A society of cults

What amazes us, modern city-dwellers, is why anyone in this day and age would want to join, and die for, anything like the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association, Inc. (PBMA).  We take one look at its banefully unattractive leader, Ruben Ecleo, Jr., and our amazement grows even more.  For we have learned to expect that such groups should be led by individuals with a commanding presence, exuding magic, charisma and strength.  How do we explain the spell that the PBMA seems to have cast upon its members?

We can be sure, first of all, that the PBMA works like a mutual benefit society, offering a broad range of assistance to the underprivileged and powerless.  Beyond that, movements like this provide an experience of solidarity and strength to their members who feel excluded by modern society.  Yet the PBMA claims to have members overseas, possibly OFWs working all over the world, and counts among them engineers and teachers who would hardly be regarded as marginalized.  We believe that.

People join movements, cults, and brotherhoods for various reasons. Many join as whole families, seeking protection and deliverance from a life of deprivation, while others are drawn into the organization after an experience of being healed by the benevolent leader.  Through elaborate rituals, incantations, and symbols, the group colonizes the entire being of the member and claims his exclusive loyalty even after he has attained a capacity for an autonomous life.   The collective prayers and ceremonies maintain the form of the group and foster a sense of community and oneness with its “supreme leader” or “divine master.”

The rationalizing influence of the modern school and the press has shrunk the ground in which cults usually thrive.  But this has been an uneven process.  In some instances, the mass media themselves have become unwitting purveyors of superstition.  More important, pockets of millenarian thinking have persisted even in the most modern societies, providing solace and spiritual comfort to socially isolated individuals and families in a fast and uncertain world.

The will to believe and the will to belong are two powerful impulses that secular modernity has not been able to address completely. Scientific rationality has failed to provide satisfying answers to existential questions that have perplexed human beings.  But neither have the major institutional religions adequately fulfilled the spiritual needs of their flocks.  The result of this has been the proliferation, like lush tropical undergrowth, of cultist groups bound less by coherent beliefs than by mystical rituals and symbols signifying belongingness.

It is interesting that members of the Ecleo clan that founded and run the PBMA have occupied key positions in government and continue to wield considerable political influence.  This makes them different from the usual cult leaders, who remain on the fringes of mainstream social life, and more like the feudal warlords that dominate provincial life in our society.

Valentin “Tatang” de los Santos, leader of the Lapiang Malaya, whose members were massacred by government troops in the streets of Manila in the ‘60s, was a “primitive rebel” who was demanding the resignation of the country’s president, Ferdinand Marcos.  He was arrested, locked up, and later murdered in the National Mental Hospital.  Ruben Ecleo Jr., whose defiance resulted in the massacre of 16 PBMA members, was, in contrast, escorted by his mother, Surigao del Norte Representative Glenda Ecleo, and was accompanied in his surrender by his political patron, Senator Robert Barbers.

These are vastly different types.  There is no record that the bolowielding Lapiang Malaya members ever allowed themselves to be used in any state-sponsored activity.  Like the Katipunan before them, they too were fighting for a “New Jerusalem.”  That is why they fought the state.  In contrast, the gun-toting members of the PBMA had a complex relationship with the military, serving at various times as members of the state’s anticommunist paramilitary units.  Their leaders enriched themselves, joined mainstream political parties, and ran for public office.  They preyed upon ordinary people’s will to believe, and took advantage of them in many ways.

The PBMA exemplifies the distasteful mix of grandiose concepts (“benevolent missionaries”), Latin-sounding gibberish, secret signs and passwords, rituals, syncretic beliefs, of guns and money, and powerlessness and patronage, that is so symptomatic of the sad state of our people’s culture.  By registering its name with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it sought to legitimize its dubious activities.  By joining mainstream politics at the local level and by courting the support of powerful politicians, it secured a level of untouchability so graphically portrayed by its surreal control of Dinagat Island.

It is local oligarchs like the Ecleos, national politicians like Barbers, and the lazy generals in our military that are holding back the full rationalization of our collective life.  To dismiss the PBMA as nothing more than a bunch of misguided fanatics led by a mindless homicidal shabu addict is to miss the larger social context that breeds and perpetuates cults in our time.  Far from being the remnants of an age long gone, groups like the PBMA are very much the living organs of a society that is underdeveloped, unequal, predatory and corrupt.


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