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The church as power broker

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Commentary

The church as power broker

There is no doubt that in this country, the church as an institution is powerful. Politicians may rant and rail against church interference in such contentious issues as reproductive health, yet come election time, they all make a beeline for the head of the Iglesia ni Cristo, or to emergent church movements such as that of Apollo Quiboloy and vote-rich Catholic constituencies like El Shaddai.

The mystique of power as it relates to the church has to do not only with its numbers but also the authority and cohesiveness with which it is able to summon and direct the faithful. Part of the power of the INC is the perception that it is able to deliver a solid vote because of its practice of bloc voting. The actual metrics of this have yet to be empirically demonstrated, but in a time when reality can be virtual, perception is all.

Some wonder why it is that there is no such thing as a “Catholic vote” or a “Protestant vote.” After all, according to a Pew Global Survey, at least 44 percent of the population have now turned charismatic—meaning “renewed Catholics” or “Protestant Pentecostals.” These are churches that have relatively tighter communities than traditional ones, with strong lay leaders and a doctrinal clarity that disciplines their understanding of spirituality and how it relates to the wider world.

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At least two reasons come immediately to mind in trying to account for the hesitation of mainline Christian movements to become a power bloc similar to the INC.

One is history. The church’s track record as it relates to the state has not been without blemish or lapses into “worldliness.” Through the centuries, the church in its relationship with the world has swung from domination to capitulation, from separation to solidarity.

Domination characterized periods when the church was in a majority situation, as in the time of Constantine up to the close of the Middle Ages, when the gilded throne of the papacy ruled with both the cross and the sword. Capitulation characterized periods when the church was weak and in a minority situation, or occupied with survival, as with the Eastern churches in the Arab world.

Separation was the monastic movement’s reaction to the church’s internal rot and corruption, seeing isolation as a form of purification. Solidarity occupied the church in periods when repression caused it to be a voice of the voiceless, the last remaining bulwark against abusive regimes, as with recent experiences of authoritarianism here and in Latin America.

The other reason is a theological misunderstanding of Jesus’ oft-quoted remark “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” In western thought, this has been construed by the likes of Martin Luther as the “doctrine of the two swords,” or the dualistic separation of the church and the state. But in that remark, as the Anabaptist scholar John Howard Yoder now points out, what Jesus cunningly left unsaid was that in truth, what belongs to Caesar also belongs to God. There is no area of human life that is outside the rule of God.

This means that while the church and the state are separate institutions, both are directly accountable and subject to God’s purposes for them. Justice is God’s minimum requirement for governance; the state has been given the power of the sword precisely to be able to execute justice for all. This cannot be arrogated to one individual or clique, however, and there are limits to the power of the state. There is that whole realm, now known as “civil society,” where the state cannot encroach. In this sphere, human beings are given autonomy and freedom to exercise their will. “We must obey God rather than men,” said the apostles when the Jewish court bid them to be silent (Acts 5.29).

This appeal to a higher power and a higher law has been the compelling motive for all sorts of civil disobedience waged by the churches since then. It also accounts for the constant tension between the church and the state as institutions.

Today, mainline church traditions are torn between the impulse to be prophetic—that is, to make errant powers accountable and governance more responsive, and the need to stay clear of becoming, once again, a worldly power.

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Certainly, the church as a political player needs to discern the difference between prophecy and politicking. When the church upholds the norms by which society is meant to be ruled, it is being prophetic. But when it turns into a power broker, using its authority over the flock to deliver a command vote, then it is merely politicking.

The INC has acquired political clout by judiciously parlaying its command of merely two million votes as a swing vote. This unduly skews the results and tends to obscure the true picture and pattern of voting behavior in this country.

Along the same vein, an informed source tells me that Quiboloy’s church in Davao has fielded an army of 2,000 “cyberwarriors” for the candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte. This perhaps explains the unprecedented level of virulence being spewed out in social media.

A church that has turned power broker is, in a sense, no more than just another vested interest, to be fought and resisted in much the same way that other vested interests need to be resisted when they ultimately subvert democratic processes.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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TAGS: Apollo Quiboloy, church, el shaddai, Iglesia Ni Cristo, Religion
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