Is Filipino American Theology Asian American Theology?

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By Gabriel J. Catanus
Oct 28, 2019 | 9 min read
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Thirteen years ago, I was invited to a special gathering of Asian American Christian leaders. As a young seminarian, I was starstruck, almost giddy to be part of conversations with these leading scholars and megachurch pastors. Though I was just a student among these experts, coming from a family of Filipino pastors qualified me to speak authoritatively about our context.

As the event went on, however, I only felt more dissonance each day. These leaders were talking about Confucianism, English congregations, multi-million-dollar church budgets, and a host of issues foreign to my church. And nobody seemed interested in my context or in the issues facing my community: pastors working without insurance or retirement benefits, the inaccessibility of formal theological education, and being marginalized by the Catholic majority in our ethnic community.

After a decade of attending gatherings like these and leaving more isolated each time, I began to realize that my work had already chosen me. Unintentionally, I’ve grown into a champion for Filipino American churches and their contribution to theology.

With the Filipino American population now exceeding 4 million, U.S. Filipinos are one of the largest Asian American groups, and also the most likely of U.S. Asians to identify as Christian. But is Filipino American theology Asian American theology?

Who We Say We Are

Given our shared origins in Asia, Filipino Americans are categorized as Asian Americans. In “The Making of Asian America”, historian Erika Lee includes Filipinos as the first Asian migrants to the Americas, arriving as early as 1565 in what we now call Mexico and California. Likewise, Jonathan Tan, in his “Introducing Asian American Theologies”, considers Filipinos to be Asian Americans, the first Asians in North America.

To include U.S. Filipinos within the subgroup of immigrants from Asia makes sense when considering the U.S. Census and the history of race in America. In the 1960s, Filipino activists “played a central role in the creation of the Asian American identity”, describing themselves politically by that label since its earliest use.

But what about Filipinos Americans nowadays? Who do we say we are? In “The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race”, Filipino American sociologist Anthony Ocampo summarizes his findings: “For Filipinos, Asian American identity did not fit well, particularly when it came to aspects of their culture heavily influenced by American colonialism.”

Christianity is one such aspect for Filipino Americans, and it complicates how U.S. Filipinos understand themselves. For many of Ocampo’s interviewees, religion specifically kept them from identifying as Asian American and inclined them more toward Latinx instead. (Nearly 90 percent of Filipino Americans identify as Christian, and 65 percent of them are Catholic.) This highlights the effects of religion on identity, raising questions about whose stories we are telling and who gets to tell our stories.

Filipino Americans have for too long been playing someone else’s game, or cheering from the sidelines, and as a result, their children are content to catch the highlights on their smartphones. Obviously, the sports analogy falls short when we talk about ecclesial futures, since few things might be more serious than the consequences of theology. At issue here is not just respect for unique expressions of Christianity, but rather faithfulness, discipleship, right response to God in humanity, Filipino American self-love, and by extension, solidarity with others.

So, what would it take for Filipino American theology to be Asian American theology?

A sociological shift

First, Asian American theology needs to be “less Asian”. A well-known adage describes Filipinos as having spent “300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood”, still under the influences of their Spanish and American colonizers today. So to include Filipino American theology as part of Asian American theology would, in some sense, mean becoming at the same time more Spanish (or Latinx) and more American — and in this way less Asian. Many more Filipino American Catholics would necessarily be included in the Asian American theological project even though, because of their Catholicism, they more readily identify with or as Latinx. Again, Ocampo points out:

“Filipinos negotiate racial boundaries through the lens of culture, and several aspects of their ethnic culture converge with those of Latinx — language, last names, and religion. These cultural markers led many Filipinos to be racialized as Mexican American or some other Latinx ethnicity, which in turn prompted many to further distance themselves from other Asian Americans.”

This is not a request for Asian American theologians to be less authentic or politically inclusive, but to recognize the ongoing effects of colonialism deeply woven into the Filipino psyche, and that as Ocampo says here, religion actually distances many U.S. Filipinos from Asian Americans. In part, this happens through what Filipino American scholars call “the colonial mentality”.

Is Filipino American Theology Asian American Theology?

According to postcolonial psychologist E.J.R. David, “Colonialism and contemporary oppression has taught us that the United States of America is utopia, that White is right, that West is best, and that Christianization is civilization.” So, in the same way, Filipino American theology would make Asian American theology less Asian and more American. Unlike most Asian Americans, Filipinos are born into Americanizing forces long before arriving in the States. Filipino American theology, then, wrestles with American-ness both here in the U.S. and “back home” in the Philippines.

As a community, U.S. Filipinos tend to be college-educated and proficient in English because of the American attempt to remake the Philippines in its own image, especially through religion, education, and Christian education. Institutionally, then, Filipinos can be considered more American than Spanish, and more American than other Asians. This special U.S.-Philippine relationship enabled Filipinos to migrate to the States en masse, serve in the U.S. Navy, and assimilate into U.S. life more quickly. Understanding the colonial mentality helps explain why Filipino Americans showed the highest levels among Asian Americans of support for Donald Trump, opposition to giving Blacks equal rights as whites, and opposition to taking in Syrian refugees.

Of course, this American-ness runs into questions in the face of U.S. racism. Erika Lee quotes the lament of one Filipino American writing in 1948: “I was born under the American flag, I had American teachers since I was 6 ... I am a loyal American ... but no sale.” Seventy years later, the 1.5 million U.S. Filipinos in California are still terribly underrepresented at the most selective University of California schools, outnumbered by Chinese Americans at the University of California, Berkeley by a ratio of nine to one.

Even though Filipino Americans assimilate relatively easily, sociologist Stephen Cherry points out that they remain in many ways invisible. He writes, “Despite their continued growth and their geographic spread across the nation, Filipinos remain the forgotten Asian American community ... the second most ‘assimilated’ population of the top 10 American immigrant populations coming to the nation, second only to Canadians.”

Again, Tan observes, “The Filipino Catholic community has been one of the least recognized in the country, because their surnames often result in them being mistaken for Latino/as, and since many of them are fluent in English, they are expected to assimilate fully into the ‘American style’ of Catholicism.” By this, Tan highlights the burden of negotiating their place in the U.S. church and this extends to the theological academy. Similar to how the biblical Babylonian captivity complicated the identities of those in exile, Filipino American identity and Christianity remain held by what I call “multiple captivities”. These successive colonizations add layers to Filipino American marginalization.

This invisibility and lack of recognition point again to the need for a Filipino American theology, but also the challenge of this undertaking as part of Asian American theology. In the Filipino American struggle for theological freedom from these multiple captivities, the Filipino American theologian runs the risk of unintentionally assimilating into more respected, established East Asian American modes of theologizing.

Yes, answering these tough, identity-clarifying questions requires good interlocutors. But in theology as in karaoke, Filipinos are experienced imitators. Thus, calling Asian American theology to consider becoming less Asian is a plea for sensitivity to the quickness with which U.S. Filipino Christianity and theology can decenter itself, transferring from one master or captor to another, even other Asian American theologies. Filipino American theology needs help to not become “the help” once more.

A theological shift

Second, Asian American theology would need to become more guilty. Here, I am not referring to a feeling, or to old, negative stereotypes of Filipino Americans as criminals — since other Asian Americans have similarly been demonized, incarcerated, and suffered violence. By guilt, I refer to the willingness of many Filipino Americans, through prayerful deliberation with community, to break U.S. immigration law and become undocumented, falling out of legal status by going into hiding. As many as 300,000 or more than 7 percent of the large, overwhelmingly Christian Filipino American population are undocumented persons.

In his chapter “Protecting Family and Life”, Cherry finds that Filipino Americans, even among recent immigrants, are motivated by their faith to engage politically with issues affecting their families. For them, family remains the center of devotion and the site of theological reflection, but this is a different approach to family values than that of Christian conservatives. While Cherry acknowledges that they are committedly pro-life, U.S. Filipinos tend to be personally connected with, and somewhat sympathetic to, their own undocumented.

The same devotion to family that motivates them to leave the Philippines and send back remittances — a source comprising 10 percent of the Philippine GDP20 — gives them some theological justification for becoming undocumented in the U.S.

As one Filipino American told Cherry, “My friend employs six undocumented workers. They are good workers and good Catholics .... On Sundays, I also take them to mass. This is what Father asks of us. They are Filipinos, they are Catholics, and they are our family too.” For this interviewee, Filipinos can be guilty of breaking the law and remain good Catholics, good workers, and good members of the family. In the eyes of God, referred to here as Father, the familial bond of faith supersedes their legal standing. This kind of Filipino American sacramental theology of family places the moral obligation to support family above the time limit listed on a visa. Free from judgment and in unhindered fellowship with other Filipinos, a U.S. Filipino Christian can accept the legal and social guilt as part of their familial obligation to God.

This brings to mind the kind of Thomistic ethic invoked by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, his corrective against the white clergy’s knee-jerk, deontological use of Romans 13:1-7 as a call to obey the law. This is not to say that being undocumented is morally equivalent to civil disobedience, or that virtue motivates every person who overstays their visa. But in both situations, a Christian may be guilty while doing what seems best.

Responding to a church that similarly saw itself as guiltless, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the willingness to be guilty as a critical component of responsibility to loved ones. He argued that one can only live ethically in the real world — the domain of concrete responsibility — and real-world occasions arise when “the strict observance of the explicit law of a state ... entails a clash with the basic necessities of life”. In these situations, Bonhoeffer is clear: “Those who in acting responsibly take on guilt — which is inescapable for any responsible person — place this guilt on themselves, not on someone else; they stand up for it and take responsibility for it.”

Reflecting critically on this aspect of Filipino American Christianity, we can discern a contextual understanding of sin. Though translated into the Tagalog Bible as kasalanan, (or rule-breaking), a pastoral, contextual, and necessary complement might be kawawa, (or heart-breaking). To be separated from family, to separate families at the border, to be unable to support family and in this way be absent, or to put brothers and sisters of color in this situation — all these are what we call kawawa. To be cast out from the garden and be moved by labor forces is kawawa, just as the cry of Jesus in separation from Eloi is kawawa. So to overstay one’s visa might be kasalanan, and the colonial mentality reinforces this. But to harm one’s own family is kawawa, a violation of a sacrament, and this can be more sinful than breaking the law.

Rethinking sin from within a Filipino American context enables Christian theology to function as a decolonizing framework. In so doing, both the limits of biblicism and the social-structural aspects of sin are brought to the fore. In this way, Filipino American theology can also contribute to Asian American theology, helping to subvert some of the more subtle, internalized aspects of the model minority myth. Included in this is a call for a renewed understanding of Asian America, since Asians now account for 16 percent of the undocumented population, making Asia the region with the second biggest share of U.S. undocumented.


The pathway to solidarity with guilty sisters and brothers seems clearer now, pointing to the greater reality that both Filipino and Asian American theology ought to serve the church, including its undocumented.

As Bonhoeffer says, “The Church is only the church when it exists for others.” So theologizing with and for U.S. Filipinos is not only important for our own churches whose future seems uncertain. Filipino American theology can also problematize Asian American theology by making it less Asian and more guilty, sharing in its renewal and future contributions to the church at large.

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Gabriel J. Catanus

Gabriel J. Catanus is the Lead Pastor of Garden City Covenant Church, a church serving young urban professionals and Filipino American families in Chicago. He is a former hiphop DJ, a Bulls season ticket holder, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu novice, and a Ph.D. candidate in Christian Ethics at Loyola University where he teaches.

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