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[OPINION] Christianity in the Philippines: A nuanced gift

Last March 16, Rappler published an op-ed that argued for the non-celebration of the quincentennial of Christianity in the Philippines. In that piece, the writer argued that doing so is an insult to our ancestors and invalidates the abuses that happened due to our colonization. 

The points raised in the article were understandable. Historical experiences, not only of the Philippines, but also of other former European colonies, have shown that Christian evangelization was instrumentalized by the West for its colonial project. It cannot be denied that as a co-opter of colonization, political interference, persecutions, discrimination, corruption, and canonical infidelities were committed by some agents of Christianity.

In our case, the Spaniards who arrived in the Philippines in 1521 were not only motivated by the spread of the Christian faith, but also by dreams of economic and political prestige for Spain. Later, in 1898, the Protestant missionaries who arrived in the country also used the Word of God to justify US imperialism, specifically the so-called “benevolent assimilation.”

However, history has also shown that the same religion that was accused of being an enabler of colonization was also claimed by Filipinos themselves as one of their tools towards the attainment of freedom.

The same Christian faith that produced the archetypes of Damaso and Salvi also produced Domingo de Salazar (the first Bishop of Manila who reported to the King of Spain the incidents of abuses against the indios), Pedro Pelaez, the GOMBURZA, and Gregorio Aglipay, who even had an active role in the formation of Asia’s first democracy, the First Philippine Republic, in 1898.

The Church that was tagged by some intellectuals as a reactionary institution also nurtured radicals such as Conrado Balweg, Carlos Tayag, Ed Dela Torre, and Luis Jalandoni. The same institution accused by some as complicit to abuses also produced human rights advocates, i.e. Sr. Christine Tan, Antonio Fortich, Julio Labayen, Federico Escaler, Felix Perez, Francisco Claver, and Joaquin Bernas. 

Leaders of various Philippine social movements were also empowered by Church teachings to rise up against oppression. In his book Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910 (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979), historian Reynaldo Ileto noted that some rites and religious activities of the Church – such as the reading of the Pasyon – enabled the Filipinos to grasp the ideas of freedom and equality, even though they did not have access to Propaganda-era publications, i.e. La Solidaridad, Noli me Tangere, or El Filibusterismo.

Former donado (lay brother) Apolinario “Hermano Pule” dela Cruz formed the Cofradia de San Jose, a religious confraternity that later mounted a revolt against the Spaniards. Philippine textbook history does not list mystic leaders such as Papa Isio Magbuelas (Negros), and Apung Ipe Salvador (Pampanga and Bulacan) as among those who joined the 1896 Philippine Revolution. And yes, the Katipuneros fought the in the Revolution with anting-anting and oracions that were obviously inspired by Church rituals and sacramentals.

These developments were also seen even in the religious realm. Historians such as Teodoro Agoncillo, John Schumacher, and Horacio de la Costa have listed the assertion of Filipino secular (i.e. diocesan) priests for right to pastoral control of Filipino parishes as one of the starters of Philippine nationalism. Its momentum became the spirit that led some Filipinos to indigenize the Christian faith by establishing an independent Filipino Christian church. We can see it through Isabelo delos Reyes and Aglipay, who formed the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (or the Aglipayan Church), Nicolas Zamora who separated from the American-introduced Methodist Church to form the Iglesia Evangelica Metodista en las Islas Filipinas (IEMELIF), and Felix Manalo who organized the Iglesia ni Cristo. And the same Church who ambivalently responded to the declaration of Martial Law in 1972 also fought it all the way up to its downfall in 1986.

So, should the quincentennial of Christianity be celebrated? Yes. Beyond theological perspectives, it, too gave significant contributions to the formation of various Filipino struggles towards freedom. While it may be a colonial imposition, the Filipinos, through either or combination of resistance, innovation, or conformity, infused their culture and viewpoints to embrace it as if it were its own.

Non-celebration of this milestone is tantamount to invalidating the role of Philippine Christianity in being one of the midwives that delivered the Filipino nation we have today. Instead of rejecting it outrightly, this event should rather help us to contemplate (1) on the current extent and state of Philippine church-society/church-state relations; and (2) on how the “Filipinized” Christian faith can help us to understand ourselves as a nation and make us better Filipinos for a better Philippines. That would make the quincentennial celebrations, in the words of the late Renato Constantino, a “useable past.” –

Michael Anjielo Tabuyan is a senior high school social science teacher of St. Scholastica's College Manila. He is also pursuing his MA in Philippine Studies, specializing in Socio-Cultural Studies, at the University of the Philippines Asian Center.