Saturday, January 10, 2015

El Nazareno Negro and Religious Tolerance

The Black Nazarene has just completed its 19 hour procession in the Quiapo District of Manila.  After an entire day where upwards of 12 million Filipinos whipped themselves into a state of religious hysteria, the venerated black effigy of Jesus is back in the Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Manila.  Every year on the 9th of January, the venerated statue, which depicts a cross bearing, coal black Jesus is removed from the Basilica for a public procession through the streets of Quiapo.  The statue is placed on large carriage and pulled through the streets with large ropes by dozens of men.  Throughout the procession, the carriage that bears the effigy is mobbed by millions of faithful Catholics hoping to touch the Black Nazarene.  The Black Nazarene is believed to transfer miraculous powers through the touch of the faithful catholic devotee.  Not everyone in the mob can possibly get close enough to touch the Black Nazarene, so men stand on top of the carriage wiping the effigy with white towels and throwing them back into the crowd.  If the faithful Catholic cannot touch the magical effigy, he might have to settle for touching a rag that touched the effigy.  The Filipino government has estimated that 12 million devotees participated in this year’s Feast of the Black Nazarene.  Emergency crews were on site to treat the hundreds of injuries, mostly from barefoot penitents slicing their feet open on street garbage.  Two people have been killed in this year’s celebration; one from a heart attack, the other apparently was trampled.  Their names and ages have not been confirmed since carrying anything including identification into dense mobs of millions of fanatics is just asking to be robbed.  Now that the procession is complete, the city is hoping to clean up the massive piles of leftover trash before the Pope’s visit to Manila next week.

There has been wall to wall coverage of these religious events on our two Filipino satellite channels, ABS-CBN and GMA.  The city has been preparing for months for the Pope’s arrival, and the news stories have focused most of their stories on the Pope’s security, the Pope’s itinerary through Tacloban City, and the devotional entertainment that will be performed for the Pope by the faithful Catholics of the Philippines.  Then during the weekend, local programming was interrupted with live updates of the Black Nazarene Procession.  Businesses and schools were closed, traffic was halted and the Quiapo district came to a grinding halt as millions of Catholic Filipinos went stark raving mad over a wooden statue!



I should have said: celebrated their devotion to a holy relic.  But I just can’t.

Since marrying a Filipino Catholic and especially since leaving Christianity myself, I have striven to be tolerant of Religion, and respectful of Faith.  I truly have.  After all, these people are Catholic Christians.  They are not like lunatic Muslim fanatics who routinely believe themselves justified in killing anybody they perceive as insolent towards their particular brand of Faith.  But there is something about watching a professional news reporter admiring the bloody feet of young men who chose to fight through a mob and touch the black effigy in their bare feet as a sign of their devotion and humility.  As I watched the satellite news channels with Rosemary, my level of religious tolerance just saturated.  It was exactly like watching fawning national news coverage of a state-sponsored Benny Hinn miracle rally.

I asked Rosemary if anybody in her family has ever participated (I refuse to say ‘celebrate’ as the Filipino press regularly does) in the Black Nazarene procession.  No, she told me, her family would watch the event on television, but would never attend in person.  They felt it was too dangerous.  But they did admire the Faith of the people who did mob the area, as apparently all Faith is to be admired.  Rosemary reminded me that not every one of the estimated 12 million people in the streets were devout Catholics.  Many of them were pick-pockets.  There were many vendors along the roadsides taking advantage of the opportunity by selling food and souvenirs.  There were also quite a few daredevils who just wanted to fight through the mob as a thrill to tell their friends – sort of the Filipino equivalent of running with the bulls.

It is religious hysteria, I told her.  It is well organized, mass scaled, delusional superstition.  It is millions of desperate people believing in a miracle if they just so much as touch a magical statue.  I asked her why people believe they will be cured if they touch a statue.

Rosemary:  “It is just their belief.  They are born with it.  You cannot understand.  You were not born there.”

Me:  “I think I sort of understand.  I remember my mom getting whipped into a frenzy by traveling revival preachers.  Not as many people.  Different method.  But I think it is the same mindset.  If I had my way, every one of those sons of bitches should have been thrown in jail.  That is why this stuff bothers me so much.  It is false hope.  It is harmful superstition.”

Rosemary had heard lots of stories about the charismatic religious beliefs of my mother, and she could not understand our tent revival culture the same way I could not understand her Black Nazarene culture.  But Faith is Faith no matter what the culture.  The desperate hope for a miracle cure transcends boundaries.

Me:  “The Pope is visiting Manila next week.  He is an educated man.  He seems to care about the poor.  Why doesn’t he tell these people not to place their hope in magical statues?  Can’t he tell them to stop getting hysterical about looking for miracles in a statue??”

Rosemary:  “Oh no, he would never do that.”

Me:  “Why not?  I mean, these Catholics believe in God don’t they?  They should believe in prayer, shouldn’t they?  If they need a miracle, why not go to Church during mass and pray for their miracle there.  I mean even when I was a Christian myself I figured that out.  I stopped believing in these traveling miracle salesmen and just prayed in Church.  Why can’t somebody in authority, somebody that they will believe, tell them the truth??”

Rosemary, of course, had no answer or just did not want to discuss it, and I did not want to try her patience.  I let it go. 

On this occasion, like so many others, I feel like I have to walk a tightrope or balance a scale.  On one plate of the scale is my society’s insistence on tolerance for different religions and cultures.  I get that.  I understand that.  I cannot be so arrogant as to insist that my views and opinions about the nature of reality are superior to everybody who holds different views and opinions.  But on the other plate of the scale is my tolerance level of what I see as obvious delusion, hysteria and superstition.  I can live and let live, but at some point my tolerance level reaches its peak.  When I see millions of people, as a unity, act with such irrationality, and a society that views this irrational behavior as virtuous, I feel like I am living in a Twilight Zone.  I do not feel I am in a position to correct Faithful people who believe in the efficacy of this superstitious behavior.  But I am sure glad that certain people had the courage to correct my own superstitious behavior. 

Religious Tolerance vs. Calling Bullshit.  It is a tightrope that I am still learning to walk.

video courtesy of :


Zoe said...

You have such interesting posts HeIsSailing. :)

This part here: "Rosemary had heard lots of stories about the charismatic religious beliefs of my mother, and she could not understand our tent revival culture the same way I could not understand her Black Nazarene culture. But Faith is Faith no matter what the culture. The desperate hope for a miracle cure transcends boundaries."

This stood out to me, Rosemary not understanding and then you not understanding. But I thought to myself, aren't they the same thing and if so, understandable? Both as you say based on faith. If she understands the Black Nazarene culture than she does understand the tent revival. Same for you, only in reverse. :)

I found it interesting as well about the people Rosemary said weren't there for altruistic reasons. That a number of the crowd weren't part of the mayhem for religious reasons. It's not quite the same thing but recently I read about someone who was part of the Billy Graham revivals in stadiums. He talked about how when the invitation is given, the altar all, that those people who start to move right away towards the front are already saved. They are trained to get up and get moving to the front to help those in doubt or on the fence move, to take a step of faith. A tactic and one that is anything but genuine in seems to me. But to a Christian organization I guess the ends justify the means. :(

HeIsSailing said...

ZOE, if you look on Youtube, there are all kinds of videos uploaded from adventure seekers trying to fight the mob and crowd surf just so they can touch the Black Nazarene and record it all on Go Pros strapped to their heads. But by far, most of them are religious penitents. There are plenty of people in this culture who continue to crucify themselves (literally) as a form of penitence and devotion. The Pope recently visited this same area, and I really freaked out about the worship that man got in Philippines. It really freaked me out. That overwhelming WORSHIP of a single man is something not present in my Christian background, and something I cannot relate to at all. I have to write an article about that soon. Take care, ZOE.

Zoe said...

I saw footage of the Pope there and I cannot look for but a second or two. It makes me ill.

HeIsSailing said...

ZOE, I have been struggling to write an article about the Pope's recent visit to Manila. My wife and in-laws were glued to satellite Philippine television during the whole spectacle. He left two weeks ago and I still feel ill.