Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Enemies of God

There is a story making the rounds among the many members of my family, of how a distant relative of ours, his atheist American friend, and a pregnant woman neither of them knew, all found redemption in what was surely the darkest hour known to any of them. If you are a fan of history, you will doubtless have encountered the Bataan Death March in your readings before. For many Filipinos, this was—and still is—the cruelest and most barbaric atrocity the Japanese perpetrated on Philippine soil: a journey on foot, lasting some three days, covering at least one hundred twenty miles, under the warped tropical heat that blistered upon the backs of the prisoners and burned them with impossible intensity. Some 72,000 prisoners, with at least 60,000 of them Filipinos, walked this path of despair.

There are many stories told of the cruelties and barbarism committed by the Japanese soldiers. Any sign of slowing down by the prisoners of war were dealt with extreme severity—seventy year old men who wobbled on their way were made to dig their own graves, in which they were later buried alive. Women were raped and ravaged at the whim of their captors; there are even stories of infants being ripped from their mothers’ hands for being too noisy. The Japanese soldiers would then toss them into the air with malicious glee, and impale them on their bayonets. This was their sole source of entertainment.

I have only met this relative, one of my mother’s third cousins, once, in 2002. I will never forget the stories he told me—of how he had served as an interpreter between the Filipinos and the Americans, being one of the few people who had mastered the English language then. His good friend, an American solider whose name escapes me right now, was supposed to have been married to a local woman, a scion of a parvenu yet increasingly prominent Chinese mestizo family, when, exactly six days when the marriage banns were first announced, the soldier was plucked from his life of bliss and plunged into a world of pain and suffering.

They were some of the few lucky enough to have eluded death at the hands of their captors, although there were very close instances. There was even a time when they witnessed (they were apparently forced to watch) a middle aged American nurse being gang raped by a group of Korean soldiers who were interred with the Japanese camp. Her screams of agony would haunt them until their twilight years; her scalp was ripped clean off her head, while her sex organs were branded by a burning hot bar of iron. They stuck bamboo shoots under her nails and forced her to eat the dung of wild beasts. It is a sight to shock and appall; that she was a mother only made the crime even worse.

One of the most dramatic incidents involved a pregnant woman—a Spanish mestiza—and a Japanese soldier. Now the soldier happened to be one of the most feared; he had apparently killed eleven men just some hours ago, six Americans, four Filipinos, and a Chinese man. The scent of freshly spilled blood clung to him with feverish intensity; as his bloodshot eyes gleaned with disturbing amorality. The woman stumbled, and fell at the officer’s feet, catching him off-balance. The solider, visibly annoyed, arose from his prone position, and grabbing a rock from the ground, smacked her face with it, splattering blood and gore across the ground. My uncle (let’s just call him that) and his friend were moved to anger; they slowly walked toward the officer, who had his back turned to them.

The fatigue was killing them; but the hatred that burned their hearts was greater than any physical stress they had encountered so far. My uncle picked up a rock, and cradled it in a torn piece of cloth, when the woman picked up what seemed to be a crumpled piece of paper off the ground, and with surprising alacrity, tugged at the officer’s boot. It was a picture. She handed it to him, eyes welling with tears. ‘I am a mother, too’, she said, as she embraced the officer’s ankles.

The officer was stunned. My uncle and his friend were shaken. Clearly, what they had just seen was beyond any barbarism, cruelty and torture they had encountered in those hellish hours. The officer remained as amoral as usual; he picked up the rock again, and as he was about to strike the woman’s head for the final time, by some miracle, it slipped from his hands and landed with barely a whimper of a thud on the ground. My uncle and his friend managed to escape that night; it was not an easy task, what with there being sentinels all around. The woman, sadly, did not make it. She died some two hours after the officer bashed her head. I do not know what happened to her; but I heard my uncle say once that the officer had her buried in a makeshift coffin he had personally built. For the woman, they were never enemies to begin with; and for my uncle and his friend, that incident turned their captors back to humans, though barely.

In our day and age, it is easy to assume who are the enemies of God. Heretics, schismatics and dissidents of all stripes and colors are all labeled as enemies of the kingdom of God. But what exactly makes them inimical to God Himself? Is it their sin? Their disobedience? Their arrogance? Or are we just finding an excuse to substantiate our fears and insecurities? Is every attempt to name a dissident an enemy of the Church merely a façade to maintain a hegemony of stuck-up, angry believers? This is not to say that the Church should do nothing about dissidents: as custodian of the truth, it is her sworn duty to do so. More to the point, we should not confuse charity with mean-spiritedness, and true religious zeal for bigotry. It is hard enough that the Church is extremely divided into different factions today: there are conservatives, liberals, dissidents, orthodox, nominal and devout. Must we add to the tension by introducing a new faction, and one that is self-righteous and incontrovertibly convinced of its own absolutism?

I have seen more so-called traditionalists in Stormfront than in most charities, however secular they are. I have seen more vicious, near-racialist rhetoric from self-confessed ultraconservative traditionalists than the doctrine of equality and dignity of the human person actually taught by the Church, and one that it has defended consistently throughout the ages. Who are the enemies of God? This question has been thrown around by all sides for as long as I can think. But when one considers the crucifixion and death of Our Lord, such vicious rhetoric comes off as whiny, arrogant and intensely inimical to the life of the Church itself. When Jesus died, He did not die for the virtuous alone; He died so that even the worst sinner may have a chance at redemption.

The problem with self-proclaimed virtuous men is that they are so convinced of their own sanctity that they decide to close of the gate of Heaven for others of less refinement than they. Yes, the gate is narrow, and it is full of trials and tribulations; but when it is closed off by an elite, who else can enter but them? One does not need a gate pass or a jeweled rosary entwined in manicured hands to enter heaven: it is a noisy place, full of life and joy, far from the vapidity and undue solemnity espoused by a few. Sanctity is turned to sanctimony, a show, and nothing else.

The fundamental bedrock of Christianity rests on a God, Who, out love for man, willed to be born as one of man, taking flesh from woman, and walking the earth as man—not to condemn it, but to save it. The depths of true love are a deeper mystery than what even the most magnificent of all the angels can fathom about God, and it transcends even the deepest hatred we may have. Love is the face of Christ, scarred and bloody, and His arms, embracing man even at his most wretched and barbarous. Love does not need explanation; it is its only explanation.

We have been exceedingly blessed that we have God to judge us, and not man or the angels to condemn us. In the human God, we have found our salvation; the problem with us now is that we need to stop thinking of ourselves as divine men, because that is a promise made in vain. Who then are the enemies of God? The answer is anyone and everyone we do not love, because our God is a god Who loves, even if we do not deserve to be loved some times. That is what it means to love: it is heart-wrenching, tragic, utterly beyond what mere words can express. We have so many things to be thankful for in this world, and we have forgotten most of them already

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