Karl M. Gaspar – « Tapping into indigenous wellsprings »

Deutsch: Weisheit der Völker – Theologie des Volkes
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中國人: 人民的智慧和神學
English: Wisdom and People’s Theology

Karl M. Gaspar – « Tapping into indigenous wellsprings. Pastoral responses to the people who are victims of global violence »

In his seminal book Robin Hanbury-Tenison summarized the history of the Embera Choco Indians (living in forests that traverse between Panama and Colombia in Latin America):

(They) lived as far as they could from the coast, far up the little hidden tributaries, where no settlers penetrated, where they could hunt and fish and grow a few crops without having put upon by black or white outsides. They are a gentle people…who have survived by never fighting back but instead choosing to melt into the jungle, friendly to them, unfriendly to those who do not understand it. Quite possibly the first mainland Indians seen by visitors from the old world, for Columbus sighted the Darien isthmus on his last voyage, they have resisted change for nearly 500 years. First came the Conquistadores, carrying the gold looted from Peru from one coast to the other through the swamps and over the mountains. Then the pirates who preyed on them, ambushing and fighting on land in the bays and open seas around the coast.  Later black slaves from Africa were brought to dig for gold in the hills and work plantations of sugarcane and coffee. When they escaped and in time were freed to settle the river estuaries, the Chocos moved back into the interior. Later still men came to dig the Panama Canal and great ships moved from ocean to ocean, cities grew and fishing fleets tapped the rich offshore shoals to feed them.  Through the centuries, while slavers hunted their bodies missionaries their souls (italics mine), the Choco retreated a little further, protected by the inhospitable jungle and the malarial swamps. No one acknowledged their right to any land and no reservations were created for them but at the same time, no one succeeded in settling them in towns or forcing any of other trappings of civilization on them, for they posed no threat and made useless slaves, dying when captured or running away to places where no sane man would go.

Delete some of the details from this narrative, and it is the same story that happened to most of the indigenous peoples across the Philippines. What happened to the Embera Choco Indians is no different from what took place to our pre-conquest ancestors as the colonial era dawned in this part of Asia.  Ironically, foreign and colonial-oriented Filipino historians declared 16 March 1521 as the historic day when the Philippines was “discovered” by the Spanish empire, crediting the Spanish colonizers as having done our people a favor for making sure our islands are placed in the global map. The sub-text is that our people should be grateful to the colonizers for having “found” us, as if we did not exist in these islands tens of thousands of years before. From a post-colonial perspective, an assertion is made that this day was, indeed, historic for it inaugurated the epoch when the indigenous Filipinos fell into the yoke of colonial oppression which has persisted until today in terms of the neo-colonial residue of rich-and-powerful nations oppressing Third World countries.

With this entry in his journal, Pigafetta – who accompanied Fernando Magallanes recorded what took place that fateful day:

Saturday, the 16th of March, 1521, we arrived at daybreak in sight of a high island, three hundred leagues distant from the before-mentioned Thieves’ island. This isle is named Zamal. The next day the captain-general wished to land at another uninhabited island near the first, to be in greater security and to take water, also to repose there a few days. He set up there two tents on shore for the sick, and had a sow killed for them.

Magellan’s exploration ended tragically with his death and the failure of his expedition. There were a few more attempts to colonize the islands after Magellan but did not succeed. It took four more decades before Miguel Lopez de Legazpi succeeded in establishing Spain’s foothold in the islands. From 1565 until 1898 – a long period of more than three centuries – las Islas Filipinas was Spain’s main colony in Asia. 

Within this period, the Roman Catholic Church was not only established across the country – except in areas that could not be penetrated by the Spanish forces especially the hinterlands where indigenous people resided and Muslim Mindanao – but got entrenched. Today, the Philippines is the country with the highest percentage of Roman Catholics, with 88% of the total population indicating that they are Catholics by religious affiliation.

At this juncture, few questions need to be asked: How did the Spanish conquest and the ensuing friars’ evangelization campaign impacted on the lives of the indigenous population? How did Hispanic Catholicism brought about the intended goal of destroying the foundation of the indigenous people’ indigenous belief system? What is the religious legacy of this kind of Christianity among Filipino Christians of today? In fact what kind of Christianity got introduced in the Philippines and how did it become complicit in the economic-political-cultural domination of a native people? How has violence – which became an integral part of the colonial conquest agenda – been perpetuated even as the Philippines became a Republic? Was there a resistance movement on the part of the indigenous peoples to this domination and how did their belief system helped to empower them?

All throughout the country’s historical process, the author asserts that a “chauvinist Christianity”3 asserted itself to the point where it helped to destroy the fabric of a belief system that for centuries held the people’s lives in a symbolic manner that made possible living a most humane, just and compassionate way of life. Thus, it is appropriate to critique this kind of Christianity that has persisted in the Philippines since the dawn of Spanish colonization. And if this is accepted as a fact, is it not a just thing to do for the Roman Catholic Church in 2021(the 500th anniversary of the coming of Christianity to the Philippines) to ask for forgiveness to our ancestors and their descendants for having committed this grievous “sin”?  

In order to atone for these sins, it is imperative for the Church in the Philippines to radically introduce ways towards a shift in her missiological-pastoral approaches especially in her presence among indigenous communities. For the fact of the matter is that there are major differences between the elements constituting the Roman Catholic belief system and that of our indigenous ancestors as can be shown in the following statements which show that the latter is far more attuned to present-day progressive theological/missiological discourses: 

In dealing with the concept of total human liberation (salvation), the Roman Catholic Belief system in the country still generally manifest the residue of Medieval Theology with a dualistic view leading to a dichotomy in terms of relating body & soul, heaven & earth etc. leading to privatized, spiritual-oriented practice of faith. Salvation only involves cleansing the soul of sin so it gets to heaven. On the other hand, the indigenous belief system’s integral view of how the Deity and the spirit world make the people be conscious of the reality of life surrounding them that connects the material and spiritual in a holistic manner. Salvation is seen in terms of how believers practice their faith in an integral manner.

When dealing with Integrity of Creation, the Roman Catholic belief system has no regard for the sacredness of the whole of Creation, as it views the material world as existing mainly for the benefit of human beings who can just decide how to deal with the whole of the environment. But for the indigenous, everything in the planet is holy and sacred and thus, needs to be respected. Human beings as sacred as the all the creatures and the entire ecological, cosmic reality.

In terms of dealing with the everyday, the Catholic framework’s faith is to be practiced mainly emphasizing individual efforts done privately and expressed in devotional/sacramental ways. On the other hand, for the indigenous, faith is to be practiced both in terms of deepening people’s spirituality, but also inspire them to be engaged in dealing with the effects of structural sin in the society. In terms of people’s participation (in liturgical and sacramental life), only the clergy hold dominant roles within the Catholic Church perspective. But for the indigenous, all have a role to play, not only the shamans. Whereas male clerical domination is the reality of Roman Catholic church structure, among the indigenous, the women play equal roles (in fact for most indigenous communities, the officiants at rituals are women babaylans). Consequently the the Church’s hierarchy is male-dominated, which is not true among indigenous communities.

In terms of rituals, the Church’s Eucharistic celebrations, sacraments and sacramentals still very much incorporating the Latin/Roman “culture” with little efforts at genuine inculturation. Whereas for the indigenous, rituals are far more connected to people’s everyday lives and the elements of their cultural fabric that is rich in meanings. And finally, when it comes to establishing a sense of community defined with a spirit of collaboration and solidarity, the faithful who come to church to worship but hardly have concrete relations of solidarity with each other indicating a sense of being sisters/brothers. On the other hand, for the indigenous, the kinship and clan-based relations make tribal relations far more cohesive that encourages greater compassionate solidarity. Thus, to set up Base Ecclesial Communities is redundant as the communities are already acting as one body in their response to their communal needs.

If Christianity then can remain relevant to the lives of the believers in countries such as the Philippines, there is need to tap into the indigenous wellsprings and to come up with pastoral-missiological responses that would empower vulnerable people to resist violent domination and oppression.  This means redeeming a Christianity that brings together the roots of indigenous belief system and the values of the Christianity of the first Christian communities in the post-Resurrection epoch of Jesus Christ. And where does one begin the process? We all know that we cannot anymore return to the pre-conquest era; history has unfolded and we are where we are today in terms of our culture including what we believe in.  So there exists no possibility of restoring our indigenous belief system even though there might still be isolated indigenous communities who continue to worship the Deity and the spirits of old. 


With these communities, there is need to pursue an inter-faith dialogue between the people of these communities vis-à-vis Catholic communities, in the same manner that Christians dialogue with Muslims. We must then retrieve the more important constitutive elements of that belief system of yore and find ways by which these could be appropriated by way of a genuine inculturation vis-à-vis the manner we Catholics today practice our religion.  This necessarily involves highlighting the liberating elements of both and diminishing the shadows especially of a Roman Catholicism that is so contrary to the essence of Christianity as practiced by the early Christian communities.


Karl M. Gaspar CSsR is a Redemptorist Brother who currently serves as the Academic Dean of the St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute, based in Davao City, in southern Philippines. He also teaches Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University and gives lectures to various universities in Mindanao and other parts of the country. His advocacies include supporting indigenous people’s struggles for their rights, inter-faith dialogue and peacebuilding with Muslims, promoting ecological awareness and organizing disaster responses to victims of man-made and natural calamities.  He is a member of the Philippine Catholic Theological Association (DAKATEO) as well as the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT). His recent publications include the following books published by the Institute of Spirituality in Asia: Panagkutay: Anthropology interfacing Theology in the Mindanao Uplands (The Lumad Homeland)Desperately seeking God’s saving action; and A hundred years of gratitude.

Address: Redemptorists J. P. Laurel St. Bajada, P.O. Box 80511, Davao City.