Touch me not: 500 Years of Christianity and the 2022 Presidential Election

Jose Rizal was executed by a firing squad on December 30, 1896. One and a quarter century later, we celebrate his martyrdom still looking for relevance to the present state of affairs. Pilosopong Tasio in Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere blockbuster novel made it clear that “I do not write for this generation. I am writing for other ages.” Was he alluding to this generation or the next?

Incidentally, this is also the year that Filipinos celebrated the 500th year of the arrival of Christianity in the country. To celebrate this important milestone, the Catholic Church wants Filipinos to confine their recollections from when Magellan landed in Mactan and planted the cross of Christianity. But the “gift of Christianity” that made Filipinos a “people of faith” was the very object of Rizal’s writings that eventually led to his martyrdom.

In Rizal’s view that finds relevance today, Filipinos had “gradually lost their memory of their past heritage and culture” for “new doctrines that they did not understand and a culture much different than theirs.” He dreaded that centuries later, the “religious shows, rites that caught the eye, songs, lights, images arrayed with gold, worship in a strange language (of Latin), legends and miracles and sermons, hypnotized the already naturally superstitious spirit of the country,” could lead to the “ethical abasement of the inhabitants.” Did we reach that point?

Beyond Noli’s central place in Philippine literature and history, Filipinos should strive to understand Rizal’s prophetic view during his time. The Catholic Church does not want to look back to the sins of the Church but as Rizal opined in “The Philippines a Century Later”, it is “necessary to open the book of the past” to understand the destiny of the Filipinos.”

Certainly, with the upcoming presidential election, Filipinos need to understand their destiny by discerning the past to help them choose the right candidate. The electoral road to 2022 is shaping up to be a fight between a traditional politician who inherited his father’s mixed legacy of dictatorship; and a crusading human rights lawyer whose campaign represents the very crowd that Rizal fret about – the clergy, oligarchs, and the ilustrados. Will Rizal’s optimism that the youth will be the hope of the fatherland finds relevance in next year’s election where 53% of the electorate belong to the youth sector?

One of the key issues of the campaign is choosing which foreign country the next president should pursue to chart an independent foreign policy? Will it be China or the United States, or neither? As a retired Supreme Court justice would often remind Filipinos, Antonio Carpio cries wolf in every turn about an imminent threat of a Chinese invasion and to spurn President Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures with the Asian superpower.

History tells us that through Rizal’s novels, Filipinos should not get used to having the “yoke around their necks.” Former rulers, he implied, merely “endeavored to secure the fear and submission of their subjects to slavery” and caused Filipinos to “easily change masters, perhaps hoping to gain something by the innovation.”

It is worth remembering that Rizal’s martyrdom in 1896 aroused Filipino nationalism and ushered the Philippine Revolution that brought them to the brink of victory against Spain. Spain, however, was also at war with the United States and the Battle of Manila in May 1898 was the opening salvo of the Spanish-American War that the Americans won shortly thereafter.

Spain, through the Treaty of Paris, ceded the entire Philippine archipelago to the Americans on December 10, 1898 for the sum of $20 million. Two months later, Filipino nationalists were at it again but this time, they were fighting the Americans for the Philippine- American War in what turned out to be the second Battle of Manila. The First Philippine Republic that Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo established through the Malolos Convention in 1899 was short-lived when Aguinaldo was captured by the Americans thus ending the war (or the insurrection as the Americans called it).

American colonization officially lasted for over half a century, yet their influence and control is very much felt even to this day. History tells us too that Rizal’s death was in vain because Filipino revolutionaries woke up one day to a new colonial master, the United States, as part of the spoils of war. Their rule was marked by inequality and policies that were detrimental to the Filipino people. Filipinos, clearly, have gotten used to the “yoke around their necks.”

Duterte broke the usual mode by being chummy with the Chinese and tried to break up old friendships with the Americans. His way of being free from the remaining colonial power was to start a new course for the Philippines. But along the way, he realized that China is another power lusting for control of the Filipino’s future. He has slowly opened his eyes to the reality that America is the lesser evil.

Is this history repeating itself? Are the Filipinos’ collective colonial mentality still so pervasive that it can’t break away from such bondage? What was the point of his novels Noli and Fili, if the Filipinos are still very much asleep on the wheel?

Perhaps it would help to revisit Noli’s biblical roots, to discern Rizal’s state of mind and find some redeeming values from it. The other novel, El Filibusterismo, exposed the failures of Philippine sovereignty and the reign of greed and corruption by the Spanish. Yet the book might as well refer to the American misrule, and succeeding Philippine presidents and their administrations for its currency.

“Noli me tangere” is a Latin word for “touch me not.” Literally, it means don’t touch me. Rizal’s inspiration for Noli according to Wenceslao Retana, a Spanish writer and Rizal’s biographer, was the Gospel of St. Luke based on Rizal’s letters. But, if Retana’s musing was correct, Rizal wrongly attributed it because it is actually from the Gospel of John where the bible speaks of Jesus’ command to Mary Magdalene to not touch him for “he has not ascended yet to the Father.” St. Luke talked about the joy of the Ascension.

Through Noli, Rizal unmasked the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church using the biblical passage from Jesus to highlight the impact of false religion in the Philippines which according to him, “trafficked with the sacred word to make money, to make believe idiocies that would make Catholicism blush if it ever learned of them.” Rizal clearly had some notion of what true religion should be and that the “Catholic religion was employed as an instrument of domination in the Philippines.”

The biblical reference is profound because Jesus did not want Mary Magdalene to hold on to the earthly Jesus as much as Rizal did not want Filipinos to hold unto the “false religion” that the friars brought to the country. Rizal was advocating for Noli to be viewed with a higher purpose as much as the biblical passage’s main message that Christ was risen.