At the core of conflicts between different individuals or different groups is difference. There is something threatening or at least disconcerting about the unknown. We are somehow not at ease with the strange, with the unfamiliar. We lose our sense of security when faced with the other.
The first experience I had of encountering another culture was when I was sent as a young sister to study philosophy and theology in Germany.
The first challenge was language. Until the experience, one cannot imagine the sense of helplessness and stupidity felt when you cannot communicate with people around you. There is a sense of isolation, of alienation. Self-esteem goes down to almost zero. And even when you get to the point of understanding what was being said, there will still the inability to express yourself, your opinion. That can really cause frustration.
There were also the cultural differences: of values, of ways of doing things, of perspectives. I had a difficult time adjusting to the German sisters’ very direct and, for me, very pedagogical ways of pointing out mistakes or correcting how we did things. Since there were two of us Filipino sisters studying with two German sisters of our congregation, there was an ample opportunity of educating one another. From them we learned punctuality, thoroughness, stick-to-it-iveness and an appreciation of Bach and authenticity in art. From us, I think they learned tact, sensitivity, people-orientedness and joy of living.
I think that when one lives in another culture, one either assimilates into it or develops a deeper consciousness of one’s own culture. In my case, I became more conscious of being a Filipina.
Today our Filipino sisters find themselves in many parts of the world. We are an international congregation of German origin, and for decades it was the German house that sent sisters to the mission priories. With the lack of vocation in Germany, it is now Korean and Filipino sisters who are sent. We have the challenge of living in an international congregation made up of sisters from different countries and of living among people of a different culture.
In an international community, there is the undeniable fact that those who belong to dominant cultures, even if they are trying not to be racist, still somehow show vestiges of subconscious or
unconscious racism. This manifests itself in subtle ways, such as genuinely thinking their manner of doing things is “better” or portraying a patronizing attitude, expressing surprise that “our little Filipino or Korean sister managed something quite well.” Among people in developed countries who are aware of issues for the developing world, there can be an inverted paternalism of not questioning what people in the developing world say. There is a hesitance to engage in genuine dialogue or express honest disagreement.
Inculturation is an effort by missionaries to let Christianity take root and take on the cultural expressions of the people who embrace it. This is to prevent the imposition of another culture, especially when evangelization comes in the context of colonialism. Our sisters who are sent to foreign lands make an effort to study not only the language, but the history, culture and psychology of the people they will be living with. They also try to incorporate the music, dance and other forms of expression in the liturgy and worship.
When living among people of a dominated culture, as missionaries or development people do, outsiders can have a problem when they encounter an aspect of the culture that they consider “wrong.” But culture is not absolute. I believe that critique of culture is necessary, not everything in a culture is beneficial. There are also oppressive elements of culture which have to be opposed. But who has the right to critique culture?
I maintain that, in a dominated culture, only those within the culture can effectively critique it. One who is outside the culture should be very careful before passing judgment – the outsider has a completely different perspective, and usually people resent outside critique and become defensive.
What a missionary or a development person can do is to empower the people they live among by sharing skills and knowledge and also critique of one’s own culture. This could eventually awaken the need for people to critique their own culture and possibly initiate some changes. In colonized countries, appreciation could enable people to reclaim the positive values of their own culture, which they have begun to despise because of their acquired colonial mentality.
Another point is the realization that however long one is immersed in or has lived in another culture, one cannot claim to be totally identified with the people. Having lived decades among other people, missionaries and developers sometimes start to claim to be able to “speak for them.” This is quite dangerous because one might just be projecting one’s own perspective and vested interest.
Ecumenicity and interfaith relationships
In the Philippines, there were different phases in ecumenical relationships. Before Vatican II, even the religious congregations within the Catholic church did not work together but instead had a competitive attitude: whose school had the higher standard, whose basketball team was going to be the champion, et cetera. Between Catholics and Protestants, it was worse. Catholics were taught that it was a mortal sin to take part in the services of any Protestant church.
What brought us together? During the Marcos dictatorship, the struggle of the poor – the peasants, the workers and the slum dwellers – did. Members of different religious congregations started living and working with each other. Together they helped in the conscientization and organization of the people. Protestants and Catholics found themselves arm in arm in rallies, demonstrations. They were in the same advocacy communities, in the same teach-in and study groups and most especially in public prayer celebrations. Task forces would be made up of people of different denominations.
Later on, many ecumenical groups were formed, introducing me to interfaith dialogue.
I had also the opportunity to join a group of women scholars who formed an inter-religious group called TARA. We were two Catholic sisters, one Protestant bishop, three Buddhist nuns, one lay Buddhist woman, a Tantric meditation expert, a Muslim scholar and a Hindu laywoman. Our differences gave real richness to our discussions and enabled us to see issues from each other’s perspective.
From my experience of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, I have realized that true ecumenism comes from below, not from above; it is forged by common commitment, not by doctrinal discussions.
One of the most important developments in feminist theory is the realization of difference. It has been recognized that just as the male experience cannot be generalized into being the whole of human experience, so too the experience of one group of women cannot be made to represent the experiences of all women. This is the reason for African-American calling their movement womanist and the Latinas calling theirs, mujerista. However, I believe that different people or groups of people share some commonality of experiences. These may not be totally congruent, but there are areas of overlap, which for me offer the possibility and opportunity of solidarity.
During the times of intensive struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, we experienced the effectiveness of actions of solidarity. Many political prisoners were spared from torture or were released because of the pressure of outside groups that sent a deluge of telegrams and letters to the government and the military. Church groups used to adopt political prisoners, not only to send them letters of encouragement but also to work for their release.
For genuine solidarity, I think what is needed is a common vision of society and a common commitment to a cause.
We live in a world that has become a global village. There is no escape from people and groups who are different from us – in race, in culture, in religion, in political ideology, et cetera. I do not believe that it is enough to be tolerant with one another, to live and let live.
I feel real effort is needed to try to understand each other, to have honest, even difficult, confrontation about each other’s differences, to accept these differences and to purge one’s own prejudices and unconscious racism or bigotry. Then we must forge a common commitment to the human race and struggle against all forms of discrimination and exclusion and engage in common efforts to bring about a more just, humane society and to save our planet from ecological disaster. Only then can we truly call each other sisters and brothers.
Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a lecture given on December 3, 2013, at the Nijmegen Institute for Mission Studies, Netherlands, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.
[Sr. Mary John Mananzan, OSB, is a Missionary Benedictine Sister living in the Manila Priory, Philippines. She studied Missiology and Theology at Wilhelms-Universitat Muenster, Germany, and finished her Ph.D. in Philosophy with emphais in Linguistic Analysis at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. She is a political and feminist activist and helped develop an Asian Feminist Theology of Liberation]