The situation of the first century Palestine under the Roman Rule was not far different from what we experience today. John the Baptist was a man of his times. What he said and did should not be isolated from what was happening as he saw them. His harsh words – “you brood of vipers!... Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!” – was a condemnation of the extorsion, oppression and cruelty of the rulers of his times – in both religion and empire.
There were several responses among the Jews who listened to him. First, there were those who continued to live their usual lives. If we imagine it, there were only few who went to the River Jordan to listen to John. Maybe they were also seen as some sort of weird people. The rest who considered themselves “normal” went about attending temple and synogogue services, organizing their own businesses, taking care of their own children, families and friends.
Second, there were those who were not contented with the Empire and retreated to the desert in silence. The Essenes or the so-called Qumran communities thought that the desert was the right place to wait for the coming of the new order. They avoided the power center, Jerusalem, which would soon be Ground Zero when God will come to destroy the city and build his new reign. And it will be soon!
But there was a third group. There was a handful who asked John – “Teacher, what should we do now – to whom he replied: “give your cloak to those who have none, share your food, do not extort, do not fabricate evidences, etc.” If I have to read between the lines, John said “do not be silent”, “do not retreat to your own shells”, resist by living honest lives right where you are. And they received John’s baptism as a sign of beginning to live the values of the Kingdom.
Jesus later on joined this small group of John’s disciples and inaugurated the Kingdom in their midst.
Fast Forward: Philippines 2018. The headlines paint a quite bleak Christmas. Prices of basic commodities are high. And taxation that this government exacts makes it worse. The people who were once convicted of plunder and corruption are absolved and now hold the reins of power. They unanimously approved a draft federalism law that favors their own kind – no term limits, the whole family can run for public office with pork barrel at their disposal, and a host of self-serving provisions. Everything is in place for the next election with its basic rules sidelined – early campaigning and all. Martial Law is once again extended in Mindanao. This means that they can just detain, torture or kill anyone without warrant and without reason. They can tag them all “communists”, “terrorists”, “enemies of peace and order” – even if they are simple lumads merely trying to protect their legitimate right to their ancestral domain. The war on drugs are still relentlessly implemented against the poor while the rich drug lords go scot free. Downright authoritarianism is the new normal. The rule of law is bypassed. Whatever the President wants becomes the norm – even to the point of clearing the area of priests and bishops at the turnover of Balangiga bells because he wants it, just like that!
Confronted by this very unjust and violent situation, one observes several responses. First there are those who are happy with how things are. This consists the majority as many surveys show. We are on the right track, they say. DDS pa rin kami, kahit ano pa man ang sabihin ninyo tungkol kay Tatay Digong. Kung namatay ang mga ‘yon, tama lang. Kailangan lang. Para protektahan ang kinabukasan ating bayan. [We are still die-hard Duterte fans no matter what you say about him. If some people die, it is but right. We need it to protect the future of our country.]
Second, there are those who do not like how things are going but retreat to the wilderness of silence. Some of them are afraid to speak their minds out. They do not want to offend their friends. Para walang gulo, tahimik na lang. Silence has become their refuge even if they are conflicted inside. Others do not want to rock the boat because it can also affect their own position and resources. Many others know that things are not right but are too tired to do something. Things are rotten from top to bottom, from ground up. But fear and fatalism turned into paralysis and inaction. Wala din namang mangyayari. Tuloy lang ang buhay. Bahala na si Lord.
But there are some few others who asked – “So what should we do now” – in the words of the people who asked John. There are not many of them, most of whom are victims. They are not afraid of anything anymore because everything has already been taken away anyway.
I asked one mother whose son was unjustly killed on the war on drugs: “Are you not afraid to speak up. You can be in danger.” She told me:
“Kinuha na nila sa akin ang anak ko. Ano pa ba ang makukuha nila sa akin. Patayin na nila ako kung gusto nila. Basta ako sasabihin ko sa buong mundo na mali ito. Gusto kong makamtan ang katarungan para sa anak ko.”
[They already took my son from me. What else can they get? Nothing more. They can kill me if they like. But no one can prevent me from telling the world that this is wrong. I want justice for my son.]
Just this morning, I had a meeting with a lumad leader from Talaingod, Davao del Norte. Many of them walked for miles to reach evacuation centers in nearby provinces. Some are now in Manila as they fled from the militarization of their places. He said: “We are here because we want many people to know the injustice they are doing to us. They call us communists and terrorists. They are killing us. The military occupy our schools and communities. Our people have to leave to evacuation sites to protect ourselves. Now, the big mining companies can start to destroy our lands. Please help us let the world know. Please help us.”
I pray that this Christmas those requests do not fall on deaf ears. Because if they do, the killing will continue and the victims will be left to scatter and die.
My favorite theologian, Johann Baptist Metz, writes:
“Catastrophes are reported on the radio in between pieces of music. The music continues to play, like the audible passage of time that moves forward inexorably and can be held back by nothing. As Brecht has said: ‘When crime is committed, just as the rain falls, no one cries: Halt!’.”
Let the Christian in you at least say “halt”. Enough is enough. We maybe few but let your little light shine this Christmas.
Two Christmases ago, I was also a brink of despair at the height of killings in Payatas. Then, we had to help in burying 4-5 persons every week who were victims of extrajudicial killings, assist their grieving families who were just lost and do not know what to do. It was doubly painful because back then, as it is now, the whole world was clapping, cheering and shouting with closed fists on the air in resounding approval of Duterte.
In the midst of this desolation, I just walked by the side streets in order to look for something to hold on to. And I saw this simple lantern – a small paper bag used to wrap tuyo or pan de sal - with the words written on it: “Stop the killings”. There was at least one flickering candle that stood up to the huge darkness around.
That night at least, I went home filled with hope again.
Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, C.M.
St. St Vincent SchoolofTheology - Adamson University