The cursory traveler will note that the common thread binding the peoples of Southeast Asia is the concept of smooth interpersonal relationships. Described as a way of maintaining harmony and conflict-avoidance, SIRs are central to the Southeast Asian understanding of community and kinship ties. In the Philippines, the concept of 'utang na loob' (debt of gratitude)is intrinsically connected to maintaining harmonious relationships. But utang na loob transcends the petty legal outlines of an ordinary debt; rather, his desire to maintain harmony will push the Filipino to view reciprocity to a favor granted him as a moral debt.
One thing I've noticed about the many flagellants and penitents who crowd the streets of Manila and its neighboring provinces during the Lenten season -- and more specifically, Holy Week -- is that they view their panata (i.e., religious vow) almost as a moral obligation. Failure to fulfill the panata almost always means bad luck and sparse blessings for the year ahead. Thus, the men and women who vow to 'serve' the Lord in some way or another are, in a way, paying a debt. But deeper than this goes the concept of utang na loob. One thing that always impressed me with the character of the penitents is that very few of them, if any, have a victim complex. They go about their rituals and penitence of their complete and utter accord, knowing full well the the dangers of the activities they are about to enter.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Philippine concept of penitence is not confined exclusively to crucifixion and flagellation (although these are probably the most prevalent, especially the latter). There is the tinunggong of Laguna, where boys as young as ten roll sideways on the barren ground on the way to church; another province has a peculiar tradition of macho men donning grass skirts and headdresses, thereby humiliating themselves by dressing up as women. But how does one explain the popularity of such an extreme practice as self-flagellation, let alone crucifixion? Is fanaticism, then, never far off from the practice of religion?
Here is where the concept of utang na loob comes into play, I think. Through their extreme, almost gruesome acts of penitence, the penitent is symbolically repaying his gratitude to the Crucified; by taking on the same sufferings as his Patron, he is reciprocating that which can never be truly reciprocated, namely, the salvific death of Christ. He thus sees his act of mortification as an act of thanksgiving, even an act of love, offered to God. In other words, the concept of mortification and penitence has been 'recast' in the Philippine context to include the dimension of thanksgiving.
But the analysis does not end here. If it is true that utang na loob is a necessary tool by which one maintains a smooth personal relationship with a kin-group, then it must be the case that extreme acts of mortification are also a way of maintaining one's favor in the eyes of God. Call it 'palakasan', which is a Tagalog concept that basically means 'a test of one's influence'. The penitent also symbolically opens up and extends his kin-group to the Divine, and thus, God and His favor are 'assimilated' into one's sphere (which is defined by the aforementioned kin-group). Thus we see how these acts of penitence can theoretically bring about blessings and graces to one who 'co-suffers' (as I once heard from a Jesuit) with the Lord, and by extension, his family.
To be honest, of the penitents who go to extreme lengths to secure God's favor, many, for the most part, are unchurched. It is not uncommon to hear of a devout 'Kristo' willing to be crucified for ten, fifteen years straight but who only goes to Mass once a year, or one who crawls on his belly to church while being beaten with sticks who keeps three to five mistresses simultaneously. Yes, they are bad Catholics, hence they make up for it, for that nagging blight on their conscience, by reciprocating the sacrifice of Christ in their own little way. It is naive thinking at best, and perhaps sloppy at worst; but spiritual progress is often slow and ponderous, and I would not be so quick to discard this ethic.
A person who keeps on receiving favors but does not reciprocate is the worst kind of person in traditional Philippine society. He does not recognize the gravity and the extent of his benefactor's favors, and thus, separates himself from his kin group. Consequently, because he is 'walang utang na loob' (absence of debt of gratitude), he cannot, should not, expect to be blessed forever. He is essentially taking on the characteristic of absolute and utter self-sufficiency-- the greatest act of pride that man can commit. There is a remarkable profundity and truth to this; for the man who does not need a kin-group is essentially saying that he does not desire to be with the whole company of the Church, whether her members still fighting the good fight, or those who now reside in eternal beatitude and glory.
The concept of utang na loob reveals the surprising level of just how incultrated the Faith has been cultivated in Philippine soil. It is virtually impossible now to think of Catholicism in these islands without the concept of penitence. But what is truly unique is how penitence itself has been redefined as an act of thanksgiving, and ultimately, an act of love. Tunay nga na nakaluluwag ng loob (It is truly enriching for the inner self).