In 2013, after Megyn Kelly’s suggestion that Jesus was white, I wrote a piece for Sojourners on “ Why White People Need a Non-White Jesus,” in which I reflected, “white people need to sit at the feet of people of color to learn what it means to overcome injustice ... it is people of color who know most experientially what it means to bear the cross of Christ.”
As I have integrated this reflection in my own life, I have come to understand Jesus as Filipino.
The Philippines is a country that the president-elect has called a terrorist nation. While it is obvious Trump’s analysis of our world lacks compassion, it reflects the often unrecognized Filipino struggle that has been ongoing for centuries. Since the 1500s, Filipinos have faced colonization at the hands of Spain, Japan, and the United States. As I’ve argued before, oppressed people have a great deal to teach about the sacrifice following Christ entails, and the Filipino struggle for liberation is full of lessons.
In his book Toward a Theology of Struggle, Filipino scholar Eleazar S. Fernandez writes, “There are those who suffer but do not struggle ... The suffering but struggling Jesus, in contrast to the passive and meek Jesus, is not foreign to Filipinos [and] ... is discernible in many instances in the history of the Filipino people.”
The “suffering but struggling” Jesus is clear in the case of the Lumad, a group of 18 indigenous tribes in Mindanao. In recent years, the Lumad have experienced countless attacks at the hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, paramilitary groups, and the Philippine National Police, funded and trained by the U.S. under Oplan Bayanihan or “Internal Peace and Security Plan.” While Oplan Bayanihan has been veiled in the language of protecting communities, it has terrorized civilian Lumad leaders and communities, only protecting foreign mining companies and other land-grabbing entities that favor the rich.
At an evacuation hosted by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, I met the “suffering but struggling Jesus” when I spoke with Bai Bibyaon, the only female chieftan of the Lumad. Bai is over 90 years old, and, like Christ fleeing angry crowds and the surveillance of the Roman Empire, Bai has fled her ancestral land from the violence of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, all to be in sanctuary with her people, the Manobo. She told me, “Our ancestral land, on the Pantaron Mountain, is the only remaining virgin forest in Mindanao. All we want is peace, and to be in our ancestral lands without the Armed Forces of the Philippines or mining companies destroying our land.”
A few days later, I met a Methodist pastor who also worked among the Lumad. In a time of intense drought in their region, this pastor worked to pass out all the relief the church had access to. At one point during the drought, Lumad leaders and farmers protested the lack of government response to the drought. Police responded by opening fire on the unarmed protestors, resulting in several deaths and multiple wounds in the Kidapawan Massacre. When this pastor spoke out on the radio against the actions of the government, he received death threats within a few days. But, unafraid to struggle, he told me, “If you are afraid to die, you are not a Christian.”
The reality of this costly struggle is rooted in the conditions of the Philippines, and particularly in the ongoing conflict between the government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front, a war that has been running for 48 years. In recent months, as peace talks have resumed between the two parties, leaders in the Philippines have launched Just Peace, an international platform that recognizes that for peace to last it must come with justice. As Bai and the Methodist pastor both noted in their action, there can be no peace for the people if there is not access to basic needs like water, land, and food. The Just Peace platform demands that the current peace talks directly address the problems of scarcity and poverty as the driving forces of the civil war.
The vision of the Just Peace platform is strikingly coherent with the vision Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. As Palestinian scholar Mitri Raheb notes, when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus does not separate peace from the physical realities of this world, but continues to say that the meek “will inherit the earth.” In Jesus’ vision, inheritance and access to land is the prerogative of the poor and the oppressed. Land is also the prerogative of the Filipino poor in their struggle for peace. Filipinos the world over are not demanding merely the absence of arms, but the kind of peace Jesus suggests when he declares good news and abundant life to the poor.
In the United States, we are entering a time when many are realizing the intensity of suffering possible under a Trump presidency. One Slate writer noted that for white people in particular, we were horrified at the election of Trump because “the scales had finally fallen from our eyes, and we could at last see our unjust, racist, sexist country for what it is.”
It is time the scales fall from the eyes of United States citizens to see the way our government continues to fund the war in the Philippines. While the United States military continues to occupy the Philippines, let us also open our eyes to see the way Filipinos have organized for peace through centuries of imperialist war and plunder. As fear expands under the incoming Trump presidency, may the scales fall from our eyes so that we may see and follow the Filipino Jesus, who not only suffers but teaches us to struggle for a just and lasting peace.