My last piece drew some objections from a friend for suggesting that a Christian nation should have a Christian government. The word Christian, he said, cannot possibly be used to describe “government” because it is not a human being. A word or two seems in order. He is absolutely right if by Christian government I meant a theocratic or clerical regime. But I didn’t. I was merely referring to a sound Christian moral order as the necessary foundation of a democratic government. If we are a Christian nation and a democracy at the same time, then we should be governed by men and women who adhere to the truths of Christ, rather than men and women who do not. That seems logical and fair enough.
I do not mean a rule by theocrats or clerics, but simply a rule by secular Christians faithful to the rule of law, sound ethical and moral principles, and human rights. There should be no confusion between politics and religion, even though both are in the service of the same human person. The state cannot be prejudiced for, or against, the establishment of any particular religion, but God’s supreme authority is, and ought to be, the first given. Above the sovereignty of the state is the sovereignty of God. This is abundantly clear in the Preamble of our Constitution.
Death as a political weapon
But this is precisely what is at risk now. The government’s most visible and persistent action these last six months has been the unhindered killing of suspected drug dealers, which now number more than 6,000. It is not grounded on any legal process, rule of law or moral or ethical principle. It is merely supported by the President’s extravagant rhetoric on the need to kill criminals who should be killed. Philippine National Police Command Memo Circular 16-2016 orders the “neutralization” of all illegal drug personalities, premised on the need to clean up the country of street crime.
The police have attributed to unknown and unidentified “vigilantes” the killings they themselves could not own, but the killings as a rule have erased the distinction between law enforcement and crime. And we have lost sight of the other issues that should concern a government confronted with a welter of challenges on various fronts. For President Rodrigo Duterte, drug-dealing was preeminently the crime that must be addressed; this was quickly replaced though with the summary killings of those suspected of committing the crime. State crime has thus become the principal weapon to solve street crime.
The question is fundamentally moral, before it is legal or constitutional. It confronts us not only as citizens but above all as human beings. And yet the government, which savages its critics with violent and offensive language, expects us to suppress any kind of moral outrage, suggesting that the issue is not about the rightness or wrongness of the killings, but about the popular standing of our “populist President.” None of the notorious polling firms ever ask how many citizens think the unhindered killings are right; all they bother to ask is whether or not the unknown respondents are still “satisfied” with the President.
How many brave Roman citizens would have found fault with Nero or Diocletian while the Emperor entertained crowds by feeding Christians to the lions, I wonder? I do not equate the martyrs of the Christian faith with DU30’s drug suspects, but there seems an obvious similarity in how the imperial authorities acted then and how the authoritarian authorities are acting now. Death has become a primary weapon of political power, there are no moral qualms.
For the better part of DU30’s first six months, none but the extremely reckless and apparently suicidal dared to speak, sotto voce, against the kilings. Even our moral and spiritual leaders were reduced to silence and prayer. After the foreign “interlopers” —-Barack Obama, the US State Department, US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Calamard, the leaders of the European Union—-have all been “fuck youed,” called “sons of bitches” and shown the middle finger for daring to raise their concern, no one below their ranks dared to say anything anymore, except in praise of the “still popular President.”
The churches react
But Christian consciences have been disturbed, and one by one, the Catholic dioceses and religious congregations have begun speaking out, denouncing the killings. They concede that illegal drugs ruin lives, but killing drug suspects without due process amounts to exterminating sinners in the fight against sin. It is a far greater evil. Perhaps even the least courageous of them have decided it is time for martyrdom.
What is the President’s or the government’s legitimate role? This is where the question of “Christian government” comes in. My own view of government—-especially of democratic government—-is one that should bring about the best in us to become not only law-abiding citizens, but above all virtuous human beings. The perfection of society is the constant labor of its citizens, even though they never fully achieve it. The government cannot be indifferent to this effort, otherwise there is very little sense in making it the center of political life of the humblest citizen.
Christianity is not an ideology in competition with any form of government. Democracy and Christian culture are not antithetical, both are suitably situated to work together for the same ends. The Christian worldview, based on the word of God and the objective moral law, allows man to reach out beyond the material and temporal into the spiritual and eternal realms. Democracy can draw strength from this worldview to understand not only the limits of power, but also the unlimited possibilities for man. It is not for the state and the statesman to construct a perfect social order, but with their help, society could attain the highest levels of perfection.
Reaching for the eternal
As the British philosopher Alfred Edward Taylor (1869-1945) puts it in his work on Plato, man is born a creature of temporality and mutability in a temporal and mutable environment. But in virtue of the fact that there is something divine in him, he cannot but aspire to a good which is above time and mutability; thus the right life is, from first to last, a process by which the merely secular and temporal self is re-made in the likeness of the eternal…A creature whose wellbeing consists in living for an ‘eternal’ good cannot be a mere thing of time and change, he writes.
In the Christian tradition, Taylor continues, this remaking is effected by the grace of God in Christ, i.e. by the power and pardon of God. It requires repentance on the part of the individual and a reorientation of his thoughts and actions from self to God. It requires the submission of his will to the will and purpose of God—-not to destroy it but rather to perfect it. The Church exists as the political institution through which the grace of God is mediated to man, through the sacraments and Scripture. The “remaking” of human nature is not a political task but a spiritual one, the responsibility not of the state but of the Church.
Governments can observe the constitutionally guaranteed principle of “separation” of Church and State by trying not to usurp the authority of the Church or obstruct or interfere in its work. The statesman has his work cut out for him. His genuine task is to inspire right action through principles of conduct which will promote the perfection of human nature and the environment that enhances those principles. He does not have to act as a petty dictator and impose anything against everybody’s will.
Not for despots
I would like to relearn the basics from Duke University Professor John H. Hallowell when he writes in “The Moral Foundation of Democracy,” that the state has its origin in the rational and social nature of man, and should never be used by the individuals who happen to control it for their own purposes. Its purpose is dictated not by the subjective desires of particular individuals but by the nature of man and the end for which he is destined. The state exists to promote justice among men, to help men to become better human beings, to unleash their creative capacities for good, and to restrain their propensity to do evil.
Plato believed that in the ideal state political power and love of the good would be combined in the same individuals, writes Hallowell. Thus, in the ideal state philosophers will be kings, and kings philosophers. But we have traveled far beyond Plato, and have produced strong leaders who have no need for ideas except their own, unexamined and undeveloped and delivered in crude sound bites, without need of study, analysis, apology or explanation. They demand obedience because compulsion has replaced consent in every sphere of human undertaking. We have lapsed into despotism.
The despotic man and the despotic state, according to Plato as Hallowell reminds his readers, are but the end-products of a progressive degeneration that begins when ambition usurps the rule of reason. Like a lunatic, the despot dreams that he can lord it over all mankind and heaven besides. And he has installed himself not only among us, but above us.
“No authority exists to which an appeal can be taken. The will of the tyrant is the final court of appeal, and that will is a purely arbitrary one. It is useless to appeal to the tyrant’s reason or sense of justice, for the tyrant denies that he must justify his actions in terms of reason or justice. It is enough that he has commanded the action—-the rightfulness of his command is not subject to debate, and it may not be questioned…If there is no justice transcending the state, then the state can declare anything it likes to be law; there is no limit set to its arbitrariness save its actual power to give force to its will.”
The Christian’s weapon
This is what we must try to prevent at all costs. As citizens, patriotism is our first weapon. This is the better version of nationalism, which has made the last century the bloodiest in all of our history; but even much better is our charity and self-giving as Christians. We have been bought at a great price, says St. Paul; in the service of the good, we must be prepared to offer all that we are, if we are so privileged, as martyrs. But first of all, we must know what the good is, and have the will to choose it at all costs as soon as we know it. Human life is the greatest good from which all other goods come; this we know by natural reason and by our very nature; as Christians we must be prepared to defend it, even as others are prepared to defend it without being Christians.
In the fight for human life, and all the good things that flow from it (marriage, the family, etc.) we must ever be prepared to obey God rather than men, to see the face of God in the least and most wretched of our brethren. We need a new intelligence and a new courage to reenter and reaffirm this truth once and for all. “The real problem at this moment of our history,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has said, “is that God is disappearing from the human horizon.” This is not God’s fault. Man, as a creature of God, has decided to remove himself from God’s presence in order to banish God from the human horizon.
We cannot want this said of us Filipinos as we prepare to mark the first 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines.