Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Pais, Onesimus, and a Canaanite Mother

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we find a story about a rich military officer, a centurion, who came to Jesus seeking healing for his sick slave. Jesus gave him his wish. Restore things back to where they were before. A sick slave is worthless to his master. A sick slave, so sick he is paralyzed, has no use to his owner. Almost every time this story is preached Jesus or the centurion gets to be the hero. We do not hear the voice of the sick slave. We do not even know his name. We do not know why he was sick or why he was paralyzed. We only know what his owner, what his master said.

Then and now, nothing has changed. The voices we hear are those of the owners, the masters, the rich, and those in power. Nothing has changed. They tell us that their slaves are indolent; that they are weak and sickly; that they are not trustworthy; that they are thieves; that they ran away; that they have no sense of indebtedness or gratitude; and, when their slaves die, owners, masters, the rich, and the powerful tell the world that they committed suicide.

The slave, pais in Greek, in the Gospels was a child, possibly twelve years old. Many of us do not know that he was a child slave. Then and now, it is possible that the reason why he was sick, the cause of his paralysis was his master. It is possible that he was beaten, maltreated, abused, and even raped.[1] But we do not hear his voice or his cries. We do hear Jesus’ and the centurion’s.

In St. Paul’s letter to Philemon there is another slave. Onesimus. We also do not hear him speak. He was a runaway. Countless interpreters of this story tell us that Onesimus, more than a runaway, was a thief. He was useless. He had no sense of gratitude. Almost every time this story is preached Paul or Philemon gets to be the hero. No one, ever, takes Onesimus’ side.

If we read the story, and read centuries’ worth of stories about this story, Onesimus is described as a tool, a commodity, an object. According to Paul, Onesimus was once useless; now, that he had become a Christian, he was useful. Profitable. Before he was just a slave; now he was a Christian; now he was a super slave. Hyper doulon in Greek.

Millions of people worldwide treat Filipinos as super slaves; because we are Christian. As such we can bear more pain. We can endure. Because we know English we can be cursed, belittled, humiliated, and treated like dogs in a language we understand.

The education system in our country is imperial. This began over a century ago when, during the American occupation of the islands, the first General Superintendent of Education commented that, “The Filipino people, taken as a body, are children and childlike, do not know what is best for them… by the very fact of our superiority of civilization and our greater capacity for industrial activity we are bound to exercise over them a profound social influence.”[2] Every day, in our schools, we prepare our children to become tools; we equip them to remain children and childlike and thus become slaves to the world.

Who benefits from all these? Who defines who are “useful” and who are “useless”? Why are the lives of the oppressed and marginalized getting worse? Why are the poor getting poorer? Every single day, over four thousand of our fellow Filipinos go abroad to look for work: work that barely pays the minimum wage. Why? Onesimus is alive. The pais is alive. Millions are like them; struggling to survive in foreign lands. And their numbers grow every day. Many of them are sick. Many are so sick they cannot walk. Many have run away to escape inhuman treatment and harrowing conditions. Many will never see the Philippines again.

President Aquino is not the answer to our cries for justice. Not his administration. Not the masters. Not the rich. Not the powerful.

In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark we find a story about a mother, a foreigner, a Canaanite who came to Jesus. Her daughter was sick. She was probably twelve years old too: like the pais, like the centurion’s slave. She begged Jesus for help. She was initially ignored. She was a foreigner. She was even treated like a dog. Yet she persevered. And she persisted. And because she persevered, because she persisted, she got what she came for: her child was healed. Even if she was humiliated, even if she was not taken seriously, even if she had to beg, even if she was treated as second-class, she got what she came for: a healing for her child. And she was the “little bitch” who she taught Jesus a lesson.

Like the mother who persisted and persevered, we are the answer to our prayers. We are the families split apart when loved ones leave for abroad. We are the families who have to bear the loneliness and the pain of separation. We are the parents whose children are buried in foreign lands. We are the children whose parents are taken away from us. We are the poor, the marginalized, those treated like dogs, those whose voices are never, ever, heard. We are the mothers who will do anything and everything for our children’s welfare. We are the fathers who will storm the gates of hell to get our children back home safe. We are the children whose outrage will break the silence of heaven. We will make sure that God hears our mourning, our anger, and our collective cries for justice.

Let us come together. Let us struggle as one: for justice, for dignity, for life, for liberation. We are the answer to our prayers.

[1] Like Rosario Baluyot.

[2] Atkinson quoted in Daniel B. Schirmer, “The Conception and Gestation of a Neocolony,” The Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol 5. No. 1, 1975, 43-44.
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