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A Spirituality of Struggle


Most leave their families and their work behind. With the barest of essentials they struggle to survive in the mountains. Up there they learn to live with lots of mosquitoes, lots of rain and mud. Up there one does not have porcelain toilet seats, nor decent bathrooms, nor even a regular bottle of Coca-Cola. In the dense jungles of the Sierra Madre mountains, they sleep with rusty World War II Garand rifles or, if they are lucky, old, Russian-made AK-47s or surplus Vietnam-era Armalite rifles. There they sleep half awake, half expecting that at any moment a military patrol will attack their camp or, worse, US-supplied helicopter gun-ships will blow away all of them--men, women, children, even the few pigs and the chickens they have--to kingdom come.

Some of them have been there since the late 60s. It has been a protracted war. Most of them are tired. Yet they continue fighting for the hope that has kept the movement going for close to 40 years now.1

In Mindanao, Lumad2 communities organize to demand their rights to their ancestral lands. Many of them have been killed, shot by "mistake" by soldiers or civilian CAFGUs3, the very same people who swore to defend and protect them.4 They ask the government for help, they ask their "elected" congress people for representation, they ask the churches for assistance in airing their side, they put streamers and banners around Mount Apo declaring it as holy ground, they go through peaceful channels. And they wait patiently. They wait hoping. While they wait, trans-nationals rape their land. Oil cartels desecrate Mount Apo in the name of development and for the sake of the majority. And Lake Lanao, the Maranaos’5 sacred waters, is re-channeled for progress' sake. Still the Lumads struggle and hope. And so do the Moslems and the Cordillera communities for genuine autonomy.6

In the CALABARZON7 area, prime agricultural land under CARP8 are converted into industrial estates overnight depriving farmers, the rightful heirs, ownership of the land they have lived and worked on for generations. Over 35,000 farmer families have been dislocated by this foreign-funded "development" project in Cavite alone. Although without the land that should be theirs, the farmers still have their voice. Together they have raised their voices in a collective effort to cry stop to the massive conversion. Community leaders have been salvaged9 while others have been threatened. Still with voices now hoarse, the peasants continue.

There are countless others like these people who actively hope and dream of a future where peace and justice and equality would reign, where children would live to be one hundred, where everyone gets to live in her/his own home, and eat and share the fruits of her/his labor. They actively dream and hope in spite of the seeming hopelessness of the situation, they continue struggling in spite of the deaths, in spite of the pain and the suffering they face.

What keeps them going? Most of them have spent almost all their lives struggling for just wages, for a place to sleep, for 3 square meals a day. Many have given up on the struggle. But much more have continued. What is this empowering spirit? It is the power that arouses people to respond most creatively and appropriately to the particular challenges of their situations. The challenge may have to do with land for the landless, equal rights for women and children, cultural identity. But at the very heart of all these challenges is the single hope for the coming of a new humanity, a new creation, whose every member enjoys the blessings of peace and of justice.10

This is the spirituality of Macli-ing Dulag11; a spirituality willing to be broken up in order to bring wholeness. This spirit, this breath, is LIFE itself.

The struggle for wholeness, for community, for justice allows one to be fully human, and being fully human allows one to struggle. When a person is immersed into the stream of the struggle, is one made whole or is one broken? Or both?

The feeling of being burned out, of running out of steam has been described as akin to battle fatigue, the feeling of being drained, the feeling of being spent.12 Here arose the need for an integrating and rejuvenating spirit, the same breath of life coming, blowing as a second--or third--wind. Those in the struggle need support systems and mechanisms for re-charging, for re-animating. Those in the struggle need to be re-assured that they are not alone. They have to be able to draw strength from the collective reality that--despite being separated by time and space--they have sisters and brothers who have walked, are walking and will walk the same hard road they have chosen to follow.13

A few get the opportunity to go on sabbaticals and retreats. Jesus is reported to have gone on retreats when he prayed alone. The transfiguration in Mark, when he went with Peter, James and John up a mountain, has been interpreted as Jesus' way of seeking his "second wind" in the light of what lay before him at Jerusalem. Sr. Rosario Battung and her group of nuns did not go to Palanan in 1977 for a retreat but I really believe that what they experienced there with the Dumagats, in their mutual affirmation of personhood, was a totally unexpected new "surge" of the spirit, a "rushing" of Life's wind.

How about the majority of people who have to face the nitty-gritty14 details of struggling through today? How about those who will never, ever, get the luxury of a sabbatical leave or even a weekend free? How about the people who have to confront the violence of poverty as a daily experience of life? Where do they get their first, or second, or third wind?

The religious leaders in Jesus' time accused him of being a "drunkard and a glutton" no doubt because he loved to host fellowship meals in the home he stayed in. He loved attending weddings and other community gatherings. Most of his parables centered on these gatherings. It is within the struggling communities' celebrations, not outside, that we receive this "rush" of life.15

Tired and weary, laborers on strike at EMI16 sit down together to have a round of drinks. It is here where people share their frustrations, their dreams, their hopes--amidst the bubbles of beer and the cigarette smoke--that the spirit blows. Soon they are back in the picketlines.17 Empowered by the brew? I do not think so.

High school students attending Lean Alejandro's18 funeral march stop for a little rest. A few are ready to quit because of the heat. Some are ready to quit because of the long 20-kilometer march. A lot more are ready to quit because of the presence of truncheon-wielding police. They share a loaf of bread. It is not much but everyone gets to have a bite. And they continue. Strengthened by the dough? I do not think so.

An NPA19 guerilla comes home in the cover of darkness to visit his family. His wife has taken care of their children alone for years. She is afraid for her husband, afraid for their children. He too is afraid. In the stillness of the night, they make love. And for one single moment the fear disappears. He leaves. She stays. The fears come back but now they are a little bit stronger to face them.

The wind blows where it wills and on that particular night it blew upon that couple.

To believe in spirit20 is to believe that faith is greater than fear, that love is stronger than indifference, that hope overcomes despair, that goodness triumphs over evil, and that life can and will conquer death. Despite the magnitude, complexity and apparent insolubility of our problems, humanity and creation can be and, in the end, will be liberated. Every form of evil--sickness, suffering, oppression, injustice, death--can be overcome21 and the only power that can achieve this is the power of people's faith in life, in the future and in one another.22


* I’m borrowing the title of this brief essay from the book of my father-in-law, Rev. Melanio Aoanan, Th.D. He has written extensively on articulating the Filipino Theology of Struggle (coined by former SVD priest, Edicio dela Torre during the early ‘70s as expressive of the Filipinos’ celebration of victories, small or great, along the hard road to liberation). Detailed commentary and explanations of unfamiliar terms will be found in this section of the paper.

1 "Actually, one does not need theology to be committed to justice. One does not even have to believe in God. Any decent human being could decide in the midst of oppression and exploitation to work for justice for the sake of the oppressed and exploited people." (Mary John Mananzan, "Response from the Philippines: Commitment," Spirituality of the Third World, Abraham and Mbuy-Beya, eds. New York: Orbis, 1994, 182).

2 Lumad is the collective term used for the indigenous communities in Mindanao. A similar collective term is used for the indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras, Igorots.

3 Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units were organized under the Aquino administration to “assist” the military in combating terrorism in the countryside.

4 There are massacres that we get to read in the newspapers. And there are massacres we never hear or read about. Bombings by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, using MG520 assault helicopters, OV-10 warplanes and 105mm howitzers have been used to flush out Lumads in Mindanao to allow “fast-track” (a term coined by President Ramos) development to happen in the island. The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines reports that hundreds of Manobo and Mamanwa Lumads have been displaced from Surigao del Sur. “War exercises” where 60 bombs were dropped in Agusan have left children dead, their bodies mangled, dismembered and strewn all over the place in Sitios Labuo and San Juan. Of course, government reports say that the children were killed after toying with a gun. When human rights groups raised a howl, the AFP admitted the killing with the reason that the children were used as shields by NPA guerillas (Massacre in the Highlands available at

5 People of the Lake.

6 Although ancestral lands were recognized in the Philippine 1987 constitution, subsequent laws like the Small-Scale Mining Act of 1991 has forced the Igorots out of their land. About 15% of the Philippine population are tribal peoples, the Igorots number about 1 million. But of course, without giving foreign companies from the former 40% to the present 100% ownership of the Cordilleras’ rich mining deposits, Philippines 2000 cannot be realized. These companies, with government support, now have the legal right to displace and resettle people within their concessionary areas (Urgent Action: Igorots of the Philippines available at

7 The foreign-funded CALABARZON project that covers the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon, hence the acronymn, is one of the centerpieces of the Ramos’ administration. This area is advertised to foreign investors as offering cheap labor, about $5/day, and as strike-free.

8 The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program passed under the Aquino administration earmarked hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land held by the landed few as subject to distribution to tenant farmers. Of course, the landed lawmakers wrote two provisions that will exempt their land: land deemed unfit for agriculture cannot be placed under land reform (overnight, irrigated lands were bulldozed to fit the “unfit for agriculture” category); tenants who do not want to own land but would want to continue serving the benevolent masters of their foreparents can choose to do so (so Aquino-Cojuanco Hacienda Luisita, 6,000+ hectares all, remain in the hands of the former president’s family after the tenants were convinced that they were not ready for ownership).

9 Salvage has acquired another meaning in the islands. To be salvaged is to be liquidated.

10 “Archetypes of a Spiritual Person,” Religion and Society. Manila:FIDES, 1988,245.

11 Macli-ing Dulag, Igorot chieftain, was killed by government forces in April 1980. He and his people were forced off their ancestral lands so that the the government can put up the Ambuclao and Biga Dams in the Cordilleras. Development was more important than any minority group’s burial sites. He is famous for his belief that, “We do not own the land, the land owns us.”

12 “On the Spirituality of Struggle,” Witness and Hope amid Struggle. Manila:FIDES, 1991, 91.

13 Anthony Pinn writes, "I believe that human liberation is more important than the maintenance of any religious symbol, sign, canon, or icon. It must be accomplished....despite the damage done to cherished religious principles and traditions. Holding to this belief, I will stand and fall." (Why, Lord? New York: Continuum, 1995, 11). I agree. In the movie "Romero," Father Grande (played by Richard Jordan) tells Bishop Romero (played by Raul Julia), "How can I love God whom I cannot see if I cannot love my brothers and sisters whom I see?" Matthew 25: 31-46 is one of my favorite texts in the Bible, I've often called it the parable of the Great Surprise. Both groups were either blessed or cursed because of what they did or did not do for people, not because of what they did or did not do for God. The parable also reminds us that working for human liberation takes seriously the needs of the the whole person.

14 Term used by Pinn to describe the hard, concrete, raw realities of life (see Pinn, 116-117).

15 It is in the most ordinary that we encounter the transcendent. It is in the secular that we meet the sacred. Jesus’ abiding presence is most real in a community’s sharing of food and drink.

16 EMI or Eds Manufacturing, Incorporated is one of the biggest transnational, industrial complexes in Cavite. Workers there are hired on temporary, 6-month contracts. Those who perform well during those six months will be hired for another six months. Security of tenure does not exist in this company’s vocabulary. Unions are illegal. Still the workers organize. They join the KMU (Kilusang Mayo Uno, or Labor Day Movement), the umbrella organization of supposedly “lelftist” labor unions in the Philippines. A hundred ants cannot face an elephant on their own but a hundred thousand ants probably can.

17 Sr. Mary John Mananzan writes: "I joined a group called 'Interfaith Theological Circle,' which aimed at evolving a 'Filipino Theology' in the air-conditioned library of the university. Needless to say, we came under critique for undertaking 'intellectual gymnastics.' After a period of defensiveness, we realized that it was indeed futile to evolve such theology without being involved in the struggle of the people. That was what made me respond to the invitation of the workers of a wine factory "La Tondena" to accompany them when the military threatened to arrest them....During this first encounter with military brutality, I felt helpless when the military came, beat the workers, and herded the bloody mass of humanity like animals into waiting buses. That was my starting point." ("Response from the Philippines: Commitment," 183).

18 Lean Alejandro, secretary-general of BAYAN (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan), was gunned down at 27 in 1987. His murder sent a message to militant organizations, among them the League of Filipino Students (LFS), the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and the University of the Philippines Christian Youth Movement (UPCYM), to stop all politically-charged mass actions. The students stopped alright, they stopped being harrassed and staged one of the biggest funeral marches ever held. The march began at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City and ended about 20 kilometers later in Navotas, Malabon.

19 The communist New People’s Army was born on August 1967. Founder Bernabe Buscayno (alias Commander Dante), a peasant farmer from Tarlac, was captured under Marcos’ rule and then later released by the Aquino administration. He now heads the 3,000 plus strong farmers’ cooperative in his home province. Reports vary on the strength of the army at the present, estimates run from 10,0000-30,000.

20 This spirit, this breath of life which binds everything together can also be called God. It is interesting that John Taylor in his Go-Between God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973) believes that God is the “and” in You and Me. God is the power that creates relationships of mutuality. God is the go-between. Also, if God is God, then I think it’s not very important for God to receive worship and adoration. If God is the parent of us all, then like any human parent, God’s greatest joy would be to see God’s children sharing with and caring for one another.

21 Adopted from Albert Nolan's Jesus Before Christianity. New York: Orbis, 1978, 140-141.

22 "Humanity," Pinn argues at the end of his book (158), "is far better of fighting with the tools it has--a desire for transformation, human creativity, physical strength, and untapped collective potential."

Again, I quote scripture to offer my agreement with Pinn’s point. William Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994) served as major resource for this reaction.

Again, I quote “parables about people’s struggles” to support my point. The Laborers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16) offer us a portrait of an oikodespotes, a despot, an elitist oppressor who, in order to possess, to ensure a timely harvest, offers a denarius--subsistence level pay--to workers; workers who'll take anything just to get by today. Is this what God's reign is--as the church has proclaimed the parable to be--going to be like? More of the same oppression and exploitation?

The Tenants in the Vineyard (Mk 12:1-12) initially possess the land after claiming it violently from its absentee landlord. But "...what then will the owner of the vineyard do?" How can we reclaim our status as rightful heirs of the land if violence always ends in violence? Are there other ways to assert our claims?

In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) Jesus uses Abraham as paradigm of the blessed rich to shock his listeners: Father Abraham should have received the rich man into his bosom but he does not; he receives Lazarus--poor Lazarus who dies and doesn't even get to be buried. The elite, possessed by possessions, have for so long used Abraham as justification for their oppression.

"How do we get ourselves out of debt?," people ask. A good King might do it or even a Christian president or a Christian senate. The parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-35) reminds us of the hopelessness of looking for deliverance in a king (or president). Rulers are part of the system that created them. The parable proposes that neither messianic hope nor popular kingship can resolve the people's dilemma. To reshape their world, to assert their claim as God's heirs, the people must look elsewhere.

The Talents (Mt 25:14-30;Lk 19:11-27) offer a portrait of the whistle blower; the one who, sickened by the system, cries, "Enough!" It offers us a glimpse of the dispossessed who live in the outer darkness, far from the centers of power and light, struggling to survive from day to day, "weeping and gnashing teeth," Pinn’s nitty-gritty experience.

The Friend at Midnight (Lk 11:5-8) paints a different kind of portrait. Village peasants offer hospitality to visitors and sojourners and are engaged in little acts that challenge the efforts of their oppressors to dehumanize them. Rather than cave in to the desire to hoard and accumulate, as the rich then and now do, peasants, then and now, continue to cooperate and to provide hospitality. Their shameless social order of small redistribution of food and resources foreshadows a different order of human relations.

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