“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless societies.”
EVERY year after the end of the six- kilometer long trek that commemorates the transfer in 1787 of the Black Nazarene from the Recollect seminary in Intramuros (the old walled city ) to Quiapo Church, the country’s religious inevitably lament the “fanaticism” devotees display as the procession wends its way through Manila’s mean streets.
This year was no different — although, from the usual two million, estimates of the number of devotees who joined the 22-hour, longest-running procession ever who displayed a level of alleged fanaticism that might well be the envy and despair of other religions here and abroad, were this time between three to four million.
The parish priest of Quiapo Church was moved to describe the behavior of those millions not only as fanaticism but as an excess of it, despite fanaticism’s being, by definition, already excessive. His phrase — “excess(ive) fanaticism” — was itself redundant, like that provision in the Philippine Journalists’ Code of Ethics that warns journalists against taking “unfair advantage” of colleagues, taking advantage of anyone being by definition unfair. Other Church hierarchs found it necessary to preach that it isn’t by literally touching the statue of the Black Christ that one gets closer to God, but by living His teachings.
Certainly excessive was the trash the devotees left behind, which was enough to fill several dump trucks, and to keep street sweepers and garbage men working from Tuesday morning, January 10, till Wednesday, leading environmental advocates to lament the contradiction between the vast profession of faith — the fanaticism, if you will — evident in the frenzied participation of a tidal wave of humanity in the procession, and the civic indifference with which the Nazarene faithful responded to appeals not to litter Manila’s already foul streets and/or to pick up after themselves.
But all this actually makes sense, albeit in a disturbing way. Religions are among the means through which human beings remain hopeful despite the direst of circumstances. All religions envision a universe of order, according to the rules of which one can choose to spend eternity in the Elyssian Fields or in the Underworld of ancient Greek religion, or, in Christianity, whether to be in Paradise or Hell forever. In Christianity’s case the promise is that goodness will be rewarded and evil eventually punished, even if, in a society defined for the poor and powerless by the brutal struggle for existence, the reality may be the exact opposite.
The skeptical may argue that it may not have been devotion to the Nazarene that did either but time and coincidence, but there is solace nevertheless in the belief that God cured one’s cancer or solved one’s problems with one’s in-laws beyond the supposed miracles themselves — and that is, in the conviction that the universe is after all not indifferent to humanity’s woes, but a site of order ruled by a powerful and merciful god.
What has been described as the “fanaticism” of Filipino devotees, for which some sociologists account in terms alone of the pagan roots of folk religiosity, the adherents being mostly poor and unlettered, is not so much fanaticism as a plea for the justice and order Christianity promises. The usual displays of folk religiosity evident not only in the January Black Nazarene procession, but even more tellingly on such occasions as the voluntary crucifixion of men and women during the Lenten season, are indicators of the sense among the folk that there is no remedy in society for the ills to which the majority are subject, and that only the heavens can provide.
But few among the folk would so articulate the bases of their religious fervor. The ache and yearning for a world of law based on justice is instead focused on such specific desires as a job, education for one’s children, freedom from illness: for surcease from the sorrows that afflict Filipino lives.
The increase this year in the number of Black Nazarene devotees willing to risk not only their lives but also those of their own children is an eloquent indicator of citizen despair over the capacity of society to address and meet that yearning, and the stubborn faith that religion rather than society can provide what life in this country too often lacks. The downside to this, evident in the mass irresponsibility the tons of garbage the devotees left in the streets proclaim, is the refusal to engage reality because it has so often resisted merely human efforts at change.
The Churches are empty in the developed societies of North America and Western Europe. But they’re packed to the rafters in the Philippines, even as, in the aftermath of the demonstration of the extent of Filipino devotion to the Black Nazarene, coming soon are further demonstrations of the unplumbed depths of Filipino faith as the Feast of the Holy Child and Lent approach, and the world once more witnesses in all their terrible urgency the voluntary crucifixions for which certain provinces are noted and which have made the country the poster boy of Catholic zeal.
IN a letter to Business World last January 10 (“Who will watch the watchdog?”), Lito Zulueta of the University of Santo Tomas noted “striking resemblances” (sic) between the January 2 CMFR statement (“Specious and disingenuous”) and my January 6 Vantage Point column (“Rule makers and rule breakers”), and insinuates intellectual theft, presumably from CMFR, on my part.
Mr. Zulueta was as usual speaking in ignorance, if not malice as well. As CMFR deputy director and editor of its media monitoring publication PJR Reports, involvements I have many times disclosed, I wrote the January 2 CMFR statement for uploading in the CMFR website, and subsequently developed it for this newspaper into a column. Unless I can be accused of stealing from myself, Mr. Zulueta’s attempt to divert attention from his egregious ethical lapses by alleging “intellectual theft” can only be described as pathetic.
Mr. Zulueta makes up the ethical rules of journalism as he goes along . He claims, for example, that journalists should disclose their associations only to gatekeepers and not to the public, to whom anyone with a molecule of knowledge of journalism ethics knows they should be even more responsible. He also speculates rather than proves. The suggestion that it was in furtherance of propaganda for the University of the Philippines that I wrote the column in question — in his feeble attempt to turn an ethics issue into a competition between UP and UST that can happen only in the dreams of juveniles in a state of arrested development — is as absurd as the implication that I stole from myself after 45 years of service to the University of the Philippines where plagiarism is an offense even more unforgiveable than stupidity.
My links to UP as a professor of journalism and former dean of the UP College of Mass Communication are well-known, as Mr. Zulueta himself noted, which would make my reiteration of those connections unnecessary unless they’re compellingly relevant. They are irrelevant to the present case, but whenever they were pertinent — for example when I criticized UP, for, among other offenses, raising tuition fees, or failing to curb fraternity violence — I have disclosed them as well as my connections with CMFR in behalf of the ethical imperatives of transparency and full disclosure.
I have never done public relations work for any institution. I have often been critical of UP despite my long association with it, and I direct those interested in establishing the truth of this claim to my website and to CMFR’s (www.cmfr-phil.org).