Vantage Points

Fear and Idolatry in the Philippines

Feb. 22, 2017

by Greg Massey

Idolatry has always loomed large as a sin that separates people from their God and creator. It is not an exaggeration to say that some form of idolatry lies at the heart of all sin. The first of Yahweh’s Ten Commandments addressed idolatry, as the people of Israel were commanded to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Today we may not bow down to a literal Baal or Asherah pole but we construct idols in our hearts. Anything, whether an activity or desire or ideology or person, that supplants God’s place as first in our hearts becomes an idol.

Among Christians idolatry is often linked to fear. Fear leads them to trust and follow what they can see and hear rather than trust, in faith and obedience, their awesome and loving spirit God. Fear and idolatry are present throughout our world but this blog post and a follow-up post next week will examine it at the national level, focusing specifically on the Philippines and the United States, and Christians living in these two nations.

Salvador Cariaga

Salvador Cariaga provides a personal viewpoint of how fear and idolatry is harming the Philippines and subverting Christians who live there. Salvador visited Freed-Hardeman University during the recent Bible Lectureship. Last Monday evening he spoke in Ayers Auditorium to an audience of students and faculty. A second-generation Christian, Salvador is a 1983 graduate of Oklahoma Christian University, where he met his wife Jennie. Today they live in Fort Worth, Texas, but he devotes half of each year to work in the Philippines. In addition to preaching, he has worked to alleviate poverty, teaching organic farming methods and promoting self-sufficient empowerment among the rural poor. He and his family were instrumental in establishing the Give a Goat program, currently administered by the nonprofit, Shepherd’s Hill International

In the past eight months, Salvador has turned his attention in another direction, becoming a voice of protest against the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, which has launched extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and traffickers, resulting in an average of 1,000 murders each month. In other words, Duterte’s government is killing people without any judicial process, targeting people because of their mere association with drugs. The illegal dragnets have snared people of all ages, including homeless street children. Duterte pledges to continue the killings until his term in office is completed or drug users are eradicated. He has labeled meth addicts as “the living walking dead. They are of no use to society anymore.” The president’s language and his policy of extrajudicial killings dehumanizes and devalues human life, specifically the lives of the poor, on whom the brunt of violence has overwhelmingly fallen.

Rodrigo Duterte in 2013

 On several levels the war on drugs in the Philippines is both tragic and ironic. Survey data gathered by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reveals a country whose problems with drug usage are either comparable to or far below nations like the United States. In fact, the notion that the nation is in a state of emergency because of drugs was created by Duterte himself, who based his successful campaign for the presidency on his promise to eradicate drugs by killing criminals. The current death rate, which includes killings by the police and by vigilantes, has won broad popular support among Filipinos. Among those who either support the killings or choose to remain silent, which is a tacit endorsement, is an overwhelming majority of members of churches of Christ.

Salvador Cariaga has responded differently. He uses social media to protest the extrajudicial killings, writing short essays, poetry, and providing data to educate readers about the ongoing human tragedy in his country. He has posted on his Facebook wall a poster announcing “EJK not OK. Stop The Killings in the Philippines.” A Socialist blog, Mary Scully Reports, displayed the poster and endorsed Salvador’s work. Filipino Christians, sadly, have responded differently, with either silence or outright opposition to Salvador’s stance. 

EJK not OK

How is it that a Socialist blog joins Salvador in condemning this contempt for human life and Filipino Christians do not? On one hand, it’s possible to understand but not endorse how these Christians rationalize the killings of adult meth addicts. But what of the killings of street children? One thinks of Yahweh’s utter repugnance when the kingdom of Judah descended into idolatry and child sacrifice. How He proclaimed that the sacrifice of children was a practice “I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind” (Jeremiah 19:5). How did the hearts of Christians become so calloused? Salvador places some blame on how these Christians were converted in the first place. In the aftermath of the destructive Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, Salvador assisted in over 1,000 baptisms in Arapal on the Philippine island of Luzon. He now believes his evangelization focused more on baptism and attending the right church and not on two core principles at the foundation of Christianity: Respect for all life created by God; and Jesus Christ died for all human lives. He pledges to preach differently now, focusing first on the love of God and love of others, teaching converts to value each God-breathed individual life.

Salvador admits that he faces an uphill struggle in convicting his fellow Christians that they are wrong to collude with Duterte’s government. “Sometimes when you attack people to awaken their consciences, it polarizes them and they solidify their position,” he says. Still, he continues to fight this battle. “You’ve lost your relevance,” he tells his brethren. “When this is gone, you’ll have no moral ascendancy. In times of darkness, you failed to be the light. You became the Levite, not the Good Samaritan. You could’ve set your Bible aside and practiced it.” In Salvador’s judgment, this last sentence highlights a core issue: Filipino Christians have compartmentalized their beliefs. They preach grace on Sunday; then on Monday they say “kill the addicts.” Like others who support Duterte, they feel safer because of the killings, placing their own sense of security over the lives of others.

Fear and idolatry are at the heart of the ongoing tragedy in the Philippines. That non-Christians lacking the anchor of Christ would follow this path is one thing. It’s quite another when, in Salvador’s estimate, more than 90 percent of Filipino Christians follow the same path. “When Christians are more concerned about safety and politics than morality, there’s some problem with their moral compass,” he says. “When they’re more enamored with a human leader than God the father, there’s something wrong with their theology.”