Flavors of Localized Theology. Part 3

Continuing this Thread.

Flavor #2.    Localized Theology of Cultural Aspirations

Every culture has its own history. That history has not only molded the culture, but also what that culture has as its shared dreams or aspirations. While these aspirations might be judged by others as good or as bad, they are never irrelevant. Many of the popular localized theologies are forms based on cultural aspirations. For example, Minjung and Dalit Theology can be seen as theologies of liberation— one based on concerns for the masses due to political injustice in Korea, while the other based on the injustices based on the Indian caste system. There is a sense of being trapped, and the aspiration is of being rescued, or liberated, particularly in terms of group and in terms of the present.

Theologies tied to aspirations choose certain themes or stories in the Bible as key. Prosperity theologies may choose Deuteronomy or Proverbs over Job or the Gospels. Frankly, we all do it. Most of us identify with the Israelites charging into the defenseless Jericho, rather than those inside staring in shocked horror as their world comes to an end. Liberation Theologies commonly center on the Exodus, relating themselves to the Israelites, and their oppressors relating to the Pharaoh and his people. They may also draw from the Biblical theme of God’s siding with the impoverished and the enslaved.

In the Philippines, certainly theologies of liberation are apt. The Philippines is a nation formed out of invasion and colonization. Three and a half century of control by Spain, United States, and Japan, has put its stamp on the nation. The Marcos dictatorship led to additional theological reflection, especially among Catholic theologians. This sort of theological work links the past with the present, and seeks to point a way toward a preferable future. It is out of the fears and hopes of a people that theology forms.

Most commonly, a contextual theology does not address an entire society but certain elements in that society. Consider the case of Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) in the Filipino context. The high number of OFWs comes, in part, from a common aspiration of Filipino families. For many, the goal is to raise a child who is able to leave the country and work abroad. Then that child can either sponsor over other family members, or at least send home remittances to help those who remain. With close to 10% of Filipinos working in other countries, OFWs have had a great impact on the broader Filipino society. One of the presidential administrations liked to refer to these overseas workers as “bagong bayani” (literally meaning ‘new heroes’).  Daniel Russell has described the Philippines as perhaps the first “globalized culture.” For myself, I find it amazing at how familiar Filipinos are as a group with culture, business, and politics around the world, especially in contrast to my own home nation. This familiarity is not only because of the large number of individuals and family members working overseas, but also the large number that remain in the Philippines but deal with foreigners regularly while working at call centers.

There are positive aspects of the OFW phenomenon. It has certainly reduced some of the problems related to lack of job opportunities in the country. There are genuine success stories of those who have been able to gain tangible success abroad. On the other hand there are negative aspects as well. First, the moving of excess workers out of the country to work and send money home is a cheap and easy way for the government to avoid addressing systemic problems. Second, it places a huge strain on marriages, families, and communities. Some rural villages have been depopulated of young people who have gone either overseas or to major cities for employment. Third, in some places, like Hong Kong, or the Middle East (and yes, ‘first world’ nations as well), Filipinos have taken menial work for employment despite often having advanced education. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, the human tendency to judge servants as beneath the ones they serve has led to negative and judgmental stereotypes that can be quite hurtful. Fourth, there has been the belief of many in the Philippines that this leads to a “brain drain,” where talent and training is exported to the detriment of the nation. While this may not be entirely true, placing too much hope on being elsewhere can create an unhealthy dependence on outsiders (even when the outsiders are relatives).  Fifth, this desire to work overseas has developed a parallel phenomenon known as “TNT.” This stands for “Tago ng Tago,” referring to those Filipinos who are “in hiding” or living and working illegally in other countries.

What sort of Theology would take the OFW (and/or TNT) situation into account? Drawing major stories from the Bible such as the Exodus, Exile, or Post-Exile do not quite hit the mark— although perhaps this may be too quick of a judgment. The best equivalence may be the situation of the Jewish Diaspora in the New Testament (and the latter part of the Old Testament). These are Jews who have voluntarily settled in other parts of Near and Middle East. These people lived both counter-culturally and bi-culturally.. Christians in the early Church also lived in a similar manner. The Epistle to Mathetes from Diognetus has an interesting section <<Chapter 5>> that shows this dual identity of Christians living in some ways as if they are indistinguishable within the culture, while in key ways living very much separate from that same culture.  The fact that many of the places where Filipino Christians work are openly hostile to Christians, and in some there is a strong pressure to leave one’s faith and/or moral integrity at home, brings a strong light to the challenges of the New Testament church as found in the Epistles, especially Hebrews, as well as Revelation. Adding to this the moral ambiguity of those who work illegally in foreign countries, there seems like there is great potential for valuable theological work.

Another way of reflecting theologically on the Overseas Foreign Worker situation may be similar to the Latin American view known as Mestizo Theology. This view looks at Jesus as one who bridges the gap, in like manner to the way the Mestizo (half Spaniard, half Indigenous) bridges the gap between the people in charge and the people oppressed. Some focus on Jesus not only as the bridge between God and Man, but add the additional bridge of being a Galilean Jew. As such, He is an outsider… disenfranchised on some level even where He should be accepted as local. Jesus would always, like the Mestizo in colonial times, have some doors opened to Him denied to others, and yet would still be denied for access because of who He was. One can see how this might resonate with many Latin Americans today, and even in the Philippines whose history in this particular area is similar. OFWs particularly can find themselves as having feet in very different worlds. In addition, Filipinos sometimes find themselves struggling in terms of identity. In the United States, for example, they have often been an ignored ethnic group, with family names that sound like many of those of the larger Hispanic community, despite being Asian. Other Americans would confuse them with other Asian groups— particularly Chinese.

However, this status has the possibility of a silver lining. In the early church, Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora did not always fit in with the Hebraic Jews (we get a small taste of this in Acts 6), much as the Gentile “God-fearers” did not necessarily fit in with neither the broader pagan Gentile population, nor the local Jewish sub-culture. Yet it was these two groups that served as a cultural bridge that led to much of the early growth of the church. In cultural anthropology there are different strategies of acculturation where people of culture A live with people of a larger local culture B, notably separation, integration, assimilation, and marginalization. Generally, these strategies are viewed in terms of benefits and losses to the people of minority culture A. However, it can also be looked at theologically in terms of the people of culture A serving as a blessing to those in culture B.

This brings us to Abraham, a man called by God to live as a “stranger in a strange land,” <<Hebrews 11:8-13>> and to be a key part of God’s effort to bless all people. Abraham’s faithfulness to God despite not experiencing many of the promises in his lifetime far from his homeland, seems to be a worthy model. However, there are other possibilities as well.

  • Joseph. Forced to leave his people, he was compelled to work for strangers. But God ultimately remembered him, blessed him and gave him the opportunity to be a blessing to his family.
  • Moses. He also was forced to leave his people and live in the desert for many years. Yet because of His decision to follow God wherever He led, Moses was ultimately successful in freeing his family and people from slavery.
  • Exodus. The people of Israel sought the promised land, yet were forced to struggle in the wilderness, living by faith and hope for the next generation.
  • Babylonian captivity. Judah singing songs by the rivers of Babylon, praying to once again see Zion.
  • Jesus. Jesus, citizen of heaven, lived in obscurity in a hostile land. Sought by the government, He had to hide in Egypt and was later rejected in Nazareth. He had to spend much of His ministry in Galilee, because of trouble with political and religious leaders in Jerusalem. Not understood and not appreciated– ultimately, He was captured by the government and killed as a seditionist.

It seems to me that seeing Christ as one who left behind all to do what He needed to do in an unforgiving foreign land (for His family) relates well with the OFW (and TNT) experience. The Filipino experience in this setting is one of suffering, alienation, and marginalization— and hope. So little of the imported theology connects with that situation here.

  <From “Tago ng Tago Theology” “>https://munsonmissions.org/2011/10/09/tago-na-tago-theology/>

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