Notes on Rizal and the Spiritual Revolution

Originally posted online here

This was written in September 2008 for the last class I had to take as an undergrad. (PI100, for all ye UP folk.) It’s not for everyone, and a lot of things have changed since then–Lozada’s disappeared, Padaca and Panlilio have been forcibly removed, and the elections are but 90 days away, with Nicanor Perlas running for president under the banner of “new politics”. Still, it might be of interest to those who believe in socially-engaged spirituality, and what it might mean in these critical times.

Revolution and spirituality are not traditional bedfellows. As part of a generation that equates revolution with a movement that deems religion ‘the opium of the people’, it is difficult to reconcile radical action with the stuffy Catholicism of our childhoods. This difficulty triples with the entrance of Rizal in the discourse of revolution and spirit. Despite his status as national hero and avowed inspiration for the Philippine revolution, Rizal’s reputation as an American-sponsored assimilationist presents an ambiguous relationship with radicalism as well as spirituality via the Church that helped sentence him to death. Nevertheless, (relatively) recent scholarship has begun to cast Rizal in a completely different light. This, of course, pertains to Floro Quibuyen’s A Nation Aborted and Reynaldo Ileto’s influential Pasyon and Revolution. Both works take a distinctly hermeneutic approach to historiography. By using enacted texts, they reconstruct a Rizal that is not subject to a supposed “veneration without understanding”. There is indeed understanding—but of a completely different kind.

Quibuyen asserts that Rizal’s concept of nationhood was that of cultural unity guided by an ethical imperative to create a just and balanced society. This is reflected in his personal narrative as well as his fictional work. Ileto augments this through a “history from below”, investigating how a reading of Rizal by the non-illustrado masses lead to his co-optation as a spiritual figure by the Katipunan as well as otherkapatirans. Ileto refers to the textualization of Rizal, where his life from childhood to martyrdom and beyond is read as an echo of the lakaran (journey) in the Pasyon Pilapil. Rizal’s fulfillment of the pasyonarchetype results in his being hailed posthumously as a Tagalog Christ, a fount of kapangyarihan that subsequent patriots have sought to tap into. Similarly, his integration into the Bernardo Carpio mythos as the wise stranger who is given power by the imprisoned King of the Tagalogs is another aspect of a belief in revolutionary spirituality. Rizal’s link to Bernardo Carpio, who is both “true” monarch and entombed Christ is a sign of the power, knowledge and inner purity necessary to bring Edenic peace to our colonially-ravaged country.

Pasyon and Revolution does not focus on Rizal but explores the many popular movements that saw spirituality as a revolutionary force. From the Cofradia de San Jose to the Katipunan, to the Lapiang Malaya of the late Sixties, we see that the Christ story provides the language for a grassroots Filipino mental model of inner transformation towards social transformation. However, the lakaran is not exclusively Filipino. A comparative study of world cultures and religions would show that the lakaran corresponds to the archetypal journey, which mythologist Joseph Campbell calls the journey of the hero. By answering a certain need or call, an individual undergoes a journey and suffers intense hardship. In the process, that individual is internally purified and transformed, thus gaining knowledge and power. He then returns to where he began in order to solve the problem that set him on the journey in the first place. But the journey is never-ending. One finds that the journey begins on a personal level before expanding to concerns of family, community, up to the level of nation and beyond. Each iteration of the journey involves increased hardship, with correspondingly increasing levels of power. This archetypal journey is expressed in a multitude of narratives—from Jesus Christ to the Buddha to Muhammad, to historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The journey is not limited to individuals but also involves groups as well. We can see this in the pre-revolution pilgrimages the Katipuneros took, the collective journey harnessed by fraternity initiations, and perhaps, even the evolution of human history.

Contextualizing the lakaran in this manner gives us a deeper understanding of its power—something not encouraged by modern empirical mores. After all, how could an educated person reconcile sanity with peasants who met rifles with anting-anting and were martyred for their naiveté? Enter Rizal, whose unique position in the Filipino mindscape becomes an interface for bridging proletarian and bourgeois cognitions. As Ileto can attest, his institutionalization as national hero and Filipino renaissance man merges with grassroots spirituality, resulting in a syncretic form that is necessary in order to answer the call of today’s world. For the social cancer of Rizal’s day has metastasized: yesterday’s slaves have become today’s tyrants and the Filipino nation is in the thrall of a far more insidious form of colonialism. The revolution of 1896 remains unfinished. Thus, this essay is written with high personal stakes, for while others migrate believing that there is no hope for this country, I want to see the revolution in my lifetime.

Given the current state of Filipino society, this desire seems all but impossible to fulfill. Multiple attempts to dislodge the latest corrupt head of state have failed; innocents are abducted and killed on a daily basis; millions live in abject poverty while wealth is concentrated in the hands of few. So what’s missing from the picture?

Just as academic pursuit is empty if ungrounded in everyday reality, it is this essay’s opinion that movements for social change must be strengthened by an ethically spiritual dimension. Spirituality has nothing to do with organized religion or religious institutions, although given historical conditions Christianity seems to be the basic interface for Filipino faith. Spirituality pertains to the ineffable, the creative force that permeates the universe and is integral to life and humanity as we know it. Variably, it may be referred to as a third-person presence or concept, a second-person I-Thou, or a first person transcendent I-AMness that conflates the inner self and the external world around us. Western thought primarily uses the second-person person perspective, whereas Asians often dwell on the first person perspective. But regardless of orientation, the ethical imperative inherent in spirituality can potently fuel revolutionary action for a just and equal world. Of course, spirituality has no place in the canonic “civilized” worldview. From the separation of church and state to the virtual banning of spirituality in the classroom, it is at best, a quaint relic from a dark, backward, long-forgotten time. Leading scientific figures such as Richard Dawkins are espousing so-called New Atheism, taking the responsibility of battling Creationism, which admittedly may be bigoted, even dangerous. But is not the purview of this paper to debate on the presence of God, or any god, but to underscore the profound effect spirituality has on the collective imagination. Even on a pragmatic level, it may be a potent tool for achieving the change we want to see.

Rizal’s take on spiritual revolution can be gleaned from his writing, particularly the final chapter of El Filibusterismo. The narrative finds the anarchist Simoun on his deathbed as he talks to Padre Florentino. The discourse expressed by the indio priest can be read as Rizal’s own political stance. Rich in Biblical imagery, it echoes the lakaran journey and its focus on virtue, sacrifice and love. The presence of tyrants is considered providential, as their villainy provides the impetus for change. Rizal writes:

The school of suffering tempers; the arena of combat strengthens the soul. I do not mean to say that our freedom is to be won by the blade of the sword; the sword enters very little now in modern destinies, yes, but we must win it, deserving it, raising the intelligence and the dignity of the individual, loving the just, the good, the great, even dying for it, and when a people reach that height, God provides the weapon, and the idols fall, and the tyrants fall like a house of cards and liberty shines with the first dawn.” (Locsin translation, p. 313)

The spirituality of revolution as illustrated by Rizal and the kapatirans is not a religious complacency that ignores this reality for rewards on another world. Instead, the pursuit of justice is a divine charge, similar to the concept of stewardship espoused by Protestantism. This is also echoed by the language of the new technological activism, where social conventions, law, economics and nature are considered hackable–-and indeed, one is morally impelled to do so, as resistance against the spiritual decay and fascism of materialist corporate culture. A similar form of activism may be seen in the liberation theology popular in South America. Combining catholicism with Marxism, priests subscribing to this view see their primary mission as service to the poor. Of course, this has been stringently sanctioned by the Vatican, with the current Pope one of its primary detractors.

Spirituality and revolution takes on higher stakes when combined with the discourse of governance. Quibuyen mentions the status of vox populi, vox dei in Rizal’s concept of nationhood, in stark contrast with the norm of vox imperium, vox dei in the modern nation-state. It is interesting that this differentiation points out that those who govern are not of the people, for the power they possess gives them added obligation and responsibility. The exercise of power must be tempered by much morality; to do so otherwise would to be “at war with the people”, and to a certain extent, with God. Placed in the context of the pasyon, the journey of governance requires a certain death of the Self. With the expurgation of self-interest comes a sense of damay with one’s constituents, where one empathizes with the pains and joys of the people one serves. Damay leads to better governance, the prevention of corruption, and even greater spiritual and political power. Consequently, the pasyon interface necessitates a reformulation of the concept of power. Power (in the Foucauldian sense) and kapangyarihan are not the same thing. Whereas Western conceptions of political power entail the ability to control others, kapangyarihan is not so much a privilege but a burden that is balanced by humility, servitude and sacrifice. In the Pasyon, the immensity of Christ’s kapangyarihanis only matched by his poverty–something that today’s trapos should strive to emulate.

History has seen the usage of spiritual power in Philippine politics, both for good and ill. Bystanders describe the 1986 People Power uprising as a highly spiritual occurrence. On the other hand, both Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo have been known to surround themselves with a coterie of mystics. Religious institutions are used to further political ends, as Iglesia ni Cristo and El Shaddai are often courted by politicians for their bloc vote. With massive corruption and other controversies rocking the Catholic Church, the average Filipino has all but lost trust in the faith one once believed in. But the tide of history may be turning once again. Many political analysts point to the upcoming 2010 elections as a major opportunity for social change, a crossroad that may begin the healing of the Philippines as a nation or conclusively stamp us into the murk. I, and many others believe that 2010 cannot be won without a cleansing of the Filipino self, without the inner transformation that a spiritual, intellectual and social lakaranentails. Signs of this journey has begun to crop up all around us. The ZTE Deal and Jun Lozada’s place in the affair is one of these signs. Although it failed to oust the Arroyo regime (partly due to media manipulation), the Lozada narrative bears the marks of a lakaran. A crook himself, he undergoes a profound experience that finds him shedding all the trappings of his former life, exposing his failings and tears to the entire nation in order to point out corruption in the government. The pasyon of Jun Lozada was one of the most watched events on national television, with him being venerated by the masses everywhere he went. Nevertheless, deft maneuvering by the administration (among other things) foiled something that was on the verge of explosion. If they had slipped and assassinated him, things would have been different–-but I suspect that the Lozada narrative has a few twists left before all is said and done.

Another sign is the emergence of what is being called New Politics, via governors Ed Panlilio, Grace Padaca, Jesse Robredo, et al. They share the commonality of defeating entrenched political dynasties seemingly out of nowhere, garnering popular support by presenting a better alternative to institutionalized corruption. Their stories also reflect the pasyon journey: Panilio is a member of the clergy who lives an austere lifestyle to this day. Padaca is a former broadcaster and auditor who has overcome polio to become one of the most respected political figures in the region. But these people are just figureheads of something deeper: a collective desire for change shared by each Filipino, even by the most seemingly apathetic. Preparations for 2010 have already begun, albeit quietly. Groups are taking action, ranging from lawyers working to close loopholes for electoral fraud, to those raising awareness for first-time voters. What the times call for is not a singular hero, but a critical mass of individuals collectively taking a journey together. In this collective journey, the image of Rizal can serve as a rallying point, where the lakaran between modernity and grassroots spirituality equates to the ethical assimilation and transformation of oppressive ideological models.

But the continuity between Bonifacio’s unfinished revolution and the challenge we face today is broken by one thing: the loss of the pasyon as a viable cultural artifact. Ileto ascribes the status of the pasyon as social epic to its immediate relation to the world, both in terms of how it reflects/refracts social reality, and its importance to the overall social schema. The pasyon is rarely reenacted these days save in the most peripheral of areas. Thus, there is a need for the emergence of a new social text that is relevant to today’s Filipino but retains the ideological power of the Christ journey. In that sense, cultural texts such as cinema, television and other new media will take a prominent place in the new spiritual upheaval, if it is to come to fruition. All apologies to Gil Scott-Heron, but the revolution will be televised.

Much of what is written in these pages are part conjecture and part prayer. Indeed, this essay was written not so much as a school requirement but a consolidation of my personal thoughts on a very personal matter. As a young Filipina involved in a certain kilusang kultura whose foundations are based on inner transformation, my impending graduation marks a stepping-up in the commitment to work towards what is to come. I only hope that you too, dear reader, will go on your own lakaran, wherever it leads, in whatever shape it may take.

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