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PEACEBUILDING AND TRANSFORMATION: Being a Christian Witness in a Conflicted land. By Dann Pantoja

These are the roots of and the basic theology that we are sharing with local churches.

By Dann Pantoja

Christian witness is about telling the truth—the Truth we experienced in Christ. Our witness ought to be authenticated with our lives. It means loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.It means loving our enemies, reconciling with them, and respecting them as friends. It involves living in their midst in justice and in peace. It involves being transformed in all aspects of our lives in accordance to the character of Jesus—the Prince of Peace. Christian witness is submitting our whole life, our whole being, to the Almighty God. It is acknowledging God’s sovereignty over our most valued priorities. When we acknowledge the God of the Bible, such acknowledgment “requires the reordering of everything else.”1

Three years ago, I lived in the Municipality of Sultan Kudarat, in the Province of Shariff Kabungsuan (formerly a part of Maguindanao Province), for six months. The house where I lived was just a few kilometers away from Camp Darapanan, the Central Headquarters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). I stayed in a neighborhood called Nuling, the traditional residence of a respected clan who are the descendants of Sultan Kudarat. I introduced myself just as I am—a Tagalog Christian who wants to build peaceful relationship among the Maguindanao Muslims. I told them that I was a pastor and a student of Theology and that I was preparing to be a peacebuilding worker among the tri-people of Mindanao—the Lumad (Indigenous Peoples), the Bangsamoros2 (mostly Muslims), and the Migrants (mostly Christians). They learned about my family, my religious background, my political background, and my dual citizenship as a Filipino and as a Canadian. Though I was scared at first, I determined to be completely transparent with them.
Today, my family had been adopted by a respected datu (a traditional community leader) and his extended family. My wife is like a sister to a bai (a lady belonging to the datu clan). My 23-year old son who was raised in Canada is so at home with his Bangsamoro Muslim friends in Sultan Kudarat. During the wedding of a prominent young datu, my son was chosen to be the young datu’s best man. In that wedding, my wife and I served as the only Christian sponsors among the business and political leaders in Muslim Mindanao. I love my adopted Muslim family!
Our small peacebuilding community is also working in partnership with Muslim organizations like the Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA). We work together with BDA in the area of Values Enhancement Program among Muslims and Christians around the Ligawasan marsh.

As a community, we are completely transparent with all the people of Mindanao as witnesses for Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Peacebuilding starts with Salam-Shalom. The Arabic word salam, and the Hebrew word shalom basically means “completeness, soundness, welfare, and peace.” Completeness has the idea of being whole—that is, all the parts are connected with each other. Soundness can be understood also as safety of the body and clarity of mind. Welfare can be viewed as wellnes — that is, holistic health and prosperity. Peace can be read as tranquility, contentment, and healthy relationships with God and other human beings, and thus, the absence of any hostility or war. Salam-Shalom can be summarized as the quality of life characterized by harmonious relationship with God, with the Other, with the Self, and with the Creation. Salam-Shalom is a vision of life where spirituality, community, identity, and economy-ecology are harmoniously connected with each other. I’m using the term peacebuilding here as “a strategy that seeks to prevent, reduce, transform, and help people recover from violence in all forms, even structural violence that has not yet led to massive civil unrest. At the same time, it empowers people to foster relationships at all levels that sustain them and their environment.”3

Strategic peacebuilding has many components. Among them are: conflict transformation, military intervention and conversion, governance and policymaking, restorative and transitional justice, environmental protection, human rights, civilian and military peacekeeping, peace education, activism and advocacy, trauma healing, and social-economic development.

Peacebuilding is a practical form of being a martyr-witness. This idea is from a New Testament term, martyría. This is not about having a messianic complex. This is not about mere adventurism in a conflict zone. This is not a search for an extreme missionary experience. Being martyr-witnesses, first of all, means that we will love all people unconditionally and we will practice selfless love to the point of offering our lives to the people with whom we are called to live and to serve. This is exemplified in the humble life of Jesus of Nazareth whom we follow in response to His sacrificial love. Secondly, it means that, by God’s grace, we will not lie. As witnesses to the truth we have experienced in Jesus Christ, we will initiate transparent and honest interaction with all the people concerned as we relate with them and as we formulate and implement our policies. Thirdly, being martyr-witnesses affirm that justice is an attribute of God. Therefore, our tasks will be implemented in accordance with what is just and equitable among all people concerned. Fourthly, it means practicing genuine forgiveness. Using the energies available to us through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will absorb the violence committed against us so that our lives may be used as servants to stop the cycle of violence within us and around us. Finally, it means incarnating God’s peace in our lives. We will seek harmony and reconciliation with the Creator, with our Being, with Others, and with the Creation. We believe in solving problems through non-violence. By God’s grace and mercy, we will not use weapons to hurt or to kill people as a means to accomplish our dreams, mission, and objectives.

When we rediscover what it means to be a martyr-witness, we are ready to do the work of peacebuilding and transformation.

Salam-Shalom is harmony with God. This is spiritual transformation. True peace starts with God. Christians believe this. Muslims believe this. We definitely have to delineate and have dialogue with Muslims on how peace with God can be experienced. For us Christians, it’s through faith in Jesus Christ. For our Muslim friends, it’s through following the Five Pillars of Islam.4

During those six months living in Sultan Kudarat, I was given various opportunities to engage in a heart-to-heart interaction with Bangsamoro Muslims. Every time they ask me what I was doing in their neighborhood, my usual reply was something like this: I am here as a follower of Jesus Christ. We are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I do not believe that Christians should use violence for whatever reason. I condemn the Crusades where the name of Jesus Christ was misused. Muslims are my neighbors. Would you give me a chance to love you in the name of Jesus Christ? Can we honestly engage in transparent dialogue without resorting to violence? Can we be both faithful with our respective faiths while learning to live together in peace? Can we be both honest as we testify and witness to what we know is truth?

Those who were more educated in Islam—the imams (prayer leaders), ustadzes (Islamic teachers), and ulamas (Islamic scholars)—engaged me in theological discussions that enriched me as a person. They guided me as I read the English translation of the Qur’an during those months. They asked me about the doctrine of the Trinity, of Christ as the Son of God, of the Final Judgment, of the Second Coming of Jesus. They felt free to critique those Christian doctrines in an atmosphere of friendship and intellectual enhancement. I felt they listened to me as much I listened to them. Despite our doctrinal differences, we respected each other’s journey as we seek to be in-harmony with the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob.

The ordinary people shared their struggles and victories as they seek to follow the Five Pillars of Islam. Every time I listened to them, they gave me equal time, if not more, to share my own struggles and victories as a follower of Jesus Christ. Those six months in Sultan Kudarat were one of the most meaningful and happiest times in my life. Despite some of my cross-cultural mistakes, my Bangsamoro friends have patiently embraced me as one of their family members. There were times when they even risked their lives for me. I was so vulnerable and yet I felt so safe and secure with them.

By walking with my Maguindanaoan friends in their spiritual journey, I was spiritually
transformed as a witness for Jesus Christ among Muslims!

Salam-Shalom is harmony with the Self. This is psycho-social transformation. This is about our identity and security as a person. In salam-shalom perspective, the harmonious Self—the wholeness of soul, life, personality, desire, appetite, emotion, and passion that characterize us as living beings—leads a person to live an Abundant Life. Abundant Life is a term used in the Gospel of John (10:10), which means living life in its fullness—spiritually, physically, socially, economically, and culturally—as exemplified by the life of Jesus. Abundant Life is not defined by what I have but by who I am, in the context of relationships.

This reminds me of my lunch with a Maguindanaoan man I call bapa (uncle). He was a retired History teacher in a local high school. His dream is to see the self-determination of the Bangsamoro people as a juridical entity.

“Dann, I’m so glad I am a Muslim and not a Christian,” he told me while I was sharing his family’s lunch. My rice-filled right hand hanged between my plate and my mouth as I waited for his next sentence. “You see,” he continued, “you Christians from the North have lost your identity. You call yourselves Filipinos—those who have been defeated by the conquerors and were given as a gift to their ruler, King Philip of Spain. This is the reason why you Filipinos will never conquer us, Bangsamoros, even with your American-supplied weapons. We have our cultural identity and dignity intact under the Almighty Allah, while you have trampled yours with the name of a dead foreign king.”
“But that’s just…” I tried to rebut to defend my tribal pride.
“A name? A historical past? A part of your present historical reality?” he asked, with a mixture of compassion and anger showing on his face. “Whenever you say you are a Filipino, you are telling your historical defeat! You merely look at your historical identity after 1521. The Malay culture is way earlier and far richer than your limited historical memory. Perhaps you should consider re-discovering who you are, culturally and spiritually, while you’re here with us. Come home. Come back home to Islam.” I listened to my bapa. I rediscovered and embraced my Malay heritage through my immersion into the Maguindanaoan culture. I also experienced that, as a follower of Jesus, I can appreciate my cultural heritage in a redemptive way—that is, enjoying the God-glorifying and humanizing aspects of my newly rediscovered Malay culture, while submitting to the Creator those dehumanizing aspects of culture that need purification.
In Maguindanao, I have been transformed. In Maguindanao, I rediscovered the Malay part of me that my Western upbringing has forgotten. In Maguindanao, God redeemed a part of my cultural identity and opened my eyes to a new understanding of our ultimate future—when the redeemed cultures and dignity of all ethnic groups will be brought before the holy presence of God (Rev. 21:26). And in Mindanao, I can start enjoying this ultimate future… right now! Today, my bapa refers to me as “an adopted Maguindanaoan who follows Jesus.”

Salam-Shalom is harmony with Others. This is social-political transformation. In an unjust and oppressive system, human beings are seen as mere human resources or projects. The tendency is to thingify people. When this is the case, human beings who are created in the image of God are sacrificed to the altar of wealth and power. It becomes easy to oppress and exploit people when they are seen as things. Many times, well-meaning organizations and institutions—like governments, corporations, schools, military, churches, and even families— wittingly or unwittingly practice this, including institutions that claim to be Christian. The more I interact with the Bangsamoros, the more I become aware where Christians ought to sharpen our listening skills. We should listen to their stories of historical injustices committed against the Moros by the Filipinos5 who are usually labeled as ‘Christians.’ We should listen to their stories on how a series of land-grabbing laws6 in the past 100 years impoverished and displaced thousands of families. We should learn more about militarization7 and how the presence of thousands of government troops affects most Bangsamoro communities. We should hear their cry against the dehumanization of the Bangsamoro people.

In Sultan Kudarat, my adopted ama (father), who is a retired lawyer and a community leader, emphasized to me that the conflict in Mindanao is not about religion. “Christianity and Islam,” he said, “are not the problem in Muslim Mindanao. The Bangsamoro people are not against Jesus. We actually respect Jesus whom we refer to as Nabi Isa. The Bangsamoros resist, instead, Western colonial powers that identify themselves as Christians, and brought with them dehumanizing acts of war and oppression against our people. We see the Government of the Republic of the Philippines perpetuating such actions.”

In April 2005, a team of Mennonite pastors and peacebuilders travelled across Mindanao. They met with ulamas (Islamic scholars), ustadzes (Islamic teachers), datus, graduate students, professors, NGO executives, and other leaders in Muslim Mindanao. The intention was to establish a transparent dialogue between Muslims and Christians and to build bridges of trust and understanding. Dr. David Shenk, a Mennonite scholar who has been in dialogue with religious leaders in Iran and other Islamic leaders in the Middle East, was leading the team.
I invited them to visit my neighborhood in Sultan Kudarat. They were received by a respected datu, his son, and other young Bangsamoro professionals. The Sultan Kudarat hosts gave us a brief on the Bangsamoro perspective of Philippine History.

Afterwards, we had a dialogue. Polite questions were answered politely. Then a young Bangsamoro youth leader whispered to me: “Kuya Dann, I really need to ask a question that I’ve been wanting to ask a Western Christian, but I’m afraid I might offend them.”
“Ask them… just be honest with your question… it’s okay… go for it,” I whispered back,
trying to push him beyond his hesitation.
Finally, he asked Dr. Shenk: “You know, every time I see white people in Mindanao, I immediately think of Christian religious imperialism and Western military expansionism. It has been our historical experience. Tell me, are you here to eventually convert us through your
peace and development activities?”
“We do our peace and development activities sincerely in the name of Jesus Christ,” David
Shenk answered. “We do not come with the Bible on one hand and a sword on the other hand. We come in humility as Jesus is humble. We come with the Cross, not as a symbol of violence—as in the Crusades—but as a symbol of suffering and peace. We will be faithful in expressing unconditional love and service with honesty and transparency. But when one of you would approach us to know more about this peace in Jesus, we would not say ‘No, go away!’ That would be religious imperialism.”
Luke Shrockhurst, one of the Mennonite pastors, affirmed Dr. Shenk and added: “As Americans who carry US passports, we ask for forgiveness for the violence our nation has brought to Mindanao. We apologize for the injustices our government has committed against your people… We are the kind of followers of Jesus who do not believe in war… We do not agree when our nation is regarded as a god, for that is idolatry.”
“Thank you for your honest and straight-forward answers,” the young Bangsamoro leader told us. “I sense that you really respect us. You are welcome anytime here in our neighborhood.”

Now, this young Bangsamoro youth leader and his family helps the work of Peacebuilders Community in his area. He travels with us throughout Mindanao as we advocate for peacebuilding and transformation among the tri-people of this beautiful land.

Salam-Shalom is harmony with Creation. This is economic-ecological transformation. Creation, from salam-shalom perspective, is seen as an organic-relational world, not merely as a mechanical-utilitarian world. In a mechanical-utilitarian view of the world, the emphasis is exploitation. If one of the parts of the machine-world is not functioning, the tendency is to replace it. Hence, in an unjust system, the natural resources can be exploited for the present, and then later, it can be substituted with synthetic products and artificial solutions. In an organic-relational world, the emphasis is stewardship and loving care of creation. The biblical story of Creation tells us that “the Lord God formed the mortal (adam) from the dust of  the ground (adamah) and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the mortal became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). These are the dynamic imageries used to give us a grasp of the beginning of the human race. We all came from the ground. We were named after the ground. We are one with Creation. We are one humanity! We are all carbon-based material. We are all breathed with the same breath of God. That is the story of our Being Alive! When the Creator-God commanded us to subdue the Earth (Gen. 1:28), it has the idea of l’shamrah—to care for, to keep, to watch, and to preserve it (Gen. 2:15). Earth-destruction is listed by the Prophet John as a sin (Rev. 11:18). We are all called by the Creator-God to be stewards of Planet Earth!

Christians must apply the salam-shalom lifestyle in the stewardship of their resources. The heart of the conflict in Mindanao is about Ancestral Domain.8 The complex debate surrounding the Ancestral Domain claims of the Lumads (Indigenous Peoples) and the Bangsamoros is a theological-ethical challenge as far as the Bible is concerned. For many Christians in the Philippines, this economic-ecological issue seems to be a stumbling block in their relationship with Muslims in Mindanao, mainly because it challenges our national loyalty and integrity. But we have to look at this issue beyond the lenses of nationalism.

Consider the voice of a young intellectual Bangsamoro from the Mindanao State University in Marawi City: “We were a thriving state under the Sultanate of Maguindanao, especially under Sultan Kudarat—who was our political leader sometime between 1500 and 1600 CE. The Spaniards were able to conquer Luzon and Visayas; but they did not succeed in colonizing the Muslims in Mindanao. Then the Spanish Empire became weak. They lost to the Americans in Mexico and in the Philippines. To make a graceful exit, they sold the Philippines to the United States and they included Mindanao. We resisted American colonialism and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost… In the past 100 years, both governments of the United States and the Philippines sent millions of Christians to Mindanao. Many of our lands were taken by force or through unjust means. True, our datus sold many of our lands to you Christians. We see that as hospitality and generosity, for the absolute owner of the land is the Almighty Allah and our datus are entrusted owners. You saw the inexpensive sale of our lands to you as gullibility on our part. But the Almighty Allah knows our hearts.

Now, all we seek is to keep the remaining parts of Mindanao where the majority of the Bangsamoros live. We want to manage the natural resources entrusted to us by the Almighty Allah. In these remaining lands, our people will practice and enjoy our rights to self-determination. Where Christians are the majority, you can keep the land for yourselves. Where Christians and Muslims live together, we need to negotiate peacefully based on truth and justice. That’s my understanding of what we’re fighting for. That’s my personal view of what ancestral domain is all about.”

How do we, Evangelical Christians, deal with the issue of the Bangsamoro’s claim of Ancestral Domain? How do we apply the values of the Kingdom of God—such as justice and peace—as we think of the people and the land? What other biblical-theological lenses through which we can see the conflict in Mindanao and other land-based conflicts in our country?

Our answer to these questions depends on how we look at Creation as part of our ministry.
The creation is the world that “God so loved…” (Jn. 3:16). This world (kosmos) can mean the sum total of everything here and now, all of humanity, or world-systems. The scope of God’s redemptive love is cosmic! Our salam-shalom, our experience of wholeness, necessarily includes God’s justice and peace in the whole of creation.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s statement before the Federation of Philippine Industries (FPI) general assembly in Makati on August 13 was very encouraging. She said she will “hold urgent talks with the MILF under the Malaysian auspices to contain and resolve the Basilan-Sulu situation.”
I praised God when she made her announcement to undertake “a pilot implementation of the envisioned Muslim ancestral domain regime” to demonstrate her government’s sincerity to achieve peace. I applauded her view that since “we’ve declared an ancestral domain among indigenous peoples, I don’t see why anybody should be scared if there is ancestral domain with our Muslim people.”
But I was so saddened that four days later, on Friday, August 17, the Cabinet Cluster on Security meeting with the President appeared to have overturned her announced security directive, apparently also with her concurrence. I pray that God’s Spirit would hover over our highest officials in Malacanang so that genuine justice and peace will prevail.
The issue of Ancestral Domain for the Lumads and the Bangsamoros of Mindanao is a ministry-issue in the Church. Our presence as servants of the Prince of Peace must affirm the policies of our governments about creation-stewardship when they are consistent with biblical justice and peace. When the governments’ policies are against the biblical values of justice and peace, we must critique them as part of our prophetic ministry.As I conclude, let me reiterate that we are called to be martyr-witnesses (martyría) of the Good News (euangélion) of Jesus Christ. This is how each one of us can be an evangelical witness in a conflicted land.

Some of you might say, “I’m not called to go to a peacebuilding work between Christians and Muslims. Perhaps that’s your calling. Not all Christians have the same calling.” True. Not all Christians are called to be peacebuilders between Muslims and Christians; the Muslim-Christian-factor here is the variable, the specific context. The constant, or the general principle, in this challenge is being a martyr-witness of the Evangel—the Good News. All of us are called to be martyr-witnesses of the Good News of the Prince of Peace! No exception.

Being a peacebuilder does not only apply to armed conflicts. There are many conflicts happening in our own individual lives, in our families, in our churches, in our communities, in our cities, in our provinces, in our nation, and in our world. The root is the spiritual conflict between the Creator-God and humanity. This root conflict spills over to our relationships; hence, we are faced with various relational conflicts between family members, friends, church members, political parties, ethnic groups, etc. I cannot think of a place where human beings interact without conflict.
We are all called to be agents of peace and transformation in each of our particular contexts of conflict. We are called to exemplify harmony with God, with our Self, with Others, and with God’s Creation.
May our lives as martyr-witnesses of Jesus Christ build peace and bring transformation in our conflicted land.
1. Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), p. 747.2. The term Bangsamoro (lit. Nation of Moros) refers to the thirteen ethno-linguistic groups—namely, Maranao,
Maguindanao, Tausug, Samal, Yakan, Sangil, Badjao, Kalibogan, Jama Mapun, Iranun, Palawanon, Kalagan, and
Molbog—who embraced Islam. They are mainly found in Western and southern Mindanao Island, the Sulu Archipelago, and the coastal areas of southern Palawan. The Moros were once considered to be the most developed communities in the entire Philippines Archipelago. They reached the level of a centrally organized society. They had their own form of government antedating several hundreds of years the creation of the Philippine Republic. I interchange the terms Bangsamoros and Moros.

3. John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (USIP, Wash., DC, 1997, p. 20)

4. (a) Iman—faith or belief in the Oneness of God and the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad; (b) Salah—
establishment of the daily prayers; (c) Zakah—concern for and almsgiving to the needy; (d) Sawm—self-purification
through fasting; and, (e) Hajj—the pilgrimage to Makkah for those who are able.

5. For a more formal ethnographic study on this issue, see: Thomas M. McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday
Politics and Armed Separation in Southern Philippines (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2002), pp. 269-289.

6. For a legal Moro perspective on these Acts, see: Salah Jubair, Bangsamoro: A Nation Under Endless Tyrrany (Kuala
Lumpur, Malaysia: IQ Marin SDN BHD, 1999), pp. 95-97.

7. See, Mathews George Chunakara, The Militarization of Politics and Society: Southeast Asian Experiences (Honking:DAGA Press, 1994).

8. For an in-depth understanding of the conflict in Mindanao, see Patricio P. Diaz, Understanding Mindanao Conflict, MindaNews Publications, 2003; Salamat Hashim, The Bangsamoro People’s Struggle Against Oppression and Colonialism, Mindanaw, Bangsamoro Darul Jihad, October 2001 / Rajab 1422H.

© 2007 L. Daniel Pantoja, Peacebuilders Community, Inc., Davao City, Philippines 8000

  • Aside from federalism, we could also adopt a hlihgy devolved local government system (the same that is being used in UK in relation to Scotland and Northern Island, Spain).In the case of the Philippines, the tier of local government may be revised into: Regions, Metropolises/Cities, Barangays. Provincial governments may be disbanded since it would only duplicate the tasks that may be vested in the Regions. This would reduce bureaucracy in the local scene and promote austerity.Each Region must have a Premier (the President’s counterpart), an Executive (the Cabinet’s counterpart) led by a First Minister (the Prime Minister’s counterpart). Regional legislative power is vested in a Legislative Assembly composed of such Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) coming from parliamentary constituencies. In UK devolved assemblies, elections are done via block-voting (e.g. 6 MLAs per constituency). The Singaporean Parliament implements a similar system wherein constituencies return an MP and another group of MPs called Group Representation Constituencies . Judicial powers retain in a centralized court system.Regional governments and assemblies are entitled to decide on issues, except of inter-regional or national matters: Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Food; Tourism, Culture, Media and Sport; limited Economic Policy (regional taxation, etc.); Development; Education; Environment; local police force and Home Affairs; Local Government and Housing; Social Services; limited Trade and Industry (inward investments, promotion, etc.); and Transport.Metropolises are those dubbed as hlihgy-industrialized cities today. The same strong mayor-council may be used for metropolises and cities. The number of seats in the Council is fixed rather than today wherein the same depends on the number of electoral districts the city is composed.Obviously, Metropolises and Cities are much bigger in this type of system. Current municipalities and lower-class cities may be dissolved and merged with metropolises or upper-class cities. The same system for barangays will be used. SK must be abolished. Sectoral MLAs or members of metropolis, city and barangay councils (for Youth, Labor Unions, Right group, etc.) will be appointed by the Premier, the Mayor and the Captain, respectively. They must be non-partisan and be selected from among nominations made by the people or organizations belonging to the same sector of representation.