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Saturday, March 14, 2009

"Free Baptism"

I recently found a 2008 Christmas issue of a tabloid [1] in our office with one of its headlines jubilantly proclaiming:

253 kids get Christmas gift:

free baptism

The lead article quotes the officiant-priest as saying, "This is historical.  It's the first time that happened in Agoo. You are now real Christians."

The whole article reflects the commercialization of some religious symbols, rites or ordinances. I wonder how much John the Baptizer charged Jesus for a "baptismal service"? I wonder too whether other baptizers in the ancient church needed a formal ordination before they were qualified to administer the rite?

But that is how it is with those operating within the discourse of sanctification.  Baptismal, burial and other rites serve as income-generating activities as well as authority-reinforcing mechanisms.  Ascribed with salvific or sacramental value, baptism often becomes an area of contestation:  who is divinely authorized to administer it, who are its "proper subjects," what purpose should it serve, which procedure is correct, what clothes and utensils to use, and where it should be done.

Well, as some old folks in my hometown were wont to chuck, "What can we did [sic], Bacwaden has the key!"


This calls to mind another baptismal rite that happened over a hundred years ago in the same town (Agoo, La Union) which was recorded by the German scholar Otto Adolfo Scheerer in his work, "On Baguio's Past: Chapters from Local History and Tradition,"  as follows (to provide the context, we'll start quoting from his account on the baptism of the six Ibaloy chiefs in Tondo, Manila):

Notice of this decree was received by the Provincial in Agoo at a time when there were present a great number of Ibaloys to whom he had it duly explained and commented.  His publication of the Governor General's favorable resolution in the very mountain homes of the Igorots resulted in a number of lists being drawn up of those villagers who offered to become Christians and faithful subjects of the king.  The receipt of these lists in Manila so elated the Governor General that he personally headed a solemn religious ceremony in the suitably decorated parish-church of Tondo at which the six Ibaloy headmen received the holy baptismal water, and in which the most distinguished citizens of Manila were their godfathers.  With the presence of the Governor General, the Ayuntamiento [city councilors], the high dignitaries of the Church and the prominent citizens at the head of the general public, the church was filled to the utmost, and the ceremony closed with a most pious act of the like of which hardly any precedent was on record: the Governor General filled with sublime rejoicing, rose from his chair and, approaching the newly baptized Ibaloys, who had been dressed in Spanish fashion, kissed the hand of each, leaving the numerous assemblage greatly edified with his action.

While this happened in Manila, a similar act, tho upon a reduced scale, took place on the day of San Matias Apostol [February 24] in the town of Agoo where the Provincial was entertaining great numbers of Igorots who kept coming down from their mountains and were handing in lists of fellow-villages of theirs willing to embrace the Christian faith and to become servants of the king of Spain.  On the day mentioned, nine adult Igorots, three men and six women, who had already been instructed in the doctrine and had insistently asked to be baptized, were conducted to the church in procession.  Guided by the foremost headmen of Agoo as their godfathers, to whom a casual visitor, Don Pedro Vivanco of Manila, had associated himself, they went, with numerous following, thru triumphal arches and with the accompaniment of the ringing of bells, the beating of drums, and the crackling of exploding fire-works, to the portal of the church where the assembled priests received them in state.  The Provincial himself led the hymns and performed the ritual of baptism whereupon a solemn Te-deum concluded the act.  After the church function the principalia, that is, the present and past parish-magistrates and council-men of Agoo, with their customary hospitality, sumptiously feasted the newly baptized mountaineers and their followers, all of whom pronounced themselves deeply impressed with the religious rites of the Christians.  During the following days many more tribesmen came down from the mountains, there being one day when as many as five hundred of them arrived.  It seemed --  says the Provincial in his account -- a special providence of God that there should arrive in Agoo on that very day those same six Ibaloy headmen who had been christened in the church at Tondo, and who, having been made to enter Agoo on horseback, clad in Spanish fashion and each bearing the staff symbolizing the official dignity conferred upon them by the Governor General, now related the generous treatment they had experienced in Manila, dispelling thus all doubts and misgivings from the mind of their kinsmen who listened to them with open mouth and staring eyes. [2]

This "Hollywood-like spectacular pomp and pious solemnity,"  as William Henry Scott had described it, [3] seem so nice until we realize that these are all part of the Spanish discourse of sanctification which is tied to the Iberians' exalted notion of themselves as the sole legitimate purveyor of "pure" culture, and harbinger of truth and salvation.

With this discourse, the Spaniards justified their fivefold oppression of the Ibaloy Igorots -- exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. [4] These abusive and punitive practices could be seen in the Spanish imposition of military rule, taxation, forced labor and conscription, trade restrictions, incarceration, "scorched-earth policy," hamletting, and exploitation of the natives' gold and copper-rich mountains.

With this discourse, the Spaniards penetrated tribal culture in Benguet and succeeded in creating a hegemonic relationship with the Ibaloys whose leaders at that time were somehow complicit in the establishment of this power relationship.  The natives' sense of awe was a portal of the Spaniards to the natives' heart. The baptismal rites in Tondo and Agoo were calculated to awe the Igorots.  And awed were they indeed as the latter part of the above excerpt shows.

What is evident from these ceremonies of sanctification is the bestowal of authority and identity by a dominant and dominating culture over the dominated as signified by the sanctifying emblems of cloth and staff.  The acceptance of the Igorot chiefs of these symbols of authority, and the continued acceptance of their own people of that conferred authority clearly make them complicit in their subjugation by a foreign power.

More than a century after, the same discourse, though redesigned and modernized, still operates among Catholics and non-Catholics.  And many submit to it, sheep-like, within the corrals fenced by theologues.


1 Jun Elias, "253 kids get Christmas gift: free baptism," The Star: Northern Luzon (25-31 December 2008): 4.

2 In William Henry Scott, ed., German Travelers on the Cordillera: 1860-1890 (Manila: Filipiniana Book Guild, 1975), 179-180.

3 The Discovery of the Igorots, rev. ed. (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1982), 114.

4 These are what Iris Marion Young would refer to as the "five faces oppression." See Hilde Lindemann Nelson, Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), 108-112.

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