IN denouncing the extra-judicial killings in President Rodrigo Duterte’s seven- month-old anti-narcotics war, the bishops did well, in my view, to call attention to what was clearly wrong in his otherwise laudable campaign, without at all condemning his person. The mission of the Church is to save, not to condemn, and that’s what the bishops, in their February 5, 2017 pastoral letter, tried to do–to save DU30 from his own hubris and his avowedly good intentions.
Unfortunately, he failed to appreciate the episcopal favor. In a kneejerk reaction, he said, “Come to hell with me, if you want to end drugs” — whatever that means. A few days earlier, he had declared in Davao, “Do not believe that you will go to hell. There is no such thing as heaven and hell. You know, it would take a very stupid God if he creates me as a human being and at the end of my earthly life he would just send me to hell.”
A question of hell
This is nothing which the right dose of correct teaching cannot cure. But if DU30 has read Inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy, he would have remembered the author, guided by the Roman poet Virgil, journeying through Hell. Hell is depicted here as nine concentric circles of suffering within the earth for “those who have rejected the spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellowmen.” Dante’s literary masterpiece did not invent hell; hell inspired Dante’s immortal oeuvre.
As for God being stupid for “sending” to hell an unrepentant sinner after creating him, this proposition mocks Catholic theological teaching. God doesn’t send anyone to hell at all. The damned go there on their own. As St. Augustine puts it, “God who created you without you cannot save you without you.” God created man out of Love, without any need for Him to do so, but He gave him a “free will,” so that he would be free to choose between God and creatures. Those who choose God will likely end with God, those who choose creatures will likely end elsewhere.
Now, angered by the bishops’ pastoral letter, DU30 suddenly rediscovered the place of damnation and suffering as a place where he could take the entire Philippine episcopacy with him, and he asked them to join him there. But not even Philippine National Police Chief Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa could adequately echo his master. I could not quite make out what he was trying to say; he reminded me of the young British MP who asked Disraeli whether he should now be heard by his peers in the Commons, to which Disraeli replied, “No, better that they should wonder why you are not speaking than they should wonder why you are speaking at all.” Bato did not have a Disraeli to restrain him, so he spoke without being intelligible.
Killings condemned, but not DU30
Having long waited for the bishops to speak out, I was quite delighted that they finally spoke. And even more delighted that when they did, it was not to damn DU30 but rather to invite him to correct his mistakes and make things much better. They did not ask DU30 to abandon his anti-drug campaign, they only asked him to give up the summary killings. This should allow the police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, which has primary jurisdiction over the problem, to focus on the large drug producers, manufacturers, financiers, distributors who have kept the traffic going from China, Latin America and Africa, and turned the Philippines into a huge transshipment point and repackaging center.
From the very beginning, I have written against the killings, and the other things associated with the culture of death, which a couple of misguided technoquacks are trying to pack into DU30’s “reform program.” But I have never lost hope that DU30, for all his faults, is worth saving and could still be saved. He alone could prove this wrong.
A potential Saul of Tarsus?
As I listen to DU30 insult God, the Church, the bishops and priests, which leads others to regard him as the devil’s kin, I could not help but hope that he might yet end up as another Saul (of Tarsus), who persecuted Jesus, until a great light struck him on his way to Damascus, and he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”
Paul himself narrates what happened. “And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’…And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise and go to Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.
“And one Anani’as, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said to me, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth, for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name’.” (Acts 22:8-16).
I continue to pray for DU30’s “Damascus moment,” and I thought the bishops’ letter was the nearest equivalent of that voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” DU30’s moral and spiritual blindness is not benign, but it need not be permanent. Like Saul, he needs an Anani’as to give him back his sight so that he may see more clearly than he ever did before. The Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front seems to be performing that role, albeit without intending to, and in a most unexpected and unusual manner. Where before DU30 had looked to the CPP/NPA/NDF as an ideal coalition partner, he now considers it a terrorist organization, after the NPA killed three soldiers while the ceasefire in support of the Oslo peace talks was still on.
Effects of the terrorist organization
In this, DU30 takes the same view as the US government, which has refused to lift the “terrorist” classification from the organization. DU30 has since cancelled the ceasefire, scuttled the peace talks, and threatened to arrest the NDF leaders in Oslo upon their return to the Philippines. So far, the newspapers have reported two arrests. Now DU30 will have to decide what to do with his Cabinet and other officials who are high-ranking members of the “terrorist organization.” There will have to be a purge of the CPP/NPA/NDF members who had been appointed without the benefit of a peace agreement, and it will have to begin, logically, with the most powerful man in government next to the President.
This is Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., who runs the Office of the President, 18 critical grassroots-related agencies, the nationally organized Kilusang Pagbabago (Movement for Change) and its Masa-Masid grassroots base. Evasco is now NDF vice chairman, after Fidel Agcaoili who is NDF chairman, and Benito Tiamzon, who is secretary general. The purge will have to include all CPP card-bearing members, which include all regional coordinators and top officials of the KP and of Masa-Masid, which has been integrated into the local government official structure in 80 percent of all the barangays. They constitute the more active portion of the DU30 government. A purge could cripple the government.
A few days ago, I spoke to a group of Protestant pastors on some burning issues. At least two of them stood up to declare proudly that they were members of Masa-Masid, which they described in glowing terms. Clearly the “terrorist organization” is now deeply imbedded in government, and how to uproot its members from their current positions could be as difficult as pulling a tooth from an unsedated tiger.
It would help if the President were to formally renounce his own membership in the NDF National Council to which he was reportedly elected, upon Evasco’s nomination, at the 12th NDF National Conference in July 2010. He was still mayor of Davao then, and one of the eight non-CPP members elected to the council, out of a total membership of 88. Renouncing that membership could be a life-changing decision for someone who proudly describes himself as a socialist.
Still, if DU30 wants to transform himself and his government, he will have to do that and more. He will have to recognize that this is a predominantly Catholic Christian country whose values are at odds with those of the “terrorist organization” whose members are now running the government. As President, he will have to stand with the majority and express not only the will of that majority, but above all the reason behind the will of that numerical majority. This is the true meaning of democracy.
The bishops’ letter allows DU30 to retrace his steps toward that majority, to reshape and refocus his drug campaign, according to the wishes of that majority, and consequently expand his range of governance and presidential activity. The result should be a more confident, responsible, mature and hopefully less caustic and abrasive presidency.
One encouraging sign is the President’s belated admission on Monday that he had gone to a hospital in Guangzhou, China after the New Year to have a “circumcision” (an obvious joke), despite spirited denials of previous allegations, quoted exclusively in this column, that he had gone to Fuda Cancer Hospital at a time Malacañang was trying to convince everyone he was resting in Davao. The President is entitled to the best medical care he needs, and the nation deserves to know he is getting it. So, this admission is good for everyone.
A half-page ad in the January 31, 2017 issue of Philippine Star titled, “The Truth about Pres. Duterte’s visit to Guangzhou Fuda Cancer Hospital in China” by the “Representative Office of Fuda Cancer Hospital in Manila” says the President may have spent his New Year’s holiday in China, but he definitely did not visit Fuda. The ad describes Fuda as “a world-class international tumor specialty hospital, with over 10 years’ experience in treating advanced cancer patients from over 80 countries and regions around the world.”
With this admission, the President could now go back to Fuda anytime he needs to, without any elaborate cover-up, and without President Xi Jinping having to host a One Belt, One Road meeting, like the one for Cabinet ministers in May, which DU30 has reportedly agreed to attend. This would make DU30 a more transparent and normal President, and his spokesmen could probably leave to US President Trump’s Sean Spicer the sole honor of confounding the media on the issue of presidential credibility and competence.