Of the 2.18 billion Christians in the world — almost a third of the global population of 6.9 billion — 86.8 million are Filipinos, says a study by the US-based Pew Research Center. That makes the Philippines, with 93 percent of its estimated population of 93.3 million Christians, still the only predominantly Christian country in Asia.
Most Filipinos wouldn’t ask for anything better. They’re happy being Catholics or members of any of the other Christian churches. God is constantly on their lips, and they attribute to Him whatever happens to them whether good or bad. If they come to some good luck, it’s thanks to God; if to bad, whether the loss of a job or a loved one, it’s still God’s will, for which He must have a reason mere mortals don’t have the capacity to understand or even discern.
The Churches are so full every Sunday, they worry more about parking than saving souls. The biggest crooks in government are also the most devout — and the most photographed while discharging their religious obligations. Every ceremony in the offices of the supposedly secular government of the Philippines starts and ends with a prayer, and has a Santo Nino or Virgin Mother corner, which every Christmas morphs into a crèche of the child Jesus, complete with shepherds, angels, lambs and donkeys, plus the usual gift-bearing magi.
As everyone knows, the country has the longest Christmas season in the world, which starts in September with your neighbor playing Christmas carols full blast in the early hours so you and everyone else within a three-kilometer radius can share in his eight-month anticipation, if not of Christ’s birth, of the drunken merry-making that usually lasts until the New Year.
He can’t imagine anyone’s resenting the playing of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, or of I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas at 5 a.m. just because he or she was working late and needs sleep. He may not have seen either a reindeer or snow, but who listens to song lyrics anyway? Not in this part of the woods, which helps explain why the Beatles song Imagine, with its hope for, among others, a world with neither country nor religion, was popular in this country when John Lennon first sang it, and is still occasionally played today in the high school reunions of people in their 60s.
In some respects, that Beatles song’s not just another case of wishful thinking among people who see religion as curse rather than blessing. For too many people Christmas has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with commerce and consumption, and that’s particularly true of such countries as the US, where, on the last pre-Christmas weekend this year, the primary worry was that consumers may not be spending enough to pull the economy out of the recession.
In the Philippines meanwhile, the bishops of the Catholic Church had to remind people it’s not Santa Claus whose advent the season’s supposed to be celebrating but that of Jesus Christ, who, away in that manger with no crib for a bed, came to this world 2,000 years ago to save mankind—but whose poor fisher-folk disciples founded the wealthiest Church in all of human history, anyway.
The Catholic Church was also the dependable accomplice of the conquistadores, who seized the Philippines in the name of God and King and proceeded to inflict Christianity on the natives through fire and sword. But few either know or care to remember, Christianity, in popular opinion, being what makes the country unique and entitles it to a place of honor among God’s nations, and they mean the Western, developed ones, specially the United States, that are uniformly Christian.
But despite the admonition not to steal and not to covet anything, whether it’s one’s neighbor’s wife or his cattle, the crime rate shoots up every December in the only Christian country in Asia. The Philippines was also, as of April 2011, one of the region’s most corrupt countries, if it hasn’t overtaken Cambodia and Indonesia in that department too, just as it has earned the distinction of being the most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism in.
It is also one of the most murderous in the world, and not only for journalists, but also for ordinary people, who, like the 125 broadcasters, reporters, commentators and media workers slain for their work since 1986, are also habitually shot, stabbed, bombed, burned, poisoned and strangled, sometimes by their own alleged friends and relatives, like that Lotto winner who, urban legend says, lost his ticket and winnings to a friend who stabbed him dead, or that middling actor who seems to have been killed for money by his sisters and brothers by various mothers, who was fathered by a former senator whose claim to fame is his having had liaisons so numerous he can no longer keep track of how many children he’s brought, totally without their permission, into this vale of tears.
But if life is torture, the Philippines is proof enough of it. Torture and extrajudicial killings are a cottage industry in this country, and committed by people baptized as Christians, but who, without a single iota of thought to it, draw boundaries between their proclaimed faith and their observance of such of its basics as that one on not killing.
One of the recent ironies of life in these islands this Christmas was the foiled attempt of one of the most notorious torturers and killers of the last 40 years to leave the country, about a day after he announced he was willing to face trial for the offenses he committed against God and humanity while in command of certain units of the Philippine military during the rule of that similarly devout Christian, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In the season of forgiveness and forgetting, that creature’s pathetic attempts to wriggle out of paying for the blood debts he literally owes hundreds of people served only to remind those who’re truly Christian among us of the hellish depths to which declared Christians can descend.
George Bernard Shaw once said that Christianity has not failed because it has never really been tried. But that thought might have been a little extreme: Filipinos have been trying it for centuries, and they won’t let anyone forget it. As Christmas approached and the southern islands were suddenly slammed by a typhoon of middling winds but mega-rain, the Christian in many Filipinos did rise to the surface, as was evident in the rush to help their brethren in parts of the Visayas and Mindanao who had lost not only homes and livelihoods but also kith and kin.
The TV networks launched telethons; the foundations outdid themselves in sending relief goods; ordinary folk sent whatever they could despite their own need. The country may have no shortage of murderers, torturers, rapists and kidnappers both in and out of the military. But it does still have people who can still feel for others, and who show it– though usually only during Christmas. Now, if the same spirit were to last the country the whole year, would there be less corruption, fewer murders and a little of the peace that’s among the season’s promises?