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Volume 14, Number 6
March 23 - April 5, 2008


front page

Easter in San Carlos
Easter in San Carlos. Photo by Eric Jackson

Holy days, even if Panama
isn't such a devout society

The photo above is of one of the images of the Virgin Mary that Catholics parade through the streets of San Carlos on Easter Sunday. Earlier that day I was at a multi-denominational, mostly Protestant Easter sunrise service on the grounds of the Afro-Antillean Museum in Panama City, and earlier in the week I was at a memorial service for my late brother-in-law at the Balboa Union Church. (And also during the week I took a glimpse at a far-right website that purports to serve the "expat community" where it tried to call me an atheist, but couldn't spell the word right. Nice try, Clyde.)

During the 19th century Colombia was wracked by wars that were partly religious in nature. In the struggle for independence from Spain, the Catholic Church got a percentage of the wealth that the crown could squeeze out of Latin America and was thus a bulwark of opposition to independence. Simon Bolivar and most of other major independence leaders were freemasons, and although there are a fair number of Catholic Masons here, ever since they burned Jacques De Molay at the stake the Vatican has taken the position that freemasonry is heresy. (Which is one reason why my brother-in-law, nominally Catholic but a prominent Mason, was memorialized in the Union Church.) Later, as Colombians went to war between Conservatives who wanted to make Catholicism the official religion of the nation and Liberals who were opposed to having a state-sponsored religion, Panama was except for a few pockets a bastion of liberalism.

This is a Catholic country, with more than 80 percent of the population adhering to that denomination of the Christian faith, but we have had two Jewish presidents and also some nominally Catholic freemasons in the presidential palace. How can that be?

You see, religion is relevant in Panama. Morality matters. Public displays of piety by politicians, however, are seen as boorish posturing and attempts to play upon religious divisions for political gain are against a number of our laws. Under the new immigration decree, foreigners can be thrown out of the country for inciting religious hatred. On the other hand, they teach catechism in the public schools and display religious symbols in the parks and on other public properties.

Panama once had the Holy Inquisition and we have more or less come to an understanding that allows us to be both a Catholic country and an open society where there is freedom of religion. There isn't exactly an impervious wall between church and state that's the ideal of many in the United States and more or less favored by US law, but neither do we have major party candidates taking theocratic stands or railing against evolution like there have been up there.

But still, religion is relevant and morality matters.

This is certainly the case with respect to human rights issues. The US State Department has published this remarkable piece of fiction that condones and denies last year's several murders by Panamanian cops even if our prosecutors don't, but meanwhile a coalition of civic and human rights groups issued its own "shadow report" and first among equals in that alliance is the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission.

I went to Sunday School at the Margarita Union Church and a lot of the teaching took and some didn't. I believe in God and the prophets and Jesus and the Judgment Day, but I'm not a member of any congregation and my views are somewhere in the middle of a triangle whose points are fundamentalist Unitarian, backslid Muslim and Gandhi's heterodoxy about Ahimsa. I didn't feel uncomfortable in the Balboa Union Church, it wouldn't bother me if Panama had another Jewish president, and even if all the lies that the Karl Rove wannabes are speading about Barack Obama being a Muslim rather than a Protestant were true, that wouldn't bother me either. The only thing is, I want a man or a woman whose ethics are sincere and not for show, and I don't want any leaders who confuse themselves with God.

*     *     *

What's one of the worst things in politics? From the politician's point of view, far worse than being martyred for the cause is having one's message made fun of. It must be rough for Hillary Clinton, with all the jokes that are being made of her attacks on Obama. The latest Obama Girl video is kind of tame, from my perspective. It's slightly shrill, and that detracts from its effectiveness in much the same ways as the Clinton supporters' earlier response to the first Obama Girl videos that alleged that "Obama Girl has no street cred" missed the point. I much prefer this ethnic slur directed against Obama. 'What?' the clueless among you might ask. 'Doesn't this put Obama down?' Actually....

Now that Bill Richardson, the candidate whom I originally endorsed for the Democratic presidential nomination (and didn't do well, as is the norm with my favorites), has endorsed Obama, it's fun to listen to some of the angry responses from the Clinton camp. OK, maybe I have a sick sense of humor, but it's hard to get mad about the silly allegations of betrayal by the Ragin' Cajun et al. Plus it doesn't help to get mad, because the party has to come together for the big showdown in November.

*     *     *

If they're The Untouchables, who gets to be Frank Nitti?

Me? I won't give Harley Mitchell the benefit of the doubt, but I am not ready just yet to dismiss his stated ambition to clean up the Panamanian justice system. 

*     *     *

This issue's main economic stories are on the labor and community rather than the business management front. Latin America's main moderate to conservative labor federations are in town for a merger as these words are written. People who stand to be displaced from their rural homes are camped out near the Palacio de las Garzas. The left and the more militant labor unions seem to be slowly gathering strength in their protests against low wages and high prices.

*     *     *

At Sunday school they never taught me that the world was coming to an end anytime soon --- and I haven't picked up that belief since then. I realize that some folks would take that, and the Union Church's lack of an elaborate interpretation of the Book of Revelation that identifies the Antichrist by name, and the fact that we never handled snakes in Sunday school --- as proofs positive that I'm this amoral heathen monster who ought to be burned at the stake. Isn't that sort of thinking one of the things that this year's American elections are about?

But on Easter Sunday, not long after the crack of dawn, I received proof that civilization had not ended, and will not end anytime soon. You don't have Easter hat contests in barbaric situations.

Enjoy.


PS: The last issue had a big interruption and a broken link that kept a lot of people away from the culture section. Things are slowly improving in this makeover, and the next big corner to turn will be when we get a new platform that allows constant updating and gets us away from the two issue per month paradigm, which has not strictly applied for a long time now. Understand that there have been mergers of sections, so that, for example, the editorial and letters are in the opinion section along with the usual collection of columns.



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© 2008 by Eric Jackson
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