A colonized spirituality

I prayed all the time when I was younger. And whenever I did, I could not help but imagine a white face to whom I addressed requests and express my gratitude to. A white god. A white Jesus. A white savior whom I felt indebted to for taking the time to listen whenever I brought petition and praise.

As a first generation Filipina, my experiences with religion in the Philippines were never without the influences of Spanish Roman Catholicism, American Protestantism, or the mixture of both. I was rarely in touch with indigenous spiritual practices in my own country—in fact, I remember being discouraged to pay attention to them, as the very members of my Filipino Christian community characterized them as “uninformed by measurable facts,” “primitive,” and “emotionally-driven.” And yet, when it comes to the faith traditions of cultures outside our own, a collective fascination emerges. In many ways, the preference over anything foreign—more specifically more Western or white—has won the hearts of many Filipinos. There is an immediate allure over things that are American or white, and have less to do with our Southeast Asian-Pacific Islander culture. From there, I have learned that in all of our respective and diverse faith traditions, the messages and stories that shaped our spiritual formation did not come from a vacuum. Instead, they are related to a collective and older story.

Whenever colonization is the subject in textbooks, academic discourse, or simply in conversations with friends and colleagues, it bothers me to hear how this form of oppression is discussed as though it can now be archived in our history. While, in some way, this can be true, the demise of colonization did not reflect in its consequences that followed. The stories of national conquest and violence have not only been manifesting in issues of land ownership and political control, but this type of exploitation is detectable in the everyday details I see and use: language, views on beauty, in work industries, and so forth. In the Philippines, the cultural imprint of regime is in the very name of the country. Even in my own name: Gabrielle has French origins, and Torres is Spanish for towers.

I have been aware of how remnants of colonization are deep in history, government, education, socio-economics, literature, and so on. But it’s only recently that I have been introduced to the ways in which the harm and trauma due to unwelcomed empire did not leave spirituality untouched. It took a very long time for me to catch it because of how such remnants are pervasive and awfully too familiar to be noticed. How would I know that something is self-deprecatingly harmful if everyone else in my family and community have already been living by it?

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Stained glass window at the Chapel at Sintra, Portugal by Annie Spratt

Growing up in a predominantly Filipino Protestant background, my family, church community, and youth groups frequently read the New International Version of the Bible more than our Tagalog translation. In fact, I always thought that the original language of the holy text was in American English, and not in Hebrew or Greek. No one informed me otherwise. I was also trained to sing and play worship songs produced by contemporary Christian music in North America. It would be more surprising for me to discover a church that sung more Tagalog worship music than it is to find one that sings a repertoire of songs from the U.S.

Of course, we may argue that there is little opportunity for Filipinos to produce and distribute devotionals and theological resources of their own, but the issue rests in whose voice seems more believable and appealing to congregations. The level of access and opportunity will not change the reality that theological concepts and traditions from the West are simply more attractive to the majority of my people. And I am not exempt from such a group, and this is reflective of many decisions and preferences I have, including my pursuit of Bible education in the U.S.

While in Bible school, most members of the student body felt uncomfortable around the different styles of expressing worship that appear to be unrelated to or distant from white Christian culture. This involved dancing, non-Western musical instruments, chanting, postures of prayer, meditative practices, types of clothing, and so on. In white evangelicalism, I notice an inherent fear of being syncretistic, which is a state of fusing together various religious beliefs that opens the possibility for polytheistic practices to take place within church walls, praising gods and summoning spirits who are not the God of the Bible. On some occasions, I’d hear members of churches accuse expressions and practices foreign to the Western church as “demonic,” or susceptible to being attacked by evil spirits. I noticed their need to stay within the boundaries of orthodoxy, and to protect and conserve Christian beliefs. It made me wonder if the church’s calling really was precision, efficiency, and safeguarding truth. How could a truth that claims to have swallowed up death entirely needs any of our protection?

Here we see an impulse—a hypervigilance, even—to stick to the Western church’s version of god. This impulse to be “accurately Christian” resulted in acts of silencing, calling out, casting out, shaming, “other-ing” and even exiling people, along with the core parts of their collective and individual identities. It hindered me from loving and knowing my own voice, identity, and body.

An active and vicious element of American Imperialism is and has always been American Protestantism. On an unconscious level, I often felt I am only heard and accepted by God if I covered up my Filipina-ness. I had an inner sense of assurance that if I were to repeat the same confessions and imitate the behaviors like that of the American church’s, then not only is my spot in heaven secure, but I also felt like I earned God’s attention and love. This is not freedom. This is a colonized understanding of what it means to be free and to belong. It does not provide the space for healthy, authentic, and kind relationships with ourselves and with one another. And I’d like to think that spirituality, after all, is primarily concerned about liberation and relational belonging. Not being precisely and accurately Christian. Christ did not bleed for such things.

This problem manifests in how our relationships with ourselves and others affect our relationship with the Divine. For the longest time, it felt as though my culture is disconnected and unrelated from who God is. Because the United States felt transcendent from who I am (i.e., more educated, sophisticated, beautiful, etc.), then it made sense to me at the time that God’s essence, identity, and presence must be in closer proximity to white Americans—rendering myself as “less faithful” or “not as Christlike;” therefore, spiritually inferior. For the Western church to leave these thoughts unaddressed and unchallenged reflects a poisonous belief that God’s family excludes the different other. In this, we see how the church has confused harmony with homogeneity, and considers diversity as disorderly.

For the longest time in my life, belonging in God’s family meant singing, presenting, behaving, and even praying in a certain way—as if there is an objective criteria for what it means to have faith. And as I write, my heart aches today for two things: (1) I grieve over the moments when my younger self felt like it still took work to become a child of God, and (2) I am angered by how this is no foreign story to the generations before me. My spiritual wounds are both my own and were passed on.

Writing this article was no easy process. It is deeply personal. I felt terrified for being possibly hated by members of the Christian church and being accused of hating it first. Yet, I write precisely because I love the church, and how I do not want another young brown girl to question whether or not there is room for her in Christ’s family. I do not want her to feel like she is not welcome because of the sways, swings, and taps of her dances; the vibrancy of her clothing; the stretched out arms of her worship; the affectionate words of her mother tongue; and the depth of story told by her dark skin. She is favored and chosen by the Divine because of them and not despite.

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