Monday, February 07, 2011

Warrior Gods of the New Jerusalem

In the still, sepulchral silence of the night of 20th May 1967, a motley crew of ragtag, disillusioned men would march to the seat of government in Manila, in an attempt to overthrow the Marcos government. These men were of a curious sort: crimson-cloaked they were, and they carried with them huge knives; no armor had they on except strips of paper, cut to look like fiddleback Roman chasubles, whereon were inscribed various symbols of pseudo-Catholic arcana: anting-anting, as they care called in the vernacular here. At their helm was a crusty old man by the name of Valentin de los Santos-- or Tatang Valentin, as he was known and revered by his followers.  Valentin by then was already eighty six years of age. Some say he was a rogue Catholic priest who left his calling after a private revelation from God; he had also been a mechanic in the past, and even ran for president in the previous elections. He led a group of peasants sufficiently galvanized by their common poverty, and strengthened with a hope  that could only be described as apocalyptic.

The call had gone out in the morning. Valentin de los Santos, blighted by what he saw as the continued oppression of the poor under the Marcos government, had decided to ask the strongman to step down from office, and promptly surrender to him and his group-- the aptly named Lapiang Malaya [Movement for Freedom]-- complete control of the government, including its armed forces. Marcos, of course, refused; and by that same evening, Tatang Valentin had marshaled his troops, who donned their magical uniforms which they claimed would protect them from the bullets of the enemy. It would prove to be the costliest mistake they would make. At thirty minutes past midnight, the constabulary opened fire, their bullets shredding through the paper vests of the brethren, to put it tautologically, like paper. Scores of the elderly brethren, bolos still in hand, fell in heaps as the bullets razed through their numbers, cutting them down life chaff. Finally, the massacre ended, and Valentin de los Santos surrendered to the constabulary, but not without significant losses to the Lapiang Malaya. He was found to be insane, and locked up with another violent schizophrenic.That would be the last the world would see of Tatang Valentin, as his cellmate would later maul him to death, bringing to an end the life of the man who saw himself as a new Christ.

The massacre of the Lapiang Malaya has been described as one of the worst political disasters in the history of the Philippines. But what is curious about it is the nature of the Lapiang Malaya: for it was, in fact, primarily a religious cult. Central to their belief system was the worship of the anting-anting, or the fetish. Traditionally, it was believed that the anting-anting was a talisman that gave its bearer certain powers that range from invisibility to invincibility, supreme knowledge and even unbeatable sexual prowess. But the anting-anting also grows 'weak', and therefore must be 'fed', in order to make its 'virtud' (i.e., its efficacy) stronger. Perhaps it would not even be too crazy to think that Tatang Valentin must have likened himself to a god, if he had not proclaimed it so outright. Valentin, however, was not the first prophet to rise out of the sands of these islands. The history of the Philippines is littered with various wandering vagabonds, self-styled 'sons of God' who claim they have been sent by heaven to bring peace to the nation, and more importantly, bring about a complete spiritual transformation, where there were neither rich nor poor, and where everyone lived in total equality without the need for government.

The last factor is especially interesting, I think. The more I read into history, the more I am convinced that 'freedom' has been understood differently by the different strata that comprise Philippine society. This is especially significant, considering the failed nature of the Philippine Revolution in 1898. My idea here is that there simply was not a meeting of minds that occurred amongst the various figureheads of the Revolution; at its core, it was, I think, an essentially middle to upper class revolution. You have the illustrados, the economic and social elite of the nineteenth century, who championed 'autonomia' (i.e., they championed self-rule but did  not want to break away from the Spanish Empire; Rizal was one of them); the nationalists, who championed 'independencia' (complete independence from a foreign power); and finally, you have the common folk who simply wanted 'kalayaan' (freedom as commonly understood). Kalayaan, however, was not a tenable political concept; what it proposed was an egalitarian, utopian society, free from any sort of authority but love. In this respect, it may be said that the common folk (or at least those who heeded the call of historical consciousness) desired, simply, the New Jerusalem. And as it turned out, the only real way to do this was to literally go outside the political sphere of the colonists.

To facilitate this, many self-proclaimed Christs arose, and around them sprung up bands of apostles, disciples, holy women, and witnesses. These Christs pointed to the mountains, to the forests, to the dustbowls and to the caves; "There shall we build the New Jerusalem!", they cried, and they hied off to go ever deeper into the tight embrace of primordial nature. Men sold their properties and went barefoot, following their Christs(s), into the mountains and hills and caves, where the iron fist of Crown and Friar could not penetrate so easily. I remember reading an account of an old woman in the Visayas, known as 'La Santa de Leyte' (the Saint of Leyte) who predicted that a huge earthquake would swallow up the entire country, save for a 'sacred spot' to which she and her followers, which numbered 4,000 at its peak, migrated. There too was the Cofradia de San Jose, started by one Apolinario de la Cruz, who at one time desired to become a priest of the Dominican Order. But the Orders were closed to the indios then, which prompted him to start a religious order solely for native Filipinos. When the Spanish got wind of this, they tried to suppress it under the suspicion of heresy, whereupon 'Hermano Pule' (as de la Cruz was addressed by his comrades) fled to the mountains with his brotherhood. On 1 November 1841, the Cofradia was stamped out by Colonel Joaquin Huet, who supposedly did not spare even the old, the women, and the children from his violence. Hermano Pule would later on be executed by firing squad, and his head cut off and displayed on a pike.

There was also the Guardia de Honor of Pangasinan, which originally started out orthodox but went native, so to speak. The ‘Guard of Honor’ was so-called, because all of its members took an oath to say the rosary at certain times of the day, structured in such a way that it was always recited, on every hour of every day, by the different members of the Guard. But no sooner had this devotion been introduced than did its chief members claim to be gods themselves. They built their New Jerusalem in the forests of Pangasinan (literally ‘the salt lands’), and its singular honor was that, like the earthly Jerusalem, it, too, held the ‘grave of a god’ to borrow a phrase from Nick Joaquin, who wrote about the Guard. And there are still many more who would arise to claim they were gods, too many to list or even remember. They also brought with them a heady mixture of fear and hope: fear, at least to those who propped up the status quo, and hope to those in need of hope.

I had occasion to discuss some of these accounts with a friend, a history major, some time in the past. Like myself, he also had a keen interest in religion, although I would not really describe him as the church-going sort. What is striking about these accounts is how they demonstrate how dangerous the memory of the Christ is—not just the historical Jesus, but the divine Christ especially. If the goal of all history is to ‘collapse’ itself onto God, then the memory of Our Lord—what He said, what He did, whom He condemned and did not—seems as if it tends naturally to the concept of liberation. Historical exigences which usually 'demanded' the arrival of a Messiah figure were always situations of extreme unrest, as if a supernatural impulse impelled everyone to get it over with as soon as possible. In this case, the ever tightening grip of the Friars, and their growing tendency to equate Catolicismo with Spanish Imperial Power and vice versa, seemed to have prompted the incipience of a call to abandon these spiritual lords. Of course, such a conclusion was unsatisfactory to me, and I reasoned that the idea of the Christ cannot be compartmentalized into a simple corrective of history, as mere ethics.

The various Christs who sprung up all across the Philippine archipelago, half dazed and half mystified, were all possessed of the idea of an impending, imminent ‘renewal’, a rekindled ardor of the spirit, which would lead to the total and radical transformation of the people. In that sense, I suppose that the danger here lies in ‘being left behind’,  for lack of a better phrase, and in failing to heed the prophetic signs of the new, impending social order. These Christs were sent from heaven to inaugurate a new history, a new social order, that of peace and total communism that went beyond purely materialistic considerations. Kalayaan, then, would be akin to a return to the ‘primal dawn’ of Genesis, where bliss reigned and the divine presence was actively perceived in everything. It is fitting, then, that these New Jerusalems would be built in sand or beach or crag or mountain or cave or hill, far away from the bloated (at least, from their point of view), stupored Church and Society (and in Spanish Colonial Philippines, it would be safe to assume that the Church represented Society itself).

It is said that Christianity was born in apocalypse, and rightly so, does it also find its fulfillment in apocalypse. Perhaps what I’m trying to say here is simply that there are various ‘textures’ into Catholicism, infinite weights of truth, even, that terms like ‘orthodoxy’ or even ‘folk Catholicism’ can never capture. The Church is wide, straddling the limits of several continents, and as it is vertically inclined, so too does it also have a lateral orientation. I am not saying that orthodoxy is meaningless (and here I must put my foot down on the matter), only that “the Catholic thing” does not lend itself to one simple stream of interpretations. Perhaps it may even come across as threatening; but that just means all is well, and that Christianity is simply being Christianity: the mind-boggling collision between the profane and the sacred.

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