Popular religiosity

Today, Palm Sunday, marks the first day of what is perhaps the most important week in the Christian calendar.  Jesus, the Messiah, enters Jerusalem on a donkey.  His reputation precedes him and he is greeted by the people with branches quickly cut from nearby trees.

Being a Jew, he has come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, two important events that recall the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian servitude.  The Roman governors of Jerusalem are ever watchful.  The Jews have long anticipated their liberation, and such feast days keep the flame of freedom alive in their hearts.

The whole world of one’s faith is filled with symbols that make the events of our everyday lives meaningful.  The meanings do not reside in the events themselves, but in the memory and culture of the community to which we belong.  The Christian faith brought to our shores by the Spanish colonizers became the dominant religion, but it did not erase the indigenous faiths of our ancestors.  The suppressed native beliefs were reconstituted in the encounter with the dominant religion, and clothed in new names and forms, they emerged as popular religiosity.  This folk religiosity expresses the subject people’s ironic imagination – often combining protest with piety, concealing defiance in meekness.

Christianity’s own symbols are re-interpreted in the encounter.  In his book “Pasyon and Revolution,” the historian Reynaldo Ileto shows how the pasyon sung during Lent was tapped by the Katipunan to fortify the vocabulary of an incipient revolutionary movement.  The religion the colonizers brought with them was thus re-contextualized and used against them by the people they sought to evangelize.  In the language of semiotics, the signifiers are freed from the signified. The authors of the gospel lose control over their texts, rendering all existing meanings unstable.

Such thoughts came rushing to me the other night as I watched the early evening news on television.  Seventeen dead bodies from the Camp Bagong Diwa siege were being carried in a burial procession to a common grave site.  Wrapped in white sheet, the remains of the dead men, all Muslims, were being carried by members of the nearby Muslim community.  As they were being lowered into the grave that had been hastily dug that morning, I noticed that the earth was littered with plastic debris of various colors and realized that the whole place had been a landfill or a garbage dump.  Prayers were said, and someone raised a clenched fist in salute: God is great! he cried.  Then the camera gently swept through faces of the men, women and the children who were there.  For one brief moment, the television screen became a mosaic of pain, fear, grief, loss, and anger.

The reporter’s voice reminded listeners that these were the prisoners who had been killed in the siege after the negotiations for their peaceful surrender failed.  Three of the most dreaded leaders of the Abu Sayyaf were among the dead, he said, but the rest were just ordinary Muslims facing charges for common crimes. They were killed because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The stand-off, which began after some inmates rushed and killed the jail guards serving them breakfast, lasted a day. But the clash of memory and culture that supplied all the meanings at play in that incident has been upon us for more than a hundred years.

It is ironic that “Bagong Diwa”, the name of the police camp in which the jail is located, means new sense or new consciousness.  The camp would have instantly earned its name if the incident had ended in a less violent way.  Yet I have a feeling that Bagong Diwa will have a new meaning for the Muslims in our country from here on. Unfortunately it is not the kind of meaning that will bridge the gap between the Moro narrative and the story of the Filipino nation. Rather it will widen that gap even more.  Long after the footage of the siege have faded, the images of the burial will likely remain fresh, occupying a secure space in the popular tales of the Moro people. That is how the Jabidah massacre became the founding moment of the Moro National Liberation Front.  And the Jabidah incident was not even caught on film.

We sometimes forget that we are dealing here not with just a group of isolated and hardened bandits or terrorists who deserve to die.  We are talking of a community and its memory.  “The move outward toward the transformation of history and society has its source and ground in the community,” writes the Jesuit theologian Michael L. Cook in his fascinating work, “Christology as narrative quest.”  “The most fundamental ethical-political obligation is to survive, to defend and preserve the community with its own distinctive cultural heritage.”

What has this got to do with popular religiosity?  “Popular religiosity is an anamnestic performance, or praxis that, in reenacting the suffering of our people, simultaneously reminds us that suffering is not the last word.”  There is always redemption.

Nothing perhaps is more powerful than the admixture of a religion’s most precious symbols with the desires formed in the daily struggles of its adherents.  The product of that encounter is what is enacted and re-enacted in popular religiosity.   Priests, imams, and rabbis have no control over the meanings that are created in the process, nor, least of all, in the effects of these meanings on people’s purposes and priorities.  This is what makes faith a volatile element in people’s lives.


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