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[OPINION] Can there be victory and humanity without 500 years of Christianity?

2021 is supposed to be a big year for the Philippines. But even in how Filipinos conceptualize the celebration, there are apparent divergences and divisions. Disagreements on how and what to commemorate with the 1521 event continue to emerge in various forms and expressions. 

A specific case is Christianity’s 500 years in the Philippines. Is there a reason to commemorate its arrival five centuries ago and its sustained presence since 1521? 

I am of the position that, in the end, we cannot not acknowledge the contribution of Christianity in Philippine society. And if by acknowledging its contribution this means celebrating its 500 years of presence, then so we should. I would further dare argue that those who object to the celebration are not paying attention to our realities as a society, of which Christianity has always been a part of. Precisely, the negative view towards Christianity speaks loudly of our hidden prejudices and not much of our appreciation of facts, that though religion has been part of our problem, it is not fair to make it as our excuse for most if not all of our failures as a nation. 

It is true that the Spaniards who came to our country in 1521 were both evangelizers and colonizers. There is no need to belabor this fact. To complicate this issue is superfluous. But we need to balance our reading and ask whether it is fair to conclude that everything that was despicable with colonization applies to the entirety of Philippine Christianity as well? While it is true that colonization left serious effects on those societies that were colonized, it would be intellectually dishonest if there are no nuances in our conclusions and just simply say that everything that happened within the context of colonialism should be rejected. 

One way to bring balance to our reading of history is to begin with the premise that history is not the study of what ifs. Hermeneutics reminds us that “every text has a context.” Reading or interpreting things outside of their context, and more so based on our desires and prejudices, is the beginning of our distortion of reality. Can there be another better, possible world other than how history unfolded during those centuries of colonization? As a matter of wishful thinking and speculation, yes, it would probably be better if there had been no colonization. But is there a point in asking the question or in wishing for such a speculation to be true? 

The “world” is not just a term or a notion; it is a reality. In the context of social evolution, there is no other way for the world to be what it is if not through global or trans-border interactions. There is no way for the world to grow if not through being globalized. It is unfortunate, of course, that in the process, colonialism had to happen. But, again, there is no point in wishing for the “what could have been.” We should reject what was reprehensibly made by the colonizers, but also appraise many historical details and their context so as not to be guilty of the same injustice we accuse the colonizers of.

We are then brought to another layer of the discussion: because we cannot change what had happened, then isn’t it exactly the point that there is no point celebrating colonialism, and in this specific case Christianity’s presence, in the Philippines? At first, the argument is attractive. For those who want to assert an identity, the invitation is apparently difficult to reject. For those who want to make an advocacy against injustice, rejecting the damages created within those years of colonization is basically an imperative. 

However, there are two questions that need to be answered for this particular layer of the discussion to be resolved. First, what is it that we are rejecting? Second, who are we representing? 

Let us elaborate on the first question: what is it that we are rejecting? The immediate answer is Christianity, because it was part of colonization, or, and if we may complicate things a bit: it was part of an imperial power’s instrument or machinery of domination. This is partly but not entirely correct. We speak of the “sins of the friars” assuming that all friars were sinful, and we speak of the influence of the Church in the country’s political life as if the Spanish ecclesiastical authorities were always in agreement with the State during the Spanish era.

Take the case of Bishop Domingo de Salazar, who defended the natives from the abuses of the encomenderos or provincial officials. The religious orders also contributed to the promotion of higher education in the Philippines. It is true that the schools during the Spanish period were not like the liberal educational institutions we have today, but still we have to acknowledge that the schools run by the religious orders were, in the words of John Schumacher, “instrumental in the evolution of Filipino nationalism” because they provided “competent leaders in that time of radical transition in Philippine society.” 

The cry not to celebrate Christianity’s 500 years in the Philippines, because of its contributions to the evils of Philippines society, raises the question whether Christianity can be expunged from our collective identity. Can we even think or speak of a Filipino society without Christianity? Are our woes and misfortunes as a country because of Christianity, or isn’t it the case that our troubles and problems are that of a Philippine society which happens to be Christian? Or perhaps and shouldn’t we ask, have we not thought that our prejudices have blinded us from thanking Christianity for the little, but at least there is something little, that it has contributed to the changes across the archipelago? 

So now we ask the second question: for those who insist that we should not celebrate the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, who are they representing? Again, the immediate answer is, the Filipino people. But who are these Filipinos? A possible answer is our ancestors – those who were victims of the brutalities of the friars. They are the ones whose lives should be given justice. 

But there is something problematic in how we paint the picture. We reconstruct the past based on the neat divisions that we want to see at present. We portray things not based on what they really were but based on what they should have been according to our convictions. The natives that we try to speak for were the same natives who allowed themselves to be baptized. They were the same natives who received the images from the colonizers. Eventually they were the natives who would revolt against the Spaniards but would use the prayers taught by their colonizers or even the education they got from Spain. Can we really dichotomize the “they” from the “us” so that we can righteously locate ourselves in the “us,” and thus make a contra-distinction between the natives and the colonizers in a historical narrative where the former are the good guys, and the latter are the bad guys?

Again, isn’t it more fair to read history where both the natives and the colonizers were conscious acting agents, and whatever they did were products of their decisions? Colonialism did have many negative effects in society, but to say that everything that could have been the opposite of our colonial experience would be better and thus a portal to a Philippines that would be brighter – is absurd.

We know that after 1898 much metamorphosis has happened to the Philippine Church. To insist on speaking of Catholicism as if it is monolithic and monochromatic is not only naïve but also unfair. For while it is true that the Catholicism brought here by Spain was an actor in the more than 300 years of colonial history, Catholicism is not Spain and we can never reduce the entirety of Catholicism to what was basically Spanish. We should not disregard that Christianity also came as Protestantism, and though it also continued many colonial elements, it also shaped the civilization we are now enjoying. 

When we celebrate it is not because we never had problems as a people and a country. We celebrate because there is something to thank for. If there is nothing to celebrate about the 500 years of Christianity’s presence in this country, what then were we doing in the last 500 years, when majority of us are Christians, at least in name? The last 500 years were centuries of woundedness, failures, and defeats, but they were also years that were rich in tradition, transformation, and triumphs. The Philippines cannot celebrate victory and humanity without acknowledging that Christianity is part of the entirety of its social landscape. To insist otherwise is not historical but ideological. –

Rhoderick John S. Abellanosa is Director of Human Resources of Sacred Heart School-Ateneo de Cebu, where he teaches Introduction to World Religions and Philosophy of the Human Person. He is also the editor-in-chief of the PHAVISMINDA Journal of Philosophy.