Philippines: Salvation and Culture (2)

By Wallace H. Little

In the U.S. today, we do not talk of the “average American;” there is no such person. In our nation, which has been proclaimed as a mixing bowl of all races and cultures, we are basically divided geographically (Northeast, South, Midwest, Southwest, West Coast, and North West). There are finer sub-gradations, but these are the basic ones. Although there are some divisive elements which have been introduced, we are actually a rather homogeneous people, all things considered. My comparison is with other nations. We talk about “minority-this” and “minority-that” but, even considering these distinctions, the differences are not really great. We speak a common language and imbibe a common culture (whether each approves of all parts of it or not is not the point). Yet, we recognize that even with this relatively bland situation, there still is no such thing as the “average American.”

How much more so is the term and idea of the “average Filipino” a misnomer! It is important to remember that culture is the cause and language is the effect. A culture develops and grows, and language is adjusted to reflect the changes and growth of this culture. The greater the growth, the greater the language adjustment. Well, the Philippine nations has 116 major and minor recorded dialects and, when you consider all variations, the sum jumps to more than 1000. Yes, that is right: over a thousand! Now, by dialects, I am not talking about what we might have in mind when we speak of the clipped Yankee speech or the southern drawl. These are not even minor variations. I am talking about languages which are sufficiently distinct that unless somehow trained in them, the hearer cannot understand the speaker. One consequence of this diversity is that relatives in adjacent sub-provinces many times are unable to communicate with each other, except in English. Today, English is the only language common to all that nation. Most people understand enough to be able to get along, but their daily activities are conducted in whatever happens to be their native dialects. In the schools today, at all levels, Tagalog (which with Ilocano and Cebuano, is one of the three major dialects) is required study. In a generation, the Philippines will be a bilingual nation, with English and Tagalog sharing the spotlight. But we are not dealing with a generation away; we are trying to save souls now. I will say more on this problem in conversion, and how it might be hand-led in a later article.

Since language reflects culture and culture is made up of traditions, family practices ad-mixed with whatever religious beliefs and practices exist among the people, it might be useful to comment on some of these things here.

The Filipino cultures share common points, of course. One of these is their love of feasts and holidays. For example, they have the longest Christmas season of any nation I know of. It begins on 16 December and continues on through the first Sunday in January. It involves a great deal more than ours. It is not stripped of its religious activities and significance, which is generally the situation in the U.S. It is a near-endless series of feasts, modified nativity scenes to reflect the Filipino influence and giving of gifts. Anther: on the third weekend in January, there is the “At-Atihan,” a feast which resembles our own “Mardi-gras” more than anything else. later comes the Chinese New Year for those of Chinese extraction, a movable feast according to the Chinese calendar. And so it goes throughout the years, not only for the polygot people we call the Filipino, but also for each group which has maintained its separate ethnic identity.

Marriage customs, however, differ almost as much as the tribes where they are practiced. One tradition is that for three days after the marriage, the husband and wife sleep apart and do not touch each other. The opposite is the custom of another tribe: the boy and the girl begin sleeping together and continue to do so until she becomes pregnant, to prove she can produce an heir. Then they marry. Without trying in any way to defend immorality, it might be worth considering the consequences of religionists, to do away with this practice: the rate of children born out of wedlock among members of this tribe has gone from nothing to startlingly close to the percentage existing in the rest of that society – and ours.

Another custom of interest, particularly to folks like me who were raised up to believe you ought to be able to tell the boys from the girls at a glance: there is some compromise, of course, but the all-too-common tendency elsewhere for girls and boys to dress alike is virtually nonexistent there. One young (30 year old) preacher of my acquaintance, married and with three children, living apart from his parents, still wears his hair short. His non-Christian associates all wear theirs- longer, although nothing like some of the “horrible examples” in the U.S. 1 asked him if he did not like these new styles of wearing his hair somewhat longer. He said he did, and would like to wear his about like his friends. So I asked him why he did not do so: his reply: “Because I know my father would not like it.” 1 am not sitting in judgment of hair-length; 1 am commending the attitude of still trying to please a father years after having left his home and board. We might import a few gallons of that in the U.S.!

Both custom and law decree a woman cannot marry without her father’s permission until she is 25; with a man the age is 26. I have run into two schools of thought on this; those in my age group sigh, and say, “How nice if we had that in the U.S.” For the Filipino, especially the young people, it is something else again. Those who are determined to have each other have their own “solution” – they “elope.” That does not mean what it does here. In the P.O., it means slipping away and living together, sans marriage. I have known parents, Christians, to block marriage of their children even after the couple has lived together for some time. In one instance, permission to marry was granted only weeks before the baby was due. However, the general response is not this. Usually, the young people submit, but with less grace than their fathers might want.

Another custom deals with divorce, in a nation which has no divorce (Roman Catholic influence). If a man or woman deserts the mate, the remaining partner may simply find another, and take up with him/her. After seven years, that individual may go to court and have the first partner declared dead. This loosens the petitioner from any further legal responsibility.

Communications are difficult sometimes. American English is thoroughly idiomatic. We give little thought to how great a portion of figurative language we have laced into our daily conversation. I am not talking about slang expressions, or those which reflect a sub-culture of our own people. I refer to daily, common use of expressions, phrases, clauses and even whole sentences which in their figurative meaning have become so common that we normally accept the idiomatic meaning rather than the literal. One example: when we say, “so-and-so is separated from his wife” we understand the speaker to say the two have or are in the process of breaking up their marriage. Not so in the Philippines. They would understand it to mean simply that at that particular moment, for whatever the reason, the husband and wife were physically separated – in different geographical locations. The implication of such differences are immense. Unless we exercise extreme care, these can easily create bizarre and disastrous results. Indeed, such have happened in misunderstood conversations between Filipino and American brethren.

It is also characteristic of the Filipino to answer a question precisely as it is asked. Possibly this stems from their more literal understanding of language. Whatever, it can and has caused problems between supported Filpino preachers and the American church or churches assisting him. Examples: one congregation wrote the man it supported asking how much additional support he was receiving from other U.S. churches. In his response, he provided exactly the information they requested – and not one bit more. Later, these brethren found he was also receiving additional support from an individual saint and they were very irate. They contacted me and wanted to know why I had recommended him to them when the man was an obvious liar. It took some careful explaining to get them to understand that he had not lied at all, nor in any way had attempted to deceive them. An American would have understood the scope of the question to include all support, but the Filipino reads it as asking only what was explicitly stated. Problems? You bet!

One custom of interest is worthwhile explaining here. Traditionally among some tribes, the women handle the money of the family. The man often has little idea how it is spent and even less of how much is really needed. So the wife tells him the support is inadequate, and he writes to the supporting brethren asking for more, and they become upset when they contact one of us who have been there and we assure them that the support he is presently receiving is entirely adequate. Result? Suspicion as to the man’s integrity and honesty.

Disagreements and problems among brethren there often occur as a result of their basic cultural differences. A misunderstanding with one in a family, barrio or tribe is of much less importance than the same difference between individuals of two different tribes. The tribal differences will automatically elevate and intensify the problem. If two men are equally capable and have both demonstrated an equal zeal in service, and both are recommended for support, the brother with the closest blood ties will receive the stronger recommendation. If the ties are close enough, the man doing the recommending might even “condemn by faint praise” the non-relative to insure the one with the closer family ties to him receives the greater consideration. Unfair? Not by their culture.

As here, there are individuals who are dishonest, or are tempted and turn so over the prospect of obtaining support. These are not the majority of the preaching brethren, either here in the U.S. nor there in the Philippines. We accord U.S. brethren the benefit of doubt; why not be as fair to our Filipino brethren? From time to time, the dishonesty of those who have made godliness a way of gain will be brought to light. Then let us not lose faith in the other, realizing that we are dealing with fallible humans there, just as we also are here at home.

To me, one of the most surprising and upsetting things that happens is when a dishonest man is exposed. Often his reaction is anger and in some instances, violence or the threat of it against those he believe “blew the whistle” on him. It may go far beyond simply trying to defend himself against what he claims are false charges. In earlier years, there have been several planned attempts by such men to hurt or ruin the reputation of those who have exposed their sins, including the threat of personal injury. Such threats are sometimes carried out. Presently, one man in his anger at the exposure of his dishonest activities, has filed court cases against those he believes exposed him. He has made publically witnessed threats against them and others. He has tried to ruin the moral reputation of a Christian lady. He has vowed to ruin all the churches of Christ in the Philippines if necessary to “get even” with those he believes cut off his support. Such a reaction seems out of proportion to the situation, unless we understand he was preaching only because this was a “good job” to him. He sees only the loss of his income and fails to see the potential loss of his soul, and others he influences. So he fights for “his job.”

The “eternal triangle” has its ramifications in’ the Philippines. In some cultures there, a spurned suitor will kidnap the girl who rejected him, then rape her. The idea is that once she has been humbled by him, she will quietly marry him rather than see her reputation smeared by bringing him to court. I wonder how many of us would sit still if a man would do that to our daughters? They do not like it much either.

The Filipino is hospitable beyond any others I have ever known on God’s earth. He may not have much, but he wants to share it with you. You may offend him if you do not accept it. Do not go into their houses and admire anything; you will probably walk home with it under your arm, wondering what happened. Their concept of hospitality dictates that they do not have a disagreement with a guest. On the other hand, once you have become their friend, they may have a great number of noisy disagreements with you, but do not become angry, because friends do not become angry at each other. Some Americans, accustomed to our standard of living, complained at what they were offered there. That was a mistake of major importance. The Filipino host offered the best he had or had access to. Appreciate it, for he is putting himself out to do this for you; he may even have gone into debt to do this for you. This includes a place to sleep, the food he puts before you and everything else. Americans can, and have, worn out their welcome by complaining.

Our final point: this is not so much a matter of culture but a reflection of our 50 years as rulers of the Philippine Islands. It is a sad commentary on our colonial rule that more often than not, the decisions of our government officials and the Congress reflected American business interests. If this happened to affect the Philippine economy adversely, and thus the well-being of the people, well, that was just too bad. The result today is a deep government-to-government distrust. On the other hand, because of extensive personal contacts between individual Americans and Filipinos, there is a near-universal personal liking of Americans by Filipinos as individuals. American Christians can build on this, to the name of God and His glory and honor. We can also, if we are careless and inconsiderate in our treatment of brethren there, tear down a lot of good which has already been accomplished. Basically, we need to be sure we treat our brethren as equals in the kingdom of God. Anything less than that will develop and build resentment in them against us. In their position, would we feel any different?

Truth Magazine XXIII: 8, pp. 138-140
February 22, 1979