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“What do you think brought you to prison”?

“I was looking for a Filipino theology”.
“You don’t land in prison for that! Theology is not a dangerous enterprise”.
“It can be. But it’s a long story” [emphasis added]” (de la Torre, 1986a:1).

I ndeed, it is a long story! The theology of struggle’s official beginning

could be considered to have taken place in an air-conditioned library at
St. Scholastica’s College in Manila in 1982. There a small group of Chris-
tians came together to discuss their various and ongoing involvement in
the struggle for national liberation that had been raging in the Philippines
for over twenty years. What specifically united this diverse group of reli-
gious men and women, priests and laity, was their search for a theology that
might assist them in understanding their place in this revolutionary struggle.
They had been meeting on and off for almost a decade and, regrouping in
the early 1980s, they also wanted to examine how commitment to the
struggle affected one’s spirituality. In many ways, these gatherings in the
library had been forced upon the group. The dominant organization in the
struggle, the Communist Party of the Philippines, questioned how church
people could maintain their religiosity and engage in the fight against op-

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pressive forces, one of which they viewed as the Christian Church. On the
other hand, some Church hierarchies, religious orders and communities
asked how Christians could immerse themselves in a leftist or Communist
struggle, perceiving the beliefs as antithetical. Progressive church people
thus looked to produce theological material and articulate something of
their witness and experience of working at the grassroots that would pro-
vide inspiration to assist Christians in sustaining their actions and justifica-
tion to support their stance. This meeting, however, would be historic for,
during the proceedings, one of the participants, Louie Hechanova, remarked,
“We should call our theology the theology of struggle, rather than a theology
of liberation.”
The theology of liberation was a source of hope and encouragement to
church people in the Philippines but its context was Latin American. Whilst
the situation that led to its production had remarkable parallels with the
Philippine scenario, one of the objectives of the Filipino struggle was to
throw off the yoke of colonialism in its many guises. Taking on a theology
from another continent seemed merely to be a continuation of this depen-
dency. In fact, as ‘the theology of struggle’ found its voice, traditional theo-
logical content as such was barely recognizable. Put simply, the theology of
struggle was, and continues to be, the response of socially concerned Christians
who, after experiencing conversion as a result of living and working among the
poor, found themselves committed to a new way of ‘being’ Christian. The re-
sponse aimed to empower Christians to take part in the fight for justice in
a country riddled with injustice; to reflect upon their involvement with
people at the grassroots; and to assist in transforming both society and the
Christian churches. The nature of the theology of struggle was stressed as
being more practical than academic, noting that those who joined the
struggle were called to a radical form of commitment: “Makibaka, huwag
matakot” (“Dare to struggle, be not afraid”) (Gaspar, 1988:59).
However, to begin the story in 1982 would be to deny years of engage-
ment as this new form of Christianity, espoused by a significant group
within the Christian churches in the Philippines, initially erupted in the
1960s, took hold in the 1970s, reached its peak in the 1980s and, whilst its
influence waned following the 1986 demise of the Marcos regime, contin-
ues to inspire. It substantially affected the way a number of people in the
Philippines viewed and practised their faith and also generated substantive
institutional change. A superficial glance at the theology of struggle leaves

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the impression of a disparate group of people coming together in the name

of Christianity to battle for social justice. However, as stories unfold, an
impressive picture emerges of church people acting in unison, striving for
a common outcome as they explored a variety of ways to live out the gospel
message. Creating this image, however, is similar to completing a collage.
Some elements overlap or appear to be repetitive; certain people have dual
or multiple personas; missing pieces, despite extensive searches, leave gaps;
and fragmentation scatters organizations and groups that once appeared to
be cohesive. Through the process, an illustration materialises of the theol-
ogy of struggle as a committed group of people who affected social, reli-
gious and political realms in the Philippines.
My interest in the theology of struggle was aroused as a result of an
intensive ‘exposure’ experience in the Philippines in 1986. Almost a de-
cade later, I returned to undertake formal research. Six months of field-
work, including further ‘exposure’ programs and in-depth interviews as
well as extensive literature searches, all of which provide the raw data for
this study, took place in two stages: November 1995 – February 1996 and
January – February 1998. In these visits, principal exponents of the theol-
ogy of struggle were interviewed; meetings were held with leaders of di-
verse organizations as well as with members of small Christian communi-
ties; and further immersion in the Philippine situation ensured greater com-
prehension and appreciation as to the nature of revolutionary struggle.
The initial experience in 1986 imparted an understanding of the depth of
oppression, poverty and injustice. The theology of struggle cannot be truly
comprehended without such exposure. Further immersion in the years
which followed built on that experience. These encounters affected me
greatly and this project inevitably reveals some of the consequences.
Due to the nature of the material, a number of problems documenting
the theology of struggle are faced. In strictly academic terms, few of the
activists/writers who developed the concepts would be termed ‘theologians’.
Theology has traditionally been conducted by academics residing within
university walls, but the men and women involved in the theology of struggle
are working among a group identified by the phrase, ‘the poor, deprived
and oppressed’. Clearly, their theology could not be undertaken in the
‘traditional’ manner. Rather, they witness and share a passionate existence
and an often painful and threatening set of experiences. It is described as a
lived theology, encompassing all aspects of life. It is a vocation embodying

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risk. Some who identified with the theology of struggle have died or disap-
peared. A number have been tortured. Others have fled their homeland
and some are still in exile. During martial law years, a number went ‘un-
derground’. Some continue this existence in the present, still mindful and
While the naming of the theology of struggle in 1982 along with many
of the public episodes associated with it in the decade prior to that event
are simple to trace and narrate, much has remained unreported and un-
written, shared only between ‘dependable’ people. Those engaged in the
ongoing struggle for justice in the Philippines did so at great personal risk
and cost. In the past, some unsuspecting church people trusted researchers
but when their stories were reported in foreign media, a number of people
were named and, as a result, some were killed. In this context, it is clear
that any in-depth study of the theology of struggle must be undertaken by
someone who is sympathetic and sensitive to the causes espoused. Fortu-
nately, people shared heartfelt stories and answered my many questions. I
am grateful for the support given and trust shown. Clearly, this study could
not have completed without both.
Most people who shared stories indicated that certain parts of their
discussion need to be treated anonymously. When naming people would
in any way endanger them or their present position, anonymity must be
preserved. These people cannot be adequately acknowledged. They re-
counted information, often of a highly sensitive nature and showed in-
credible devotion to their cause/s. In detailing stories and exploits, some
revealed their underground persona, divulging how they worked and sur-
vived during the years of martial law. Some recounted personal suffering at
the hands of religious superiors. Leaders of groups that are still not recog-
nized as legal organizations disclosed their position or role and why they
remain committed to the fight for social justice. The numerous occasions
when the speakers cannot be identified are lamentable but necessary and
times where pseudonyms are adopted are noted.
The remarkable lives encountered make it impossible to view their fight
dispassionately. In return for their trust, they asked for the piecing together
of the theology of struggle and the writing of their ‘story’ with honesty and
integrity. That they are willing for an outsider to critique such an immensely
sensitive series of experiences may seem strange. Many I met, in fact, be-
lieved that an outsider, someone not involved with a group, faction or

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religious order, could portray the diverse character of the theology of struggle
in a more objective manner. Their names may be removed and an outsider
may be producing their story, but there remains an obligation to convey
their passion, anger, grief and pain; emotions that have been dynamic mo-
tivating forces.
This book sets out to piece together the theology of struggle. A num-
ber of issues are crucial to appreciating and interpreting its distinctiveness:
organization at the grassroots; awareness-raising among, and transforma-
tion of, both religious and laity; theological reflection as a result of immer-
sion in the people’s lives; reasons why church people were prepared to risk
their lives; and how a new understanding of ‘being church’ came to frui-
tion. While there is textual material to assist in coming to an understand-
ing, it communicates only part of the truth as much of the theology of
struggle remains undocumented. In order to comprehend and analyse the
theology of struggle in the Philippines, a deliberate time-line is followed:
• historical overview;
• the era from the mid 1960s-around 1972;
• 1972 - the mid 1980s;
• the mid 1980s to the present period.
Breaking this down further, the first chapter sets the scene, establishing
the context of the theology of struggle both within the Philippines and
globally. Chapters two and three study the period from around the mid
1960s to mid 1970s and show the emergence of an identifiable group of
Christians engaged in the struggle. It considers how church people tenta-
tively accepted changes within their lives and elucidates the role played by
diverse groups and organizations operating within the Philippines that led
to transformative incidents. Chapters four to seven emphasize critical de-
velopments that took place from around 1972 to the mid 1980s. They
delineate the formation of the theology of struggle as a movement of sig-
nificance, beginning in 1972 with the development of the crucial organi-
zation, the Christians for National Liberation, and then trace the coming
together of faith, politics and action as church people deepened their in-
volvement in the struggle raging in the Philippines. They also examine the
naming of the theology of the struggle and the further involvement of
Christians within the broad leftist movement striving for change. Chap-
ters eight and nine reveal effects of the demise of the Marcos presidency in
1986, scrutinise internal fragmentation and institutionalization of the the-

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ology of struggle, and conclude by demonstrating how a small group at-

tempted to move beyond division. The conclusion draws strongly on the
voices of those involved and shows clearly what is the theology of struggle.
What then, briefly, is the theology of struggle?

The theology of struggle is not about theology as such. Its primary

concern is the Philippine struggle itself: how to participate in that
struggle as Christians, how to make available in that struggle the re-
sources of the Christian life and tradition, and how to make alive Chris-
tian spirituality in that struggle. … The theology of struggle is about
immersion in the primary reality of Philippine society: the reality of
millions and millions of people who suffer, who are oppressed, who
are deprived, who are victims - but have not lost hope, who are not
passive - but who struggle, who fight not only for their liberty but our
liberty as well, and for the building of a more just, free and compas-
sionate society. (Cariño, in Narciso-Apuan, Battung, & Bautista,

The ‘theology of struggle’ is, at least, partly a misnomer. As Cariño

says, it ‘is not about theology as such’. It is about life and can only be
comprehended by looking at its diversity and richness. As a result, aspects
such as drama, images, actions, songs, poetry, and artwork, along with the
all important narratives, texts and historical details must be shared. I have
attempted to include all of these crucial elements. My aim is to give as
accurate an account as possible of these courageous and selfless people,
their exploits, and the outcomes. I hope that this book honors their faith
in me while also honoring the depth of the theology of struggle. I hope
that it demonstrates clearly an extraordinary group of Christians in the
Philippines who were called:

to be at once prophet, philosopher and participant: like the prophet,

to heed the call of justice even when we do not understand how or
why; like the philosopher, to be willing to take a step back from this
call to reflect critically on it; and like the participant, to enter freely
and truly into the drama of transformation in the name of creating
and nurturing a critical, reflective, and creative theory and practice
that is committed not only to change, but to changing the way we
change (Ruiz, 1986:30).

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