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Father's Son - Miracles of Quiapo by Ingming Aberia

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A market-driven church

The Manila Times cartoon on 21 February 2024


"A Market Drive Church" was also published by The Manila Times on 21 February 2024.

Asked which commandment in the law is the greatest, Jesus Christ replied: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." The increasing number of mall chapels, like many innovative reforms that are in the works in the Catholic Church today, is indicative of a ministry that tries to keep in touch with the times. However, the other somewhat dissenting commentary may also suggest of signs that we are loving our God with half of our heart, a third of our soul, and a fourth of our mind.

Two years ago, the Archdiocese of Manila launched a mission chapel at Landmark, right at the heart of Makati's business district. In a mass, His Excellency Manila Archbishop Jose F. Cardinal Advincula told the chapel goers:

"Although your residence is not here in the mall, your “lived space” is spent here because of work or because of the mobility of your lifestyle. The church wants to be close to you. She wants to accompany you where you are and whenever you need her maternal guidance."

By "work" Bishop Advincula could be referring to entrepreneurs and wage earners who must work on a Sunday and are therefore unable to attend Sunday masses in their respective parishes. Firms in service-oriented industries like parlors, restaurants, grocery stores, payment centers, clinics, among many other outlets, get most of their customers on weekends; opting to close these establishments on the Lord’s Day can mean leaving so much money on the table. The unspoken word is that money is God, to be loved with all our heart.

Globalization has further reshaped the workplace. Call center agents, for example, who are attending to overseas clients need to work outside "normal" working hours. Companies with offshore counterparts adjust to work hours and workdays in other countries.

By "mobility of lifestyle" the bishop was probably referring to several things, including what has been called "mall culture." The country is home to a thousand shopping malls. These malls have dominated the urban landscape and captured the fancy of city dwellers. It is indicative of how consumerism has transformed the local lifestyle. For decades now, the country's economy has been propelled in large part by domestic consumption.

The theological basis for the church mission in malls shifts from a focus on people going to places of worship to one that brings the ministry to people. The church sees a community in malls; therefore, it must send its ministers to attend to the spiritual needs of the flock in these communities. Where the COVID 19 pandemic has given rise to the phenomenon of virtual worship, changing lifestyles are giving occasion for redefining physical space and the way the communities are making the places of worship evolve.

It used to be that the physical structure of worship stands out at the center of the town, often across the municipal hall. Such a landmark symbolizes the community’s unequalled love for God. Mall chapels, being a fixture within a larger structure of commerce, symbolize the subjugation of the love of God to the love of money.

But one can find redemption in holy masses being heard in malls. Not too long ago, believers went to mass in their "Sunday's best." Now, in my local parish, I can see parishioners coming to mass in sandals, wearing shorts and tees, not much unlike the one who just bought suka from the sari-sari-store. This is not by any means a way to judge anybody, because how we praise God cannot be measured by how we look. But if I were hosting a party, I would prefer the partygoers to show more respect. And the Lord our God is host of every eucharistic celebration. In that sense masses in malls are to be uniquely valued because people tend to dress better inside malls than inside a local parish church. 

Again, how we dress up and how the physical structure of the church is built are just symbols that do not necessarily reflect the true value of our relationship with God. But if we go solely by them, there is doubt if indeed we love the Lord Our God with all our heart, our soul, our strength, and our mind.

Bringing the ministry of the church closer to the people justifies how Jesus reached out to all, sinners and saints alike. He did not wait for people to come to him, he delivered God’s word to them—from village to village, from house to house, from hilltops and beachfronts to synagogues.

On the hunt for the one lost sheep, today’s mission chapels mimic the early years of evangelization. Perhaps it is impossible to match the zeal of the early missions as they were driven by the pre-Second Vatican Council preaching that there was no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, but one cannot discredit as ungrounded the totality of church reforms that had taken shape under the present papacy.   

Yet finding piety in a house of commerce is a hypothetical proposition at this point. Here is an idea, from the perspective of the church, that hopes for the conversion of a commercial experience to one that is spiritual or, from the perspective of mall owners, that foot traffic generated by the chapel can be converted to sales. The complementarity remains to be proven in the same way that risks of chapel goers moderating their spending sprees to save something for the poor may hurt businesses in the end.

Can Peter’s successor, in whose hand’s Jesus has accorded such a wide latitude of discretion that “whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven,” consider more tweaking of the rules, such as in assigning the Lord’s Day to whatever day in the week, depending on a person’s day-to-day inclination?  

The church, of course, has been flexible throughout the ages. Asked why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus said: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way." In other words, Moses adapted to the wishes of the market.

Contraception and homosexual acts used to be taboo, but Pope Francis recently decreed that a form of sub-sacramental blessing can be given to those who seek it for same-sex unions. Nothing can pre-empt and frustrate procreation more effectively than same-sex unions. In the context of the LGBTQ+ community’s fair lobby for recognition, equality and respect, the pope preaches understanding, compassion, inclusivity, and openness. He urges his church to open its doors to all, sinners and saints alike. Like Moses, he unsettles the norm to satisfy the market.


Bums

President Bongbong Marcos and former president Rodrigo Duterte. Photo by abs-cbn.


"Bums" by Ingming Aberia was also published by The Manila Times on 28 February 2024.

He who unfollows the rules is either a maverick or a bum. Mavericks are of two kinds. When people believe them, they are, at one extreme, called prophets; when people don't believe them, they are, at the other extreme, swatted away like a nuisance or discarded as mental cases. In a hostile political environment, those who populate both ends of the spectrum and everyone else in between can attract the ruler's ire, as in the case of many of our heroes who ended up being trolled, ostracized, persecuted, and even condemned to death.

There are two kinds of bums, too. There are the bullying kind who pick fights against those who are not their size but quit the battle when they find their match; and then there are the misfits who think they are saviors but are in fact deserters.

The latest disappointment comes from the mouth of President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr.  

Asked (for the nth time) in an impromptu interview if he would allow the International Criminal Court (ICC) to conduct a probe into the country’s war on drugs, the president said “no”.

Although supported by a broad segment of the population, the war on drugs mounted by the government of former president Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos' predecessor, was responsible for thousands of deaths of suspected drug users, many of them in drug raids conducted by government forces in urban poor neighborhoods.

Death toll estimates vary, from a low of 3,891 to a high of 30,000. The government's Drug Enforcement Agency puts the total at 6,201, while the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has it at 8,663. In a 2019 interview, then Philippine National Police spokesman Col. Bernard Banac said that at least 29,000 cases of killings categorized as deaths under inquiry (DUI) have been recorded nationwide.

In 2020, the World Organisation against Torture and the Children's Legal Rights and Development Centre reported that "at least 129 children have been killed in the Philippines' four-year war on drugs, most by police or allied assailants, but they may only represent a fraction of the toll...the tip of the iceberg, because it is only those cases that we were able to document and verify, there may be many more in the country..."

Within a year of the drug war, Amnesty International charged in a report that the police were being paid between Php8,000 to Php15,000 per kill. Police interchangeably used the terms “encounter” and “nanlaban” (fought back) to justify the killings as part of a legitimate operation.

“We’re paid in cash, secretly, by headquarters…There’s no incentive for arresting,” the report added, anonymously quoting a policeman. As a result of the cash incentive, said the cop, “it never happens that there’s a shootout and no one is killed.” Duterte even repeatedly encouraged private citizens to join him in his murderous rampage, making it easy for anyone to settle scores with a handy alibi. In one such occasion, he told a returning group of overseas Filipino workers that “if you lose your job, I’ll give you one. Kill all the drug addicts.”

The Duterte drug war enjoyed broad public approval, especially in its early years of implementation. A 2017 Pulse Asia survey showed that 88 percent of respondents expressed support for it. In 2019, a Social Weather Station survey showed that 82 percent of the respondents expressed satisfaction with how the drug war was being waged, although an almost equal number (76 percent) of respondents thought human rights abuses were committed by law enforcers. Duterte himself benefited from high satisfactory ratings throughout his term, from a “low” of 45 percent in 2018 to a high of 79 percent in 2020.

The DUI cases and the persisting climate of impunity—of the investigations that reached the courts, only three murder cases involving teens Kian delos Santos, Carlo Arnaiz and Reynaldo de Guzman have prospered, resulting in conviction—indict the country’s judicial processes. The willingness and the effort to hear thousands of drug war cases are patently scarce. Only the intervention of someone not beholden to wielders of political power like the ICC can plug the go-to gaps.

Duterte, Marcos and the International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court in The Hague.

When he was a senator, Bongbong Marcos signed the 2011 Senate resolution for the ratification of the Rome Statute of the ICC. The late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago who sponsored the ICC resolution, said:

"If the state is already investigating or prosecuting its own head of state or similar official, the Court will not intervene. But if the state is unwilling or unable to prosecute, then the Court will try the case in The Hague. By concurring in the ratification of the Rome Statute, the Philippines will help the Court to end the culture of impunity and affirm our position as a leading human rights advocate in Asia."

Threatened by an ICC suit, Duterte unilaterally pulled the Philippines out of the Rome treaty in 2018. The withdrawal took effect a year later. But last year, the ICC dismissed the Philippine government’s appeal to defer its investigations on the drug war killings, claiming to have assumed its jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed from 2011 until 2019.

Duterte’s drug campaign unfollowed the rules, but he quickly quit the battle and untied his responsibility for it when he found his match. Now Marcos takes a no-harm, no-foul, do-nothing approach to the issue of the inviolability of human rights. It is like playing iwas pusoy—a safe refuge for bums. In that same interview, he rationalizes that he has yet to see answers to the question of jurisdiction and sovereignty.

Will he change his mind based on evidence? Marcos said no. “It’s not about the evidence. It’s about the jurisdiction of the ICC in the Philippines. They could produce as much evidence as they want. But they could not act upon it in the Philippines, that is the point.”

Did he, based on evidence, work with Philippine judicial processes so there would be no need for ICC to intervene? No. After more than two years in office, he has not done anything rim-rattling to show he cares for the truth, for justice, for social conscience.

Both Marcos and Duterte recognize the hand of God in their rise to the presidency. In the 2022 presidential campaign, he said that God had other plans for him after he lost his vice-presidential bid to Leni Robredo. As the deadline for substituting candidates approached in 2015, Duterte mumbled something like: "Well, let us see. I don’t know. I leave it to God. If he wants me there, he will place me there. Ganoon iyan. It’s God’s play. It’s not ours.”

They think they are sent by God to save his people but are nowhere to be found when the higher call of truth and justice beckons. They are unfit to think or do something sensible when it matters. On the promotion of human rights, they are bums.


When exploitation goes too far

 


When exploitation goes too far was also published by The Manila Times on 31 January 2024. Photo credits: Manila Times cartoon and PCIJ.org

The ballyhoo over the ongoing drive to either revise or amend the constitution through people’s initiative (PI) echoes the continuing exploitation of the governed by those who govern.

To use the people as tool to legitimize the exercise of power has for a long time been a fixture of Philippine political landscape.

To cite John Carroll, SJ, my late and former boss at the Institute on Church and Social Issues (now John Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues), a research non-government organization based at the Ateneo de Manila University, in an article titled “The Philippines: Forgiving or Forgetting?”:  

In the year 1900, following the Spanish-American War and the American occupation of the Philippines, William Howard Taft arrived in Manila as the head of the US Government's Philippine Commission which was to decide the future of these islands. The story is told that he was met by a delegation of prominent Filipinos, ilustrados, who pressed for immediate independence. Their argument was that for a people to be self-governing all that was required was a minority capable of ruling and a majority willing to be ruled, both of which the Philippines had. Whether or not the story is historically accurate, it does reflect the elitist mentality of the cosmopolitan and educated Filipino upper class of the time, and perhaps today as well.

Today, 124 years later, our decision-making processes as a nation remains largely reliant on structures being controlled by the minority that also remains exclusively composed of modern-day ilustrados. At the foot of these structures is a flawed system of representation and a metastasized version of democracy. Our democratic system regurgitates rubbish: we continue to elect to public office members of the elite and traditional politicians, even those who had been publicly shown to have compromised their integrity. In a book published in 1997, Frank Golay commented on the kind of exclusive unity among traditional politicians (compromised or not) since the post-independence period: “The coherence of the elite was not surprising, for their mandate to rule had been repeatedly renewed by the Filipino people.”  

It is easy to turn our eyes to the average voter for this social malady. However, the problem must be understood correctly. Unlike the learned few, the average voter has limited access to information that empowers analytical thinking and liberates from inaction and ignorance. Instead, the average voter is exposed through mainstream and social media to the constant pounding of manipulative information.

Yet the problem is not solely about most voters not having access to quality information. (Otherwise an effective system of representation where elected politicians work for the interests of the majority would suffice to address it.) Rather the problem is about people who manipulate the truth to control other people. At the hands of politicians, powered by wealth and patronage, manipulation is a tool to exploit the basic weakness of the people—which is their collective inability to make sense of open paths to reforms due to lack of liberating information.

The 1987 constitution promised a way to break the stranglehold of political power by the elite which, in a twist of wonder and irony, now risks being re-written by way of a PI.

That promise is far from being realized, however, as decades of trying to implement its liberating and people-centered reform provisions are at best enacted into laws in their most feeble of forms, or, at worst, remain untouched, doomed to be trashed and sadly oblivion-bound. These reform paths include agrarian reform, anti-dynasty provisions, and participatory governance.

While Congress has passed an agrarian reform law, it did not provide for adequate measures to ensure its positive impact. Worse, the executive arm of government has nothing much to show for success in implementing that law in terms of, for example, the number of farming families that have been lifted from poverty. It is easy to see that the system of representation is conflicted, as many members of Congress and political appointees in government are landowners who would be adversely affected by a genuine land reform program.    

The anti-dynasty provisions promise to democratize the opportunities for public service through the electoral process by levelling the arena for contending political candidates. The prospect of inviting competition hurts the interests of established players of the game, who are thus justified to never seriously consider this constitutional lobby.

Probably emboldened by how “people power” had ended a dictatorship, the framers of the 1987 constitution must have deemed it uplifting to promote people participation in running the government. Novel approaches to promote participatory governance include local autonomy, a party-list mechanism, and legislation through PI. 

A local government code was enacted in 1991 (one of a few redeeming achievements of Congress in the post-Marcos1 era), but its powerful tools that aimed to promote inclusive and participatory governance through institutionalization of broad-based local councils and community-driven processes remain largely unharnessed.

The party-list system is a mess. Initially intended to bring the basic sectors from the margins of society to the elite-dominated center, the party-list representatives in congress are now mostly dominated not by the marginalized sectors but by the same crop of traditional business and partisan interests.

The enactment of laws through PI has been a practical impossibility—perhaps until now. Behind an organized ploy by yet unknown but suspected powerful politicians, the hyped-up charter change drive through PI appears to be gaining traction, despite protestations from certain sectors, notably a number of sitting senators. The Commission on Elections, which is tasked with verifying the signatures in a PI process, has reportedly received several copies of those signatures already.

Like the party-list system, the PI route is being highjacked by powerful vested interests. Previous attempts to fiddle with the constitution failed largely because of distrust in the ulterior motives of politicians. It seems there is now a shift in strategy. Some politicians hide behind the PI to make it look like there is public ownership of constitutional issues. Politicians in general win the vote by exploiting our messed-up political culture; and now they seem poised to win even more. Exploitation has gone overdrive, from winning the vote to possibly perpetuating themselves in power.

Ferdinand Marcos Sr. tried to perpetuate himself in power. The government that supplanted “Bagong Lipunan” facilitated the writing of a new constitution that would have made it harder for succeeding administrations to perpetuate themselves in power. But another Marcos with his “Bagong Pilipinas” battle cry is now up in arms, rallying his troops of no less than 31 million voters to fight for his cause. Filial duty suggests that Bongbong Marcos should undo the remnants of what undid his father. Would the ends of the PI suit him? Is he the one behind it?     

         

If the constitution must be re-written or amended, the aim must be to correct its failed promises. We need to make authentic participatory governance work and ensure that the task of policy making is not left exclusively to the control of traditionally elected representatives of the people in government.

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