Hafa Na Liberasion #5: The Liberation Theology of the Chamorros of the Marianas

Liberation Theology for the Chamoru of the Marianas
By: Jonathan Blas Diaz
The Pacific Voice - 2007

On February 22, 1981, the late Pope John Paul II on his way to Asia, briefly stopped on the island of Guahan, kissed the ground and said in Chamoru: Hu Guiya Hao (I love you). It is also the same Pope who, in the year 2000 at the opening of the Church’s Jubilee, apologized for the Catholic missionaries that forced the Christian religion on Indigenous peoples, including that of Oceania. Out of all the places in the world, why would the Pope stop on an island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to celebrate Eucharist with the Chamoru? Perhaps, the Holy Father knew deep in his heart that the Chamoru people, since 1665, have been the longest colonized people in the Islands of Oceania. The late pontiff lived during the time of Communism in Poland and understood deeply what suffering and oppression meant.

I begin this article with the Pope’s historic visit to the Marianas in order to help us reflect on the importance of religion, namely that of Catholic Christianity in the Marianas. I also base this article out of my experience as a Chamoru theologian looking at our islands of the Marianas through the lenses of liberation theology. Through my studies in theology, I hope to give back to the Chamoru people a voice, especially in our Churches, so that in the end we may all understand that “liberation” has and continues to be vital to the Chamoru survival in the 21st century. One cannot simply relegate religion and politics in the Marianas to mere categories of isolation for it was through politics that Catholic Christianity began formally in these islands as in many parts of the world. Furthermore, the purpose for this article is to authentically articulate and help move people to a higher place of consciousness, to re-awaken the Chamoru imagination, especially with regards to religion and spirituality in the Marianas so that peace and justice can be realized for the Chamoru. It is with urgency that we begin the process of looking closely to how our Catholic faith can in fact help to further the liberation of the Chamoru from any and all forms of injustice. I must also be clear that other immigrant groups on our islands must also come together with the Chamoru to talk about issues of racism and how this has affected our relationships with each other both inside and outside of Church. At the heart of Gospel is God’s call to be peacemakers so that restorative justice can be realized for all who call the Marianas home.

Throughout the Church’s history, there have been many theologies, beginning with St. Paul and down to the modern age. After Vatican II, biblical scholars began to use the historical critical method, which enabled theologians in different theological focuses to write about their particular context and scriptures’ applicability to particular cultural contexts. Now, theologians could creatively write about their own particular situations.

Because of this new shift, the notable theology of liberation found its roots in Latin America during the late 1960’s. The theology of liberation marked the new beginning of a theology that used both social analysis and modern philosophy such as the philosophies of René Descartes and Immanuel Kant, which paved the way for the philosophy of Karl Marx.

Before liberation theology, theology was written from a very ecclesial and doctrinal standpoint (dogmas and doctrines). It did not pay special attention to the needs of the suffering people who were affected by the political climate of each era. The work of liberation theology helped form theologies of today, such as Contextual theology, Feminist theology, African American theology, the Korean Min-jung Theology, and Native American theology. Within this great shift came new possibilities that had never been conceived by theologians because people could now understand scripture and tradition in light of their experience.

One major critique of liberation theology of Latin America was that people (lay and ordained) were taking up arms and killing their oppressors. A good example is illustrated in the movie “Romero” in which the El Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero and some Jesuit Missionaries were assassinated because they threatened the status quo of El Salvador. The Maryknoll Sisters and Lay Missionaries, such as Jean Donovan were tortured, raped, and killed because they helped people to question the corrupt social structures of their time. The government officials and military personnel of Latin America were all trained at the “School of the Americas” located in the US military base in Fort Benning. To date, military personnel from Latin America are still being sent to Fort Benning and large protests are still being staged in Latin America and outside the US base.

We do not have to look hard to find a liberatory theology as in Latin America. In the Philippine islands we find a similar kind of liberation theology, specifically the theology of struggle. This theology did not come about in the theological academy, but from the lay grass-roots people who were farmers, fishers, and peasants of the Philippines. The missionaries working with the economically impoverished did the documenting of such stories. It is through their work with the poor that they were able to document a theology of struggle characteristic of a Filipino indigenous theology. Because documentation on the theology of struggle was fragmented, discussion of the framework arose in numerous conferences throughout Asia, most notably in the Asian Theological Conference in Wenappuwa, Sri Lanka in 1979 and at the Forum for Interdisciplinary Endeavors and Studies, which published Religion and Society: Towards a Theology of Struggle.

So what does liberation theology have to do with the Chamoru today? If we are to take a closer look into the history and context of the Chamoru people of the Marianas, we may begin to see injustice all around, especially with regards to the political relationship the Marianas has with the United States. Although the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas has some autonomy and self-determination, historians working within academic institutions in the Marianas have predicted this political status to change within the coming years. If we look at what is happening now in the Marianas, especially with regards to the indigenous Chamoru people of this land, we may find evidence that the Chamoru culture is being lost in the climate of social change and the immovable militarization on these islands.

What can people do at the religious level to help establish ongoing dialogue between the political and religious life in the Marianas? It seems to me that people are already beginning to do this kind of work outside the Church through efforts in the academy and at the grass roots levels. However, it is with hope that we begin the process in our Churches through a liberation theology model. I would like to propose that we look to the Philippines as a guide towards how we will engage in liberation theology in the Marianas. A brief history helps to unpack further our understanding of liberation theology.

The theology of struggle first began in the Philippines in the late 1970’s and early part of the 1980’s. This theology began with the grassroots people who were located in the barrios of the Philippines. During this time, the Filipino people suffered under the hands of their elected president, Ferdinand Marcos. The Filipino people suffered immensely because of the crimes that were committed by Marcos and his ruling party. Corruption was at the heart of his government. This was also the time that the United States granted independence to the Philippines. With the corruption of government on one hand and the independence of the Philippines on the other, the Filipino people had to adjust the internal and external change. Yet, through it all Marcos acted as a puppet of the United State because he allowed military bases to remain on the Philippine Islands and allowed natural resources to be given over to the United States. At this time, the Philippine independent government modeled itself after the United States and also received aid in the transition. Since many Filipinos were American citizens, many migrated to the U.S. and other parts of the world, including the Marianas. Most of these migrants were from the middle class. This left the Philippines in a state of imbalance in which the economically poor and rich remained. The theology of struggle was born because of this economic imbalance. The theology of struggle spoke on behalf of the option for the poor, and their popular religiosity is evident in the theology of struggle. The theology of struggle is theologically categorized under the brackets of liberation theology and bases itself upon “native wisdom,” the oral traditions: folklore, legends, stories, and popular religion of a society.

Since the context of Marianas and the Philippines is similar, the plight of the Chamoru and Filipino is similar. Politics and religious life are interwoven and are not separate due to the popular religiosity in each of the contexts. It is through the popular religiosity and the spirit within popular religiosity that the Chamoru and Filipino can choose “what kind or which kind of politics, what kind or which kind of theology.” This does not mean that religion meddles in political matters, but goes to the heart of colonialism, that is, to challenge the status quo, which is what makes people suffer. The theology of struggle for the Chamoru engages the consciousness of the people to ask why does the Chamoru suffer today?

In attempting to apply some of the principles to the theology of struggle to the context of the Chamoru in the Marianas, we will now list some of its basic applications to the Chamoru experience. It is in this process that the Chamoru can choose a theology that truly describes authenticity.

1. The theology of struggle finds its home and its context in the grassroots people who suffer.

When missionaries first came to these islands, they formed religious movements that have become part of the culture. Movements such as the Confraternity of Christian Mothers, which finds its roots in the Confradia de Nuestra Señora de la Consolacion (1767), the Third Order of St. Francis (1914), and the Knights of Columbus (c. 1945) have all been present on the island for a considerable period of time. These religious movements have become part of the life of the Chamoru culture, but have also been the agents of change in Chamoru society. Ronald Stade writes about how a Christian Mother, Belle Arriola, was elected into the Guam legislature and lobbied for a campaign against abortion. The movement of the Christian Mothers to freely bring their campaign to the forefront of public life demonstrates the ability to be active agents of change because most of the senators in the legislatures had mothers and grandmothers who belonged to the Christian Mothers. Indeed, Guam’s legislation to make abortion illegal was passed. However, the defeat of the Christian Mothers came when a counter suit was filed with the Supreme Court which ruled Guam’s law unconstitutional.

Since some religious groups have demonstrated the ability to become active agents of change within their society and within the injustices of the present, it is indeed a noble endeavor to rally these social movements of the Church to begin the process of theological reflection on their lives as a suffering and colonized people. Like the Basic Christian Communities present in the Philippines, the Chamoru might follow along the lines of creatively and strategically move the political situation further for self-determination. There must be openness to this kind of process, but it will take time to remove the symptoms of colonialism from the minds of people. The hurdles that I see difficult in realizing a liberation theology model are the Chamoru understanding of mamåhlao and/or being disatentu/disatenta. Over the years of colonialism under the Spanization, Germanization, Japanization, and Americanization of the Marianas, we have developed these symptoms of unworthiness and being ashamed. However, as my conversations are arising in and outside Church, I find that the Chamoru is longing to be validated as special person in these islands, for it is our homeland.

The Chamoru suffers not because we are economically poor like that of Latin America or the Philippines (however, with both governments of the Marianas at the brink of disaster, more and more Chamoru families will not be able to pay for essentials such as power, water, mortgages, land taxes and a whole slew of fees) but because we are on the verge of losing our identity, language, land, air and water. With the ever increasing “war on terror,” we have nuclear missiles pointed this way that may end all life in the Marianas. The increase in atomic nuclear weaponry and bombers, the expected population increase of 32,000 or more military personnel and their dependants, the increase in crime and the depletion of natural resources continues to show evidence to how the Chamoru is poor in their own lands. Who would have thought that the Chamoru will be a minority in their own lands?

2. The theology of struggle uses social analysis and praxis in its theological construction.

The Organic Intellectuals of the island, the practitioners of Chamoru culture and the educators of the island might help in this process of utilizing social analysis and praxis in these grassroots movements on Guam and the Marianas. Although many of the political and religious movements do concentrate on praxis, there must be emphasis to combine social analysis and praxis together.

Since much of the work of the religious movements has been towards the corporal works of mercy (Catholic Social Services), there has not been any progression to do social action. Social Action is the key to the process of the theology of struggle. Without social analysis or social action, there can be no praxis. Questions should target the social structures that keep people suffering must be asked and answered if a Chamoru theology of struggle is to be formed.

3. The theology of struggle firmly upholds the native wisdom, popular religiosity and oral traditions of the people.

The Chamoru people have within the grasps stories, legends, folklore, and narratives that can help to understand the suffering of Chamoru people. Likewise, the native wisdom of our elders, our man’amko, are still living. The preservation of this rich source of culture is crucial for a new dawning for the Chamoru people. Since the theology of struggle finds its essence in the cultural scripts and oral traditions of the people, grassroots movements can begin to utilize the native stories in their theological reflection, social analysis and praxis in seeking justice and liberation.

If native wisdom and oral traditions are important to the Chamoru, so is the popular religiosity. Popular religion has been a source of intrigue and controversy for theologians. However, there is much to learn about the popular religion of the Church. To some extent, popular religion and the spirit present in this religious expression describes the simplicity of life and how the divine enters into that daily reality. Devotions to the saints and to Mary are important for the theology of struggle because they tell what about faith is important for a culture. An example of this is Guam’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since Chamoru culture was once a matriarchy, and because the role of the woman is important in religious formation, the devotion to the Blessed Virgin aligns itself with the culture. Thus, by utilizing the narratives, oral traditions, native wisdom, and popular religiosity of the Chamoru, a theology of struggle can be constructed.

4. The theology of struggle utilizes the imagination.

Key to the theology of struggle is the use of the imagination. For a long time, the Chamoru people have used their imagination to meet the demands placed on them by their colonizers. During difficult periods in the Marianas’ history, the Chamoru people used their imagination to construct their homes, build canoes, produce medicine, and have dreamed about their future of living in peace and in harmony with all creation. Yet, during this time also, the Chamoru people were made to think and imagine from a Western perspective, to imagine like an individual which is the antithesis of Chamoru culture. The systemic problems that are subsisting in Chamoru culture today are perhaps the result of this happening over a long period of time. The notion “You can take the island away from the islander, but you can’t take the island from the islander” stands true.

The Chamoru people must utilize their native imagination in a more strategic process than just surviving. This is evident in the writings of narratives, poetry, plays, and history from the native perspective today. It will take a close reading of social analysis to be free to think and imagine, yet it is a new way of looking at the world and our belief structures.

The task is before the Chamoru people today to choose a way to authentically express the suffering and struggle of their race. It is a matter of life or death and for a better tomorrow where our ancient practices are honored and given credit and where we have a say in how our island is governed. It is hoped that a theology of struggle might allow for nuances of interpreting faith-life in the Marianas. As Chamoru tradition and faith embraces the challenges ahead, there is a tradition within the Catholic Church that might help to infuse new energy into this process of struggle: The Franciscan Tradition. The Franciscan Tradition helps us to come to a complete surrender to suffering, but at the same time can in fact free us from the symptoms of colonialism. With this I mean, a retrieval of the Franciscan charism to protect and defend mother Earth from mass weapons of destruction contained on our islands.

The Chamoru experience, both politically and religiously, is the source for the theology of struggle. The oral history within our grasp conveys an important element to our existence as a people of faith and a colonized people. The theology of struggle and its goals perhaps can allow the Chamoru people to expressively state what they desire and what they are entitled. By scooping through the oral traditions of the Chamoru, a nuanced understanding of faith is constructed whereby the Chamoru reality of struggle is paramount. Indeed, the difference between the Chamoru people and other native peoples is that the Marianas are still possessions of the United States, unlike that of the Philippines and Latin America. The Chamoru people struggle to find their voice that systemically has been removed or ignored by the governing bodies (religious and political) on the islands. Due to the colonial rulers over a long period of time, the Chamoru people are now only rediscovering a different way of approaching life: complete rejecting of the Catholic faith.

Part of the problem with the construction of social reality for the Chamoru people is the fact that older Chamoru who lived during wartime have a deep sense of “indebtedness” to the United States for liberating them from the hands of Japan. However, for the young Chamoru, the economic and self-governing by the local people at present is a mock government and the only ruling force on this island is the military. All the Chamoru wants is a fair share in justice and equality in their government and in their faith life in the Marianas.

In the same manner and without throwing away their Christian heritage, the Church must recognizes and give honor to the rich cultural traditions of the Chamoru so that an authentic faith blossoms. Perhaps setting up a Chamoru Liturgical Dance or Chant Group in parishes, re-establishing a mentoring program for Techas in parishes, forming small social action groups in parishes and working with existing resistance groups on the island to consciously look at scriptures and understand why the Chamoru people suffer are a few worthy ideas that needs consideration. The important question to ask in forming all of this is: Why do the Chamoru people suffer in the Marianas? We cannot just blame people, especially corrupt political and religious leaders and again wait for another leader or an outside movement that will take away all of our problems and bring us closer to Christ. We must work together and use our imaginations to protect our heritage as a Chamoru people. The laity must demand this from our spiritual leaders and spiritual leaders must listen with an open heart and mind in order to effect change on our islands.

The Church on Guam and the Marianas, under these circumstances, must be at the service of the people of God and stand as a beacon of hope for the Chamoru and all peoples. It will be basically up to the Chamoru people and their spiritual leaders to determine what is authentic and real for the worshipping Body of Christ. It will be in the identification with the suffering Jesus that the Chamoru people can take up the task of living the gospel message, a message about transformation and a message within the Chamoru culture. Overall, a radical change must happen if the Chamoru people are to own their own faith and have a voice.

The theology of struggle is a nuanced understanding of faith. If the Church on the Marianas adopts a theology of struggle, there are no limits to how the Chamoru people can use their imagination to re-construct an authentic, inculturated belief system, purified of the evils of colonialism. The Chamoru people must utilize their oral traditions and the ancient practice still within their grasp for it is a value system that has been handed down by our Chamoru ancestors. If the Chamoru people are to be truly liberated, it is imperative that they build on this foundation. It will be a radical change that will take time, but we must now move rapidly and demand this from both our political and spiritual leaders in the Marianas.

The dawning of the Chamoru legacy is upon us. The Chamoru struggles to find a voice politically and religiously and are still standing on the sidelines of their conquered history. Yet, the existence of a Chamoru history and narratives depict a people who are struggling and who are determined to seek justice in all areas of Chamoru life. One essential element that the Chamoru people must focus on is their faith belief system as it has been handed down through the ages. As painful and devastating this process might be, the Chamoru must be able to look beyond the “here and now” and unleash the giant: our native imaginations. Think of the possibilities. I re-echo the words of Hu Guiya Hao to you as a constant reminder that Christ’s message is that of love.


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