Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent remarks on God, Genesis and the Roman Catholic Church have been widely and wilfully misconstrued in anti-Duterte media outlets including the infamous Rappler. A full analysis of what his remarks actually meant can be read here. But beyond merely understanding what Duterte said, it is equally important to place them in the appropriate socio-political context.
First of all, it must be restated that many secular leaders comment about spiritual affairs from a variety of perspectives. This is especially true in the United States where in spite of being one of the first nations to mandate a constitutional separation of church and state, Presidents, Senators and Governors frequently speak of their relationship with religious matters.
The Philippines is a country which like many others has a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, but The Philippines is also a country which was for centuries a colony of the Kingdom of Spain, a nation whose very founding in the late 15th century was on the principle of Catholic supremacy and the exclusion of all other forms of worship.
Today, the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines continues to meddle in the secular political affairs of the nation – something which threatens not only the legal order but the validity of Philippine democracy. Any religious institution exists to provide spiritual guidance to families and individuals, but such institutions cross both a legal and unspoken red line when they act as a fifth column in a nation whose democracy functions on the principle of one man/one woman – one vote.
The Catholic Church in The Philippines has yet to fully adapt to post-colonial realities where people have the right to worship however they chose, while also maintaining the right not to worship at all. Beyond this, the Catholic Church in The Philippines has bestowed upon far too many people an attitude of hopelessness where ideally, any religious institution should instead serve to lift-up the condition of the people at a psychological level.
President Duterte lashed out at the Church’s teachings on Original Sin not from the perspective of theology per se, but from the perspective of sociology. When Lew Kuan Yew emerged as Singapore’s first leader, the country collectively said “yes we can” in terms of development and social progress. Malaysia with its own unique problems has never the less said the same by electing a new rainbow coalition led by multipolar stalwart Mahathir Mohamad, while secular China has not only said “yes we can” but has done so in a manner that has lifted more people out of poverty in a shorter period of time than has ever been achieved in world history.
But while so many other Asian nations, many of which achieved independence from colonial rulers even later than The Philippines are saying “yes” to change, to progress to social enlightenment – many in The Philippines have said “no we can’t – we are not good enough and we never will be”. This is the wretched colonial mentality against which Duterte raged when first elected President in 2016. It is this colonial mentality which itself derived from the notion of original sin as opposed to a more broad concept of original purpose whereby dignity, honour, strength and intelligence can lead to a path of enlightenment and righteousness. The Catholic Church in The Philippines must reflect on its own role in imparting this negative mindset to far too many Filipinos.
While the Catholic Church has been plagued with corruption, thus demonstrating that many Filipino clerical leaders are ultimately hypocrites rather than bearers of gospel (which literally means “good news”), Duterte is a man who has consciously dedicated his life to serve not himself but others. Duterte has rejected palatial lifestyles, titular grandiosity and a lavish existence. Even as President, Duterte remains true to his roots as a poor son of Davao who was on the front lines leading his people against the criminal narco-mafia that once ruled his city.
Today he is that same person, a man more comfortable speaking like the people than speaking down to them. He is more comfortable in a Barong than in the colonial attire of many other statesman. He is a man who far from seeking a consolidation of his power, has repeatedly stated that if he can successfully pass federal constitutional reforms, he will step down and retire. This is a picture of leadership with purpose combined with an attitude that is strong yet humble before the people. Even when during recent independence day celebrations protesters shouted insults at Duterte while he spoke, he turned the other cheek and told police to treat the agitators peacefully.
The colonial mentality which for decades was ingrained in the political and spiritual institutions of The Philippines is one that needs to go if the country is to reach its great potential. There is nothing in any scripture which preaches poverty over wealth – famine over feast – austerity over comfort. Indeed, the message of the Christian Bible and the Islamic Quran is not that wealth is evil but that the temptations of wealth can lead to unrighteous acts.
This is why Duterte sends all the right signals through both his acts and deeds that while all men and women are flawed, they are not sinful unless they choose to be. This is a far more positive message than the pessimism that the Catholic Church in The Philippines has come to represent and it is crucial for all Filipinos to understand that far from insulting the beliefs of a religious nation, Duterte was illustrating that the true path to spiritual enlightenment is not through complacence in the face of suffering but through an optimistic approach to attaining earthly happiness through righteous activities.
Duterte is therefore offer a spiritual cleansing of a nation whose relationship with God has been soiled by its relationship with the corruption, downcast attitude and colonial mentality of the pervasive organised religion. Duterte’s message is one of collective strength on the basis of individual enlightenment.
When Duterte breaks down in tears during speeches, as he has sometimes done, it is a sign that he is a man who cares deeply for his people in every respect. Duterte realises that the message of Christ’s Crucifixion was not one that means that people today should crucify themselves, even though every Easter, some Filipinos literally do crucify themselves. Instead, the authentic message of the Christian Bible, like the authentic message of Duterte’s own secular sermon is that Christ suffered so that people on earth do not have to.
Just as a soldier sacrifices his life so that future generations of his countrymen can live free – so too must this same anti-colonial mentality in the spiritual life of the Philippine nation lead to a cultural, economic and sociological resurrection in which the gospel of happiness replaces the gospel of suffering and where the gospel of original pride replaces that of original sin.
Duterte later justified his remarks further by exploring the fact that the God he believes in is a different being from the one praised by his malicious detractors. He stated,
I did not say that my God was stupid. What I said was your God is not my God because your God is stupid. Mine has a lot of common sense”.
This is Duterte’s spiritual message and it is more direct, more meaningful and more profound than anything his detractors inside or outside of any church have yet to say. Duterte’s God is authentic while that which is praised and hallowed by his opponents bears little resemblance to the profundity of any spiritual or philosophical text.