Sunday, March 27, 2005

The will to change

The will to change

Posted 10:10pm (Mla time) Mar 26, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the March 27, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ON HIS way to Calvary, Jesus foretold many events that astonished his followers. He said he would be arrested, that one of his own disciples would betray him, and that Peter himself would deny that he knew him, not once but thrice. He said he would be crucified, and he would die on the cross. He would be buried, but he would rise from the dead. Jesus held these things to be true, and he acted upon them so that God might forgive the sins of men, and thus change the circumstances of their existence. This is the poetry of forgiveness around which the Christian faith revolves. It is a philosophy of action and hope, and Jesus was its strongest poet.

Many of us hold certain beliefs, but all too often we fail to act upon them. As such, they serve us no purpose. They have no meaning, no effect on the way we live our lives. They are books that remain unread, music that is unheard, faith that is unrealized. We remain trapped in old untested beliefs, from which we cannot free ourselves because of fear. We do not develop the courage to experiment, to test our beliefs, to connect them to the practical details of our lives. Consequently, there is a huge gap between the beliefs we profess and the beliefs we actually hold by default, our habits of action. And, indeed, there is an even bigger gap between our habits of action as a people and our social goals.

A friend of mine was complaining recently about corruption in a city government office. He said he needed to secure a hundred and one permits just to remodel an old house. Every precious signature depended on compliance with a set of requirements that kept growing as he produced the necessary documentation. After some months of following up papers, his contractor told him that the message being conveyed was loud and clear: a small amount, the usual S-O-P or "standard operating procedure," would hasten the release of the needed permits.

I advised my friend to go and report the matter to the National Bureau of Investigation so an entrapment operation could be set. He was ready to do so, but he never got around to it. His contractor decided to pay, offering to take the added expense out of his earnings. These people work as a syndicate, he said; you get one of them arrested, and the rest of the gang will make life difficult for you.

The contractor's fear is not unfounded. Everyone who has dealt with such offices assumes a general order of things to which you can only adjust. When you are busy earning a living, you cannot afford to take risks fighting the system. Yet elsewhere in the metropolis, my daughter, who is building a house in Cainta, was pleasantly surprised to be able to get all the building permits she needed in one day without having to pay anybody or secure special favors from anyone. There are such pockets of institutional integrity in our society, and they are steadily multiplying, quietly supplanting the old discredited ways of doing things with straightforward public service.

It is less difficult to reform systems from within than to expect heroic individuals to expose the evils of systems from outside. Corruption thrives on the proliferation of unnecessary and unreasonable requirements. It is the stepchild of inefficiency. A responsible leader in an office usually knows who is on the take. If he is not himself part of the racket, and feels strongly about it, he will find ways of eliminating the opportunity and getting rid of the rotten personnel. To do this, he needs a critical mass of reformers to help him, for the corrupt will do everything to tie his hands, to sabotage his efforts, and to undermine his authority and integrity by capitalizing on his own minor lapses.

It is never easy to initiate change. The will to change has to be anchored on a will to believe that things can be different. Such a belief often cannot be grounded simply on the evidence at hand. Yet if one believes and, on this basis, he acts upon the world, his action may change the situation in ways he himself has not anticipated. In the results, he may find the affirmation of his belief or feeling unjustified in his faith, he may become cynical. Such are what John Dewey called "the risks of faith." The point is that we will never know if our beliefs matter until we act on them, or unless we live them.

In his thought-provoking essay, "Christianity and Democracy," Dewey said: "The one claim that Christianity makes is that God is truth; that as truth He is love and reveals Himself fully to man, keeping back nothing of Himself; that man is so one with the truth thus revealed that it is not so much revealed to him as in him; he is its incarnation." Dewey is not a theologian but a philosopher. But his understanding of the nature of man in Christianity allows one to appreciate better the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels.

Jesus was being prosecuted for supposedly claiming he was the son of God. Yet in fact he always referred to himself as the son of man. He called God his Father only because he believed that all human beings were God's children. His disciples were stunned by the revelations he made, and how they all turned out to be true. But the bigger truth he was teaching them by his own life was the truth that is already in them, waiting to be lived.

People sometimes wonder how a predominantly Christian culture like ours could be the fount of corruption. There is a simple explanation for that: faith, for most of us, is separate from everyday life. We do not draw from it ideals or the will to change.

Happy Easter!

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Popular religiosity

Popular religiosity

Posted 09:15pm (Mla time) Mar 19, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the March 20, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

TODAY, Palm Sunday, marks the first day of what is perhaps the most important week in the Christian calendar. Jesus, the Messiah, enters Jerusalem on a donkey. His reputation precedes him and he is greeted by the people with branches quickly cut from nearby trees.

Being a Jew, he has come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, two important events that recall the Israelites' escape from Egyptian servitude. The Roman governors of Jerusalem are ever watchful. The Jews have long anticipated their liberation, and such feast days keep the flame of freedom alive in their hearts.

The whole world of one's faith is filled with symbols that make the events of our everyday lives meaningful. The meanings do not reside in the events themselves, but in the memory and culture of the community to which we belong. The Christian faith brought to our shores by the Spanish colonizers became the dominant religion, but it did not erase the indigenous faiths of our ancestors. The suppressed native beliefs, reconstituted in the encounter with the dominant religion and clothed in new names and forms, emerged as popular religiosity. This folk religiosity expresses the people's ironic imagination-often combining protest with piety, concealing defiance in meekness.

Christianity's own symbols are re-interpreted in the encounter. In his book "Pasyon and Revolution," the historian Reynaldo Ileto shows how the pasyon sung during Lent was tapped by the Katipunan to fortify the vocabulary of an incipient revolutionary movement. The religion the colonizers brought with them was thus re-contextualized and used against them by the people they sought to evangelize. In the language of semiotics, the signifiers are freed from the signified. The authors of the gospel lose control over their texts, rendering all existing meanings unstable.

Such thoughts came rushing to me the other night as I watched the early evening news on television. Seventeen dead bodies from the Camp Bagong Diwa siege were being carried in a burial procession to a common grave site. Wrapped in white sheet, the remains of the dead men, all Muslims, were being carried by members of the nearby Muslim community. As they were being lowered into the grave that had been hastily dug that morning, I noticed that the earth was littered with plastic debris of various colors and realized that the whole place had been a landfill or a garbage dump. Prayers were said, and someone raised a clenched fist in salute: "God is great!" he cried. Then the camera gently swept through the faces of the men, women and the children who were there. For one brief moment, the television screen became a mosaic of pain, fear, grief, loss, and anger.

The reporter's voice reminded listeners that these were the prisoners who had been killed in the siege after the negotiations for their peaceful surrender failed. Three of the most dreaded leaders of the Abu Sayyaf were among the dead, he said, but the rest were just ordinary Muslims facing charges for common crimes. They were killed because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The stand-off, which began after some inmates rushed and killed the jail guards serving them breakfast, lasted a day. But the clash of memory and culture that supplied all the meanings at play in that incident has been upon us for more than a hundred years.

It is ironic that "Bagong Diwa," the name of the police camp in which the jail is located, means new sense or new consciousness. The camp would have instantly earned its name if the incident had ended in a less violent way. Yet I have a feeling that Bagong Diwa will have a new meaning for the Muslims in our country from here on. Unfortunately, it is not the kind of meaning that will bridge the gap between the Moro narrative and the story of the Filipino nation. Rather, it will widen that gap even more. Long after the footage of the siege has faded, the images of the burial will likely remain fresh, occupying a secure space in the popular tales of the Moro people. That is how the Jabidah massacre became the founding moment of the Moro National Liberation Front. And the Jabidah incident was not even caught on film.

We sometimes forget that we are dealing here not with just a group of isolated and hardened bandits or terrorists who deserve to die. We are talking of a community and its memory. "The move outward toward the transformation of history and society has its source and ground in the community," writes the Jesuit theologian Michael L. Cook in his fascinating work, "Christology as narrative quest." "The most fundamental ethical-political obligation is to survive, to defend and preserve the community with its own distinctive cultural heritage."

What has this got to do with popular religiosity? "Popular religiosity is an anamnestic performance, or praxis that, in reenacting the suffering of our people, simultaneously reminds us that suffering is not the last word." There is always redemption.

Nothing perhaps is more powerful than the admixture of a religion's most precious symbols with the desires formed in the daily struggles of its adherents. The product of that encounter is what is enacted and re-enacted in popular religiosity. Priests, imams, and rabbis have no control over the meanings that are created in the process, nor, least of all, in the effects of these meanings on people's purposes and priorities. This is what makes faith a volatile element in people's lives.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Population solutions

Population solutions

Posted 00:25am (Mla time) Mar 13, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the March 13, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE POPULATION problem has many sides to it, and often various issues get mixed up in one emotional brew, preventing reasoned discussion. Debate highlights the disagreements while ignoring the many points of a possible consensus.

Does our country have a population problem? There are at least three ways of viewing this problem. In its most basic sense, this is a problem of density, expressing a relationship between the human species and the space it inhabits. But it is also, more importantly, a problem of society impinging upon the limited resources at its disposal. That society may need to cut present consumption in order to ensure future growth. But again, having enough is not only a matter of economic growth, but also of the kind of social order that presides over the allocation of resources. Some ways of defining the population problem tend to rationalize or mask the basic disparities existing between nations and within nations.

But we do have a population problem. It is a problem that exists at both the societal and the individual level. Our population is expanding so fast it has already encroached upon critical space like the uplands, where life chances are marginal, and where ecological damage is long-term. Our cities are ringed by congested slums, where people are forced to live in sub-human conditions. Our facilities and public utilities-our schools, hospitals, water services, transportation, etc.-have not expanded as fast as our population has grown. A steady stream of migrants from the countryside pours into our cities in search of opportunity and a better life for their children.

We may lecture them all year about the evils of an unjust and exploitative social system. But it would be foolish and unfair to expect them to put their lives on hold until the promised emancipation. These are families who want to be able to plan their lives now so that their children do not have to face a future without hope. They are entitled to all the information and assistance they need-including the provision of safe modern methods of birth control-to be able to fulfill the tasks of responsible parenthood, and thus change the course of their lives. The choice, says our Constitution, is ultimately theirs, not the government's or the Catholic Church's.

The Church is entitled to oppose and campaign against population measures that it deems contrary to its religious doctrine. But the government not only has the right but the responsibility to formulate a population plan. House Bill 3773, or the proposed Responsible Parenthood and Population Management Act, is one such comprehensive plan. It is long overdue. A society that does not think of its population growth will confront the problem sooner or later in ways that permit no room for maneuver.

Reflecting on the experience of India, the noted French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss writes in his classic work, "Tristes Tropiques": "When a community becomes too numerous, however great the genius of its thinkers, it can only endure by secreting enslavement. Once men begin to feel cramped in their geographical, social and mental habitat, they are in danger of being tempted by the simple solution of denying one section of the species the right to be considered as human. This allows the rest a little elbow-room for a few more decades. Then it becomes necessary to extend the process of expulsion."

I think that in a significant sense, we Filipinos are already "solving" the population problem in a manner we did not choose. One has to be blind not to see the stark division of our society between the few who have the chance to live full and productive lives and the many who are condemned from the start to experience life only as a slow and painful death. This is a caste system in many ways, yet we shield ourselves from its reality by building walls and gated subdivisions.

Exclusion is followed by expulsion, says Levi-Strauss, recalling the events unleashed by Hitler in Europe. "The systematic devaluation of man by man is gaining ground, and we would be guilty of hypocrisy and blindness if we dismissed the problem by arguing that recent events represented only a temporary contamination."

A new underclass has taken shape and is found all over the world, consisting of people who have fled from poverty at home. Filipinos constitute the single largest chunk of this global migrant caste, about one-fourth of our entire labor force. Excluded from their own society's structure of opportunity, they seek new lives abroad. They leave their families behind, hoping to send for them at some future time. Their departure gives the society they left a little breathing space; the remittances they send help temporarily stave off hunger at home. The services they perform abroad no doubt make life easier for the host nations they serve. But this will not continue forever.

Already, dark clouds loom in the horizon. Everywhere they go, these intrepid Filipinos face the threat of expulsion. Japan recently seized upon the issue of human trafficking to impose new restrictions on the entry of Filipino entertainers into its closed society. Malaysia, despite its vast uninhabited lands, feels threatened by the large numbers of Indonesians and Filipinos on its territory, and regularly launches a cleansing campaign.

Our people do not deserve to undergo these wrenching processes of degradation. The state loses its reason for being when it cannot provide for its own citizens' needs, and plan a future that ensures the survival and prosperity of its population.

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Sunday, March 06, 2005

The morning after Edsa

The morning after Edsa

Posted 00:13am (Mla time) Mar 06, 2005
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the March 6, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE STRONG state that Ferdinand Marcos built in 1972 became so wholly associated with human rights violation and massive corruption that when we got rid of it in 1986, we resolved never again to concentrate political power in any single branch of government. In reaction, we found ourselves swinging to the opposite model of a minimalist government that fastened its decision-making powers to a rigid system of checks and balances.

The experience with big-time corruption under the Marcos regime made the new government of Cory Aquino timid about starting large-scale infrastructure projects. One day, toward the end of Cory's term, we were awakened to the consequences of this over-cautiousness by a severe power shortage that required costly emergency measures to address.

Threatened by a coup-prone military that had tasted power, and faced by a surge of populist energy from all directions, the government could not sustain its experimental stance to the country's old problems. It came to rely more and more on the advice and services of traditional politicians who operated by the tested methods of personal patronage. With every election, the old political families that dominated pre-martial law politics came back to power, holding back the momentum of political and economic modernization.

The result of this is that everything we have done by way of reform since 1986 has been half-hearted-agrarian reform, democratization of our political system, electoral modernization, modernization of the economy, etc. Every Edsa anniversary has served as a reminder of how instinctively we have gone back to the old routines. Nineteen years later, Filipinos are again desperately looking for an alternative. What that is is not certain. But not a few otherwise sensible people have broached the idea of a wise and benevolent strongman as if it were a simple matter of naming him.

My own view is that we have not really given democracy a chance to work in our society. I am not entirely sure what kind of political system will work for us, but I think that, regardless of the political choices we make, there are some basic realities we cannot ignore.

First, in the present state of the world economy, we ought to know by now that we cannot hope to gain anything unless we unite and rally our people around a clear set of purposes. Far from receding in value, the role of the state has become more crucial; it has to take a more aggressive role in charting a roadmap for the whole country and coordinating the efforts of its various constituencies.

Second, development has to start from the development of the people-through the provision of the minimum conditions for sustained personal growth, beginning with quality education, and the meaningful inclusion of the poor in various areas of national life. In the short and medium term, they must be provided with all the means necessary for them to be able to effectively plan their families.

Third, the private sector must be brought to a realization that the period in which we live is a critical one. The same social inequities that breed resentful majorities also impede the growth of wealth. It is in the interest of those who have more in life to assist those who have been excluded and denied opportunity, without waiting to be prompted by the government.

Fourth, corruption is a big problem in our country, but it is not the main source of our problems. It is rather an expression of our more basic problems-mass poverty and ignorance, patronage politics, expensive elections, an underdeveloped economy.

Fifth, our individual initiatives are valuable, but the more crucial arena of social change is the public one. Whether we like it or not, the state remains our principal instrument for growth in the modern world. That is why the quality of governance is our most central concern. This means combating patronage and celebrity politics, and encouraging and supporting those who genuinely can advance the interests of the nation. We cannot do this without emancipating our voters from their basic needs, and without launching a relentless campaign to create intelligent and responsible voters.

Sixth, no nation can progress without first instilling national pride and love of country among its people. National pride is to nations what self-respect is to individuals-a precondition for self-improvement. We must arrest our people's dangerous descent to demoralization, and appeal to Filipinos who have made good abroad to help the country in these difficult times.

Seventh, there is no shortcut to development. Most attempts at changing society drastically and fundamentally lead to violent civil wars from which too often nations are unable to recover. Genuine social change does not have to mean an all-or-nothing, cataclysmic overhaul of society. In these times, we need a civil war like we need a bullet in our heads.

Lastly, some of our problems require simple and straightforward solutions, but many are multi-layered and complex. Every initiative rests on certain preconditions. It's like rebuilding an old house-every part of the house you tear down exposes new hidden weaknesses. Every day we are reminded of the truism that it is better to tear down the old house and build a totally new one. Yet it is hard to imagine how you can do that to a whole nation. We need greater patience, and patience is quickly running out.

Edsa prompts us to continue the moral obligation of hoping and working for a better country despite our monumental failures.

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