Abellanosa: 500 years of Christianity

Fringes and frontiers

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to snub the celebration marking the 500 years of Christianity’s arrival in the Philippines deserves some analysis. Before proceeding, let it be made clear that his position deserves to be respected. He finds the celebration not worth his time and effort because it is in fact painful or “hurtful.” The Spaniards brought with them “cannons” and the “cross” and “subjugated” the Philippines. For him, like many other critics of colonialism, Spain did not do anything good to the country.

It is one thing to respect his choice and it is another thing to just agree to everything that he says. I’d grant the President some benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he is moving along the lines of scholarly thinking. By this I have in mind the Orientalist discourse of Edward Said that seeks to understand Eastern culture and history in its own terms. But this is only a “perhaps.”

At first glance the President’s views seem to have merits. After all, it is also true that there were abuses and atrocities during the 333 years or so of Spanish rule. Thus, one could surmise that his message to us Filipinos is to stand up for Filipino nationalism as we are done with the foreigners.

But there is “something” . . . there really is “something” with President Duterte’s take on the matter. The way I see it, his dislike for the celebration has much to do with his antagonism towards Christianity. If one examines his recent statements on the issue, it cannot but be linked to the entire narrative he has said about Christianity. For him Christianity is a no good religion. In this case, he conflates the religion and the colonizers who brought the faith to our shores.

This kind of thinking appears to be radical. However, it is also naïve and equally dictatorial. While it is true that at some point Christianity was part of the colonial instrument but it has also evolved through the years. Christianity as an import from Europe has become part of our past. Clearly, that is a past that cannot be undone. As in the life of each and every individual there is always that “part of the past” that one doesn’t like. However, much as one dislikes such a past it cannot be expunged from one’s historical entirety. The best thing to do is to move forward. But precisely we have to remember and keep in mind the past. It is not because that we have to hold on to it especially its negative elements but because we have a lot to reflect from it, think about it, and thus reform as we move forward.

Our celebration, therefore, of Christianity’s presence in our country for 500 years is not a celebration of colonialism. It is, in fact, a time for us to ask what we have become 500 years after. It is an auspicious event for more critical reflections of our Church and its structures and processes. In fact the celebration can be an opportunity for Filipino Catholics, themselves, to ask for forgiveness for the errors it has made in the past.

But let us also be fair in our assessment of history. While it is true for example that some friars and members of the clergy were not good but such is half reading of what really happened. The macro-narratives that depict the State and the Church as the source of all evil is not a dogmatic blanket statement that could account for all things, good and bad, that happened in the day to day lives of Filipinos within the 333 years of Spanish rule.

President Duterte’s bold decision not to condone colonialism and imperialism is worth the admiration. But he doesn’t get it right when he reduces the idea of “celebration” to mere fanfare, admiration, and congratulatory messages. There is more to remember and reflect in a celebration than programs and festivities.


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