Nuns' Stories: Liberation Theologies and Violence in the Philippines
New social movements that emerged in the Philippines from the 1960s offered a new mazeway for citizens. Such revitalization movements included the progressive (or politically left) Catholic Church, the women's movement and the movement for national liberation. Within their own sets of discourses, respectively liberation theology, feminism, and Marxism, new social movements have reinvented notions of "nation" as both systems of cultural representation and shared experiences of community and identification. Such "imagined communities" (a term developed by Anderson who writes on nationalism) also have links with those in other Asian cultures.
Fieldwork was undertaken in several rural and urban areas of Mindanao in the southern Philippines in 1987 and 1988. Through rice in natural resources, Mindano constitutes an outlying region where comparatively low levels of services and investment have been forthcoming from a government centralized in Manila and plagued by graft and corruption. I was studying the position primarily of Christian Cebuano speaking women (Cebuano or Visayan is a minority language spoken in the southern Philippines) in an intensely militarized but undeclared civil war between the Communist New People's Liberation Army (NPA) and the government's Armed Forces (AFP). Because of the close links between Gabriela, the key women's militant network with whom I worked, and Samin (Sisters Association of Mindanao), I met several nuns engaged in nationalist struggle.
The people of Mindanao are marginalized for a number of reasons. Because of their distance from the national capital, there is a vastly diminished return on resources. They are largely Cebuano speaking peoples, a language which rivals Tagalog (the designated national language) in terms of its speaking population; nevertheless, it is politically a minority language. In the nationalist struggle undertaken in Mindanao, as elsewhere by the militant left, class issues generally have had priority over ethnic or gender issues. While differences between tribal and non tribal peoples and between men and women have been acknowledged, they have managed to maintain a unified force in what was predominantly perceived as a class struggle. Similarly, the progressive church, espousing liberation theology, had congruent aims and took their place in the struggle. Yet, women in the church like those I met in Mindanao introduced into their work, forms of liberation theology termed feminist, which facilitated their work especially in tribal areas. Tribal groups were also critical of aspects of progressive church theology. Their community organizers increasingly began to identify church practice which supported tribal struggles for land ownership and against land degradation, and those which did not. This article is written predominantly from the position of religious community organizers in Mindanao.
Merging Clerical and Political Bodies
The progressive church (Catholic and Protestant) was for national unity and sovereignty, including a more equitable distribution of resources and individual (human, legal, land and women's) rights, the reduction of foreign debt, the reduction or elimination of poverty, the removal of US bases, and the nationalization of industry. It was against militarization, imperialism, neo-colonialism and environmental destruction. As McClintock (who writes about nationalism in African states) suggests, in any shaping of nationalism, systems of cultural representation which "limit and legitimize people's access to the resources of the nation-state" are contested.
Protests became revolutionary in late 1960s when the Communist New People's Army (NPA) was formed. Poor rural farmers and workers took up arms against a government dominated by a rich and powerful elite, defended by the military and bolstered by a US counterinsurgency program. The Communist NPA, however, was not the only source of instability. The Moro (Muslim) National Liberation Front (MNLF) was fighting a nationalist and religious war against the state; military factions within the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Manila staged several attempted coups; private armies of landowners (i.e. warlords) and companies all over the Philippines threatened workers; and weaponry was in common use amongst the citizenry. The Philippines became known as a "gun culture."
The chief protagonist in the Communist NPA and government AFP war, especially in rural areas, was the progressive Catholic Church. Similarities between their mission and that of the CPP/NPA lay in a form of utopianism based on socio-economic egalitarianism, underlying both liberation theology and socialism/communism, political liberty being a consequent result of their discursive practice.
Nuns occupied pivotal roles in churches and communities beset by military violence. They often led national and regional human rights organizations such as Task Force Detainees (TFD) and Concerned Citizens for Justice and Peace (CCJP). Nuns often challenged traditional roles of women as protected, passive and non political, and, through their reinterpretation and deconstruction and reconstruction of traditional forms of theology, informed their practice in church, human rights, community and women's organizations. They shared similarities with other women citizens involved in cause-oriented (political left) organizations with whom they often lived and worked. The existence of both groups contradicted general definitions f women as female citizens excluded from the public domain. Through giving birth, domestic service and child care, women represent the private realm; this and their sexual embodiment prevent them from enjoying the same political standing as men. As with women in other nations, Filipino women are considered active transmitters and producers of national culture and biological reproducers of the nation. But nuns, as celibate women, contest such notions of a maternal body for they represent a group of women relegated through biblical tradition to an adexualized yet reified category.
Many religious fully integrated into the militant leftist movement of the National Democratic Movement, and to a lesser degree, the underground leftist movement of the National Democratic Front. To progressive church members, religion was considered oppressive if limited to a personalized relationship with God which "does not demand of us." "Faith without action (based on a communitarian perspective) is dead." Work as a cleric resembled a stage of Paolo Friere's development of critical consciousness for liberation, that is, engagement in struggle for liberation, that is, engagement in struggles for radical change in connection with at least some aspects of current social structure. Such, paractice were considered the "essence" of religion, not "mere God-talk." Yet, liberation theology has been adopted only nuns and priests; most religions do not work this way. Sr Josie told me in Surigao, Mindanao, in 1988:
Not all of us can accept working in reality (i.e, with the people and the NPA); some religions are for the people but in a higher level. They don't go to the barrios (villages). They don't get involved because they are afraid of the communists.
In Mindanao nuns became involved in the people's movement sometimes through their catechist work and through their association with lay church workers. Sr Annie, who became politically active after the later president Marcos' declaration of martial law (1972), told me in Davao city in 1988:
I was a missionary but there was something, wrong. I wanted more of a challenge...so I asked Fr Brian if I could work in a "red" [communist] area...the families are so poor and depressed... sons are in the NPA and daughter work as medics. They want to change the system.
Sr Louise was one of the few who opted to work with tribal people in Agusan del Sur, Mindanao, Samin (Sister's Association of Mindanao), one of several religious member organizations of Gabriela, stressed the participation of religious women in the church, the people's liberation struggle and the women's movement. Members worked collectively or individaully with the poor ("we seldom go to the middle forces"), under the auspices of their specific religious denomination in Basic Christian Communities (a recognizable organizational phase in the practice of liberation theology which has the local church as its center) or in cause-oriented organizations. In their work they crossed boundaries of citizenship in ways many others women did not. For example, when the fighting escalated Sr. Louise became the tribal organizer:
It was difficult getting the confidence or tribal men and especially difficult with male chieftains, the datu. I had to deal with the men. The women are there but do not talk.
Clerics were often directly involved as protagonists and victims of military violence and in threat, and they resisted militariation more effectively than other civilian women or men. This subsequently influenced their positions within factions of the church hierarchy and amongst the citizenry.
Living and Dying like Christ
Mindanao, where the people's movement has always been strong, became heavily militarized during the 1980s. Filipino citizens, particularly those who developed and expressed a critical consciousness, were threatened directly with military violence. They were subject to arrest, torture, imprisonment, salvaging (summary execution), bombing and strafing. Women were punished doubly; violence against them was also sexual. Fanon, who writes about the colonization of Algeria, argues that demand and desire in a post colonial state traversed by inequities as discussed above, are expressed often in terms of aggression. But violence or dissidence is not acknowledged as a constructive condition of civil authority or as ambivalence; rather, they are explained as occlusions to progress, misrecognitions or alien presence. Leftist movements in the Philippines emphasize that even those very inequities constitute violence: some classes are submitted to hunger, to hunger, homelessenss, unemployment, lack of health care and education, and exclusion from political participation. IN any case Western liberal democracies (on which the Philippines and other post colonial governments are modeled) require "only minimal levels of activity and interest...Anything more threatens the smooth working of the political system." Pateman, who writes about gender and citizenship in western societies, suggests that citizens who do not consent to be governed - the crucial part of citizenship - must be punished.
Humanism, in terms of appeals to human rights, was used effectively by both Roman Catholic nd Protestant churches to curb militarized violence against civilians. Focusing primarily on attainment of basic needs and human rights for all, religious communities monitored the violations of notoriously abusive military commanding officers and their battalions as they were transferred from one area to another in rural Mindanao:
Colonel Carmelius was terrible; with Colonel Guanco, there were isolated abuses, and abusive soldiers have been reprimanded and disappeared; he initiates dialogues with evacuees until their return to their farms; some [military personnel] build up cases [against civilians] to get even with charges of human rights abuses against them.
Civilians volunteered or were coerced into joining paramilitary forces trained by the AFP. Some of these members became involved in business with-and armed defense of-private companies (particularly logging) which often operated in tribal areas. In this way people from the same or neighboring localities, tribes and families were pitted against each other. Evacuated civilians often preferred and often were housed with the church, which was considered far less threatening than the military. This angered the AFP (who had plans of civic action and reform), and they often attempted to control evacuation programs. "The military and clergy don't trust each other" was the claim of rural government officials, including Mayor Guasa of Bislig, Surigao Province. The military charged the clergy with supporting the NPA and speaking out about military human rights violations, whereas the clergy claimed the political neutrality of evacuated civilians was not respected.
Nuns (and priests) who "intervened" were also punished. Entire Filipino congregations (Redemptorist and Maryknoll) or individuals from particular congregations were surveilled, branded as communists, arrested and sometimes killed. Consequently, as in El Salvador, this led to a renewed interest in the efficacy of martyrdom forced on the church because of the brutal destruction of life. But traditional thinking about the martyrdom of women has been largely related to sexual assault and rape. For example, teachings about the lives of saints such as Agnes and Maria Goretti, both of whom had chosen death instead of being raped, were common in the Philippines.
Nuns endangered their own lives to go to war zones to defend life; they cared for evacuees including the sick and wounded, searched for missing community members and witnessed the murder of loved ones. Sisters like Annie and Josie told me they were "with the people when they are risking their lives, voicing their needs, and announcing the bad deeds of the military." Sr Louise and her two colleagues "survived by not running away... because of my commitment to the people. We did not mind if we were killed if only we could stay with the people."
Sr Annie described the atmosphere in her "red" (occupied by the Communist New People's Army) area: Between three and five bombs were dropped each day and night, the earth shakes and the children are sick. The people asked for the bombing to stop; but instead they were pressured to become members of the Alsa Masa (a rightist vigilante group) to build a military detachment and to surrender as NPAs, after which they were trained as CAFGUs (Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units). Peace is for us to obey the AFP. We cannot do anything about it.
Bombing and encounters between AFP and NPA often resulted in evacuations. Again Sr Annie recalled:
During an encounter in the village [where I was staying] there were two lines of military with guns trained on the bush-it was like a war. The people were packing to leave and they said [to me]: "You are a baggage. Go back to the city." The military were coming and the people couldn't hide me. "You don't know where to run and we are accountable [responsible] for you."
Sr Louise told me in Davao in 1988 that during one evacuation incident in Agusan del Sur, it took her two days to reach a tribal man and his two children. She borrowed an outboard and bought gasoline. "It was dangerous; we could have met the military, [but] we did not see them; the children had high fevers. The barrio people in the lowland thought I was crazy; but I thought it was worth dying for."
Sisters' work in war zones was considered analogous to biblical events and they reinforced the alignment of the people's struggle with that of God. Filipino nuns, as did those in Latin America, deconstructed scripture and dogma highlighting representations of a God committed to the liberation of the poor: Mary closer to women's problems, Jesus who is less remote and more understandable and a Santo Niño (little Jesus) with whom Filipinos have an affinity. Families met to share problems through the inspiration of gospels. Awareness and change of values among the Philippine poor were stimulated "on the basis of group discussion and renewed interpretations of the Bible, mainly the Gospels and relating them to everyday life." For example, Sr Josie compared her almost nightly evacuations to the exodus of Moses and the Chosen People. She told me that "they [the people] totally surrender to the Lord." The experience of sisters who worked with tribal people was different. Sr Louise attended tribal rituals where she prayed [silently] to her own god in an experience she described as ecumenism: "The institutional church does not consider [tribal people]. We respect their own way of worshipping their God." Sr Louise suggested she survived through an honest relationship with the people. "We would go in from one village to another and let them talk about themselves. They knew we had respect for their culture." Sr Louise commenced a literacy program for tribal people in Cebuano (or Visayan, the lowland language of the southern islands) on request only after she had been living and working with them for three years.
While working in war zones nuns encountered extreme conditions: evacuation centers were stressful due to the effects of militarized violence, hunger, malnutrition, ill health, and the threat of epidemics. Hence, personal quarrels erupted and the Sisters intervened. Sr. Josie recalls:
People want to fight with bolos: they lose patience over the head of a dried fish; couples quarrel because opportunities for [sexual] intimacy are reduced; and children are often the recipients of their parents' aggression... my role was multipurpose... mother, guard, counselor, doctor. Sometimes I would just laugh at myself.
Sr Louise said that in Agusan del Sur when the military came the nuns took many children into the convent; the adults went to the forest where they developed ulcerts; women gave birth there and children were trained to whisper. The tribe was dislocated for 13 months.
By working with the people, often against the military, nuns crossed the designated boundaries of citizenship and subsequently were punished - they were suspected as communists and their lives threatened. Tribal people in Agusan thought initially that Sr Louise was either a communist or a logging entrepreneur. Later it was different because she stayed for a long time (eight years). AFP soldiers attended and taped Sr Annie's liturgy meetings and taped Sr Annie's liturgy meetings and Sr Josie was monitored on public transport. Sr Annie recalled when the AFP raided her convent:
At first I would not open the door. Then the soldiers did not believe me and my companions were sisters until I showed them the chapel. I was so angry I refused to help them, criticizing instead their lack of respect. I had to restrain myself from [physically] hurting the officer in charge of the raid and requested their names so that I could report them.
In defending the people against AFP intelligence operatives during evacuations, Sr Josie had her survival skills sharpened:
The people would warn me if there were military or intelligence [operatives around] during evacuation. My role is one of throwing the questions back at them. I knew they were lying, and we found ways of refusing to let them in.
A nun's residence (the convent) and her dress (the habit) became symbols of resistance and the convent was suspected as place of concealment of enemies of the state. Similarly, in civil wars elsewhere (colonial Algeria and El Salvador) every veiled woman and every woman laden with a basket became suspected of concealing an arsenal. Many nuns stopped wearing their habits on public transport so that they could revert to the status of a "protected" female citizen, relegated to the private sphere, perceived of as little threat in the public one.
Nuns were implicated fully in the "red scare" in which citizens were considered either communities or government supporters. Influenced by AFP "black propaganda," villagers accused nuns of being NPAs. Hurt by such accusations, they acknowledged the inevitability of betrayal by people they assisted. Even within the church, nuns were suspected as NPAs:
Fr Brian thought that I was an NPA and was elated when I said I wasn't. I kept telling him about the experiences of the people I work with, and the struggle between rich and poor. Now he has dropped the "being used bit" and is no longer suspicious.
Sr Louise said it was difficult to affiliate even with other church bodies in lowland areas to do work in tribal areas. Such affiliations, according to the AFP, were a prerequisite for work in the mountains. Tribal Filipinos have not been considered Filipinos except for elections. Sr Louise except for elections. Sr Louise suggested that no one had discussed Philippine history with the people she worked with, while Srs Margaret and Therese who worked in Misamis Occidental were sometimes deeply suspicious of the motives of the NPA who coopted people into their struggle.
Clerical and political aims merged, however, with military ones when some nuns decided to work for CPP-NPA. Sr Josie assisted with Communist Party officers in Mindanao: the NPA passed on their patients to her convent for treatment; she escorted their leaders to participate in secret dialogues with the bishop, government officials and military leaders at AFP camps; and during the cease-fire (1987) she fed and housed NPAs. Several nuns and priests have joined the Communist New People's Army, but Sr Josie said she would take up arms only as a "last resort." Sr Annie concluded that:
I am not an NPA. I respect their role in the struggle [but] I cannot really live with "one day, one eat." I cannot walk a "one day" walk. We [sisters] support those civilians out there without the guns, not the people with them.
The clerical focus on reforming the state is for increased power of citizenship for the poor, one based on human and spiritual dignity. As in Latin America, liberation theology in the Philippines aims to:
bring together people who suffer the same oppression with the aim of developing their group identity; promote the rediscovering of their dignity through this contact; increase their confidence in changing themselves and their society.
Based on Marxism and dependency theories, liberation theologies have needed considerable purging of eurocentrism, cultural colonialism, sexism and Maoist orientation in order to relate them to Filipino culture and society. Although the church's role was identified as one of service and education, liberation theology was differentially interpreted and applied at national, provincial and village levels.
For example, the usual liberation theology practice of distributing resources to the poor was often regulated in rural lowland areas through the status of existing kinship and patronage structures.
As indicated above, clerics identify thinking and acting like Christ as the basis of solidarity amongst non tribal and tribal peoples. But Sr Louise said: "I saw how even Catholics were destroying the culture of the tribals, forcing a ritual on them." By contrast, she "found the values I learnt in the Catholic religion were in the tribal ritual. There was a sense of equality and concern for one another." For tribal workers in non government organizations (NGOs) solidarity was expressed in secular, nationalist and masculine terms: "we must help and support our lowland brothers." Such workers sometimes separated notions of "God" from "church": the land "is God's gift to all creatures... [and] all creatures come from the land and are nurtured by it"; and the church was referred to as "a lowlander organization which may or may not help us in our struggle for land." The church's educational role was sometimes applied as a deficit model: "Tribal Filipinos are weak. They are not knowledgeable on their rights. Our support will help them." Yet the Catholic Church was also named as that sector of Philippine society most supportive of tribal land rights.
Christian feminist orientations as those discussed above have led to a critique of historic-cultural traditions that have given women a distorted image of their bodies, abilities, roles, responsibilities, dignity, and destiny. Religion has come to be considered a vehicle through which all women resist their oppression. In contrast with the extreme individualism and inflexibility perceived in Western societies, feminist theology and feminism in Asia are considered to "promote the equality of all human beings and the ideology is derived from the experiences of women giving birth, and caring, and nurturing their children and family... Here self and community are one." At the height of militarization, Filipino women actually responded to whatever threatened or saved others; to them survival meant survival of the community. As in Latin America:
A woman achieves fulfillment in the struggle by assuming a just life for all... By constantly testifying to life, and choosing to act, to protect, and to defend life, women restore the power of choice and they also reveal an efficacy that goes beyond martyrdom as traditionally understood. Choosing is salvic (a form of survival).
Thus liberation theology is best explained as a multiplicity of forms, inclusive of sexual and racial, as well as the political.
Key issues of subjectivity, however, still remain unexplored. How have sexual and sanctity dimensions contested fe/male citizenship discourses for all Filipino women-tribal and Muslim as well as lowland women? Historically (15th century), spiritual and civil status of priestesses in the Philippines was increased through sexual prowess and giving birth, which had important political implications for the newly colonized (Spanish) Filipino state. In contemporary times nuns embody the same legal category as other women in the Philippines, as discussed above. Yet their lives, celibate in the private sphere, have been different from those of other women. Nuns' celibacy is often equated, at least in the west, with the profound but non-sexual intimacy of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the Philippines, the relationship nuns had with Christ was the aspiration of other citizens in the afterlife. In western Christianity, Byrne, a British theologian, contends that the religious renunciation of sex resulted in the clerical state being regarded as more sublime than the lay. The reification of religious life in the Philippines has facilitated the political leadership of nuns and their ability to resist and survive militarization.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.