Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Our Pre-Advent Experience

They jolt you. They shake you up. They send you off your seat and bring you rudely back. At some places they delude you into thinking you're a baby again and it's just your mother's arms rocking you once more, gently, rhythmically to the tune of her lullaby, and you start to believe the illusion, leading you to succumb to sleep. Until the jolt becomes a shock. You have just hit a major snag.

I'm talking about the bad roads (which the Inquirer called "roads from hell" [PDI, 11/21/2008], a rather strong phrase but to which we can't object) we in Eastern Samar suffer from these days. But I could also be speaking of our Philippine socio-economic-political realities. Doubtless, nearly all of them jolt and shock the living daylights out of our consciousness. That is, unless we have given up on our situation and now take everything as mere indications of the damaged culture we have caused on ourselves. Nonetheless we can never give in to despair. No Christian worth the name does. With faith comes hope and hope must lead to love. Or we are not who we say we are.

It's Christ the King Sunday as I write these words in my room. We had just concluded the four-o-clock Mass with a solemn procession, attended, to my happy surprise, by a good number of young people, followed by a benediction to which they also obliged. But my mind already races to next Sunday, the first of Advent. The booming voice of Advent's crucial-and-at-once-tragic figure, John the Baptist, rings in my ears as he echoes Isaiah: "I hear a voice crying out in the wildernes, 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. The valleys will be filled, the mountains and hills made low. Every crooked thing will be made straight and rough roads will be made smooth. And every mortal will see the salvation of God" (Lk 3:4-6).

Rough roads. Ah, how they make travelling from point A to point B so unfriendly and so harrowing, you wonder if you'd ever do it again. And, oh, in my home province especially, how they multiply (I strongly suggest the government subject them to zero population growth control, and only rightly so, at least at no further expense from the taxpayers for contraceptives). On my trip homeward from our annual retreat in Tagaytay City recently, for which I had to travel from Manila to Tacloban City and from there to my hometown, Borongan, I was so amazed at how fast the rough roads worsened and multiplied. I had to go through what the open letter to the president from our local bishop and the clergy describes as "an agonizing experience" negotiating our roads "characterized by crowding craters and potholes, of an increasing number and sizes." Imagine taking a ride over an uninterrupted series of humps from Glorietta to Mega Mall. And you are just close to having an idea of Eastern Samar's road conditions in their pre-Advent phase (close because humps tend to be of the same size, unlike our craters). I say pre-Advent phase, given that Advent is the time when rough roads are being made smooth in preparation for the Messiah's coming. This is exactly what isn't happening now in our province and all indications do not point to it happening in the near future (letters from our local authorities simply counsel patience, as they are preparing to defer action and wait it out until the seasonal rains stop). (And I could hear our Latin 4 teacher repeating the words of rhetorical lament, "Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? (Until when will you abuse our patience, Catilina?")

Rough roads inspire rough humor. From Bgy Buenavista to my hometown, I noticed people responding to the jolts and bumps with protest humor, if cynically. For instance, in the thick of the bumpy ride, a fellow traveller said, 'Ramdam na ramdam ang kaunlaran (Progress is being felt)" in reference to the administration's nationwide slogan. Another passenger even suggested, "We should ask the Supreme Court to declare Eastern Samar's roads unconstitutional." "Why unconstitutional?" someone asked. "Because," came the answer, "these roads are abortifacient. And isn't abortion banned by the Philippine constitution?" We laughed. The upside of Pinoy humor is that it allows us to express otherwise repressed anger and frustrations. The downside is that it didn't make the jolts and bumps go away. We should make our humor work in our favor. It's good we can laugh at our problems; it's even better if we do what we can to solve them. This is a lesson the local Church has learned the hard way.

But look at the big picture, we must. There are lots and lots of rough and bumpy roads in our society's realities. Take our own country, la patria adorada. On our way to being a first-century Philippines, we keep stumbling onto the rough roads of corruption, the ever widening gulf of social inequality and injustice among Filipinos coupled with our massive poverty, and the ever ineffectual governance we experience, bedevilled as it is by patronage politics. The constant threat of Cha-cha endlessly keep us from confidently arriving peacefully at our democratically destined transition to new leadership. With the string of scandals, from the never-say-die allegations of a stolen presidency to ZTE to the fertilizer scam via one Joc Joc Bolante, the roads to a 'strong Republic', even just to a 'respectable' one, are extremely bumpy, not unlike those of Eastern Samar. Perhaps ours are, as it were, a parable of the national malaise.

And my suggestion for Advent and beyond? Let's make John the Baptist our national secondary patron saint. Or, even better, let's be John the Baptist for our local Church, for our country now. But why, you ask. So the Messiah might more easily reach our shores and make us "see the salvation of our God".

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Losing Gracefully

A FEW days ago, like millions of people all over the world, I watched the US presidential elections come to an end. I was simply awestruck by the victory of an African-American, Senator Barack Obama, over a white American, Senator John McCain. But, frankly, it wasn't the historic character of the triumph of a person of color (I'm completely perplexed why Americans simply refer to President-elect Obama as a black man when he isn't completely one, as his mother was a white American from Kansas) to the highest office of the acknowledged dominant superpower of the world. What struck me most were three realities of the American electoral exercise: the vast territories that it covers; the peaceful transition and the credibility of the results. The fourth thing that struck me most was the inevitable question: Why doesn't our diminutive country have the same democratic experience? It matters little that we are a small country but it certainly matters like no other that our electoral exercise wherever and whenever they are held be peaceful and credible as well. Is the Philippines capable of all that?

Americans, as McCain exemplified, often call their country "the greatest nation on earth" and there's no use arguing about that, especially when, as Barack Obama solemnly declared in his victory speech, we see another proof from their latest political act that that "government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from the earth". In contrast, some conscientious lawyers that I know often see ours as a "democrazy" that has "a government off the people, buy the people and poor the people". It is a peculiar political creature regularly featuring politicians who do everything to gain votes and equally fight tooth and nail against ever admitting or conceding defeat. And, to our chronic embarassment, it is a reality in not only one dark spot of the archipelago. Nay, it is as ubiquitous as wherever Filipinos run for public office. The cynic's joke is not even funny: "No Filipino candidate loses an election. He only gets cheated."

That explains why I was simply bowled over listening to Republican John McCain's
concession speech. In previous days he was a driven man pushing hard to prove that he was better than his opponent to be president of the United States and it seemed to me that he was prepared to move heaven and earth to block Senator Obama's election to the presidency. But I saw none of that "angry" and "grumpy old man" the press made him out to be. I saw a humbled but a self-possessed man. This was all the more remarkable because between the two candidates, he had the most to lose. His age alone shuts him out from a possible future presidential comeback. His many attempts to distance himself from President George Bush may have also cost him precious political and social connections. In short, just as Barack Obama's election is historic, McCain's political ambition is now history.

But I didn't see nor heard a bitter John McCain. Rather I heard a calm and composed
man accepting the American people's verdict with sadness, yes, but also with high praises hopes for his opponent's triumph and for the democratic tradition.

Every Filipino, I think, should be green with envy over foreign politicians capable of such graciousness in defeat. It is not that we don't have the genes. I remember distinctly how
the late Senator Raul Roco very graciously conceded the election to then candidate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004 but, realizing the serious credibility problems of her victory, later poured cold water on the whole thing. Of course, it could be argued, and with justification, that that election didn't reflect the true results. The specter of a Joc-joc Bolante haunting the incumbent president for whom he allegedly masterminded an illegal transfer of agricultural funds to her election coffers is too loud and too obvious to ignore.

If I were to identify two stumbling blocks to a Filipino losing gracefully, one would be the amount we spend (and I'm not simply talking of legal campaign expenses) and another would be our value of "hiya" carried to excess. That is, we don't want the social stigma of election defeat, so we blame election cheating. It seems to me a strange irony that election cheating has always plagued us and, thus, had provided a convenient fodder to sore election losers. The poverty of the masses is always the favorite escape goat for all the sins that lead to what we now see as our "inauthentic" and "immature democracy". Those who use that escape goat may have a point. But it does not explain all or even most of what is wrong in our psyche or character that shows its ugly heads in our society's anomalies. Either we submit to an inner and structural overhaul such that it can be tested externally in our actual political conduct. Or we will keep on seeing and being sore losers.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Social Dimension of Sin

ALL over the front pages are two rather related stories: the possible filing of charges against the so-called ‘Moscow generals’ for the allegedly illegal possession of millions of taxpayers’ money as well as against Mr. ‘Jocjoc’ Bolante and his co-conspirators for the alleged misuse of public money meant for farmers’ fertilizers. “What a team effort by these people,” I said to myself. Then I remembered. I was showing a group of high school students some areas of the seminary where I was assigned as a new priest. At one point one of them, a female sophomore, saw the television room and the refectory of the Fathers. She exclaimed, “Wow, sosyal!”

It was the first time I heard that word which even then I understood to be a part of teen lingo. I knew, by reading her approving look, that ‘sosyal’ meant something people (“Don’t they constitute society?” I could only imagine her saying) like or find appealing, a bit like “cool”, such as a ‘sosyal’ television room or a ‘sosyal’ dining room. ‘Sosyal’ reminds us of how important it can be for us Pinoys (or for human beings anywhere for that matter) to have the approval or support of others on anything we do or say, have or are. The downside is that it does not by itself guarantee God’s approval, which is all that matters for a Christian.

Still, the social dimension of sin does not merely mean a team of co-conspirators applauding a person’s every wrongdoing or egging him on (could you imagine the beneficiaries of an act of malversation saying to Mr. B, ‘Wow, what a ‘sosyal’ act you did!”) Nor does it just mean that the wrong that I do affects others in the society or Church community where I live. This one is the most obvious sense. People know, for example, that if, as a priest, I get drunk and challenge anyone to a fistfight, that certainly would scandalize the community and, hence, illustrate the social dimension of my unethical behavior.

But the social dimension of sin is not exhausted in that sense. It also means that a whole body or group of people can, by their attitudes and concrete acts, offend God and alienate themselves from him and from other members of the community or society at large. One example from Genesis 11:1-9 is in point. The whole body of human beings during scripturally ancient times is sent by God to spread themselves across the earth. Instead, they choose to settle in a city and build a tower, later known to be the Tower of Babel. Their sin lies not in deciding to settle in a city (that would make living in Metro Manila a sin, which is unthinkable) or even in deciding to build a tower. It lies in their disobedience and the pride that push them to seek glory for themselves apart from God. They refuse to accept and take their rightful place as creatures under God. Here we see sin in its roots: selfishness that leads to disobedience; pride that leads to self-glorification.

On the other hand, Jesus in the gospel of Matthew 12:38-42 presupposes the social dimension of sin. It is not an individual he denounces but “a generation” who, as in the Tower of Babel, refuses to listen to him who is greater than either Jonah or Solomon to whom their own “generations” listened. The point is that when we, as a community or even as a whole society, alienate ourselves from the Word of God by refusing to listen and by choosing to be led by selfishness and pride, we end up with negative attitudes and destructive courses of action.
The Catechism for Filipino Catholics speaks of “negative moral attitudes and acts or failure to act that are common to a community or particular society”, resulting in “unjust structures”, such as “racial or sexist prejudicial structures, unjust economic taxation systems, established military and political customs and unfair immigration legalities” (CFC 1804). The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines speaks further of “structures of sin” or “social sins” which “consist of situations, collective behavior or structures that cause or perpetuate social injustices. Such structures are created by the accumulation of many sinful attitudes, ‘two of which are very typical: on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit, and on the other, the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one’s will upon others’” (PCP II 270).

Think of groups of people in public or private capacities conspiring to put or perpetuate someone in power by all means, including illegal and immoral acts. The same thing with groups and corporations doing everything to sell a low-quality or contaminated product or denying the truth collectively in public. Or consider whole offices, entire companies or associations of wealthy and powerful people buying favors from public authorities through bribery or worse to avoid fulfilling legal requirements. Or how about the most typical election scenario—a whole community of voters selling their votes. Think further of cabals of politicians buying them to get to power and, in consequence, shortchange voters and understandably so (“Haven’t we already bought them?” their body language so speaks) by irresponsible legislation (such as the Reproductive Health Bill) or negligence (such as bad roads, low agricultural productivity) etc.

The social dimension of sin must be met by our clarion calls and acts toward social and communal repentance as well as communal reparations. We the Church must show the way by the power of our example and not by the example of our power.