ALMOST A third of the 6.9 billion people who populate the world are Filipinos, said a 2011 study by the US-based Pew Research Center. With 93 percent of its estimated population of 100 million Christians, the Philippines is still the only predominantly Christian country in Asia where the seasons of Christianity, whether Lent or Christmas, are celebrated with a vengeance.
Most Filipinos revel in their being Christians–or in their Catholicism, even if they don’t usually vote for the candidates the Church supports, elect those it abhors, and use artificial birth control methods despite the Church’s dim view of condoms and the pill.
But much like the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, they can be expected to mention God at every opportunity, attributing both good fortune and bad to Him. If someone’s been sick and recovers, it’s thanks to God rather than to antibiotics. If something bad befalls them, such as, say, typhoon Pablo smashing into Compostela Valley, dengue in the home, a runaway truck leveling one’s shanty, or losing one’s job at the local sweatshop, it’s not because of illegal logging, bad sanitation, poorly maintained vehicles, or the inability of governments to create jobs. It must be because God has a Plan mere mortals can’t possibly perceive, let alone appreciate and understand.
Despite the ills Filipino flesh is heir to, the Churches are nevertheless so full every Sunday except during a Manny Pacquiao match, you couldn’t find a parking space in their courtyards between nine and eleven a.m. no matter how late you already are for that christening you’re supposed to be godfather for.
And speaking of Godfathers, the biggest crooks whether in government or out, not to mention the most moronic congressmen who know the bills they’re supposed to debate on only by their titles if at all, are also the most devout–and the most photographed while on their knees in Church before cardinal or bishop. Most of the offices of the supposedly secular government of the Philippines also have a prominent place reserved for the Santo Nino and the Virgin Mother, which come September is remade into a crèche of the child Jesus, complete with shepherds, angels, lambs, donkeys, and the magi.
As CNN made known to the world this year via its “Welcome to the Most Christmassy Places in the Planet” piece last December 12, the country has the longest Christmas season on earth. It starts in September with your neighbor hanging up a plastic Santa Claus climbing his porch, and playing Silent Night full blast in the early, not- so- silent hours so you and everyone else within a one-kilometer radius can share his enthusiasm for the coming birth of Christ. It’s not necessarily the all-round good thing CNN implied it is, considering the harvest of heart attacks and strokes from the Roman orgy of eating and drinking that usually lasts until the New Year.
For too many people Christmas in fact has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with commerce and consumption, which is why, every year, the bishops of the Catholic Church have had to remind people in this Christian country it’s not Santa Claus whose birth the season’s supposed to be celebrating but that of Jesus Christ.
Despite the admonition not to rob, maim, kill, or steal–and not to covet anything, whether one’s neighbor’s wife or his cattle, the crime rate shoots up every December, when Filipino car owners take to the streets determined to make that midnight sale at SM or Robinson’s even if it be at the cost of sideswiping a pedestrian or two, while their less endowed brethren go on a rampage of robberies, cell phone snatchings and holdups so they too can celebrate Christmas in the style to which they’re not accustomed.
Tourists who may want to visit this most Christmassy place take heed: criminality and its handmaid, corruption, are rampant in these parts, and they’re most evident during Christmas. The Philippines is still one of the world’s most corrupt countries, says Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index. It’s slightly ahead of Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh, which for a country of small mercies and low expectations is good enough. But watch out for the dishonest, whether it’s a taxi driver or a customs official with his hand out.
This Christian country is also one of the most murderous in the world not only for journalists, but also for ordinary people, who, like the 128 journalists and media workers killed for their work since 1986, are also shot, stabbed, bombed, burned, poisoned and strangled, in many cases by their friends and relatives, if not abducted, tortured, illegally detained, forcibly disappeared, or “salvaged” by State security forces.
Life is torture, and the Philippines is proof enough of it. Torture and extrajudicial killings are such thriving industries in this country the perpetrators might as well belong to a PRC-certified profession. Despite international protocols, these atrocities are committed by people baptized as Christians, but who put their proclaimed faith and their observance of such of its basics as that one on not killing and causing pain in conveniently separate boxes. In some cases, however, murder and torture of the political kind are justified as Christian duties among the police and military men responsible, the victims being thought to be Godless, even if, like the murdered Fausto Tentorio, they were men of the cloth.
If killing priests in the name of Christianity qualifies as one more irony in this land of ironies, certainly the claim by one peasant that the current Philippine President is the only hope left for the landless occupies a place of distinction in any list.
One Dorita Vargas, said a Philippine Daily Inquirer report last December 24th, told Benigno Cojuangco Aquino III that she and other landless peasants voted for him in 2010 because he “comes from a good family” and is “our only hope for getting our own land.”
Not only is that likely to be a forlorn hope; it’s also an indication of practically the same belief in some God or messiah that’s at the core of mass perceptions of the way to salvation, whether from poverty, social inequity or the fires of hell. But no one said anything about the landless’ hopes’ being themselves, or noticed the irony.
The Cojuangcos own Hacienda Luisita and for decades have resisted its redistribution to its tillers despite an agrarian reform law that Aquino III’s mother Corazon Cojuangco Aquino left to the landlord-dominated Congress to pass in 1987, and that’s so full of holes as a result the Cojuangcos managed to keep land reform at bay for years through their Stock Distribution Option scheme. Aquino III, as his mother was, is a devout Catholic whose messages to the country and the world often resonate with references to God.
Christianity has not failed because it has never really been tried, said the playwright George Bernard Shaw. He was mistaken; it has been tried; and Filipinos have been trying it for centuries. Whether it’s been the success both priest and politico assume it to be is, as yet, still to be proven. But one only has to look around this country of lost hopes to find the likely answer.