (February 2, 2020), no. 82; available online:  http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20200202_querida-amazonia.html (accessed: February 15, 2020).

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