The promises and risks of metaphors

My brother, Fr. Pablo David, a biblical scholar, has published a fascinating essay on the power of metaphors and the changing images of God in the Bible.  He focuses on the shift in imagery that the “weird” prophet Hosea popularized to induce the ancient people of Israel to re-imagine their relationship with Yahweh. From being a political covenant between king and vassal, Hosea proposed this relationship to be that between husband and wife, or between father and child.

This choice of metaphors was risky, and in a way, a bit of an irony, says Fr. Ambo, because in Hosea’s time, husbands were deemed the owners of their wives and children.  The men in those times put women and children in the same league as their disposable oxen. This was not the message that Hosea wanted to project.  By borrowing images from the family, this strange prophet meant to emphasize the unconditional and enduring character of God’s love in the face of repeated betrayal by those He loves.

One is never certain where metaphors will take you.  Hosea makes sure he would not be misunderstood.  He practices what he preaches.  He marries a prostitute, Gomer, hoping to stabilize her affections.  Yet she keeps going back to her lovers.  Unable to take this betrayal, he disowns her in the hope of bringing her back to her senses.  Gomer only sinks deeper into a life of prostitution and slavery.

God speaks to Hosea and tells him “to rise above his anger and learn to love his erring wife again, the way Yahweh goes on loving Israel, despite her unfaithfulness.”  God teaches him the nature of unconditional love.  Hosea does what God bids him to do: he redeems his wife’s freedom, continues to love her faithfully, but waits until she can love him back.  He offers to release her from the marriage.  He no longer demands subservience; he only wishes to be loved.

The essay on Hosea’s experience of coming to terms with his own metaphor led me to think about the current battle between Erap’s “Ama ng masa” (Father of the masses) and Gloria’s “Ina ng bayan” (Mother of the nation).  To the extent they resonate the heroism and pain of the Filipino family, these metaphoric redescriptions of the presidency can be very powerful, but also risky.

The “Ama ng masa” imagery has the advantage of riding on the stereotype portrait of a father who uses his strength to protect and advance the interests of his children.  In a society torn apart by large gaps in wealth and power, the metaphor is formidable.  The image however fosters dependency and preserves a picture of the masses as children needing patronage.  It is a backward-looking metaphor suitable to a political culture that thrives on the permanent infantilization of citizens.  It has no place in a modernizing society.

Gloria’s “Ina ng bayan” capitalizes on the socio-emotional role of the Filipino mother, and promotes the familial values of unity, stability, and “damayan” or mutual help.  It is a good counter-image to the reality of a society split into the propertied few and the propertyless many.  Its drawback however is that it is passive. In the face of adversity, Gloria’s “Ina ng bayan” character is reduced to issuing sentimental admonitions for support.  She doesn’t explain why the country has so many problems and what kind of help she needs. She only says she’s been working very hard, and that she can’t do it alone.  The unstated context is that the “Ama ng bayan” (Erap) has been an irresponsible parent, and has shattered the family, and that it is time to pick up the pieces.

Effective metaphors are unfamiliar ways of using familiar words. They become powerful tools of social change when, through habitual use, people begin to understand them literally, thus producing a reweaving of their beliefs and an adjustment in their behavior.  But there is nothing new in the use of family images to refer to the Filipino nation, and of the parental role to refer to the presidency.  These are aspects of the obsolete vocabulary of feudal cultures that legitimize the domination and control of the weak by the powerful by representing these broadly as elements of parental authority.

Early in her administration, I wrote that the reference to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as “Ate Glo” to an orphaned Filipino nation might help define her role in our family-oriented society.  As the eldest daughter in the family, “Ate Glo” finds the responsibility of leading the family thrust upon her accidentally.  She forsakes her own personal agenda and devotes herself wholly to the long-term interests of the family.  She does not claim for herself the authority of a parent. Her goal is to provide the means by which her siblings can become self-reliant persons.

I have heard that she does not particularly like the role of “Ate Glo” as an analogue for her presidency.  I thought the image suited her. Though not particularly warm as a person, she is task-oriented and very focused.  She must consult, knowing she cannot dictate.  By working hard to deliver results, she shows in concrete ways how much she loves her brothers and sisters.

I believe “Ate Glo” is a metaphor that is compatible with our aspiration to become a modern democracy.  It retains the strong emotional bond that is prized by members of the Filipino family, yet it opens the horizon of our understanding of nationhood and governance to the ideal of a community of self-reliant citizens.


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