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[OPINION] Marcos and the Church

[OPINION] Marcos and the Church

A few months ago, I wrote an open letter to Christians voting for Bongbong Marcos. It was supposed to be a respectful call.

My message was simple. While reconciliation and forgiveness are pillars of the Christian faith, neither Bongbong Marcos nor his followers can rely on them. They castigate BBM critics for digging up the past and take comfort in the man’s message of ‘national healing’.

But their message of forgiveness, I suggested, is wrong. Whenever they talk about forgiveness, they are actually dismissing the atrocities of the past as if it were an unimportant event in our history.

They also conveniently forget that there is an intimate relationship between forgiveness and justice. While forgiveness may be an individual decision, justice is a social responsibility.

This lesson should be fundamental for every Christian.

But based on the online comments and numerous messages I received, I know that my article touched many members of the religious community. One person even called me a “non-Christian” for defaming BBM’s reputation. Others dismissed the entire article and accused me of promoting “hate and unforgiveness”.

The fact that Christians today are divided on BBM should come as no surprise. Even in his father’s time, Christians of all persuasions disagreed on martial law. Months before the elections, I believe it is important to remember how the Marcos dictatorship divided the religious community.

Collaboration, resistance and all the rest

A few influential Catholic leaders, to begin with, believed in Marcos’ new society.

No less than Cardinal Rufino Santos, Archbishop of Manila, claimed Marcos’ vision was “in keeping with the Sermon on the Mount and the new commandment of love.” He thus concluded that it should be “greeted and welcomed by every peace-loving citizen”. For endorsing the state’s call for discipline, this clergy was often invited by Malacañang to honor its events. Indeed, their endorsement gave the regime the moral legitimacy it needed.

“Critical collaboration,” on the other hand, was the path taken by many in the Catholic hierarchy.

In principle, the clergy who took this position were ready to work with the government but were also ready to denounce its excesses. Jaime Cardinal Sin was convinced that it was possible to do both because he believed he had moral influence over Marcos; in fact, he had regular access to the president to discuss affairs of state. He also believed that Marcos was “brilliant, brilliant and unemotional”, thus a reasonable man.

In the 1970s, the bishops criticized many issues, including the intrusion of foreign capital, the presidential decree banning strikes, and the 1975 referendum on the powers of the president.

But Sr. Mary John Mananzan describes critical collaboration as all talk and no action. She questions, for example, Cardinal Sin’s initial position on public demonstrations. In fact, the Archbishop of Manila did not support any political protest because he thought it might escalate into a civil war, which he said would only aggravate the suffering of the poor.

At the same time, Sin also believed that any resistance led by Ninoy Aquino could only give the military or the communists the power to take over. These were unacceptable alternatives for him.

Due to the hierarchy’s dualistic stance, adopting critical collaboration clearly made it difficult for other clergy to be more confrontational. In the words of Bishop Francisco Claver, “We fiddle with trivialities while ‘Rome burns'”.

And then there was the “critical minority”.

Unlike the former, they directly organized communities affected by martial law, including farmers and laborers. The work of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP) testifies to this.

At the same time, while the Philippine Conference of Catholic Bishops (CBCP) in 1972 called on Filipinos “to remain calm and law-abiding,” other bishops took a bolder stance. Less than a week after the declaration of martial law, these bishops sent the president a separate letter:

Like you, we want a new society. That’s what we’re here for… What worries us is that the “new society” you speak of had to be brought about by force, by the coercive mode of martial law. From our experience with our peoples, we are convinced that no lasting change of heart ever comes from change decreed by decree. True conversion comes only from persuasion and good example, from inner and voluntary acceptance, not from fear or coercion.

Other Christians

What about Protestants and Evangelicals?

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), an ecumenical group of different Protestant denominations, has been critical of martial law from the start. In fact, it was the first church body to formally oppose it. The NCCP did this in 1973, when many of its ministers and church workers were harassed and even imprisoned.

Despite this audacity, however, the reality was that some of the NCCP’s own leaders initially welcomed Marcos’ martial law.

Although they did not represent the council, the fact that they were the leaders of its churches was more than enough affirmation for Marcos. The heads of NCCP-affiliated denominations such as the Independent Church of the Philippines, the IEMELIF Church, and the United Methodist Church signed a resolution in 1972 declaring that “the President of the Republic of the Philippines is the servant of God to fulfill his will in the nation.”

But it wasn’t long before the NCCP made its resistance official. When this happened, it earned them the wrath of the state. Government forces raided NCCP offices across the country, detained their leaders and even expelled foreign missionaries like the Reverend Paul Wilson who worked with their local congregations.

Within the evangelical community, on the other hand, the political awakening is taking shape at a much slower pace.

Certainly, evangelicals were present at EDSA in 1986. Evangelical groups like the Konsensiya ng Febrero Siete (KONFES) were led by Melba Maggay of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC) and Isabelo Magalit of the Diliman Bible Church (DBC). They were politically committed evangelicals.

But many of their evangelical peers generally remained silent about the political situation, even until 1986. According to David Lim, much of it could be explained by evangelical theology, which emphasized “personal salvation” to the detriment “social or cultural problems”. This, in his view, was the legacy of American evangelicalism in the Philippines.

This quietism was indeed reflected in the statements of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC). Even in the early 1980s, the PCEC discouraged the participation of the evangelical community in public demonstrations. In fact, even in the 1986 snap elections, the evangelical council issued a “Call for Sobriety” to respect regardless of the results.

It wasn’t until the height of People Power in late February that the board changed its mind. In a statement, he said the following:

Where Caesar is in conflict with Christ, we declare that Jesus is Lord. Divine law supersedes human law. Our obedience is therefore not absolute. Whenever the government rules contrary to the will of God, then civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.

If you like Marcos, remember to ring the country?

The minority

Today, Christians remain politically divided. At the center of this division is Bongbong Marcos, the dictator’s son who ironically promises national healing. This, as I said above, should come as no surprise.

What lessons can we draw from these divisions? There are two.

First, many Christians are fully convinced that BBM is the hope of the country. In this sense, they are no different from the clergy who endorsed the dictator’s new society in the 1970s.

These Christians are drawn to BBM because of its promise of greatness, the recapture of an imagined glorious past that was unjustly interrupted when EDSA forces took power. Thus, on closer inspection, we realize that their vision of the political world hijacks a deeply Christian scenario: the resurrection.

In this worldview, the father may be dead but they are all grateful that the son is there.

They forget that BBM is a liar. They do not see that his promises are vain. And they deny that he was a beneficiary of ill-gotten wealth hidden away in Swiss banks. The fact is, for these Christians, his tale of greatness is too alluring to resist.

The second lesson is that BBM’s popularity shouldn’t make us powerless. Many of us still see through the lies. Our vocation may not be the most fashionable, but it remains noble.

Those who resisted the dictatorship held firm.

And it’s worth remembering that they started out as a minority. They fought and then they prevailed. – Rappler.com

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD, is Director of the Development Studies Program at Ateneo de Manila University and recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the National Academy of Science and Technology. This piece is based on his chapter in The Marcos Anthology, forthcoming with Ateneo Press. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.