In the sixteenth century, Spaniards arrived on Philippine shores. One of their expressed aims for colonizing our islands was to Christianize the pagan natives. Many university students of today, however, no longer accept this. They believe that Spanish missionaries were instruments of a merchant empire with designs on cheap raw materials and the strategic ports of a Pacific archipelago.
Various consequences stem from the manner in which Christianity entered Filipino life. First, priests, nuns and church workers occupied social positions of power, as they were simultaneously loved, feared and revered by the local population. Second, the Spanish Catholic Church attempted to expand very rapidly throughout the archipelago. This resulted in the physical presence of church buildings and church networks even in farflung rural areas.
When the Marcos regime became extremely abusive, the only other social counterbalance to the power and physical presence of the dictatorship was the Catholic Church. This occupied positions of influence not only in urban centers, but also in the countryside as well. More so, its physical presence throughout the country became convenient ad hoc centers of dissemination for information regarding political activities.
The politico-cultural impact of Christianity on Filipino liberation movements runs through history. What has come to life in our society is an integration of Western Christianity with the more deeply set spiritual orientations of an Asian people. As one psychologist writes, "During Spanish times, he (the Filipino) accepted Roman Catholicism whose saints fused beautifully with his belief in a spirit world . . ." (Bulatao, 1986).
During four centuries of Spanish rule, pockets of peasant uprisings challenged the colonial authorities. Cultural themes in the popular religious book called the Pasyon inspired Filipino revolutionary activity (Ileto, 1979). Peasant leaders strongly identified with the image of the suffering Christ, whose death on the Cross was the ultimate sacrifice for the common good.
When Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, the ideas if the theology of liberation had begun to take root in the Philippines. Throughout the dictatorship, various liberation movements weaved in and out of a political worldview that combined transcendental ideas of man with more pragmatic Marxist-style outlooks. (Human Development Research and Documentation, 1982).
Catholic bishops took longer than Church grassroots movements to respond to Marcos' regime (Quevedo, 1986). In the first ten years of Martial Rule, pastoral letters by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) remained relatively non-committal. Later, a significant change took place. For example, its 1983 statements touch the most sensitive social issues of that year (Hardy, 1984).
The February Revolution of 1986 highlighted the marriage of religion with politics. Thousands of Filipinos faced the regime's tanks unarmed. The street revolutionaries had nothing but prayers and whispered calls to their Mother Mary to protect them from harm. Eventual victory was not only a historical moment of political change, but also "a profoundly religious experience" (Nebres, 1986).
In those momentous February days, faith-expression was a mixture of Western Catholicism and folk culture. The Filipino's highly personalistic culture demanded that leadership emanate from persons physically present during the crisis. Throughout the four days at EDSA, there was the "personal participation of the Sto. Niño or the Blessed Mother leading the procession. It was all very Filipino" (Bulatao, 1986)
The Filipino concept of power blended well with Christian orientations to produce the EDSA victory. In our culture, there are two sources of social strength: lakas and awa. The first is possessed by the powerful; it is their capacity to get what they want because of politico-economic-military resources. The second, awa, belongs to the apparently powerless; it stems from their vulnerable position which stimulates intense compassion in others. At EDSA, the two forms of power fused with the Christian notion of altruism: "power not for personal advantage alone, but for the common good; compassion not for action out of charity alone, but more fundamentally out of justice" (Claver, 1986).
But how is power increased? Any type of social struggle entails the production of power. When one wishes to generate might, one has to choose symbols that capture the cultural imaginations of the target. Hence it is important to know the audience and what symbols they recognize as designating power (Lasswell, et al., 1965). The most influential symbols are those that permeate the social life of a people and are not limited to isolated relationships (Lasswell, et al., 1950).
In the Philippines, can these psychologically potent symbols come from religion? Perhaps so, since religion pervades the cultural existence of our people. In fact, religious imagery may act as a common "language" in a nation so wrecked with divisiveness across economic classes and regional groupings.
Nebres (1986) posits that "There is an ethos and worldview in the majority of Christian Filipinos, shaped by the symbols and practices of popular Christianity, which can be a basis for social change". This concept characterized the political crisis of 1986.
One week after the presidential elections of February 7, 1986, political tensions ran high throughout the country. A nation watched President Ferdinand Marcos proclaim himself winner over Corazon Aquino, widow of Marcos' assassinated archival. Many Filipinos believed the electoral exercise was fraudulent. Meanwhile, the armed underground movement rapidly gained strength, feeding on the despair of the middle forces who staked their hopes on social transformation through elections. It was amidst this politically volatile context that the Philippine bishops met.
On February 13, 1987, the CBCP held a national assembly. One of their reference documents drafted by a priest sociologist urged them to "Integrate the powerful religious symbolism of which the Church is the custodian with the struggle for peace and justice" (Carroll, 1986).
By the end of their day's meeting, the bishops signed the historic pastoral letter entitled "CBCP's Post Election Statement". Briefly, the document announced that a "government that assumes or retains power through fraudulent means has no moral basis"; the Catholic leaders also called for "active resistance of evil by peaceful means" (CBCP, 1986). In less than two weeks, the Marcos dictatorship fell to the amassing nonviolent force of people's power.
The bishops' letters apparently yielded sufficient power to influence attitudes of Filpinos. Why so? Pastoral letters are a form of mass communication and the encoding and decoding messages is crucial in communication; it also is where misunderstandings can occur (Kunczik, 1984). In pastoral letters, messages are encoded in religious symbols. The large extent to which these religious symbols were successfully decoded by the Catholic populace augmented the political effectiveness of the documents. Parish priests read the pastoral letters during Sunday mass homilies. The channel of communication was especially significant for the priest stood in the pulpit, a place of cultural authority for over four centuries.
With the use of religious themes in politics, will the Philippines produce Khomeini-type fundamentalist power wielders? Will religion be employed as an instrument of violent authoritarian rule? Most probably not. In Philippine history, the indigenous religious themes have been nonviolent and peace-oriented. For example, peasant uprisings were inspired by the image of a suffering, self-absorbent Lord (Ileto, 1979). Bishops' pastoral letters during the critical years of the Marcos-Aquino transition period successfully "connected with" the religious imageries salient in our national culture. The letters spoke of powerful but serene spiritual personalities who empathized with the sufferings of an oppressed nation.
Pastoral messages called on a lovingly strong God, Father. Christ was the innocent incarnated Lamb who, as in the Pasyon stanzas, sacrificed himself for the sake of peace among his brothers. The Holy Spirit breathed and lighted the path of justice. Finally, Mother Mary protected her children from harm, affectionately helping them through the dangerous path to peace and freedom.
In the 1986 revolution, the statues at EDSA were those of a little child (Sto. Niño) and a gentle woman (Blessed Virgin Mary). The presence of these religious personalities and other faith-related beliefs helped topple the dictatorship in an active nonviolent manner (Claver, 1986; Nebres, 1986).
In summary, religion and politics interweave in the fabric of Philippine social life. The Spaniards introduced a Catholic network that served as the foundation for orchestrated pro-justice moves under the repressive Marcos regime. Catholic stories, personages and value systems are very much a part of Philippine liberation history. There is the Pasyon of the anti-Spanish peasant revolutionaries, the Liberated Christ of grassroots movements during Martial Law, and the strongly religious spirit of the February 1986 Revolution.
Historical experiences suggest that religious symbolism incarnates liberation ideas in the context of widely-accepted cultural imageries. Such symbolism tempers the ruthlessness of liberation movements to produce effective, militant but nonviolent political styles.
Is religion still the opium of a suffering people? Not any more. At least, not in the Philippines.
Ateneo de Manila University
*This article is part of a larger study on Politico-religious Imagery in Liberation Politics sponsored by the Center for Social Policy of the Ateneo de Manila
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