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Tabernacles and Jeepneys

Biblical interpretation has privileged the centers of power within, behind, and in front of the text. Biblical studies in the Philippines have been a stronghold of colonial scholarship for over a century, especially among Protestant churches. Indigenous denominations refuse to become autonomous and continue to depend on their mother institutions in the United States or elsewhere in the First World. Church buildings and institutions are named after benevolent foreign church leaders and missionaries. Seminaries continue to have more foreign teachers (who are paid in dollars by foreign boards) than Filipinos (who are paid in pesos and, usually, significantly below the living wage). Libraries are filled with books written by European and American scholars and continue to receive donations of old books from the First World. Traditional historical-critical methods remain the key reading paradigm. Establishing what the Bible meant in the past is the first step towards discerning what it means today. Ways of interpreting the Bible that do not follow this so-called fundamental paradigm are labeled eisegesis (reading into the text) or reader-response. Filipino Protestants know more about Bible history and American history than their own history; and they read the Bible the way their colonial masters did and still do, because they have been socialized for generations that this is the correct way. Filipino social scientists call this collective condition of the Filipino psyche a colonial mentality. Historian Renato Constantino traces it to the systematic mis-education of Filipinos. Theologian Eleazar Fernandez argues that the Philippines can still be called a “mental colony” of the United States of America. Biblical studies in the Philippines today exemplify his claim.

But side by side with this “reading-the-Bible-the-way-our-masters-do” is a wealth of Filipino literature, practices, and reading strategies that engage the Bible in unexpected ways. Two quick examples. Take a regular Bible Study session among women. Let them role-play a passage in the Bible. Let’s say, Luke 10:38-42, Jesus visits Martha and Mary. In my experience, most women WILL NOT follow the Biblical script. They will change the story.

Take a nursery Sunday School class. Tell the story of Jonah. Most adults will identify with the plight of Jonah, including the nursery teacher. But children have no problem reading the text from the perspective of the fish, the vine, and the worm—who, by the way, obey God.

I call these interpretations models of jeepney hermeneutics, reading that go against “authorial intent.” The jeepney is the most popular mode of public transportation in the Philippines. It is an excellent example of the Filipinization of an American icon, the military jeep. It is also, as I will argue, one very powerful metaphor for Filipinos’ engagement with another icon, the Bible, offering a range of strategies to decolonize biblical studies.

The U.S. Army, back in 1940, required an all-terrain reconnaissance, go-anywhere, vehicle that seated three and had a mount for a 30-caliber machine gun. Filipinos have turned this military vehicle into a sort of mini-bus that can accommodate about twenty people. There are those who look at a jeepney and call it Frankenstein’s monster. There are others who see it as a “Filipino home on wheels,” complete with an altar. The military jeep was, and still is, a sort of imperializing text. A jeepney resists this text. The inventors of the jeep never imagined that this weapon of mass destruction can be transformed into a public transport vehicle. The jeepney is an “unexpected reading” of a jeep.

Interpretation, by definition, is always perspectival and particular. In other words, everything—including the supposedly objective historical-critical method—is reader-response. This interpretation of biblical passages as imperializing texts presupposes the reality of an empire as a backdrop to the construction of the narrative. Many Filipinos employ a similar assumption when engaging Filipino resistance literature: for example, Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Francisco Baltazar’s Florante at Laura, and Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart. This interpretation does not equate the biblical narratives with historical facts. What it does is argue that the narrative is constructed and framed by a particular historical setting.1 Anticolonialist Frantz Fanon and educator Paolo Freire show that dynamics leading to literary production exist not only between the colonizer and the colonized, but also between various interest groups of the colonized, some of which try to gain power to define national cultural identity, as well as to compete for the attention of their collective oppressor. The interpretation below argues that Matthew is not rejecting Roman imperialism, but seeking its favor, or at least condoning it.

This interpretation also presupposes resistance, as reflected in what activist Salud Algabre and historian Reynaldo Ileto call “little traditions.” Algabre and Ileto memorialize all those resistance fighters who have been victimized by the violence of institutionalized forgetting, a fate most of the unnamed children in Matthew share.

New Testament scholar Musa Dube posits the following questions in order to measure whether Matthew is an imperializing text: Does the text offer an explicit stance for or against Roman imperialism? Does the narrative encourage travel to distant and inhabited lands, and how does it justify such travel? How does the narrative present those who are different from the main characters? Is there dialogue and liberating interdependence between the main characters and “others”? Or is there condemnation and replacement of all that is foreign and other? Is the celebration of difference authentic or mere tokenism? Does the text present relationships of subordination and domination? How does it represent them?

Using these questions to analyze Matthew and its effects upon its readers, Dube concludes that the author’s stance toward the imperial powers presents imperial rule and its agents as holy and acceptable. Matthew’s Jesus is politically un-subversive and encourages travel to distant and inhabited lands. Matthew’s positive presentation of the Empire and the decision to take the word to the nations (Matt. 28:16-20) is born within and as a result of stiff competition for power over the crowds (Israel) and the favor of the Empire. Matthew’s mission to the nations embodies imperialistic values and strategies. Matthew does not seek relationships of liberating interdependence among nations, cultures, and genders. Rather, this Gospel upholds the superiority of some races and relegates other races to inferiority. Matthew represents gender relationships as relationships of subordination and domination by featuring the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) and the centurion (8:5-13) in contrasting stories, which foreshadows the mission to the nations. Matthew’s presentation of Pilate, his wife, and the Roman soldiers at the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows a clear-cut pro-empire position (27:1–28:15).

The Tabernacle motif, though implicit, plays a critical role in the Matthean narrative. The Tent of Meeting or Tabernacle symbolized, literally, God’s presence among God’s people (Exodus 35-40). In the 40-year sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness, God was always with them via the Tabernacle, a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. In other words, where the Tabernacle was, there was God. Matthew begins and ends with Immanuel, God-with-us (1.23, 28:20). Thus, the Gospel effectively sets the boundaries of its own “tabernacle.” Matthew creates a world of insiders and outsiders relative to this “tabernacle.”

And right at the middle of this “tent” is the greatest symbol of faith in the gospel—the centurion.

The encounter between the centurion and Jesus, according to Dube, particularly highlights Matthew’s stance toward the Empire. Both men are presented as having authority to effect things simply by the power of their words (Matt. 8:8-9). The comparison of Jesus’ authority with that of the centurion’s has the effect of sanctifying the imperial power. Jesus pronounces the centurion’s faith greater than the faith of everyone in Israel (Matt. 8:10), a statement that contrasts the imperial agent with the colonized and exalts his righteousness above theirs. The passage casts imperial officials as holier and predicts that they, and other groups, will have more power (in the kingdom of God). Such characterization not only disguises what imperial agents represent—institutions of exploitation and oppression—but also pronounces imperialism holy and acceptable. A quick survey of the history of the interpretation of Matthew and centuries of Western colonization—euphemistically called “civilizing missions”—in Asia, Africa, and Latin America shows that most interpreters followed the Gospel’s imperial rhetoric.

In Matthew’s “tabernacle,” God’s presence is most evident in a military officer, in an imperial agent. The first one thousand years of Christianity was one millennium of war and destruction in the name of Jesus Christ. And those “civilizing missions” have not stopped. Even today, the most oppressive and dehumanizing societies are led by “Christian” centurions who have no qualms maiming and destroying those who are not “one of them.” And two of these are in the White House and in Malacanang, George W. Bush and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, respectively.

The centurion is to Matthew as the 30-caliber machine gun mount is to the military jeep. To read Matthew inside a jeepney is to celebrate the fact that the first thing Filipinos did in their transformation of the military jeep was to rid it of that machine gun mount. To read Matthew inside a jeepney is to remove our gaze from the centurion—and, yes, even Jesus, who mimics the centurion—and focus it on someone else. I suggest focusing our attention on the servant (pais in Greek) of 8:5-13.
The pais, whether translated son, daughter, girl, boy, servant, slave, or sex slave, is a child. He or she serves to remind flesh and blood readers that the reality of empire—in varying forms and degrees—is experienced by children and by those who are treated as children. Political sociologist Ashis Nandy draws attention to the way the colonized are viewed as children by the colonizers.2

Fred Atkinson, the first American General Superintendent of Education in the Philippines, inaugurated more than a century of racist public education in the islands when he remarked 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.”3

The pais reminds flesh and blood readers that children’s oppression—of varying forms and degrees—is written in the text because, despite the rhetoric that God’s reign is for children (Matt. 19:14), no child is ever named—except Jesus—or is given a voice in the gospel—except Herodias’s daughter, who says what her mother tells her to say. Like the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15:21-28) and the pais, Herodias’s daughter serves only as a medium through which competing discourses present their claims. The girl falls prey to manipulation by her mother and by Herod. We don’t even get to hear the cries of the children who are massacred in 2:18, only their mothers’ cries. Children are the primary victims of Matthew’s “culture of silence.”

Look at how the pais is described in Greek: ho pais mou, “the servant who is mine.” That child’s body is under somebody else’s control—whether it’s his father, his owner, or, as I have argued elsewhere, his pedophile. The centurion’s act on the pais’s behalf emphasizes the latter’s marginalization. As far as Matthew is concerned, the pais cannot speak or seek his own healing. Yet, because that child is “paralyzed,” albeit momentarily, he also paralyzes his owner, who must seek help from Jesus. The child also interrupts the goings and the comings of the centurion’s soldiers, since the centurion is not with them to give them orders (Matt. 8:9). Thus, with his paralysis, the child also interrupts the imperial expansion.

Throughout the Gospel, characters come and go, borders are crossed: magi from the East come seeking the king of the Jews (2:1-12); Joseph and his family flee into Egypt (2:13-15); Herod sends his death squads to Bethlehem to murder children (2:16-18); Joseph and his family go to Nazareth, from Egypt (2:19-23); Jesus goes to John the baptizer and is led by the Spirit into the wilderness (3:1–4:11); Jesus leaves Nazareth and makes his home in Capernaum (4:12); the centurion comes to Jesus and the latter is convinced of the imperial authority that effects goings and comings, travel to distant lands, and control at a distance (8:5-13). The disciples are systematically prepared for their commissioning (10:1-42); the Canaanite woman comes to Jesus (15:21-28); the heavy-laden come to Jesus (11:28). Jesus eventually sends out his disciples (28:16-20). Everyone in the story moves, except the pais in Matthew 8:5-13. Yes, even for a brief moment, the pais revels in the space her paralysis brings. For about eight short verses in the very long 28 chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, the pais is free of the centurion.

The colonized is free of her colonizer.

The majority of Filipinos remain colonized subjects, a part of a mental colony. Migrant Filipina domestic workers, numbering over 7 million, are the global servants of late capitalism. Tens of millions find themselves squatters in their own homeland. Those who have opted for “the Promise Land”—the United States—find themselves treated as second-class citizens. Yet, despite all this colonization, they have always resisted. The jeepney is the best-known symbol of resistance and decolonization for Filipinos. Now, because of the Gospel, they have another symbol, the pais—paralyzed outside the “tabernacle”—who disrupts imperial progress, even if only briefly, in the Gospel of Matthew.

1. The Gospel of Matthew is a narrative discourse constructed against the backdrop of Roman imperial occupation. In other words, it is a story of people in this imperialistic situation.
2. See Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory (New York: 1998), 32.
3. Quoted in Daniel B. Schirmer and Stephen Rosskamm Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1987), 12.

Works consulted:
Abesamis, Carlos. A Third Look at Jesus. Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1999.
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins. New York: Orbis, 2000.
Constantino, Renato. Neocolonial Identity and Counter-consciousness : Essays on Cultural Decolonization (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1978).
De La Torre, Edicio. "The Philippines: A Situationer." Those Who Would Give Light Must Endure Burning. Bautista and Amirtham, eds. Quezon City: NCCP, 1987.
Dube, Musa. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2000.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: 1968.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Myra Bergman Ramos, trans. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.
Fernandez, Eleazar. Toward a Theology of Struggle. New York: Orbis, 1994.
Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 32.
Levine, Amy-Jill. The Social and Ethnic Dimensions of Matthean Social History (Lewiston: Mellen, 1988).
Ileto, Reynaldo. Pasyon and Revolution. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University, 1979.
Patte, Daniel. The Gospel According to Matthew. Philadelphia:Fortress, 1987.
Powell, Mark Allan Powell. Chasing the Eastern Star. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Schirmer, Daniel."The Conception and Gestation of a Neocolony." The Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol 5. No. 1, 1975, 43-44.
Velunta, Revelation. "The Ho Pais Mou of Matthew 8:5-13: Contesting the Interpretations in the Name of Present-Day Paides." Bulletin for Contextual Theology, School of Theology, University of Natal. Vol 7.2. June 2000, pp.25-32.

From TUGON (re-launch edition, copyright 2008, NCCP)
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