Church and Crisis Today: How Philippine Religious Consciousness can better inform how the rest of the world does church?

So, let’s talk about the church. What does church really mean? When it comes down to the idea of how we respond to COVID we have to realize that we’re talking about different aspects to church. We can look at the church as both gathered and scattered. Sometimes the church gathers together and sometimes the church is scattered and spread apart. Sometimes the church has both gathered and scattered aspects existing simultaneously. For example, sometimes a church has a Sunday-morning gathering, a weekly small group – known by various names including cell church, small group, Bible study, the life group, discipleship group, and more – as well as members who spend most of their time in their respective physical communities as well as their workplaces, homes, and selected third spaces. Sometimes the concept is explained using cells with single shell churches meeting Sunday mornings but multiple cell churches meeting anytime throughout the week. What all of this means is that there are multiple ways of understanding the concept of church.

But perhaps the most traditional model is the single cell model of a church that gathers on a Sunday morning in what is often called a congregation. This is actually not a traditional Philippine way of worship. Spain’s introduction of the concept of church to the Philippines involved a lot of reengineering of Philippine society. Spain used a colonial system called reducciones where they would gather scattered people into communities, called Poblacion or plaza complex in the Philippines. Here you have the church, the municipal Hall, and the market with people living in the surrounding blocks. The distance that you could be away from the church was restricted by the sound of the church bell. This is called baja de campana, or under the bell. If you could hear that bell ringing that would call you to mass then you were baja de campana. This identified you as a person submissive to the system. While the term baja de campana isn’t used as much today, this concept is still seen in the Parokya or parish where the church bell and mass are broadcast to the community on loudspeakers.

A New Normal, 500 Years Ago!

While this is normal in the Philippines today, 500 years ago it was a new normal. Prior to this, people lived wherever was convenient to them: Fishermen lived near their favorite fishing cove and farmers lived near their fields.

Spain came in and brought their system for not only colonization but also for evangelization, because the two are not much different.[1] Today we have other issues coming in, including public health concerns such as the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. These issues are creating a new normal that governs how society operates. Because of the public health crisis, we have developed this idea of virtual or online or live stream churches, whether these are services that we’re broadcasting, whether it’s praise and worship, that we’re broadcasting, whether it’s a new way of doing church online, or whether we’re just doing the same thing and recording it and broadcasting it, whether we’re using Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, Vimeo, or other things, and there’s a variety of other ways to interact where does this fit this virtual online church? Is this the church gathered? Is gathering a part of this online community when we’re gathered together on zoom? Is that a gathering? When we’re all watching doing a watch party together? Is that gathering? Is that scattered? Because the church can be gathered scattered? Is this cell a single cell or is it multiple cell? How does this all interact and work with each other? What does it all do?

Then you get to COVID-19 times where people can’t gather together. And we love to gather together. And it’s the gathering together in a sense that it’s the community of believers, in a sense, makes up the church, but we’ve conflated that with the facility within which we gather.

And so, when it comes to the point of gathering together, not being able to gather together for COVID, all of a sudden, the discussion goes to “Oh, well it’s religious persecution,” or some other kind of an issue. As if the only way that we know how to connect with God is inside a church building. But if we look at biblical and church histories of the way people have gathered, we realize that that’s not entirely the case.

It just means that our way of doing things may go through changes, just like the change from walking in the garden, to having to build an altar, to having to go to a tabernacle, to then having to go to a temple, to then doing a synagogue or a church. It’s just part of the transition and there’s been lots of “new normal” over time.

Philippine Religious Consciousnesses and Crisis Today.

Religious Space.

There’s no concept of religious space in the Philippines system because all space is religious space. This helps us particularly when we talk about issues of issues of religious liberty. Do I have the right to practice my religion and if the government tells me not to meet together, does that mean I’m not being able to practice that? these issues are sort of put aside, because there is really no specifically religious space. We’re used to worshiping in a church, but quite often in society, you’ll see a variety of different religious spaces that are used. You know, whether it’s a procession, where you’re going down the street and so the street becomes a religious space as you bring your as you bring your statue around the community. Even there’s what’s called the pabasa. During Holy Week. When the, the story of Jesus passion is, is, is, is sung in various parts of the community and so these homes and these different places become religious space because of the usage. There’s even the Stations of the Cross where religious spaces are temporarily set up in various parts of the community as people go around and pray as they remember Jesus’ passion. So religious space in the sense of here’s where we do religious activities and this space we don’t is not a concept that exists in the Philippines.

The first point we need to remember as we as we try to create a theology of crisis is that any space can be religious space — we don’t need to be fixated on a church building.

Church Leadership and the Filipino Family.

I guess the second point is that typically the pastor is seen as being in charge of the church. They provide leadership there, but what about inside the home? Who is the one who provides leadership there? It certainly isn’t the pastor.

As the story goes, the pastor visited a home at lunch time. In an effort to honour him they mother invited him in to eat. She had prepared a fish for lunch and the kids worriedly watched the pastor through the window as he tucked in to the meal. All of a sudden one of the kids yells, “Mom, he flipped the fish over!”

While the pastor may be a visitor to the house really the leadership of the home is provided by the father and the mother. And this leadership extends not simply to who feeds the kids and who does the laundry but it goes beyond that. Ultimately it is Who sets the rules? and Who shapes the future for the family? It’s the parents.

One way forward in the midst of crisis is to encourage, train, and empower parents to be the spiritual leaders of their families.

Dambana, or the family altar.

The third aspect would be the idea of dambanaDambana is a is an old Filipino word that talks about a place where you encounter the divine, you know whether this is whether this is a space like a, like a building, whether this is an altar. But, but typically within a house, you know a lot of houses have the altar inside their house so there’s this religious space inside the house, that is that is devoted towards the worship of God and the connection proper connection and relationship with God. Quite often, of course in Filipino homes you’ll have a, you’ll have a, an image that’s that is in that spot, but you’ll also notice in many homes you’ll have other religious artifacts such as Bibles and other things that are there. And these are these are just to remind everybody that God is always present with us. And so within, within each house you have this religious space.

We can use these concepts. As we move towards developing a theology of crisis, a theology of lockdown a theology of pandemic. Rather than trying to find theological reasons for convincing the government to let us reopen our church buildings, we can help encourage and empower families to be responsible for their own spiritual development inside of their homes. During this time, and maybe this will expand them beyond that into the time after the pandemic whatever it will look like.

Notes:

1 Vince Rafael talks about this at length in his Contracting Colonialism.

Image by Varun Gaba on Unsplash.

3 Types of Evil

The years leading up to the pandemic have exposed a variety of bad things in the world — things that perhaps in the past were not as noticed by people not directly affected. These issues include the #metoo movement, racism including Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, Asian Hate, and Residential Schools, and violence such as the militarisation of the police.

One area of dispute is the extent of evil in the world. Some people simply say things like, “I am not racist so racism isn’t real” or “I have an indigenous/black/person of colour friend who hasn’t experienced racism so it isn’t really an issue” or the kicker “Once people accept Jesus they are no longer sinners so things like the mistreatment of others will just disappear.”

These various approaches view evil as being something personal and so provide personal solutions to it. And this isn’t all that surprising given that the default message of the evangelical church over the years has been, “Invite Jesus into your heart and your sins will be forgiven.”

Evil, however, is much more complex than simply being personal. In fact there are three types of evil, or sin, that are discussed in the Bible: Personal evil, natural evil, and structural evil.

In this post we will take an introductory look at each of these types of evil with the hope that a renewed understanding of these will lead to justice and change in society.

Personal Evil.

Personal evil has been the central way that people in recent times have understood evil. There are three ways to approach how the Bible understands personal evil, each one from a different cultural perspective.

Guilt to Innocence is the most common understanding of personal evil, largely due to the predominance of western Bible interpretations. It uses a courtroom as its motif. This understanding has led to popular gospel presentations such as the Four Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion, and the Roman Road to salvation. The emphasis to this approach is that all are guilty of sin and are thus in need of righteousness. This perspective is common among individualistic societies.

Shame to Honour is another perspective on personal evil. In recent years, students of culture have seen that many peoples on the earth do not see things in light of guilt and innocence. Some people better understand a proper relationship with God through concepts of honour and shame.[1] Shame to Honour emphasises relationships and how they can be restored. This perspective is common in communal societies.

A third approach to understanding personal evil is Fear to Power. In recent years, students of culture have seen that many peoples on the earth do not see things in light of guilt and innocence. Some people better understand a proper relationship with God through concepts of Power and Fear. Jesus overcame the power of Satan and death on the cross and gives power to those who are afraid.

Natural Evil.

Natural evil includes things like famine, drought, disease, wild animals, floods, storms, and disease.

Floods: God brought “a flood of waters on the earth” (Genesis 6:17).

Thunder, hail, lightning: God “sent thunder and hail, and fire came down” (Exodus 9:23).

Destructive Wind: God sent a “great wind” that destroyed Job’s house and killed his family (Job 1:19). Earthquake: By the Lord “the earth will be shaken” (Isaiah 13:13).

Drought and Famine: God will shut off rains, so neither land nor trees yield produce (Leviticus 26:19–20).

Forest fires: God says, “Say to the southern forest, ‘I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree’” (Ezekiel 20:47).

These events affect people all over the world and the results are often not good. A super typhoon went through the Philippines a number of years ago. In a small coastal town many lives were lost as logs from the mountains were washed through the town. Those logs were seen as a curse. About a week later, a small island community was awakened by cries of, “Thanks be to God. He has provided these logs for us. Now I can build a house/boat/business.” Those same logs cursed a week earlier in another place were now seen as a blessing.

It’s important to point out that these natural evils started with the curse in the garden of Eden, where, because of Adam’s sin, the ground was also cursed. It is this curse that leads to the examples listed above.

Structural Evil.

Structural evil is a system or pattern of beliefs or activities in an organization or culture that hinders or opposes the advance of God’s kingdom in this world. There are structured evils rooted in society’s prevailing religious, social, economic or political systems. The key element of structural evil is that it is organizational, a pattern or network that opposes the Kingdom.

Examples of structural evil include things like tax evasion, caste systems, dowry, sexual mutilation, slavery, racism and apartheid, colonialism, and bribery or governmental corruption.

Key elements of structural evil include the existence of a wicked power or spirit. Structural evil is also corporate, either organizational or institutional. It is systemic, with patterns, networks of activities or parts. It has a multiple nature including laws, law enforcements, culture, taboos, attitudes, beliefs, lack of alternatives, and repressive rule. It can be social, political, economic, or religious. It aims to create chaos, division, injustice, human suffering or natural damage. It opposes advance of Kingdom of God.

The good news for structural evil is that at the cross Christ defeated sin, death, and Satan. These now have no hold on believers. All authority is given to Christ … He is far above all and every other name. The Church as His Body shares this authority over Satan & evil spirits. In Christ the believer is given the authority to disciple nations.

Conclusion.

The church needs to further develop its theologies of evil so that we can both acknowledge the extent of evil in the world, and also find better ways to deal with it. Emphasis needs to continue, of course, on repentance from personal evil, but we also need to incorporate ways to repent from both societal and natural evils.

What do you think of this 3-part framework?

Feedback is always welcome!

Notes:

1 Other great sources of Honour-Shame based theologies include works by Jackson Wu, Jayson Georges, and Werner Mischke.

Image by Paulette Vautour on Unsplash.

5 Shifts To Make: The Philippine Church Gearing Towards Life and Ministry Post-Pandemic Webinar – A Reaction

I had the privilege to share the stage with Dr. Anthony dela Fuente, who blogs over at Upgazer/The Dawn Treader, the other day. He had been invited by the Theological Commission of the Philippine Council for Evangelical Churches to present a paper at their TheoExpo 2021. His paper was entitled 5 Shifts To Make: The Philippine Church Gearing Towards Life and Ministry Post-Pandemic. I was asked to be the reactor to the paper. The session was livestreamed on Facebook and can be viewed in its entirety here. Please take a look and tell me what you think. 

I Claim this place in the name of …

New Chinese passport map of disputed area.

New Chinese passport. The dotted line in the lower right corner shows the disputed area that China is claiming.

Have you ever thought about the idea of laying claim. I remember as a child looking at pictures of early European explorers visiting “new” lands and, after planting a cross or a flag, claiming that place in the name of the king (or queen or whoever). Now before you get offended remember that I share both European and First Nations blood 🙂

Recently you may have read one of the following articles regarding China’s new passports. Apparently the show a map that includes disputed portions of the “South China Sea” as being a part of China. As you can guess, various countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the USA have made their opinions known. That’s because they also have claims in the area. It is a problem that has been brewing over many years but has recently come to a head. Time will tell how this will be resolved.

I began to think about the church and about missions. Do we lay claim to things that don’t belong to us? I wonder what people in the 10/40 Window think about all the maps of their countries that have been distributed over the years? I wonder what “Manila Ben” or whoever Saddleback named their target audience thinks when s/he sees the various effigies of who they are and how to “reach” them?

The concept of “claiming” implies concepts like good and bad, right and wrong, good and evil. Those doing the claiming always come out on the good side, while those who are claimed are always on the wrong side. But is this really the way missions works? Can any of us claim to be perfectly and totally connected to God? Aren’t we all on a journey?

Are we making unfair claims upon the people of the world? Do we have any other choice? Do those people then have the right to make a similar claim upon us?

What do you think?

Here’s How 1 Church Defines Functionality

Of course in a blog entitled “The Functional Church Blog” it might be a good idea to add real-life examples of churches that are acting in functional ways. One of those churches is locally known as Hope Christian Fellowship Transformational Ministries (HCFTM). Here’s how this church defines functionality. They think that it is so important that they decided to add these four points to their statement of faith.

1. Proclamation is HCFTM’s way of declaring the Good News of Jesus Christ to all people. We declare Jesus as Lord and Saviour of our community and we recognise His central role in transforming the world through intentional evangelism, communicated effectively in a culturally-relevant way by people who have themselves experienced the transforming power of God.

2. Service is HCFTM’s way of showing the love of God to people both inside and outside of our faith community though acts of mercy, relief rehab and development. We will be engaging in educational ministry services such as establishing schools of all levels. We will be delivering free medical-dental clinics. We will be conducting livelihood programs for the poor of our communities.

3. Truth-telling is HCFTM’s way of being God’s prophetic voice by engaging society with biblical truth through participation in public advocacy, social justice, value transformation, promotion of freedom, engagement in the public square, involvement in market places, and the transformation of public perception through education, evangelism, church planting, intercessory prayer, and discipleship.

4. Community-building is HCFTM’s way of revealing the joys of the kingdom of God to people outside of our faith community through active participation with like-minded faith communities, active cooperation with like-minded groups, and active accountability in both the religious and secular world. All this is typified with the Christian attitude of unity in matters essential, liberty in matters non-essential, and charity in all other matters.

Basically HCF is saying that without these 4 functions, a church is not doing what it is supposed to do. Do you agree? What would you add? What would you subtract?

 

Cultural Dependency & Systematic Theology: At Odds in the Search for Emancipation?

A lot of my work involves finding solutions for economic problems. Quite often I am that solution (at least on a short-term basis). But we haven’t found a long-term solution yet. We do teach on Capacity Building at SEATS but some things I have been reading lately have made me wonder if we are on the wrong track. Recently I have been thinking about the following questions and ideas:

If cultural & economic dependency are linked (as per Ali Mazrui), what does that say for teaching systematic theology cross-culturally? Since theology defines church culture, must it then be developed by those within the culture so as to not contribute to cultural dependency? Is it just adding to the problem? Is developing Asian Theology then the key to eliminating economic dependency in Asian churches?

These questions came as a result of reading my Dad’s Master of Education thesis from 1990. Kind of makes me wish I had read it earlier. Referencing Mazrui, Dad makes the statement “that cultural autonomy can be achieved through a strategy of domestication, diversification, and counter-penetration.”

Examples of this strategy (with comments) as applied to my cultural setting might include:

1. Use local language. SEATS training is conducted in a blending of English and Tagalog so perhaps we are going in the right direction here.

2. Connect to other Asian churches/cultures. SEATS itself is cross0-cultural but we haven’t been able to really link up Filipinos with other Asian church groups at this level. This will allow Asians to have more voices in the conversation than simply westerners.

3. Diffuse Filipino values into the mission. This, as pointed out in the thesis, is already on the way to being accomplished since there are a large number of Filipinos in Canada and Filipino churches working with the BGC Canada. Early in our career we even had a Filipino director of Global Ministries. His influence was definitely felt in our movement, even though he later moved on to other things. SEATS itself has a completely Filipino board. One idea would be to allow other Asian board members to help fill out the conversation and bring balance.

In your opinion, what is the best answer to this problem?

Truthtelling: The Ethics of Negotiation

“Is it ethical for a police hostage negotiator to promise to the hostage taker whatever his demands are, even if there is no intent to meet those demands?” I was shocked to hear this question from a Senator investigating the Manila Hostage Crisis. “What if,” the senator went on, “the hostage taker appears to have some mental issues and we need to save the hostages. Shouldn’t we just lie to him so that he lets the hostages go? Then we can arrest him and say, ‘Sorry, we did it for your own good’” (paraphrased).

It reminds me of a story I heard about comparative religion during my University days in Saskatoon. Two boys are in a house playing. The father, who is outside, sees that the house is on fire. He yells to his boys to get out of the house so they will be saved. One boy runs out immediately. The other, however, is enjoying playing so much that he ignores his father’s call. Finally, in desperation, the Father, appealing to his son’s love for fun calls out, “Come outside! There is a parade passing by!” Of course the boy runs out and is saved from the fire. What disturbs me about the story is the lie.

A lie is the opposite of trust. Why did the boy trust the father enough to come out when he said there was a parade? Because of trust. I can assure you, however, that once the boy realized his father had lied to him, a little bit of that trust was gone. Next time, the father wouldn’t be so lucky.

It goes the same for hostage negotiations. In reality, you are not just negotiating for the current crisis, you are also building trust for the next crises that come along. Otherwise, why will any subsequent hostage-taker even bother talking to negotiators?

The Media’s Role in the Manila Hostage Crisis – Updated 25 Feb 2011

For many years in the Philippines there was no freedom of the press. In fact, even nowadays, there are a disproportionate number of killings of media-related people here. Needless to say, this has created a culture, especially among the media themselves, of protecting at all costs the freedom of the press. These freedoms are now being called into question.

If you have been anywhere near media lately you will be aware of a recent tragic event in the Philippines. A few days ago, a former police officer took a bus full of Chinese, Canadian, and British tourists hostage. The story does not have a happy ending: 10 people are now dead, including the hostage taker. Not only did the hostage taker lose his life but another 9 hostages lost their lives as well. (I won’t get into the fact that trying to prove your innocence in one criminal activity by engaging in another criminal activity just doesn’t work.)

One group that has been blamed is the police. And of course, watching the events unfold it is hard to see how they were really unable to deal adequately with the situation. Of course, my comments are of the typical armchair variety (meaning that it is far easier for an inexperienced, not practitioner like me to “know” how it could have been done better even if my knowledge has no basis in fact!) At the present time the police have taken responsibility for their share of the debacle and are taking steps to ensure they learn from their mistakes for next time. But this post is not about the police.

Another group that has been blamed for the tragedy is the media. The media was very eager to show the events as they unfolded. In fact, I didn’t know what was happening until I began to review my twitter and facebook feeds. I was able to read the play-by-play of the events. Finally I turned on the TV to see what was really going on (albeit after the fact) and was able to take my pick of any channel showing live footage of the event. In addition to that, members of the media were in direct cellphone contact with the hostage taker at different stages of the crisis.

The problem is this. There was a TV on the bus. Yes, it is true. The hostage taker was completely and totally aware of every move the police were making towards him! If he needed another angle, just change the channel and see what is happening there. It’s like he had his own personal security system watching from every angle, keeping him safe. Conceivably, the SWAT team’s assault would have gone better if the hostage taker was not so well informed about their actions.

When asked, President Aquino said that he didn’t order a news blackout for two reasons: 1. The people would complain that the government was trying to hide something. He promised transparency in all issues and this is one of the results. 2. The law prohibits him from declaring a news blackout.

So what do we do? An incredibly newsworthy event is unfolding in front of us. The media is tasked with giving us the news. We all watched the events unfold on TV, Facebook, and Twitter. The police need to do their job and save the hostages and hostage takers.

Living in a society is not an issue of rights. Does the press have the right to freedom? Yes. Do the hostages have the right to be saved? Of course. Does the hostage taker have the right to be heard? Yes. So rights are not the issue.

Living in society is an issue of responsibility. The media has a clear role in the building of any nation. This role sometimes means not availing of a right so that some other right can be used. For example, in a hostage situation, the media need to recognise that the hostages’ right to live supersedes the media’s right to immediately broadcast. The people of nation also need to recognise that the hostages’ right to live supersedes their right to be immediately informed.

The issue here is really the use of “Live” coverage and it this issue that needs to be addressed by the taskforce President Aquino has set up to discuss the parameters on the coverage of crisis situations. What are the options?

1. Allow the media to record all events as they unfold for playback later on. Periodic statements and updates could be broadcast on a timely basis, ensuring that the integrity of the negotiations is maintained.

2. Have a delay in the “Live” feed of several minutes or hours. This would allow on the scene events to unfold without the news getting out to the hostage taker.

3. Have one feed that all news outlets share, similar to what happens at the Olympic Games. That way camera angles and scenes broadcast could be live edited to prevent information from flowing too freely at times when they should be less free.

What are your thoughts on this issue? What suggestions would you have for the media in crisis situations?

UPDATE (25 Feb 2011):

The Hong Kong government is currently conducting its own inquiry into the event. Here is what was reported today by the bus driver:

In a statement read out during the inquest proceedings of the Hong Kong court, driver Antonio Lubang said the tour guide was shot when Mendoza became enraged after seeing on live television his brother’s arrest.

Earlier testimonies at the HK court inquest indicated Mendoza was initially friendly toward the hostages.

However, he became enraged when he saw on a television set inside the bus the arrest of his policeman brother.

What else can I say? The media cannot remain blameless in this tragedy.