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Encountering Colonialism

By: Cristina Lledo Gomez

April 4, 2022

Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Encounter

I am a Filipina migrant, settled on the colonized land of Australia. My homeland, the Philippines, was also colonized, first by the Spanish Christian conquistadores, and later by the American invaders, bringing their values of consumerism, capitalism, individualism, and desacralization of the land. The invaders were not interested in a culture of encounter. Rather “encounter” for them was between the civilized superior race and the uncivilized inferior natives. They also brought Christianity into the country. On the one hand Christianity helped my people to endure suffering and fight for justice, especially for the poor and the marginalized. On the other hand, Christianity was and can continue to be misused, to control people, to abuse them, and dismantle or disregard “the other,” especially the indigenous, and their beliefs and systems.

But for Filipino/as, indigeneity is an indelible part of who we are. Centuries after the first and second invasions of this archipelago, indigeneity remains in our being and doing. Thus, for example, attending Sunday Mass and praying one’s daily rosary would not be seen as incompatible with offering food to tree spirits during a fiesta, as the unseen are as much a part of the festivities as those who can be seen and touched. The Christian colonizer would, of course, readily dismiss such practice as the work of superstition, even the devil himself. They might argue that belief in Christianity excludes belief in spirits present in nature. As Charles Taylor observed, the disenchantment of the natural world ultimately leads to a secular world devoid of meaning. But it is precisely this belief that the land is alive that is needed today to break us out of the anthropocentrism that is devastating our Earth.

An indigenous Christian pastor, Ferdinand Anno, once said: “The day the Magellan cross was planted on the Philippine soil was the day the Pudong (the sacred plant of the Y’Gollottes) was uprooted and desacralized,” symbolizing the desacralization of the entire Philippine lands by the colonisers and the ultimate rape of this land. When the spirit is removed from the land, the colonizer thus turns the land from a living creation of God, to be respected and cared for, into an object to be possessed and used according to one’s own whims. It is through the colonizing mentality that our lands all over the world have been misused and abused. It is also through the colonizing mentality that indigenous peoples, women, the LGBTIQ+ community, and any persons other than the white, male, middle-class, heterosexual man, are disrespected, dismissed (at best), or abused, violated, and murdered (at worst).

Needless to say, a culture of colonialism is opposite to a culture of encounter. In a colonialist culture, the colonizer assumes superiority over “others” who are not of themselves. They assume absolute claim over truth, and because they believe that they are divinely mandated to perform this work of “civilizing” “others,” they are oblivious at best, or deliberately ignore at worst, the violence caused by such a colonizing mentality. Filipino/as experience this violence through the internalization of colonial mentality themselves. Formed in a colonial culture, they are taught to deny their indigenous self and work instead towards becoming more “white,” more “civilized,” integrating in themselves the American or Spanish ways of being, doing, speaking, and thinking. And yet, when they move from their homeland and settle in other colonised lands such as Australia, the United States, and Canada, some discover they are living split selves.

This split-self might appear as someone striving to live in the modern technologically advanced urban world, but who also longs to feel the grass on their feet rather than the concrete, plastic, or wooden floors of buildings, what Filipino/a decolonizing elders might call “enslaved matter.” The Filipino/a split-self could unconsciously perform the dance of pakikiramdam (shared inner perception) with the people around them, being mindful of others, acknowledging them, willing their good, and learning to live with them. At the same time, they are formed into the individualistic, cold city-dweller, one who never looks anyone else in the eye, is concerned only with oneself, and ignores another even as they stand a few centimetres away, packed into city trains like tuna in cans. The Filipino/a split-self is taught to possess beauty through mindless consumerism while it longs to create instead – to create chants about their experiences, to intricately weave and craft objects, to express oneself in dance and storytelling. Music, clothing, homeware, and tools, once created in very spiritual contexts by master craftspeople, in colonizing cultures are rather replaced by factory reproductions, devoid of any spiritual context, and created solely for the purpose of immediate and mass consumption and easy disposal. There is no regard for beauty in the intricate or taking time to create things. In a culture of colonialism, everything is executed in a rush, in a mechanical or auto-pilot-like sense, often without regard for spiritual context or years of experience of perfecting an art or taking on the accumulated wisdom of past elders.

Alongside the respect for the land and the spirits that dwell in and on them, Filipino/as continue to practice age-old values such as kapwa (shared identity), pakikisama (getting along with each other), and bayanihan (helping the neighbour as a community). These ancient values are ultimately driven by the value of perceiving oneself as being in unity with the other, pakikiisa or pagkakaisa, as opposed to being separate and different from the other, pakikiiba or pagkakaiba. When you see the other as yourself, rather than different to yourself, you are more likely to treat them with respect. You are more likely to acknowledge their dignity as much as your own, even when they have opposite ideologies and beliefs to yourself, even when they have hurt or harmed yourself or loved ones–they remain the creation of God (Genesis 1 and 2) and therefore imbued with dignity, even when they do not necessarily live up to this dignity when they cause harm to self and/or others.

As Pope Francis said to Muslims throughout the world at the end of Ramadan in 2013:

“What we are called to respect in each person is first of all his life, his physical integrity, his dignity and the rights deriving from that dignity, his reputation, his property, his ethnic and cultural identity, his ideas and his political choices. We are therefore called to think, speak and write respectfully of the other, not only in his presence, but always and everywhere, avoiding unfair criticism or defamation.”

The Christian, as much as the Muslim, is called to this challenge of respect for all.

Ultimately, like many indigenous communities, the Philippine-Austronesian indigenous soul is concerned with connection to the land, each other, and themselves. Similarly, they are concerned with respecting their sacredness. In this desire for and practice of interconnection and sacredness, we find similar Christian aims of connecting with God, others, and self. Thanks to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, these Christian aims extend to connecting not just with God, self and others, but all of God’s creation. And not just with the plants, land, animals, but even with those whom we would not see as ourselves—our enemies and our oppressors.

Creating a culture of encounter begins with the challenge of first recognizing the shared humanity of the other, as kapwa, or as the creation of God, made in God’s image and deserving of equal dignity and respect. This doesn’t mean letting go of one’s own sense of self or opening oneself to abuse. Rather, it might entail a moment of pausing, listening, hearing the other first before speaking, but also reminding the other of your common and mutual, equal and inviolable dignity, which then demands mutual respect and ideally love.