Weekly Reflections: Protestant witness in Philippine history (2/2)



“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” — John 1:14a

In his study of Methodism in the Philippines, Richard Deats observed that much of the Protestant social witness has been in the nature of first aid, without challenging the entrenched evils that make the first aid necessary. He therefore called for a church that must address itself to such evils as those caused by the gross exploitation of natural resources, the control of much of the land by a few landowners, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and chronic unemployment.

Furthermore, Protestant witness was also expressed in terms of nationalist movements. For instance, the Philippine Methodist Church seceded from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1933 on the issue, among other things, of self-determination by the Filipinos in their religious affairs. The trend towards Filipino leadership continued with the establishment of indigenous churches, like The Iglesia ni Kristo in 1914.

Another trend during this period was the withdrawal of Protestant churches in the Philippines from their mother churches in the U S. It may be safe to say that later on the spirit of nationalism led to the Filipinization of the leadership of Protestant churches in the Philippines. However, the continuing colonization process eventually stripped the Protestant churches of any meaningful nationalism and reduced them to being moral guardians of society concerned with the “’spiritual salvation” of its members and moralizing against slothfulness, superstition, and vice.

And finally, Protestant witness was also seen significantly in the areas or social services, specially education and health. Protestants had established schools and hospitals throughout the country but was not, of course, as many as the number of schools and hospitals established by the Roman Catholics, but still significant since these were accomplished within the 50 years of Protestant existence in the country.

Along with academic training, various Protestant schools trained students in such areas as citizenship, character education, agriculture, animal husbandry, and carpentry. In these schools, educators put to maximum use various publications and films of the United States Information Service (USIS), which went a long way in molding a political point of view among students that was favorable to American interests.

Medical work also started as soon as Protestant missionaries arrived in the Philippines. Mobile clinics were organized and went to various remote areas which propagandized Protestant (if not American) concern for the people. Protestant missionaries made use of the so-called mission-compound strategy, wherein they established a church, a school, and a hospital in one compound. These mission compounds helped a lot in the Americanization of Philippine society through the combined use of education, religion, and health services.

While Protestantism was quite successful in providing a framework for criticizing the excesses of feudalistic Roman Catholicism, it was not able to realize, however, the hope to become the majority religion in the Philippines for the primary reason that the individualism of Protestant denominations prevented efforts to come up with a unified program that would meaningfully challenge Roman Catholic dominance in our country. Although there were also successful attempts later on to unite these Protestant denominations into an organic union, like the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), and into a federation, like the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP).

Moreover, under the enlightened guidance of American bishops, Roman Catholicism itself removed much of the bases and roots of Filipino hatred against the Spanish friars. Eventually, some of those who had wandered off to Aglipayanism as well as Protestantism returned to Roman Catholicism. Furthermore, the Roman Catholics were not also outdone by the Protestants in the establishment of schools, hospitals, orphanages, dormitories, youth centers and the like, which accounts for the steady growth of Roman Catholicism through the years, in spite of the spread of Protestantism in the country.

Some lessons and challenges

Nevertheless, there are some significant lessons as well as challenges we could glean from the experiences of Protestant witness in our country. Firstly, there was an affirmation of the truth that the Christian Gospel is, indeed, a liberating gospel. The liberating message of the Gospel could not be hindered. While it is true that Protestantism was introduced in our country as an instrument of American colonialism, it is also equally true that the effect on the people might not necessarily be the same as that which was intended by those who tried to make religion an instrument of political and economic causes.

Certainly, there are prophetic elements in the Protestant faith itself that would serve as a critique of American colonialism and neo-colonialism. As a matter of fact, this is the very nature of the Christian faith and of the Christian God. The cross, which is considered the central symbol of the Christian faith, is meant to stop the Jesus Movement, but it turned out to be the very reason for the Movement to go on. Indeed, God has a way of turning tragedies into blessings.

Secondly, Protestant Christianity spread throughout the country, not so much by martyrdom and persecution, but by living out the Protestant faith in daily life. Protestant witness in our country does not speak of great martyrdom and persecution of people who accepted the Protestant faith. It does not speak of great dangers and threats to one’s life, because of what one believes and affirms as the truth. Rather, it speaks of ordinary events in the life of ordinary people. However, these ordinary events would become extraordinary when understood in the light of faith.

This reminds us of Matthew’s account about the Final Judgment (cf Mt. 25). The Ultimate Judge will sit upon His throne to judge the people of all nations. He will divide them into two groups, and He will say to those on his right, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; 1 was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me”. The righteous will then answer him, “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothed you? When did we ever see you sick and in prison, and visit you? The Ultimate Judge will reply, “/ tell you whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me!”

Giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, receiving strangers, taking care of the sick, and visiting the imprisoned: all these are just ordinary events in our daily life, which any ordinary person could do. These are not big events that would attract people and would make a person famous and land in the pages of history books. However, such small deeds of love and compassion would not escape the all-searching eyes of the Ultimate Judge of all. No wonder those on the right are surprised when the Ultimate Judge recognized what are supposed to be just ordinary occurrence in their lives. Apparently, God’s Kingdom is established not on account of the thrones of the mighty, but on account of the seemingly ordinary deeds of mercy of ordinary people.

And finally, Protestantism has spread throughout the country not so much because of big personalities who occupied the pages of history books, but because of the small, insignificant, nameless people who had been working painstakingly, patiently and faithfully in living out their Protestant faith.

Hence, if there is any challenge Protestant witness in our country would give us it is no other than the recognition that oftentimes it is in the ordinary that God’s work could be experienced. This is precisely the meaning of incarnation. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14a).

Understanding our faith in the light of the incarnation would make us change our understanding of history. It would make us see God’s creative Spirit working in ordinary events and in the lives of ordinary people, making all things new. Reformation, indeed, is a continuing process. And where God is at work, may the church be there also. # nordis.net


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