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500 years without Christianity

/ 05:02 AM September 21, 2020

Alex Lacson, author of a small book on the little things Filipinos can do to help their country, has just launched a novel, “Five Hundred Years Without Love,” which depicts the social cancer eating away at this society. He hopes it will have a similar impact on present and future generations as Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” did a century ago. Setting aside the literary merits of the book, we wish to address a problem that the title alludes to and forms part of the impulse behind its writing.

Five hundred years after Magellan set foot on these shores, bringing with him the cross and the sword, the religion we call Christianity has yet to engage what anthropologists call the “deep structures” of our culture — matters like worldview, values, and other such aspects of our consciousness. It was easy enough to change the “surface structures”—dark wooden anitos were exchanged for statues of saints with Caucasian features, and rice-planting rituals and harvest festivals were taken over by fiestas honoring various saints, like the colorful kiping celebration on the feast of San Isidro, patron saint of farmers, in Lukban.

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But in that place where we make decisions about right and wrong, that moral sense from where we gather the inner resources to face the exigencies of our tortuous existence, it remains a question as to whether we have really been converted or have merely adapted. As the Catholic scholar Jose de Mesa once put it, “it has been asked whether the people have really been christianized or whether Christianity has simply been Filipinized.”

Protestants generally believe that this thesis is true of Catholicism, but not of the evangelical Protestant religion. Yet in a certain barrio in Central Panay which has had a strong Protestant influence dating back to the 1900s, it was found that traditional beliefs coexisted rather strongly with both streams of the Christian faith.

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F. Landa Jocano discovered in his seven-year research in the ‘60s that the people still retain practices connected to a belief in ancestral and environmental spirits. A wife makes the sign of the cross with the ladle’s handle over the surface of cooked rice before serving it for meals. Novenas are said for nine or even 27 consecutive days followed by food offering and feasting for those in the afterworld. Even among the elders of a Baptist church, Jocano reported, many consulted the babaylan or medium for their sicknesses in spite of the minister’s repeated preaching and recommendation that they go to the doctors in the poblacion.

Contrary to the notion that the culture is “damaged” because of foreign influence, there is this strong subterranean layer of our culture that persists and has remained impermeable, as seen most clearly in our indigenous religions. Now and again, it surfaces in such political phenomena as the fusion of religion and revolution in the 1986 People Power uprising, or, further back, in the perceived revolutionary threat to Spanish authorities posed by Hermano Pule and his followers round about Mount Banahaw.

These examples of what appear to be historical curiosities show glimpses of a latent sense of national solidarity, a depth of communalism that has its roots in culture and cannot be accounted for by mere adherence to a cause or an ideology. This calls for a closer investigation of whatever it is in the culture that triggers such mass movements, certainly ephemeral and short-term in their aims, but indicative of a dormant yet constant moral force that now and again rises just below the surface of usual political behavior.

The question is often asked as to why our Christianity does not seem to make a difference in our attitudes toward extrajudicial killings, human rights, and corruption in high places. In Shintoist Japan, if you commit a crime you are likely to get caught and jailed 80 percent of the time. Leaders like Shinzo Abe feel they owe it to the nation to step down from power when no longer able to discharge their duties. In this country, the law is used to hunt down the innocent, and the abuse and gross ineptitude of those in power are tolerated.

The short answer, which requires a long explanation, is that there is a great disconnect between private piety and public duty, because Christianity has yet to be made truly at home in our context, in conversation with the deep structures that need to be engaged so that society is transformed.

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Melba Padilla Maggay, PhD, is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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TAGS: Christianity, Commentary, deep structures of culture, Melba Padilla Maggay
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