In reaction to student outrage at the distribution of Bibles in University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) by its Office of Student Affairs (OSA), its Chancellor, Rex Cruz described the incident as merely the “giving away [of] freebies.” Several apologists had similar reactions, saying that students were free to refuse the Bibles. In his interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Chancellor even suggested that they throw the Bibles away if the students didn’t want them.
Still others invoked the Christians’ right to freedom of religion. Indeed, Christians are free to express their religious views and evangelize, even in UP. In fact, one of the key features of the religion is that they spread it all over the world through proselytizing. This tactic has been so effective that Christianity, in all its flavors, has become the de facto state religion of many nations, including our country for the past 400 years.
Christianity has enjoyed a hold on the majority in our country for a long time. So long that many Christian Filipinos seem to be unaware that they share this land with non-Christians. There is an embarrassing lack of empathy from many Christians that leads them to say statements like, “you don’t have to take the Bibles if you don’t want them.” This lack of empathy is so fundamental that the government can go around distributing Bibles and it would still be treated as a non-issue.
The government gave Bibles away, that’s the problem
Yes, of course, students can refuse the Bibles. Though I’m sure that if they threw them in the trash en masse, that would suddenly make the story into one about sacrilege and persecuted Christians. The issue is not about Christian doctrine. The problem is that government officials distributed Bibles. And, based on reports, the director of OSA Leticia Afuang directly preached about the values of Christianity to incoming freshmen.
The mere fact that a person of authority gave religious materials to subordinates already implies coercion. It doesn’t matter if they were told they could refuse. These were students, and freshmen at that. A superior gave them a document. It is not the same as a street preacher giving away Bibles. You can ignore the preacher without fear of consequences.
It doesn’t matter if the OSA intended no harm or threat. It doesn’t matter if they wouldn’t really care if the students threw the Bibles in the garbage. There will always be the lingering fear that disobedience will lead to punishment, precisely because of the power dynamic between student and school administrator.
This power dynamic is the very reason OSA distributed the Bibles. OSA gave the Bible distribution activity credibility. It gave it the weight of the state University behind it, making students more receptive. There is a reason The Gideons (the apparent Bible donors) did not distribute the materials themselves and in their own event. Even on campus grounds with proper permits, that wouldn’t be a violation of secularism. Instead, a public office endorsed and distributed a sectarian document. I’m sure their intentions were good, but it cannot be glossed over that it is far more effective to have the University itself distribute the Bibles.
“You don’t have to read it!”
To apologists, the problem always seems to be with non-Christians being whiny than Christians abusing their power.
“Why don’t they just throw the Bibles away? They don’t have to believe! Nobody is forcing them to convert!” These are statements that can only be said by people blinded by privilege. The Christian majority don’t ever need to worry if their interests are considered. They are always the standard.
As excellently put by David Gaider, privilege is when you think something isn’t a problem just because it isn’t your problem. Christians, especially Filipino Christians, don’t ever have to face the prospect of having government officials give away copies of Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian.” They don’t ever get mandatory school-sponsored lectures on the irrationality of the doctrine of redemption. Non-Christian problems aren’t their problems, therefore non-Christians can’t bitch and moan about these non-problems.
Consider Pol Medina Jr and his long-running Pugad Baboy strip. He wrote about the hypocrisy of Christians and their bigotry against lesbians and gays, all the while taking their money in exclusive private schools. For the strip that named St. Scholastica’s College as an example, the Philippine Daily Inquirer promptly apologized for Medina and suspended his strip. Though Medina did himself apologize, he also resigned from the Inquirer, after 25 years of publishing there.
Catholics complained that Medina’s comic was offensive. And yet, and yet, nobody from the Inquirer ever told them, “you don’t have to read it.” Catholics don’t have to read the comics section of the Inquirer, and they don’t have to read Pugad Baboy. Of course, that won’t satisfy them. Medina must suffer. He needs to be put in his place as a critic of Christians.
What’s worse is that the Inquirer is a private enterprise where “you don’t have to read it” would actually be a legitimate answer. UPLB is a public university. Our taxes pay for its operation. It is an institution that should reflect the secular principles, if not practices, of our nation, as a nation of both Christians and non-Christians.
May I have my rights, please?
Continuing with Gaider’s view on privilege, privilege is the luxury to not understand. Though the term is usually used in feminist contexts, the concept is quite appropriate here. The Christian majority can live their lives worry-free, not understanding what non-Christians have to deal with. While, non-Christians are always reminded to be sensitive to Christian beliefs.
The problem of Christian privilege prevents many Christians from seeing that secularism protects them as much as it protects non-Christians. If Christians could empathize with the minority, they would see that religions being equal in the eyes of the government protects their rights, rather than curtails it. Since Christians will be in the majority for the foreseeable future, it isn’t their problem, yet.
I don’t really know how to appeal to the empathy of Christians to at least consider the rights of the minority. If we had a properly functioning government, I wouldn’t have to.