Born in the Philippines but having grown up in North America, I have lost much of what it means to be distinctly Filipino. When I returned to the Philippines to spend the better part of the 1990s as an international development worker, I rediscovered some of my ethnic heritage, including recovering my native tongue of Tagalog. Still, I am probably more North American than I care to admit — what some call a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside.
But there is a Filipino trait that I seem to have retained, a trait taught to us in language/culture school during our formative years in the Philippines: what is known as “SIR” — the desire for and capacity to achieve “smooth interpersonal relationships”. Generalizations about a culture — especially when it’s your own culture — can be insulting and offensive. Certainly, not all Filipinos in all 175 Filipino ethnolinguistic groups that make up the Republic of the Philippines live by SIR. And furthermore, what makes SIR distinctly Filipino? Don’t other cultures — Asian or otherwise — have their own versions of it? Their limitations notwithstanding, generalizations have their place, as they have the potential to lead to deeper discussions about what defines a culture. Besides, we all generalize to some extent (how’s that for a generalization?).
In any case, I see SIR operating in my person in seemingly involuntary ways. Tangible characteristics 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). 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 the churches I’ve served), but for the most part, these SIR traits seem to be a part of my nature.
At its worst, SIR can devolve into acquiescence, conflict avoidance, a muted voice, a tendency to 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 with less emphasis on 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.
SIR might explain, at least in part, why I am so keen on reconciliation as a crucial, non-negotiable expression of justice. In its unhealthiness, I might want to get to reconciliation too fast. But when it is at play in a good way, SIR can get me closer to my best understanding of the practice of biblical justice. 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. But it doesn’t end there; I see it going 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.
With the cross of Christ in view, no definition of justice seems adequate without the love-saturated notion of reconciliation. Justice needs reconciliation, because without it, justice can be exacting and merciless — an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth affair — which seems to me to be 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.
I don’t know if SIR informed my read of Scripture on this or if SIR simply resonates with biblical justice; either way, “SIR justice” requires reconciliation. Which is so infuriating! As much as we want God to hate whom we hate, no one is on the outs in God’s purview, making reconciliation crucial to complete God’s justice project.
This understanding of SIR justice sheds some light on why, for example, I can’t wholly support approaches of some diversity and anti-racism trainers that seem to result in “white hate”, or if that’s too strong, “white dislike”. I’ve been a part of such trainings and personally know some of these trainers; something about the expressions of these trainings really grate on me. Don’t get me wrong: As a person of color who has also experienced the impacts and inequities of white privilege, I understand how one can be angry, and we should express our anger, even in the midst of white fragility. Justice compels those who have been looked over, insulted, demeaned, ignored, deprived, oppressed, and/or beaten because of the color of their skin to express anger, pain, and tears. Our calling out racism may provoke high levels of anxiety, discomfort, and guilt among white people as they are forced to grapple with the ghost of Racist Past (as well as the privilege they continue to enjoy), but they are natural and necessary reactions in confrontational situations.
Justice compels us to be angry; SIR justice, however, reminds me to be angry and sin not — that is, to express anger in such a way that white people sense sincerity, love, and a desire on my part to be ultimately reconciled together in Christ. This is not a call to water-down righteous anger; it is rather a call to express also what is on the other side of that anger, namely, love and reconciliation. I liken it to anger expressed by parents toward a child who has done wrong. If the child knows the love of her parents, even as they are clearly angry, then whatever discipline she receives can bear the fruit of righteousness and reconciliation. Or if the parent-child analogy is condescendingly off-putting, if someone is secure in the love of a friend, even as that friend is clearly angry, then the stage is set for remorse, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. SIR justice compels me to express anger that has been saturated in peace and love.
Is SIR justice dependent on the willingness on the part of the oppressor to engage in reconciliation efforts? Yes and no. Yes, in that true reconciliation, by its very nature, cannot be accomplished unless both parties are willing participants. We cannot legitimately say, “Love one another, embrace, be friends from now on; whether you like it or not!” If the oppressed are met with rejection or even hostility, then SIR justice turns into lament over the lost opportunity for reconciliation.
But do we stop working for justice when reconciliation eludes us? Absolutely not. Then the answer is also no; SIR justice is not dependent on the repentance of the oppressor. We carry on in prophetic action for the sake of the oppressed and marginalized. SIR simply dictates how we go about it — graciously, lovingly, and non-violently, irrespective of the behavior of the oppressor, which we cannot control anyway. There is something about people who confidently work for justice but who do so in peace even amid hostility that reflects the shalom of God.
In light of God’s outrageously big love — Justice + Reconciliation = Love — from which no one is excluded, not even our oppressors, SIR serves me because by it, I sincerely desire in my justice work not just to lift up the dignity and rights of the oppressed, but also to raise awareness within the oppressor or the privileged, with an orientation toward healing between opposed communities. SIR justice is not interested in reversal, such that there is a new center of former marginalized peoples and former residents of the center are relegated to the margins. Rather, it seeks to reflect what is to come in Jesus Christ — a world where center and margin are erased, where tribes and nations assemble together in peace and praise, where former enemies feast together, where even lions and lambs lay together.