Liberation theology in Asia

The Asian context

Liberation theology differs from other theologies in that it starts with an analysis of the context, as it wants to respond to the cries of the people arising from it. As contextual theology we can distinguish it by regions -Latin American, African, Asian, European - and by social groups such as the poor, women, blacks, Dalits, indigenous peoples. However, none of these social or geographical identities can be understood in isolation* Contexts and identities are multiple and overlapping. The realities of class, caste, patriarchy and ethnicity, and of local, regional and global economy are intertwined. A Dalit girl working in a factory in an export-processing zone in India is exploited as an underpaid worker - like other workers around the globe - and suffers from a lack of protection by trade-union rights, while as a woman she suffers from male domination and violence - as other women do - whereas she shares her plight as an 'untouchable' suffering from caste oppression with other outcastes, male and female, in India.

What is specific about Asia, especially in contrast with Latin America, is the religio-cultural context, The overwhelming majority of the poor and oppressed in Asia are non-Christians, many of whom adhere to a wide variety of popular religious traditions which are more or less connected with the traditions of the great religions which have shaped dominant Asian cultures. Yet within Asia there arc again tremendous differences, Latin America is, compared to Asia, a relatively homogeneous continent in terms of history, language, economic and political developments. Asia has to be subdivided into various regions with different cultural, religious, political and economic histories. In this chapter only a few areas come into view, primarily India, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines as places where liberation theological perspectives are being articulated. From the various attempts to analyse the common Asian context, as tried in study centres and ecumenical gatherings, the following basic points may bà5tiaan wielenga be highlighted: the persistence of mass poverty, the threat to democratic rights, the double role of religion and the ecological problem.

The persistettce of mass poverty

Poverty in Asia has many faces: the landless peasant in search of work, the child labourer longing for rest, the coolie collapsing under the luggage of wealthy tourists, the traditional fisherman who fishes in vain because hightech fishing vessels have emptied the sea, the village girl in what nowadays is called the sex industry, the destitute who is discarded by the economic system and the state.

The causes of their poverty cannot be discussed in detail. In the first decadcs after shaking off the yoke of colonialism the tendency was to see mass poverty as the combined product of an economically stagnating traditional type of Asian society and the deprivation caused by imperialist plunder, exploitation, and withholding of Western science and technology. The devastating impact of colonialism is beyond doubt, but the perception and evaluation of traditional Asian society was misled by a dominant 'development' ideology which measured poverty in terms of per capita income in US dollars and Western living standards. As a result subsistence producers with a satisfactory and sustainable livelihood were classified and treated as 'poor' because of a low monetary income, lack of electricity, toilets, mechanisation and the like. They lived an austere life, but became poor only as a result of development policies which deprived them of their livelihood through the process of monétisation and modernisation. Thus subsistence producers turned into landless labourers, migrants and slum dwellers, joining the ranks of the poor and deprived. This process becomes aggravated in recent years through the world-wide triumph of trade policies favouring the freedom of global capital and MNCs to move in and out of national economies in pursuit of profit. The policies of IMF, World Bank and WTO - whatever their claims - are contributing to a further pauperisation and marginalisation of millions of people for whom there is no role and no use in a global market economy dominated by the logic of capital. Theology in Asia - as elsewhere - is facing the destructive power of Mammon as never before.

The threat to democratic rights

Asia has been the scene of great anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles. But in many of the countries which gained independence the leadership failed to foster democratic participation and space. Dictatorial set-ups developed rather soon, as alienation of the disappointed masses and state repression grew side by side. Dictatorship took different forms, from military regimes in Indonesia, Pakistan and Burma, to martial law regimes in the Philippines (under Marcos) and South Korea or one-party dictatorship as in Taiwan. The countries where the anti-imperialist struggle had been led by communist parties came under the dictatorial rule of the vanguard party which in the case of Kampuchea established a most murderous regime. India and to some extent Sri Lanka seem to have been exceptions as they kept up more or less functioning parliamentary democracies. However, even there the record of violation of human and democratic rights is depressing, the redeeming feature being, especially in India, that there is some democratic space for movements within the country to raise their voices in protest.

As a result of the repressive role of the state the struggle for democratic rights has been a top priority in popular movements all over Asia. In those struggles protest against traditional forms of oppression - such as caste, patriarchy, discrimination of minorities - converges with protest against new forms of victimisation, caused by modern development promoted by the state and hitting the same vulnerable groups first of alL Workers and peasants struggling for survival are fighting for their rights to organise. Women's movements fighting patriarchy and violence in the family and in daily life expose the militarisation of state and society as a culmination of the same. Eco-movements protesting against ecologically destructive dams or large-scale logging of tropical forests are defending the livelihood of tribals and forest-dwellers, who have been the victims of marginalisation by traditional socicty long before, Ethnic and religious minorities are protesting that they are denied jobs and other benefits of modern development and deprived of their rights to protest. Sometimes students arc in the forefront of these movements- What emerges, as is being pointed out by some of the new social movements, is that the post-colonial state which pursues the modernisation of the cconomy unavoidably tends to become repressive and dictatorial as it turns out to benefit only some at the cost of others.

In this respect there is little difference between countries with a dictatorial regime and those with a parliamentary set-up. The fall of dictators and the change of governments through elections do not solve the basic problems of the modernisation project, Victims of modern <3evelopment, masses of uprooted and marginalised people, are asking what sort of development it is which makes them redundant. The state responds with repression and the curbing of democratic rights. Increasingly it does so in the context of implementing "structural adjustment1 programmes in accordance with IMF and World Bank conditions. People's movements experience their state more and more as the police force of global capital, that most undemocratic, uncontrolled concentration of power. Theology in Asia is facing the despotism of uncontrolled Pharaonic power.

The double role of religion

The struggle for justicc and freedom in Asia is complicated through the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of Asian societies. Religion plays a powerful role both in justifying oppression and in inspiring and sustaining thirst, and struggles, for justice, The oppressive role of religion is notorious in the legitimation of patriarchy and of caste. It further appears where dominant religions justify discrimination against religious minorities. On the other hand, protest movements may also appeal to religious motives, Mahatma Gandhi in India and Khomeini in Iran are well-known examples of the power of religious motivation in anti-imperialist struggles. But they also show the problems involved. Gandhi was able to mobilise the masses, he tried to overcome oppressive practices of Hinduism like child-marriage and untouchability, and chauvinist attitudes towards other religions. Yet his commitment to Hinduism, including a reformed caste system, alienated the Dalits - the untouchable outcast groups - who are still enraged today about his treatment of their leader Dr Ambedkar, and it contributed to the India-Pakistan break-up along religious lines.

The oppressive role of religion is conspicuous in the legitimation of patriarchy, affecting women all over Asia. No religious tradition is free from it. Women rising up to free themselves and society from this oldest form of oppression find it often hard to identify liberating undercurrents in their religious traditions. This led some of them to opt for a secularist course of struggle for emancipation. However, others insist on the reform of religion rather than its abolition as a more liberative perspective.

Religion plays a divisive and oppressive role in many social and political conflicts. Dalits arc oppressed by Brahminical Hinduism in India, Many of them have rejected Hinduism and have become Neo-Buddhists in their search for equality and human dignity. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has a religious aspect as dominant Buddhism is based on the Sinhala majority. Tamils are Hindu or Muslim, while Christians are on both sides. Buddhists are driven out of Bangla Desh which is dominated by a Muslim majority. Muslims in the southern Philippines are fighting against a state dominated by a Christian majority. Christians in north-east India are fighting against the Indian state. Many of these armed ethnic struggles aiming at a separate state turn exclusive, create new minorities and evolve into internecine conflicts. Similarly the Dalits find it difficult to unite. One of the factors which divides them is religion, as some have converted to Buddhism, others to Christianity or Islam, whereas again others remain within the setting of Hindu traditions-

It is not surprising in view of all this that secular nationalist reformers, leftist revolutionaries, and many feminists rather opted for radical modernisation and a secular state as the way to a more free and just society* In the communist-ruled countries of Asia - China, North Korea, Vietnam, Kampuchea, and Laos - this took the form of repression or severe restriction of religious practices and traditions. In China this found its brutal, iconoclastic expression in Mao's Cultural Revolution, In a country like India it took the soft form of a modernising state which left all religious traditions free while its Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of nuclear reactors as the new temples of India, Both approaches have lost their momentum. The whole of Asia is now exposed to the devastating impact of the global media on cultural traditions. The integration into global capitalism and its nivellating, homogenising effects provokes various responses- Not all religious fundamentalist movements can be taken to be genuine responses of protest. Political manipulation and calculation may play a significant role. Careful studies are needed in each case. Certain movements, like the Hindu chauvinistic movement in India, are committed to modernisation and integration into global capitalism, but see a chance to come to power by projecting a sort of religious nationalism at the cost of Muslims, But others turn to their religious traditions in order to oppose consumerist-mammonist secularism. For liberation theology this poses the question on which basis it might be possible to develop a common opposition to the powers that be.

The ecological proble?n

Ecological concerns are more and more penetrating the agendas in Asia also, though the 'tiger' economies are still rushing forward blind to the disasters they are preparing. Indigenous peoples, women in subsistence peasant economies, fish workers and other marginalised groups are the first to register the threat to life, as they are most directly in touch with nature and dependent on it* Workers in factories will take more time to notice. In their case it is catastrophes like that in Bhopal which alert them. Bank directors will be the last to notice and to be affected. Earlier, Asia has seen peasant struggles against exploitation and repression by landlordism and the state* Such struggles often got linked up with a Maoist-revolutionary perspective in our century. In the process the cultural and religious values of peasant communities were ignored or suppressed. On the other hand a leader like Gandhi tended to romanticise the peasantry without addressing its class and caste problems, This time indigenous peoples, hill farmers and other subsistence producers, often with women in the forefront, arc raising issues of economic survival and social justice as well as of ecological sustaínability. In the process traditional values regarding the relationship to nature, the down-to-earth cosmic spirituality of village religion and folk assumptions have come across to other sections of people in eco-movements as prccious elements of people's and humankind's heritage. What used to be dismissed as superstition now attracts much more serious attention. People's myths are rediscovered, A Christian painter in India, Jyoti Sahi, explores tribal myths in his paintings and brings out their ecological significance and their challenge to Christians.

These developments - which cannot be spelled out in detail - are bringing a new openness to appreciate popular religion, as distinct from the highly abstract religious thought systems and world-views, the religion of the elite which used to be called the 'high tradition1. Of course, for many modern revolutionaries it is quite a long and difficult process of reorientation, as they had expected all these myths and rituals to have been long forgotten. Among liberation theologians the process has started.

Christian responses with a liberative perspective

Liberation theology does not have a broad popular base in the churches of Asia comparable to the Basic Communities in Latin America- Mostly being tiny marginalised minorities Christians and churches in Asia tend to avoid confrontation with the powers that be. Usually an individualistic-pietistic outlook prevails. Exceptions can be found in the Philippines - which with its Christian majority and experience of Spanish colonialism is more comparable with a Latin American situation - and in South Korea and Taiwan.

Liberative theological responses to the social and political situation on the local and continental level have been primarily stimulated through ecumenical gatherings and networks, through study centres, individual theological teachers and some theological seminaries. The Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), the Conference of Churches in Asia (CCA), the World Student Christian Federation Asia/Pacific, centres like the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS) and the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore/India, the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo, and others, have through conferences and publications made major contributions to the formation of a liberative theological response in the Asian context- Their role and impact in the churches may appear rather marginal, but they have stimulated and supported groups which got directly involved in social and political action, relating to trade unions, peasant organisations, fish workers1 movements, women, students and human rights organisations. The Urban Industrial Mission in South Korea, the Christian Workers' Fellowship and the Devasanara Collective Farm in Sri Lanka may be mentioned as examples.

Another significant form of involvement has been and is that of individual Christians joining secular mass organisations and popular movements. They may rarely articulate their motivation in theological terms, they may seldom appear in church gatherings, but they are - often anonymously -present as salt, working together with non-Christians in practical solidarity. They have overcome the marginalisation of Christians, they are there where the basic conflicts of society are being fought out. There they face the problem how to relate to their Christian faith tradition, as a living spiritual source without causing divisions along religious lines.

Here appears a major difference with the situation in Latin America. Christianity has played a highly problematic role in colonial times. There has been an embarrassing number of Christians among Asia's dictators in post-colonial times - such as Chiang Kai-Shek in China and Taiwan, Ngo Diem in South Vietnam, Park in South Korea, and Marcos in the Philippines - but there has not been a Christian state ideology. State repression of popular movements has been and is being justified by national security, anti-communism, development etc. but not in the name of Christ, Of course, obliging statements of status-quo minded church leaders are always welcome and the charity of Mother Teresa may be prominently projected as the proper response to the problems of poverty. But the God of the Bible does not figure in the ideological dcfence of the state and its policies. If religion is used for ideological purposes, then the gods, the traditions and the godmen of the majority community are more useful.

Liberation theology in Asia, therefore, does not have the function of criticising a pseudo-Christian legitimation of the prevailing system. But its critique of other forms of religious ideological idolatry is easily misunderstood in the social context of conflicting and competing religions. Traditionally Christians have calumniated the gods of other religions as idols, self-righteously assuming that they themselves were free of idolatry. Fundamentalist preachers do so still today. The necessary critique of Brahminical Hindu communalism or Buddhist-Sinhala chauvinism can be mistaken as a continuation of that approach in the garb of liberation theology, unless it simultaneously and effectively criticises the fetishist absolutisation of their own community among Christians and the idolatrous worship of a Christian God who is no longer associated with the affirmation of life and liberation of the poor, but rather with the forces of death hidden in the 'blessings' of prosperity and progress for some at the cost of many.

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  • poppy bolger-baggins
    Who is the Srilanka theology?
    2 years ago
  • Allen Reynoso
    What different betwen latin liberation theology and asia liberation theology?
    2 years ago

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