Understanding the INC

In my column last week on the Iglesia ni Cristo protest action at Edsa, I wrote that nothing could be more explosive than the encounter between religion and politics. I meant it as a warning. My mind was flooded with gory images of government forces moving in to disperse the crowd that had taken over a stretch of the country’s busiest road, of throngs of believers who were made to think that their church was being persecuted, and were ready to offer their lives in defense of their religion. Shown on television in real time, a clash of this nature, I thought, could have easily induced the INC brethren in the rest of the country to troop to Metro Manila and completely surround Edsa.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Iglesia is capable of doing this. Whether in acts of celebration or of collective outreach to the poor, the crowds that the INC has been able to muster in the past show in no uncertain terms the power of religious mobilization—particularly against oppression. The basis for this might be glimpsed in Karl Marx’s frequently quoted line: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Even if—on this issue—the government had the law and, to a great extent, public opinion on its side, the carnage that would have resulted from the use of state violence to end the five-day INC mass action would have instantly plunged the nation in a state of crisis. To then go after the church officials, who fed their members erroneous ideas about a government crackdown against the church and the looming threat to arrest their leaders, would only have fulfilled their prophecy. What good would it have done the nation if it slaughtered its own people?

Indeed, I feared it was a no-win situation for the government. On one hand, it had to clear Edsa before the regular workweek began. If the INC members chose to be intransigent, the state would have had no choice but to enforce the law and stop the rapid slide toward anarchy. To fail to do so would have undermined its own authority and its capability to protect the rest of the citizenry. On the other hand, if President Aquino had tried to appease the Iglesia by, let us say, sacrificing Justice Secretary Leila de Lima (the object of their ire), or by paying the INC executive minister a visit (as politicians are wont to do before the elections), this government would have immediately lost the respect of the nation.

That the government managed to persuade the INC to withdraw its members from Edsa without surrendering any of its powers is an achievement worthy of recognition. I have no idea how it was done. If a sordid deal had indeed been struck, as the usual critics suspect, there is no way to hide it, and in time it will come out. For now, we can only be thankful that the nation has avoided a crisis that could have ended in tragedy. I think the government did a good job here. We should give credit where credit is due, and reserve our disdain for those who did not think twice about inflaming people’s passions and exacerbating an explosive situation just to score political points.

Be that as it may, I believe that the Iglesia ni Cristo as a religious organization is starting to feel the pressure of modernity. Sooner or later, it has to come to terms with the imperatives of a functionally differentiated society. It cannot exempt or insulate itself, for instance, from the operations of an autonomous legal system or of the mass media or of the economic system.

The INC’s legendary ability to deliver a solid vote during elections by requiring its members to vote as one has given it a political clout that is totally out of proportion to its size. As many know, it has methodically deployed this influence by lobbying for the appointment of some people to key government agencies, expediting the issuance of licenses through key contacts, obtaining tax concessions and securing contracts for their members’ businesses. Perhaps, most important of all, it has used this political clout to shield its own operations from government scrutiny.

Mindful of the ethics of “sphere sovereignty,” the government has tended, on the whole, to be respectful of the autonomy of religious organizations. The state steps in only when fundamental constitutional rights are threatened. But, even in such instances, state agencies tend to tread warily, anxious not to offend the sovereignty of another sphere. What they look for are signs of grave abuse of discretion, of coercion, or the unfair application of the church’s own rules and procedures.

I have seen this too in the way the courts handle sensitive cases that touch on academic freedom. This cherished freedom recognizes the institutional right of universities to determine what to teach, who should teach and who to admit and graduate. Rarely does the state interfere in these operations. But sometimes, the courts do, especially when the school itself does not provide meaningful mechanisms for redressing grievances. There has been at least one instance when a court, citing grave abuse of discretion as reason, ordered the University of the Philippines to accept students who had been denied admission by university authorities.

We had passionately debated this question in the university council, and so it grated our sensibility that a judge was telling us how to run our own colleges. But, in the end, we complied. The INC hierarchy can avoid unwelcome scrutiny and interference from outside if, to begin with, it is transparent to its own members.