No virtue in zealotry

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

The Philippines is a nation of faith. This is not a prescriptive statement – it’s not meant to deny the reality of atheist or agnostic Filipinos, or to claim they are in any way less ‘Filipino’ than their neighbors. It is merely a statement about how central faith has been in our society, and the way it has been used – sometimes abused – to create a sense of identity where one did not exist before, as with the Spanish colonizers and evangelists.

Faith has given many of our people the strength to make it through hardships and suffering, provided a community for those that most needed to belong. But faith has also been used as a means to pacify, to enforce obedience, to erase independence and as a means for leaders to exert total control over their followers. Faith cannot exist in a vacuum, and it is necessary for it to be balanced by other considerations for the wholistic benefit and healthy development of the individual.

The recent investigation of the alleged religious cult in Surigao del Norte is a reminder of the need for faith to be tempered. According to a privilege speech delivered by Sen. Risa Hontiveros in late September, a former civic organization by the name of Socorro Bayanihan Services (SBSI), now known as Omega de Salonera, has descended into cult-like behavior. Experts who study cults have identified many common features shared across such organizations, and many of these are seen in the allegations against SBSI. These include: complete submission to the organization’s leader; a discouragement of dissent; the divestment of personal property for the benefit of the organization; relocation to an area controlled by the organization; excessive control of the leadership over matters such as marriage, education, work and financials that reaches the realm of exploitation.

From accounts relayed by news agencies, the Socorro Bayanihan Services did have its origins as a seemingly secular organization, established to foster a sense of communal unity. But things did not remain that way. In the article “A Brief History of Socorro Bayanihan Service Incorporated” by John Sitchon, it was stated that in 2004, the organization was granted a Protected Area Community-Based Resource Management Agreement (PACBRMA) by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to shoulder the conservation and development of 353 hectares of land in Sitio Kapihan, Barangay Sering, Socorro, that was eventually called the Kapihan View Park.

But around 2017, reports began of members being moved to Kapihan. In 2019, after a series of earthquakes hit the region, the leadership of the SBSI allegedly used the disasters to fuel a belief that the quakes heralded the end of the world in order to instigate a mass exodus of its members to Kapihan. Many of these members sold their properties, including their homes, before moving to Kapihan – and allegedly 40 percent of the proceeds were given to SBSI leadership.

With most of its members centralized in the area under the organization’s complete jurisdiction, SBSI then began to exercise immense control over the lives of its members. Senator Hontiveros claimed that funds received from member beneficiaries of the government’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis programs were diverted to SBSI. There were also reports of checkpoints and fences being erected around the property, of children being prohibited from going to school and being forced to engage in strenuous military combat training to become a member of the “Agilas,” otherwise known as the “Soldiers of God.” Most heinous were the allegations of forced sex and marriages involving minors, where girls as young as 15 would be married to adult men. Among the documents presented at the Senate hearing was a family planning form of a 15-year-old SBSI member who has a one-year-old child.

What made all this possible was faith – excessive and unchecked faith, elevating a man to the status of a god. Jay Rence Quilario, the current leader of SBSI, also known by the title “Senior Agila” and the position “Supreme Divine Minister,” was practically worshipped by the members as the reincarnation of the Santo Niño. Whatever the positive qualities of a leader may be, history has consistently shown us that placing a leader on such a pedestal never ends well for their people. A good leader must be transparent, accountable, responsive to their people – and one who is made into a god need not explain, need not respond and cannot be held to account.

The specific allegations levied against the leaders of SBSI are serious and disturbing and must be thoroughly investigated with the full force of the law. Senator Hontiveros’ speech has already led to investigations by the Senate and the different branches of government, the creation of a dedicated investigative task force by the local government and the cancellation of the 2004 PACBRMA by the DENR. But while the punishment of any proven offenders is at the forefront of the minds of many, we must ensure that two things are not forgotten moving forward.

First is that we must ensure that the ordinary members of SBSI are cared for and, if necessary, rehabilitated. This includes ensuring they have a safe place to stay and that they are outside the sphere of influence of any proven offenders in the SBSI leadership.

Over and above seeing to the physical needs of the members, their mental and psychological needs must be seen to as well. Those who have been indoctrinated with cultish beliefs will need time and expert guidance to unlearn harmful beliefs and reintegrate themselves into society. The government, through the Department of Social Welfare and Development, is ensuring that such help and experts are on hand.

Second is that we must, as a society, continue to be on guard against the pitfalls of excessive and unbalanced faith, particularly in our leaders. Faith must always be balanced – by reason, by consultation, by critical thinking. Even those who are experts in faith acknowledge this – in his encyclical letter on faith and reason, John Paul II wrote: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Anything and anyone that claims to be deserving of faith will be able to withstand the rigor of criticism, of critical thought, of outside scrutiny. Zealotry is no virtue, but instead a shortcut to tragedy. Our nation, and our children, deserve better.

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