And the music came back with the carnival, the music you’ve heard as far back as you can remember, ever since you were little, that’s always playing somewhere, in some corner of the city, in little country towns… the carnival meant to delude the weekend crowd.
– Louis Ferdinand Céline, “Journey to the End of the Night”
Above is an audio clip of Felix Manalo: the founder and first Executive Minister of Iglesia ni Cristo. For over a hundred years, the Church he founded has become an important symbol of Filipino faith, and has become (rightly or wrongly) an important voice in a country largely governed and influenced by God’s Word. Manalo and the INC may have their critics (and the events over the past few days may have added to that), but it’s hard to deny Manalo’s understanding and grasp of rhetoric.
To his followers, Manalo was the last messenger of God in these last days. Manalo told stories to his flock, and reminded them of the Word. More importantly, Manalo was used to the crucible of debate: in fact, he thrived in it. In a country with so many religions that claim to preach the true Word of God, it is a testament to the INC’s talent for persuasion that today, it’s the third-largest religious denomination in the Philippines.
Fast forward to a couple of days ago: for reasons that still aren’t clear to people like myself, members of the Iglesia ni Cristo blocked off an entire section of EDSA, and held a rally to “protect religious freedom.” Or uphold the unity of Iglesia ni Cristo. Or whatever it was that they were there for.
And this brings me to quite a few things about persuasion.
I’m probably the last person to begrudge anyone of the right to assemble: whether such assemblies are “peaceful” or not are best left to one’s interpretation. Yet all assemblies and protests—whether there’s a dozen people in there or dozens of thousands—will always bear with it a little inconvenience.
The thing is, a lot of people are more than willing to be inconvenienced by an assembly. The 1986 People Power Revolution was a major inconvenience for so many people, but the reasons for the inconvenience were rather clear. And so it goes for so many movements over the years that have piqued the irritation of so many people: EDSA Dos, EDSA III, the Million People March, pickets in schools and factories, and so on. In some of these movements, the reasons behind the inconvenience were so powerful and moving, that even those who looked down on mass movements participated in the cause.
For one, it’s not that EDSA is the exclusive domain of Catholics who desire to overthrow oppressive regimes, or that the burgis segment was kept from payday sales at Megamall. For a nation tired of mass movements, things still have to go on despite inconvenience. There are some people who go to work on Sunday, and have to traverse EDSA. The inconvenience of traffic and road rerouting have great economic consequences, even on long holiday weekends.
For two, it’s not that we (and by “we” I mean those of us who are not part of INC) “don’t care;” in fact, the conflicts within the INC are matters of national concern that have been covered by the media over the past few months (this, after all, involved an illegal detention case filed to the Department of Justice). Yet despite everything, the oft-invoked clause for “separation of church and state” has not once been violated in this saga: no secular element ever prevented anyone from worship in INC. If we try to find reasons for this, the same things are invoked: “the separation of church and state,” “SAF 44,” and issues that have nothing to do with Samson and/or De Lima. Surely the Department of Justice can handle more than one case at a time in equal priority, and it’s not like the clash that claimed the lives of soldiers and innocent civilians have a direct negative effect on doctrine exclusive to the INC.
For three, the past few days were nothing more than a spectacular display of absurdity. The media coverage was there—replete with speeches and dance numbers and chanting—but no one really understood why it had to go on like that. It’s bad enough that 2016 aspirants took to the stage to present themselves as bold and fearless warriors where there are no clear battle lines drawn, but key figures in government—people who could have found a better place for 15,000 people to assemble—stood there like lame ducks ready to dispense with “humanitarian reasons” when the soundbite calls for it. Worse is when the issue became the perfect vehicle for 2016 agenda: whether it’s aspirants coddling it, condoning it, or plans of action thrown haphazardly in the effort to sound like strong contenders.
And in the end, pretty much nothing. The silence afterward is either an indictment, or perhaps a collective expression of fatigue.
So where are we, at this point?
Not that Filipinos aren’t used to reaching across the aisle in the name of reconciliation and progress, but that aisle is now a little more littered with divisive statements and political garbage, as it is littered with empty water bottles and puddles of urine. We’re left confused, even irritated: did the INC just bully its way into EDSA and paralyze the entire metropolis, and inconvenience its members in so many ways under the guise of defending it, because of its refusal to submit to the laws of the land?
The word sucks, but the situation begs for it: “shameless.” In its brazen act of defiance, we didn’t find found common ground or anything: except for the sad truth that while the INC is the third-largest religious denomination in the Philippines, it still is the most powerful instrument for political opportunists (a new generation of them, for that matter, born out of that crisis and the response to it). And in that long inconvenience that it wreaked upon the metropolis, at least that segment of the INC does not hesitate to meddle in things as secular as traffic, time, and everyone’s well-being.
The inconvenience, however, is secondary to the absurdity of it.
Again, people are willing to be inconvenienced by things that are worth the inconvenience. That is, if they can understand—and if they believe—in the hows, whys, and so-whats of the thing that causes that inconvenience.
Despite all the calls for “respect” and such, nothing of the sort was ever made on the streets or on the stage. We understand less of the INC. Vitriol was spewed by both sides, and nothing was really understood. In the end, it was all a silly carnival: a show of force found wanting, a farce for everyone to see, and a weekend crowd left to wonder about what else can happen when inmates run the asylum.
And that’s where the value of rhetoric comes in: the very thing that helped INC grow and thrive to become what it is. If we don’t understand, show us how, why, and so what. If we don’t believe in the merits of the action, show us how, why, and so what. If we believe otherwise, show us how, why, and so what. An absurd protest is never a great demonstration of persuasion: rather, it’s indicative of the failure of it.
Again, the success of the Iglesia ni Cristo is grounded on persuasion. Persuasion wins converts. Persuasion evangelizes. Persuasion made the Iglesia ni Cristo what it is. Those lessons of persuasion, exemplified by no one else but the founder of the church, seem to have been lost the past few days.
And its a shame, because in the quest to maintain some form of political relevance and to demonstrate a “show of force,” the whole thing proved to be nothing more than a 15,000-strong farce.