Outsiders accuse it of many things.
For some it is idolatrous. For others still it is mindless fanaticism. The privileged think of it as hooliganism. In their view, its devotees, many of whom are urban poor, destroy everything in their path.
Whatever they say, there’s no denying that the Black Nazarene continues to attract an increasing number of followers. Many will attest to its miraculous interventions. Young people are also present, which means that devotion is passed from one generation to another.
What explains its popularity?
Whether miracles really happen are debatable. We have no idea what divine power gets transmitted through the towels that reach the image.
Of course some people are convinced. That there are devotees who have been faithful to the image for many years is a result of a miracle they encountered long ago.
But the endurance of a religious tradition lies not just in the existence of these miracles. Many others are still waiting for the answers to their prayers and yet they are there.
For sociologists, the power of a religious moment lies not in the stories about it but in the solidarity that people find in it.
At one level, its devotees find solidarity with the very image of Christ. The Black Nazarene is the God who suffers. It is black, the color of death. It carries the cross, symbol of the burdens of life. It is exposed to the elements, which speaks of human vulnerabilities.
And yet at the same time, people find solidarity with one another. Yes, they are in competition for the attention of the suffering Christ. It is after all the kind of devotion not meant for the faint-hearted.
But they are all there as devotees. They are all there seeking a miracle. They are all there with an unwritten affinity with one another by virtue of their shared experiences of illness and defeat.
It is for this reason that their solidarity with the suffering Christ is in fact solidarity with one another. The procession affords them what sociologists call collective effervescence, a sensation of belongingness. Only those who are part of the ritual will understand it.
In this light, what is chaotic to the outsider is in fact full of order to the insider.
But this is not to say that the entire procession is heaven on earth. A closer look reveals problematic contradictions.
The first is that it all takes place in Manila, a city once described as the “gates of hell”. The problem is not whether the streets of Manila are supposed to be secular and therefore spared from any religious event. The issue is that alongside a compelling religious moment exist corruption and poverty.
They manifest themselves in the ills of urban decay: homelessness, informal settlements, the underground economy, and even the proliferation of illegal drugs.
The second concerns devotees’ desire for healing and the inadequacies of the healthcare system. While people’s decision to seek God for healing should not be judged, we must be bothered when public health fails to address their needs.
Although strides have been made, healthcare remains expensive and prohibitive in the Philippines. Middle-class Filipinos can enjoy private healthcare, but the same cannot be said of the wider population.
Let me be clear: turning to religion is a choice that an individual makes. But there is a problematic contradiction when, in the midst of medical breakthroughs, all the poor could afford is a religious option. No wonder Karl Marx described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
Desire for life
At its core the devotion to the Black Nazarene is a desire for better things. And so is it still surprising that its most fervent followers are the urban poor?
In this light, the procession is an assertion of the people’s right to the city – and its offerings of the good life.
Thus, the popularity of the Black Nazarene witnesses against the popularity of the war on drugs, the main victims of which are the urban poor. By the same token, the annual procession calls into question the merits of the Philippine economy’s success that continues to benefit only the privileged.
In the Black Nazarene, contradictions accompany solidarity.
These contradictions, however, are sidestepped by the assumptions of the outsider. The devotion to the suffering Christ is neither idolatrous nor fanatical. These are simplistic remarks ignorant of the struggles of the faithful insider.
The rest of us who do not participate in this devotion need to be a little wiser – and compassionate.
We may not agree with their piety. But at the very least we can struggle with them in their hope for liberty. – Rappler.com
Jayeel Cornelio, PhD, is a visiting professor at the Divinity School of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is on leave from the Ateneo de Manila University, where he is the director of the Development Studies Program. He has written on religion and urban space. You can find him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.