I write this column while preparing for a presentation I am giving in the San Carlos Seminary this week. The original title of the talk, something I deliver almost weekly to audiences all over the Philippines, was “Responding to Duterte’s Philippines: Issues, Options, and Scenarios.”
But on Sunday Fr. Richmond Nilo of the Diocese of Cabanatuan, an alumnus of this Makati seminary that has educated many of our bishops and priests, was shot and killed while about to celebrate the Eucharist in Zaragoza, Nueva Ecija. Surely, I can’t come before my audience with a policy-wonkish lecture, pretending that everything is well in the country.
The new title of my national situation briefing is: “Is Duterte’s Philippines heaven or hell?”
Depending on the audience, I cover a range of topics and highlight different matters in these presentations—from the economy to foreign policy to human rights, etc. Lately, I have been talking more about constitutional change and federalism.
Since I have been doing these national situation briefings, I have labored to be objective and independent, non-partisan for sure, even as I have not compromised my views on basic principles like human rights, social justice, and democracy. But I have always tried to be fair, making mime and putting on the shoes of the protagonists in our country (Duterte, his supporters, the opposition) as it were, and using their words so they can speak for themselves.
Repeating the words of the President and showing his actions, and repeating the words of his spokesperson and his supporters (collectively described here as the Diehard Duterte Supporters or DDS), are the best way to understand this President and those who support him. For some, and that includes me, they are painful to listen to, and difficult to watch.
But Digong Duterte is our President and his supporters, who do not find his words and actions objectionable at all but revel in what they consider as his humor and trolling of his critics, are our countrymen. In my case those supporters are my relatives, townmates, fellow Mindanawons, classmates, and friends, not to mention Facebook and Twitter followers. I will certainly not break with them over politics.
But the truth must be told. An acute state of impunity is upon us, wrecking havoc in our communities and the killers in our midst has gone berserk, to paraphrase Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate.
I knew Fr. Richmond personally. He was our partner when he was president of the College of Immaculate Concepcion of Cabanatuan City and I was dean of the Ateneo School of Government. We implemented together a Master in Public Management program and collaborated on Gawad Kalinga projects in Nueva Ecija. He was a good priest, a great Filipino, and a wonderful human being. The Church, the faithful, the people of Nueva Ecija, and the country lost a good man in Fr. Nilo as we did with Fr. Mark Ventura and Fr. Marcelito Paez a few months ago.
Unfortunately, Fr. Nilo will not be the last priest that will be murdered. It’s killing season against priests as it is with lawyers and the poor, as it has been for many years now with journalists and activists. As always, it starts first with words and curses, threats from the powerful but quickly it escalates to shootings and massacres as some of those who hear the words understand them as orders to be heeded.
With still another priest killed while about to celebrate the Eucharist, a killing season of God’s servants is on. It is not a coincidence that the killing season of priests is happening in the Year of the Clergy and Consecrated Persons. One can only be consoled that the history of the Christian faith has only been enriched by its martyrs.
In my usual national situation briefing, I am objective enough to look at the pros and cons of the Duterte government’s actions and decisions. While strongly opposing, among others, the massacre of the poor in the war against drugs, the persecution of Senators De Lima and Chief Justice Sereno which has undermined the rule of law in our country, the misogyny of the President, and the failure to defend our national territory from Chinese intrusions, I am on the other hand generally supportive of TRAIN, Build Build Build, the Boracay clean up, the enactment of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the peace negotiation with the communists, and the work of the Constitutional Law Committee.
And so are we in heaven, the best years ever for this country, as the DDS would like to portray? Or are we in hell now, bound to suffer for four more years?
We are in neither. We are, like it or not, on earth. And believe it or not, things could get worse, much worse. Many more priests, lawyers, journalist, activists, poor people, etc could get killed. We could descend in chaos very quickly. We could be fighting each other in the streets, leaving our social media enclaves, abandoning words and curses, and using guns and knives this time to settle scores. It has only been because of the grace of God that Edsa 1, 2 and 3 did not explode into extended violence.
Or we could take a deep breath, understand what we are faced with, discern our options, and act decisively.
What we are faced with is political and legal anomie, where the old rules no longer apply and there are no new rules. Only power seem to matter in a time like this. Law is useless because it will be bent, twisted by those who hold power. But this is a temporary state. But how fast we can get out of here will depend on how we respond individually, as families, and as communities of faith, values, work, and practice.
It will depend on those good people in government, and no doubt there are many of them that I continue to work with, whether they can use their power always for the good, never abusing it for their benefit and to oppress others.
It will depend on the private sector, whether they will acquiesce, permanently wave a flag of surrender, afraid that they might be targeted next. They would also have to reach out to their workers, in solidarity in this time of economic challenges.
It will depend on the youth and all citizens actually, whether they are willing to take risks and carry on the strong tradition of protests we are known for. A sine qua non for that is unity among all groups based on shared commitments to human rights, democracy, and social justice. Personally, as one of its convenors, I am joining the Manananggol Laban sa Extra Judicial Killing (Manlaban) delegations in mobilizations. We will be there in full force this afternoon in the HINDIpendence Day in Liwasang Bonifacio.
It depends on the opposition and our other politicians. Can they rise up to the occasion and give us an alternative to Duterte’s Philippines?
It depends on the Catholic Church and other religious communities in the country. Can they give us the moral leadership by speaking truth to power and providing sanctuary, support, and guidance to those who would take the lead in leading us out of an earth that is more hell to one that is more heaven? Surely, our bishops can influence the manner we conduct our national discourse and enable us to have a better dialogue with each other.
Once again, let’s remember as we celebrate Independence Day, it depends on each of us what kind of country we want to live in.
In her book Stitches, Anne Lamott, quoting a Pastor Veronica, tells the story “of a sparrow lying in the street with its legs straight up in the air, straining. a warhorse walks up to it, and says, “What on earth are you doing?” The sparrow replies, “I heard the sky was falling, and I wanted to help.” The warhorse sneers—”Do you really think you’re going to hold back the sky, with those scrawny little legs?” And the sparrow says, “One does what one can.””
Let’s all do this, through action and prayer—to make our country a better place, for there to be more kindness, for justice and peace to reign. We should know that it will not be because of our efforts mainly that will get us there. Still, one does what one can.
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