Justice, Filipino Style
— Al Tizon
Born in the Philippines but having grown up in America, I have lost much of what it means to be distinctly Filipino. I did return to spend the better part of the 1990s as a community development missionary and while there rediscovered some of my ethnic heritage. Still, I am probably more American than I care to admit—what they call a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside.
But there is a Filipino trait that I seemed to have retained, a trait taught to us in language/culture school during our first year in the Philippines as “SIR”—the desire for and the capacity to achieve “smooth interpersonal relationships.” Tangible characteristics of this trait would include laughing one’s way out of an awkward situation; resolving conflict through negotiation as opposed to confrontation; liking everyone (or at least pretending to in some cases); making sure other people’s needs are being met; and viewing loud, brash, self-promoting, confrontational people with disdain (with a smile, of course). Now, this is not to say that I’ve never gotten angry (just ask my kids) or that I’ve never confronted anyone (just ask a few members of churches I’ve served). But for the most part, SIR seems to be a part of my nature.
At its worst, SIR can devolve into acquiescence, conflict avoidance, a tendency toward being taken advantage of, and an unhealthy need to be liked by all. At its best, SIR can provide the capacity to adjust to diverse situations and contexts, to endure hardship and struggle without too much complaining, and to serve as a bridge between conflicting parties. For better or for worse, my personality embodies both the negatives and the positives of SIR.
This might explain, at least in part, why I am so keen on reconciliation as a crucial, nonnegotiable expression of justice. Of course, in addition to my Filipino-fueled preference for peace, I also believe the Bible teaches that justice and reconciliation go hand in hand. Based on my read of Scripture regarding God’s nature and actions, biblical justice can be defined as a God-shaped demand of the gospel of Christ that addresses the root causes of social inequity, advocating for those who suffer, as well as challenging the principalities and powers that cause their suffering. This understanding of justice necessarily goes the distance toward a vision of reconciliation, which includes the liberation of the oppressed, the repentance of the oppressor, the restoration of the relationship between them, and ultimately, the restoration of the relationship between God and humanity.
I know—it’s a mouthful; but it’s necessary, for no definition of justice is adequate without the love-saturated notion of reconciliation. Justice needs reconciliation, because without it, justice can be exacting, merciless—an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth affair, which, of course, is a world away from biblical shalom. Justice in Christ, in fact, ends with healed relationships between oppressed and oppressor, abused and abuser, the crushed and the crusher. It ends with reconciliation between enemies.
No one is on the outs in God’s justice project. I don’t know if SIR informed my read of Scripture on this or if SIR simply resonates with biblical justice; either way, justice, Filipino style, requires reconciliation.
This might explain why, for example, I’m against the approach of some diversity and anti-racism trainers that seems to foment anger and bitterness toward the white community in general and the white people in attendance at these training sessions in particular. I’ve been a part of such sessions, and I don’t like them. Moreover, I ache when white students come to my office and wish, with clenched fist and streaming tears, that they weren’t white. Don’t get me wrong—as a person of color who has also experienced being on the short end of the stick of white privilege, I understand how one can be angry. And we should express that anger! But to stay there and call it justice violates every SIR fiber of my Filipino being and also violates what I believe the Bible teaches.
In light of God’s outrageously big love (Justice + Reconciliation = Love), from which no one is excluded, shouldn’t our racial justice ministry strive not only to empower people of color, and not only to make white people more aware of the privilege that they have enjoyed, but also to bring healing between black, brown, and white communities? If it doesn’t, we may be inadvertently advocating for the oppressed to become the new oppressors. Biblical justice is not interested in creating a new center of former marginalized peoples and former residents of the center relegated to the margins. Rather, it seeks to reflect what is to come in Jesus Christ—a world where center and margins don’t exist.
Practically speaking, when we work against racism, we must take pains not to condemn the white race but rather to keep the vision of all tribes and nations before us. When we work against sexism, we must be careful not to pit woman against man but rather ultimately to see women and men in mutual submission and in equal partnership for the sake of the gospel. When we work against classism, we must resist condemning the wealthy but rather see the poor and the rich in Christ enjoying the well-distributed blessings of God. And so on.
This is justice, Filipino style.
This is the first in our series, “Igniting Imagination for Reconciliation and New Creation”. Throughout this year we will be exploring many facets of our call to be “Ambassadors of Reconciliation”: with God, with one another, with God’s creation; between races, sexes, political, economic, faith, and things in between. If you would like to contribute your story of creative acts of reconciliation, please CONTACT US and take a look at our brief guidelines for submissions to this series.
Al Tizon is the Ronald J. Sider Associate Professor of Holistic Ministry at Palmer Theological Seminary, co-President of Evangelicals for Social Action, and co-Director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Eastern University.
Al is the author of Transformation After Lausanne: Radical Evangelical Mission in Global-Local Perspective (Regnum, 2008), co-author of Linking Arms, Linking Lives: How Urban-Suburban Partnerships Can Transform Communities (Baker, 2008), along with Ron Sider, John Perkins and Wayne Gordon, Missional Preaching: Embrace, Engage, Transform (Judson, 2012), and co-editor of Honoring the Generations: Learning with Asian North American Congregations (Judson, 2012) with Sydney Park and Soong-Chan Rah.
This post originally appeared on ESA’s website in the Holistic Ministry Blog