As the lights of the function hall highlighted both his EVM lapel pin and the beads of sweat now forming at his brow, I couldn’t help but notice how uneasy he appeared as he loosened his tie, his voice betraying his uncertainty and trepidation. It was certainly odd. I assumed that if anyone should have felt the slightest pang of anxiety at this point, it should have been me, not him. He had me dead to rights- caught in the crosshairs, as they say- and yet I felt strangely calm, collected, and clear. And so, I saw his ultimatum coming a mile away as he cleared his throat and, with a sheepish stammer, spoke that last statement.
“Again, so sorry brother, but [we] have enough reason to believe that you’re this ‘Aeneas.’ If you continue to write and post these negative articles, I will have to report this suspicion to the locale administration, po.”
His spiel finally done, he wiped his brow, took a quick breath, and awaited my response.
I thought maybe it was that last article I posted a few days prior- perhaps it cut a little too close to home and inspired some enterprising brother or sister to be a hero, figure out who the hell this Aeneas guy was, and shut him up. In any event, it didn’t matter either way. The little attention this meager blog was getting was now very likely the wrong kind and potentially more trouble than it was worth. Besides, I mused, a bevy of other similarly open-minded bloggers were competently taking up the mantle.
Strangely, he didn’t wait for a response. Another pressing matter seemed to get his attention -a secretary seeking a signature- and so with an affirming nod, he concluded our brief meeting. He left, somehow appearing more relieved to end this peculiar encounter than I did.
I should have counted myself fortunate that I didn’t find myself on the ‘expulsion express lane’, but a sort of survivor’s guilt set in and I thought maybe I should drive back to the chapel and admit responsibility. But for what? I couldn’t immediately recall anything I actually did wrong, other than express my own opinions, and it was a free country the last time I checked. I continued home.
With much more important things on my plate, I decidedly separated myself from all the vitriol and propaganda on social media, distanced myself from the more heated discussions I took part in, and decided to just continue attending, remaining as inconspicuous as possible, per the status quo. And I was never confronted by that brother again.
Months pass as a new year unfolded and life continues to treat me increasingly better than I deserve. And so one night, I casually wonder how things lay with the state of affairs now that I assume the dust has relatively settled.
I quickly peruse the old familiar forums, social media sites, and blogs and the first thing I notice is that nothing had really changed, as the propaganda machine remained in full effect. I suddenly felt silly for thinking otherwise, since the worship services are still laced to some degree with that rallying “us-vs-them, you’re either with us or against us, spiritual war for our faith” theme.
I had apparently missed a devotional prayer for the restoration of the church and for the safety of Ka Erano’s family as well as some online worship gatherings. (I had also missed some new malicious memes from “ridiculous roaring Rey” and many others who still enjoy reposting online garbage, a few faulty arguments from “J.J. Joel”, and even “G.I. Joe” parading his degrees on Facebook. I don’t mean to be facetious regarding brethren I’ve alluded to in previous blogs because it actually disappoints me that their nonsense is continuing well into 2016.) Additionally, I don’t know what’s more ridiculous- allowing the boycott of a news station for expressing some partiality or allowing us to think that EagleNews is somehow a less biased new source.
Although I initially wasn’t sure I would return to this blog, considering that odd encounter months ago and the fact that I was enjoying my mental health break from what continues to resemble an endless Filipino soap opera, I remembered an announcement from last week’s worship service- that this Sunday’s service would be officiated, through video stream, by Brother Eduardo.
I further supposed, somewhat naively, that maybe if I wrote positively of the experience, I could somehow deter any future entanglements with anyone openly questioning my faith in the current administration.
Unfortunately, for better or worse, I’m honest to a fault.
Sunday morning, February 7
I sat in the congregation, attentive as always.
Brother Eduardo begins by stating that there will be those who will be shamed and turned away on Judgment Day.
Philippians 1:20 was read which states, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
He further instructs that we, as members of the church, should strive not to be shamed. This makes intuitive sense, as who in their right mind would want to be shamed, especially on Judgment Day? Yet even before that day comes, I for one would rather not be shamed in my membership by -for instance- becoming the victim of malicious mockery and public ridicule, as what many of our brothers and sisters have had to endure for simply seeking truth and transparency.
I just had to ask myself, if we should together strive to not be shamed on the day of His return, then why are so many of our brethren in the business of shaming each other? Especially when anyone daring to step forth with a single coherent argument or viewpoint that does not fully support the church’s party line becomes vilified and ostracized by our overzealous brethren?
“We need to magnify our Lord Jesus Christ,” our church administrator exclaims.
With the huge monitors in the sanctuary fully displaying the now ubiquitous OWE (“One With EVM”) fingerprint symbols, I couldn’t help but wonder- is that truly who we magnifying?
I recalled the hymns from our previous special gatherings exalting the administration of “EVM”. I recounted the initials “EVM” being incorporated into nearly every church function and being plastered onto propaganda pieces all over social media. I thought of the “EVM” pins on the lapels of the officers in the sanctuary all around me, on the brother that confronted me months ago, collecting dust in my own drawer at home. I thought of the head deacon’s prayer mentioning EVM over and over.
“Who are we magnifying, really?” I thought to myself.
“One with EVM” all at once became both our overarching slogan and our rallying cry- that ubiquitous fingerprint purporting to signify our identity even more so than our own.
I recalled how we were once advised by our late Brother Erano to avoid mentioning the name “Manalo” in our congregational prayers, lest others forget that we are the Church of Christ- not the Church of Manalo.
The EVM pins on each choir member seemed to shine defiantly across the choir loft under the lights of the sanctuary.
“A different time,” I thought morosely, “a different leader.”
EVM’s voice continued to echo through the sanctuary.
Ephesians 6:6 was read.
“Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.”
“We don’t merely do ‘eye-service’ only”, he stated, “we have to magnify and praise our Lord Jesus Christ, and not to please men.”
I shifted again in the pew, feeling that all too familiar sense of cognitive dissonance that I’ve grown quite accustomed to, especially during sermons where the truth starts stretching a little thin.
Who exactly are we pleasing and whose favor are we seeking when our church funds are used -for instance- in the seemingly endless pursuit of meaningless world records? “Largest mixed use arena.” “Largest chain of fireworks.” Or, when funds are used to procure extravagantly excessive luxuries that hardly befit the leaders of a nation made up of a mostly socioeconomically disadvantaged group?
At this stage, despite the intense suppression effort, many of us have already heard the numerous allegations of financial misappropriation. And many agree that heeding the call for greater financial transparency could facilitate the restoration of trust and faith in our leaders. As it stands though, we have little choice but to blindly accept the continuing claim that absolutely no impropriety exists, lest we find ourselves ostracized from the church and family we love.
Brother Eduardo then mentions the blizzard we experienced two weeks ago. That we are shining examples of true members of the church, “using our entire being” in serving God, since we didn’t let it hinder us from attending service.
The snow did make the trip to church somewhat prohibitive that wintery weekend, yet I must applaud our city’s timely, highly coordinated, and well executed sanitation effort in making our main thoroughfares accessible and safe. Additionally, our early morning service was actually cancelled and rescheduled for later that afternoon, which also alleviated the difficulty in getting to service on time. Yet more importantly, in the northeast United States, we’re remarkably hardy and resilient when facing less than optimal weather conditions, and are usually well prepared. Shovels, snow blowers, all season tires, and a dash of grit, patience, and neighborly camaraderie all helped mitigate the aggravation that day.
Yes, the snow was a nuisance, but it was one we were prepared for, accustomed to dealing with, and was hardly anomalous for us. So, braving the blizzard to come to church was less of a sacrifice than what INCmedia and our beloved brother is now having us believe. The real sacrifice came when we finally shook the snow off our boots, sat, and listened to the sermon.
The real sacrifice is what we were again asked to think, feel, and do towards our brethren and family who have sought -silently or otherwise- for truth and transparency in our church. As hardy and resilient as we are, we would rather brave a blizzard many times stronger than this than to ostracize and abandon our loved ones and friends for merely speaking out against deceit and corruption.
Does “using our entire being” in serving God mean abandoning logic and reason? Does “using our entire being” mean closing the eyes of our rational mind, refusing to think critically, and deciding to just blindly flail away against anything that might challenge and possibly reconcile our beliefs?
Deuteronomy 10:12 is read.
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him…” and our brother and administrator simply states “We need to reverently fear our Lord God.”
I wondered if that “reverent fear” is what is being cultivated today. I remembered reading how one sister was expelled for bringing food to an expelled family, how another was expelled for simply clicking a ‘like’ button on Facebook, how yet another was expelled for just being photographed in the vicinity of an expelled member, and the list of “express lane expulsions” goes on and on.
What is reverent fear? Essentially, reverent fear involves and conveys positive respect, reverence, and wonder, including an understanding and appreciation of the justification of consequences for breaking divine law. It is not simply the dread one feels when facing an unjust consequence beyond rational understanding or appreciation.
I briefly look around the congregation, then look past the pews into the pulpit and then up toward the choir loft, wondering how many of us at this moment are being inspired by true reverent fear and how many of us are being driven by that fear that keeps most of our brethren silent.
I silently continued to listen.
Brother Eduardo continues to admonish us “to stay grounded, to be steady in the bond of trust, and to take care not to be distracted or diverted.”
At that moment, I couldn’t think of anything more distracting and diverting than the multitude of malicious memes, ad hominem attacks, and petty propaganda pieces that still proliferate across my social media feeds. I’ve already overheard one curious person ask simply, “How come your leader allows the church members to slander his own family?” Maybe bringing him to an INC video gaming and cosplay event would be enough to “distract and divert” him from his inquiry. (Yes, that was an actual activity.)
Just then, brother Eduardo posed a question to the congregation, a question aimed at those he had expelled from the church: “What do those separated from the church really want? What did they learn from the Messenger?” He then answered the question himself. “Nothing.”
If they learned anything, I would think that many unexpectedly expelled members, at the very moment of expulsion, at the very least learned how the administration definitively ends an argument: by taking your tag permanently off the board.
To our brother Eduardo’s first question: What do our expelled brothers and sisters want?
I would assume the same thing that they wanted before they were expelled, since expulsion does not effectively render one incapable of making a valid argument, as some ministers would have you believe, and it doesn’t inexplicably imbue one with two red horns and a matching red pitchfork. Many simply want a higher level of communication and transparency, especially when involving the church finances. Others want to stop the mistreatment of Brother Erano Manalo’s family and of those who are courageously speaking out against deceit and corruption. Others seek to actively reform what they refer to as the OWE (“One with EVM”) church and restore it to the INC Church of Christ that they knew and loved by purging any and all corruption from our current administration. The only difference between many of us in the sanctuary now listening to this video feed and those who were expelled is that they chose to voice their dissent publicly while we sit here with our mouths conveniently shut.
To our brother Eduardo’s second question: What did they learn from the Last Messenger?
I would think they learned the value of integrity; to stubbornly yet courageously hold firm to a revealed truth no matter the opposition faced or the belief’s popularity, and that the truth should never be obscured. I would think they learned the church itself is true and her doctrines incorruptible, but that it’s members and leaders are still fallible. I would think they learned love and respect for one’s own family is a divine commandment. I would think they learned the importance of humility and compassion- values I find are sorely lacking in our current administration.
Ka Eduardo continues, “Keep our conscience clear by doing what we feel is right according to God’s will. When our conscience is clear, we will be able to cling to the faith we received. True servants of God stand their ground and are not demoralized.”
I wholeheartedly agree yet feel somewhat dismayed, as many of our brethren had paid a steep price for openly following the dictates of their heart, conscience, and faith. Yet they continue to stand their ground, in the midst of ridicule and persecution by many of our own misguided membership.
Ka Eduardo stated that we are being “spiritually terrorized”, with our faith being disturbed as a result.
I immediately thought you can’t just throw labels like that around without some explanation.
First, let’s briefly explore what “spiritual terrorism” really is.
Generally speaking, spiritual terrorism involves emotionally abusive behavior, the kind of behavior designed to subjugate others through the use of fear tactics, guilt, intimidation, and manipulation. More specifically, it refers to abusive behavior occurring through the guise of religion as when a religious authority or administration dominates, controls, and manipulates the membership for personal gain and private ends.
Now, let’s explore where we might find it.
We would find spiritual terrorism most often occurring when the religious leadership or administration has absolute authority, when church discipline such as the excommunication of members is abused, when an inordinate focus is placed on a single uncontested leader, and when members leave the group under a cloud of manufactured shame and slander by the institution itself.
Fear tactics. Manipulation. The absolute authority and inordinate focus on a single leader. The manufactured shame and slander of former members. All hallmarks of true spiritual terrorism.
While Ka Eduardo continued on about how terrorists threaten to take the whole body when offered a hand (an odd metaphor), I simply recalled that true terrorists instill fear by threatening to take what’s most important to us, whether that be our personal liberty, our freedoms, or even our right to salvation. The fear of having that right taken away is what keeps many of us sitting here and hesitant to speak out. As we watched him on the screen, I was once again reminded of who purports to validly wield that power of expulsion. And who has exercised that power quite frequently as of late. And so we continue to sit, subservient and silent.
Ka Eduardo had the last verse of the sermon read from Isaiah 58:11.
“The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”
He appealed once again to many of our world-weary brethren: to the sick and the suffering, to the bearers of trials and tribulation, to the victims of persecution and strife- There is a promise to those of us who would offer our lives to the Lord God.
Yet we know that promise is conditional. And we know who claims to have that exclusive divine right to interpret and delineate the conditions of that promise. And once again, as always, we are left with that simple uncompromising condition: Obey.
The sermon ends, a prayer pleading for guidance upon our leader closes, and as the recessional hymn ushers us back out into reality, the large screens in the sanctuary once more flash to that ubiquitous slogan, rallying cry, and condition set for us all:
“One With EVM”