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From martyrs to killers

/ 05:10 AM March 27, 2018

Let me try out an idea here. Holy Week is the true crucible of the Filipino character: It is both the religious season and the cultural tradition that formed the essential character of the Filipino. By that I mean that we see ourselves, largely, as a nation of martyrs. President Duterte’s brand of politics and patriotism, however, is remaking the Filipino character; by the time he’s done, we will be a country of killers.

There is plenty to argue with, right there, but bear with me.

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Martyrdom is the summit, if not of national ambition, then of individual purpose. The national anthem codifies this sense of self-sacrifice. The last line, in the Filipino version that became standard in the 1950s, expresses this sense in full: “Ang mamatay nang dahil sa ‘yo.” Like the American English version that our parents and grandparents learned, this was faithful to the Spanish original.

Es una gloria para tus hijos,
Cuando de ofenden, por ti morir.

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Loosely: “It is the glory of your children, when you are wronged, to die for you.” The English version literally adds a word about suffering:

But it is glory ever when thou art wronged
For us thy sons to suffer and die.

The notion of the ultimate sacrifice is common to many other countries, of course, but other national anthems speak of scattering enemies (“God Save the Queen”) or of the enemies’ blood washing out “their foul footsteps’ pollution” (“The Star Spangled Banner”). By adding “suffering,” the English version of the national anthem strikes a characteristically Filipino theme: It is our privilege to suffer, to die as martyrs, for our country.

This definition of patriotism as martyrdom must trace its roots to the Christian passion: the crucifixion, death, and resurrection (emphasis on death) of Jesus Christ. The language of both the Propaganda Movement and the Philippine Revolution borrowed heavily from this understanding of the Gospels; indeed, the most important historical work of the late 20th century in the Philippines, Reynaldo Ileto’s “Pasyon and Revolution,” allows us to reimagine the revolution as born in, or at least comprehensible through, the somnolent, repetitive rituals of the “pasyon.”

Fast forward to contemporary history: The overseas contract worker phenomenon is one of the great economic trends that define modern Filipino society; whether you agree with Ferdinand Marcos’ policy, born of a combination of desperation and insight, to promote the hiring of Filipinos abroad, or you think that the social costs of this controlled diaspora far outweigh its economic benefits, the reality today is that one out of every 10 Filipinos works abroad—and that work, that time away from family and community, is understood as a form of self-sacrifice, a kind of martyrdom.

And that martyrdom, for the many overseas Filipinos who self-describe as Catholic, is understood in Christian terms.

I have had occasion to refer to the psycho-pastoral reflections of Fr. Ruben Tanseco SJ, presented in March 1986, on the Edsa Revolution. I will do so again, because I think his summary of “negative” Filipino virtues does serve as a useful outline of Filipino character: “From nonassertiveness to active nonviolence — mahinahon, ayaw ng gulo, hindi basag-ulero, easy-easy lang, puedeng areglohin, pag-usapan, pagdasalan ng rosaryo, mapagtiis, mapag-pasensiya, maka-Diyos, authority-centered.”

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His point: “There are certain qualities or traits which I had considered rather negative in the past — points of weaknesses in the culture which were taken advantage of during the last 20 years by Mr. Marcos and his system. The very traits that were taken advantage of in the collective psyche of the Filipino are some of the very same qualities that facilitated the revolution. So that from negatives they turned into positives as it were—a case of God using the foolish to confound the wise.”

For better or for worse, these virtues are what define us, to ourselves, as Filipinos. Nietzsche would not have approved—and I think that, deep down, if we ask President Duterte himself, away from the microphone or the crowd, he will agree that this is an inferior constitution: We can be better than this. But unfortunately for us, his alternative is to offer a culture based on the killer instinct: Bully the weak, curry favor with the strong, insult the critic, make allowances for the rich and connected, kill the poor.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand

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TAGS: holy week, john Nery, killers, martyrdom, martyrs, Newsstand, Patriotism, Rodrigo Duterte
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