Weekly Reflections: Protestant witness in Philippine history (1/2)



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

500 years of Protestant reformation

Christianity worldwide is celebrating its 500 years of Protestant Reformation this year. What is significant in this year’s celebration is the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church. Sometime in year 2000, before the death of Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church through its leadership finally recognized that Justification by Grace through faith, a key doctrine of Protestantism, is a biblically and theologically sound doctrine. Through all the past years, the Roman Catholic Church regarded this doctrine as heretical. Hence, they considered the German Church Reformer, Martin Luther, as an arch heretic of the Roman Catholic Church.

By joining the celebration this year, the Roman Catholic Church is now accepting the truth that there is really a need for a continuing reformation of the church, something they could not accept in the 15th Century. For instead of heeding the call for reforms, they rather launched a counter-reformation that cost many lives all in the name of religion.

The Protestant faith was introduced in our country as a companion of American colonialism. If there is any concrete result of American colonization in our country it is no other than the introduction of Protestantism.

Now, to celebrate reformation in our country, it is important to look into the Protestant witness in the context of our country’s history in order to have a better understanding and appreciation of this significant celebration.

Protestantism and American colonialism

The Philippine Revolution against Spain was already two years old when the U.S. declared war against Spain in 1898, sending Admiral Dewey into Manila Bay. In the guise of helping the revolutionaries get rid of their Spanish colonial masters, the American forces came over and stayed put. A three-year Filipino-American War (1898-1902) followed with casualties of 600,000 in a population of 7 million. The Aguinaldo leadership surrendered, and with brutal repression the U.S. annexed the Philippines as a colony.

Some historical analysts would rather understand the Battle of Manila Bay as a “mock battle” with the occupation of the Philippines as its main goal since the Treaty of Paris was already signed by Spain and the US, selling our country to the Americans for twenty million dollars.

Not too long after that, the imperialist designs of the U.S. began to unfold. In 1932, Reinhold Niebuhr, a distinguished American theologian, aptly remarked: “Though the little junta, of which Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Lodge were leaders, had carefully planned the campaign of war so that the Philippines would become ours, the fiction that the fortunes of war had made us unwilling recipients and custodians of the Philippine Islands was quickly fabricated and exists to this day”.

This impression was strengthened by the “Divine Comedy” which President McKinley put up for a group of Methodist clergymen who visited him at the White House. He said to them, “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight. And I am not ashamed to tell you, Gentlemen, I went down on my knees and prayed to the Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night it came to me this way – that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ died.”

As shown by subsequent historical events, all these pious words about humanitarianism, civilization, and peace were meant to mask the economic and strategic motives behind the American colonization of the Philippines. Parker Thomas Moon, a historian on colonial policy, wrote about the real guidance McKinley got on that fateful night. He said, “The decision to colonize the Philippines did not come quite so suddenly or so mysteriously, as the President’s words would indicate. Mr. McKinley communed not only with his conscience, but also with his advisers. Divine light and guidance had to be confirmed with detailed reports on the economic and strategic value of the Islands before the final decision was made.”

There were three groups that lobbied for the annexation of the Philippines to the U.S. These groups included the trading companies looking for Asian markets, the advocates of U.S. naval power in the Pacific, and the Protestant mission boards. All these groups embodied the economic, political, and religious interest of the U.S. Their mutual interdependence suggests that the mission boards tacitly acknowledged their role in the total colonization effort, even if they appeared to have come to teach the Filipinos the meaning of “true Christianity”.

In his study about “Providence and Politics behind Protestant Missionary Beginnings in the Philippines,” Gerald Anderson, a renowned American church historian, said that the first American Protestant missionaries in the Philippines arrived in 1898 under the banner of Manifest Destiny, the idea of divine mandate to expand and wield power and to justify the U.S. colonization program.

Expressions of Protestant witness

In this context of American colonialism, there emerged various expressions of Filipino Protestant witness. First of all, the early Filipino Protestants had shown their zealousness to convert non-Protestants and to organize Protestant churches. The introduction of Protestantism in the Philippines was accompanied by strong anti-Roman Catholic sentiments. Understandably, this was also encouraged by most Protestant mission boards not only to discredit Roman Catholicism, but to break Spanish control over religion and also to check the growing people’s national awareness. The new Protestant churches preached religious freedom as opposed to the one-religion policy of Spain, the open Bible as opposed to its exclusive use by priests, and the priesthood of all believers as opposed to a hierarchical church.

Except the Episcopalian Mission, various Protestant denominations considered the Roman Catholics “unsaved”. This view justified Protestants’ move to convert Roman Catholics to Protestantism. Consequently, such proselytizing thrust generated ill-will between Roman Catholics and the new Protestant converts that resulted to numerous violent incidents against followers of both denominations.

The anti-Roman Catholic sentiments did not die down through the years. As a matter of fact, it is still very much strong among the more conservative evangelicals at present, especially those groups who entered the country in recent years. Such divisive sentiments fit so well within the divide-and-rule framework of imperialist domination in the country and elsewhere.

Moreover, there was a remarkable Protestant witnessing in the area of ethical and moral life. Generally, Protestants regarded the Spanish-led Roman Catholicism as a superficial kind of Christianity, giving attention to the outward forms of religion, but neglecting the real substance of Christian ethical life. Protestants claimed that they were committed to show moral righteousness in Christian life. Such values like compassion, honesty, tolerance, fairness, self-control, diligence, hard work, and aversion to vice were regarded as the hallmarks of Protestant living.

However, the centrality of ethical and moral life among Protestants excluded the acting out of a more prophetic Christianity, even when society manifested grave social maladies from time to time. The systemic problems of society were not sufficiently addressed. The success of Protestant mission was measured simply by the number of individuals who were baptized or accepted Jesus Christ “as their personal Lord and Savior”, and in the number of church members who held responsible positions in the government or in their chosen profession, and in the number of active witnesses for Christ. # nordis.net

Continued next week


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