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The Bible: personal, political

/ 12:22 AM February 01, 2017

Did you know January was National Bible Month, and this was declared on Jan. 5 by President Duterte?

Turns out there’s a long history of presidents dedicating a period of time to the Bible. President Marcos issued Proclamation No. 2242 in November 1982, designating the first Sunday of Advent as National Bible Sunday and the last week of November as National Bible Week. (I suspect he was following the Americans, who celebrate Thanksgiving week as National Bible Week.)

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President Corazon Aquino, shortly after coming to power in 1986, issued another proclamation, explicitly acknowledging the advice of the Philippine Bible Society to designate a time of the year without any other large celebrations, and designate this as National Bible Week. The choice was the last week of January.

President Fidel Ramos, our first and only Protestant president so far, issued Proclamation No. 1067 in 1997 reiterating the last week of January as National Bible Week, but with several new “whereases” including this one: the Holy Bible is recognized by both Christians and non-Christians alike as an excellent source of life-giving principles to develop a values-oriented, morally strong and socially responsible citizenry.

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Now comes President Duterte who puts one over the previous proclamations by declaring January as National Bible Month and the last week as National Bible Week. This is the longest presidential proclamation yet referring to the Bible, with several “whereases” that are quite intriguing. So let me give three of them:

“Whereas the State recognizes the religious nature of Filipinos and the elevating influence of religion in human society;

“Whereas, while maintaining neutrality in its treatment of religious communities, the government is not precluded from passing valid objectives secular in character even if it would have an incidental result affecting a particular religion or sect;

“Whereas history bears witness to the profound impact of the bible on the life of nations, and how it has moved and inspired many people, including statesmen and social reformers, to work for the betterment of their fellow human beings even at great cost to themselves. . .”

Presidential proclamations designating a day, week or month for someone or some cause are usually the results of lobbying; and the Philippine Bible Society, which is Protestant, has long been pushing hard for these observances. Duterte’s proclamation has been welcomed as well by Catholic bishops.

Born again?

I thought I’d write about this attention given to the Bible because I’ve had several close friends asking why I refer “so often” now to the Bible in my columns. They ask, their voice tinged with concern, that I might be straying away. Some think, away from being a rational scientist. Others ask if I’ve become “born again.”

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I can see where my friends are coming from. They see religions as divisive, with so-called sacred books having been instrumental in causing these divisions. Others react when they hear biblical quotes, thinking immediately of a preacher on the stage, his (more often than not “his”) voice bellowing and threatening hell fire and brimstone against sinners and unbelievers, and which the latter equate, not quite accurately, with born-again and evangelical Christians.

It’s unfortunate that these images drive people away from a book (which is the original Greek meaning of “bible”) which can be a source of comfort, strength and wisdom, regardless of one’s religious affiliation, including not having any affiliation at all.

The Bible distills traditions, and wisdom, of several centuries, from Judaism to early Christianity. While it has been mangled to justify wars and oppression (including sexism, slavery and racism), its most powerful and enduring messages are not of domination and conquest but of charity and compassion, particularly in the New Testament. I like the Filipino term “magandang balita,” the good (and beautiful?) news.

The bigotry and moralism that people find so repulsive in bible-quoting “Christians” are in fact the constant targets of Jesus in the New Testament. Note the rare instances where you find an angry Jesus; there are those when he reacts to people being judgmental. Think of the passage (John 8:7) where Jesus challenges a mob that had gathered around a woman accused of adultery. Jesus challenges them: He that is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.”

(I am aware of the debates around this story—e.g., it does not appear in the earlier versions of the Gospel; and there are biblical scholars and theologians who, well, want to cast it out because it is not “authentic.” Just the debates on this one passage would need several columns.)

Catholics and the Bible

The Bible is important for Filipinos, but not always as a book to be read and reflected upon. Until fairly recently, the Bible was distant for Catholics, its interpretation left to priests. In popular practice, the Bible has ended up more of a talisman, kept in the home less to be read than to ward off evil—think of the movies where an actor or actress raises high the Bible when threatened by Satan or some evil supernatural spirit.

Catholic schools are changing; they are now encouraging children to read and discover biblical stories and its lessons for daily living as well as for dealing with contemporary social issues. It was Sr. Helen Graham, a Maryknoll Sister and my sister’s teacher in theology who got me interested again in reading the Bible, more than 40 years ago. Now recognized and loved as a biblical scholar, she still responds when I e-mail her about perplexing passages. Not too long ago, with some of her advice, I wrote about how the Old Testament had references to our feeling with our liver, or kidneys, rather than our heart.

Now, late in life, I’m reading the Bible because of my children’s assignments in Christian Life Education—my daughters are in Xavier, a Catholic school, and my son is homeschooled with Global Homeschool, which is evangelical Protestant. Both schools are open to families of all faiths and share a commitment to the Bible as part of education.

I want my children to love the Bible but not to use it as dogma to chastise or condemn others, or to threaten people with hell. Instead, I hope they can cite passages to remind themselves, and others, that people across the centuries have been dealing with very similar dilemmas and problems. Other books, especially from the Old Testament, offer almost commonsensical wisdom, the best ones being those that make you smile as you realize how very simple the solutions can be: just by changing the way we look at the world and people around us.

Maybe one (or more) of them might end up interested in probing more deeply to understand the historical contexts of the Bible, and why it means different things to different people. That can involve rather obscure scholarship at times, and I’ll be happy if they will keep returning to the point of the Bible being a good and wise book, even as they are guided by this wise aphorism from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”: even the Devil can cite Scripture.

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