Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Honesty in Scriptures

IT is like a wild boar let loose on the streets of national consciousness. The raging pork barrel controversy involving, as of now, several lawmakers (three senators, a number of congressmen) and their aides, a businesswoman, private citizens and other government officials continues to rile, bewilder, shock and distress many. Public interest rises especially as more evidence is presented on the extent and amount of public money adjudged to have been stolen. The drama surrounding the issuance of arrest warrants, actual and imminent surrenders of the accused, and the media coverage of the story’s every detail only heighten it. All this should not distract us from the core issue. The travesty of honesty in government seems, at times, beyond belief. In addition, from all indications, we have yet to see the matter beyond the tip of the iceberg. Now since the Philippines claims to be a Christian country (if the majority of its citizens were to be the criterion of judgment), people who regard the Bible as their guiding light in life, aside from Apostolic Tradition and magisterial teaching (for Catholics), need to bear in mind what the Scriptures say on honesty apart from the simple ordinary common sense it is associated with.
So we ask: What does the Scriptures say about honesty?
The PMA honor code motto is a good place to start in our consideration of honesty in the Scriptures: “I will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate others who do so” [my wording]. Even Webster’s New World College Dictionary affirms this as a working definition of honesty.
            It is by no means easy to say that Scriptures have a specific and clear-cut definition of honesty. On the other hand, there are several verses and passages from both the OT and the NT that, on various contexts and circumstances, address aspects of our working definition and even go beyond it.
General Meaning Covering the Model Christian Conduct. St. Paul, for example, gives us a comprehensive exhortation that covers honesty as we understand it but also includes aspects of the model Christian life linked to honesty: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Eph 4:8-9).
Focus on the Mouth: Truthful Words. The Scriptures put premium in the quality of words from a person’s mouth as a vehicle of truth not falsehood. Put negatively, dishonesty in words is frowned upon and is opposed to faithfulness which is lauded. “Lying lips,” the book of Proverbs states, “are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight” (Prov 12:22). This point is also reaffirmed elsewhere in the same book: “Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool” (Prov 19:1). Also among the seven things abominable to the Lord is “a lying tongue” aside from “haughty eyes,…hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers” (Prov 6:16-20).
From a Christian perspective St. Paul characterizes lying as incompatible with the new life in Christ a Christian puts on: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices” (Col 3:9). This is one occasion, among others, on which St. Peter agrees: “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit” (1 Pt 3:10-11). The most emphatic declaration comes from the Lord himself and his words cement the focus on honesty in words that should characterize his disciple: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ when you mean yes or ‘No’ when you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Mt 5:37). It is because of this that St. James, another pillar of the Christian life, sees a lying tongue as a denial of the true religion or faith in Jesus Christ: “If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, that person’s religion is worthless” (Jas 1:26).
Focus on the Deed: Righteous Behavior. The letter to the Hebrews recognizes that honesty in one’s acts does not simply require a person’s will but also the help of God’s grace. Consequently its writer makes an urgent request: “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things” (Heb 13:18). This prompts me to ask: How much do we pray for honesty in ourselves and in our leaders? In Luke Jesus uses as criterion for honesty in one’s behavior the good one wishes for himself from others: “And as you wish that others do to you, do so to them” (Lk 6:31). In Matthew he sees this as the full expression of the teachings of Moses and the prophets: “So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 7:12). St. Paul expands on the Lord’s teaching to include not repaying evil for evil and steering clear of a vengeful spirit: “Repay no evil for evil, but give thought to what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:17-21).
This is certainly an interesting point because obviously those of us who are victims of dishonesty in government many times desire to get even. In fact, there are vigilantes who actually punish and even kill dishonest criminals. That response, though admittedly human, suffers from the same evil nature of any dishonest act that we abhor. In a word, the Christian faith does not tolerate evil both as an end and as a means. Let’s take, for instance, those who work or engage in business to earn a living. Earning a living is a good objective in life but it should not admit of evil ways or means. So says the book of Proverbs (again): “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord; but a just weight is his delight” (Prov 11:1). The book of Leviticus states it positively: “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity” (Lev 19:35).

What is the point of our long discourse? As far as Philippine (and world) society is concerned, honesty is vital as it is an aide to justice. Justice, according to Pope Benedict VI in Deus Caritas Est, is what runs society’s political life. In the words of St. Augustine in The City of God, “there is no right where there is no justice”.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The unacknowledged malaise: the sin of accumulating excessive wealth

REMEMBER the ‘new seven deadly sins’? In 2008 the relatively unknown Vatican body in charge of matters relating to Penance and Indulgences, the Apostolic Penitentiary, through its then head, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, issued a document that made the world sit up and take notice of what it called “new expressions of sin” accompanying the phenomenon of globalization. Little have Filipinos known, even up until now, that the roots of the pork barrel scam had already been exposed by a simple declaration. But were we paying any attention? Of course, we could always dispute who determines ‘excessive wealth’ or how excessive is excessive. In fact, a capitalist reacted sharply to the Vatican statement saying, “There’s no such thing as excessive wealth, only badly used wealth.” Yet even a cursory look at the massive poverty in the Philippines, hardly dented by the economy’s recent much-touted phenomenal growths, and in whose hands the lion’s share of the pie is, excessive would not be too hard to see or determine. The country’s elite, many of whom seem heroically scrambling to find the magic wand that will make the country’s poverty go away, are themselves compounding the problem.
            And they do so by giving in to the greed that fuels the seventh new deadly sin. Ms. Napoles, the legislators and other public officials as well as private citizens involved in the pork scam, no matter how singularly dreadful, may only be part of the bigger picture. One asks, as I have many times asked: How many Ms. Napoles are out there and how much don’t we really know about our legislators’ or public officials’ actual involvement in this and other still-unheard-of scams? It is a gross mistake to judge one’s integrity or corruption from the presence or absence of one’s name in one Napolist or another. This the incumbent Eastern Samar Congressman and many others like him must learn, lest future exposes or discoveries may make their bubbles burst.
            At this point, it may be useful to review, in anticipation of the reader’s question, the new seven deadly sins. In the order the document presents them, these are the following: (1) drug abuse; (2) morally debatable experimentations; (3) environmental pollution; (4) causing poverty; (5) social injustice and inequality; (6) genetic manipulation; and (7) accumulating excessive wealth.
            To my mind these sins are deadly because each constitutes a threat to human life in its entirety: physical/material/economic but also spiritual, moral, psychological, political and socio-cultural. Neither does it seem too difficult to see why the seventh deadly sin or the sin of accumulating excessive wealth is deadly, especially in regard to the beloved country we call our own. Mainly it is because sin number seven (7) is the single biggest factor behind sin number four (4), the sin of causing poverty which exacerbates sin number five (5), social injustice and inequality. When only a few human beings possess so much wealth, it naturally impoverishes the many to whom some of it justly belongs. Besides, greed which fuels sin number seven is really one of the original capital or deadly sins, hardly assuaged even by a willingness to share the crumbs with the teeming poor masses in a trickle-down economy. Anything less than social justice will not undo the poverty of our masses.
            On the other hand, for committed Catholics and human beings in general, what pains most is that excessive wealth in a few violates the principle of the universal destination of goods. It should be most painful for Filipino Catholics who take their faith seriously because excessive wealth is a slap-in-face to the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that the earth’s goods are meant for all because they were created to benefit all human beings and the whole human being (material and spiritual). That some local churches, dioceses or parishes, have so much wealth while many languish in constant penury is very much of a piece with this deadly sin. Both clergy and laity must work together to not only acknowledge this crying shame but to do penance by setting the example of founding charity on real justice both in the Church and in Philippine society.
            In his first letter to Timothy, Paul denounced false teachers, pointing to the love of money as one of their distinguishing marks: something we, both clergy and laity, must take to heart for, like it or not, we are all teachers of the faith in word or in deed.
            Says the Apostle to the Gentiles: “In reality, religion is a treasure if we are content with what we have. We brought nothing into the world and we will leave it with nothing…Those who strive to be rich fall into temptations and traps. A lot of foolish and harmful ambitions plunge them into ruin and destruction. Indeed, the love of money is the root of all evil. Because of this greed, some have wandered away from the faith, bringing on themselves afflictions of every kind” (1 Tim 6:6-10).
            In not a few instances I have heard people denouncing money or wealth as the root of all evil. That is neither what St. Paul nor this article has been saying. It is not wealth or money that is evil but the love of it, something that can drive us to accumulating excessive wealth.

            The Christian antidote? Accumulate love and care for the poor, strongly enough to find effective ways to true social justice and equality in the Philippines and in the world. When we shall have reached our goal, there should be no problem with anything excessive.