Christ’s passion vis-a-vis Philippine elections
“An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.”—George Eliot, Felix Holt the Radical
“For kingship belongs to the Lord.” (Psalm 22:28)
It is Lent. It is, by intention, a time of penance and prayer; ordinary Filipinos know it as such. In 2019 Philippines it is also campaign season for the May 13 elections. Filipinos know them too as their version of ancient Rome’s “bread and circus”. Eastern Samar, my home province, together with many other parts of the archipelago, is set to witness again the proliferation of what my generation calls election “bread”, that is, money to buy and sell votes in a massively pervasive fashion that, however the Church and the local civil society decry it, seems to have its own life, apparently immune to moral or ethical considerations. I am sure I am not alone in making this observation. For now, it is the circus angle with real song-and-dance and showbiz glitz that rule the streets, town or city squares and marketplaces.
Not everyone is pleased. A number of citizens complain about the suffocating traffic, the noise pollution, the internecine media and social media troll wars, the use and weaponization of fake news, rather than a determined insistence on the priority of the rule of truth and fair play. But they seem a voice in the wilderness. There is a de-facto idolatry of victory among candidates “by hook or by crook” (“Mostly by crook,” onlookers are wont to say).
But what does Christ’s Passion, the centerpiece of the Lenten drama, have to say to us who face these realities?
- Philippine elections, in many ways, are life-demeaning; Christ’s Passion, on the other hand, is life-affirming. For, at the same time that “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners (technically God’s enemies), Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), many Filipino candidates value less their opponents’—or, shall we say enemies’—lives than their own electoral victory. How many political assassinations had been done, are being planned and will be executed to get rid of an enemy or enemies in politics? And when the very idea of physical assassinations are too gory, then there are other ways to do this, chief among them is everybody’s favorite sport of character assassinations disguised as “exposes”. Political ads, paid trolls, strategists and agents abound to work not only to gain votes for one’s candidates but also to deny them to rivals. Followers of Jesus Christ need not only seek to fact-check candidates; they also need to check them against Christ’s person and his Gospel. We in the Church always speak of the promotion of integral development. But I wonder if we also provide clear and effective parameters to discern pro—or anti-integral human development candidates to guide the sincere voting believers.
- Politicians are ostensibly into giving (anything from money to influence to t-shirts to their unsolicited ideas or plans). They talk about serving their country and their constituents. But Philippine elections, perhaps like their counterparts around the world, are really about getting power in order to gain more access to greater wealth, influence, fame etc. Christ’s Passion, however, provides more than ample proof of God’s love for mankind eloquently expressed by the giving of his life for us. “For God so love the world,” John the evangelist reminds us, “that he GAVE his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). This is not, of course, to say that Philippine politicians are incapable of truly giving or serving; it is simply to say that our system of politics thrives on the separation of rhetoric that extols service from the real world of partisan dynamics fueled by the lure of self-aggrandizement. We must be very wary of those who loudly profess service; they may be only after power.
- In Philippine elections candidates routinely immerse themselves in the poverty-stricken enclaves and homes of their constituents; but, admittedly, a lot of it is for show; their real intent is to gain votes or publicity. Christ’s Passion, on the other hand, is the Son of God assuming the depths of our sinful humanity in order to raise it to a sharing in his sinless divinity. The essence and fruit of sin is separation from God; this the Son of God takes up on the cross so he could end this separation by his sacrifice. Paul the Apostle puts it eloquently: “For our sake he made him who has no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). We must, then, beware of politicians who, for the sake of and in the name of progress, actually leads our individual and national lives into separation from God and his values. This is more than a reference to the issues surrounding abortion, divorce, capital punishment, contraception or same-sex unions but rather to the secularist and relativist attitudes at play among those who pursue anti-God or anti-Christ values even to the quoting of Scriptures.
- People in authority often point to “our free democratic elections” as if we owe it to ourselves to keep them in power so as to allow them to make us continue enjoying this freedom and its other blessings. In reality freedom in Philippine elections could be an illusion. The creeping and crippling poverty of the masses certainly renders them un-free to choose worthy candidates; often they have to succumb to the highest bidder(s), or to the most “mesmerizing promise-maker” and dull their conscience. Often our “free and democratic elections” are un-free and un-democratic because of poverty and fake news as well as the imposition of other peoples’ choices on ours through aggressive campaigning. In contrast, the Passion leads us to our true freedom and dignity in that the very sufferings of the Savior answer the just punishment we all sinners deserve and the just requirement for our rehabilitation as God’s children. Isaiah the prophet’s words tell us of this truth. “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:5). How do Philippine elections school us into detecting leaders who are ready, like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, to make sacrifices for the sake of the real common good? Our system should be an enabler of servant leadership more in practice than in claim.
- Philippine candidates habitually promise to “make changes” that “make things new”. Often because of an utter lack of competence or understanding of the Philippine situation, they end up breaking well-touted campaign promises or making excuses for their failures. The deficient definition of newness that focuses mostly on external political, economic or social indicators is bound to fail because of what it excludes: the moral and spiritual dimensions linking people to God. On the other hand, Christ’s Passion leads us to the truth that newness, to be genuine, cannot stand apart from God’s plan of “a new heaven and a new earth” on the foundation of him who says, “I make all things new” (Rev 21:1, 27).
Christ’s Passion has a lot to teach Filipino voters and Philippine elections. But, I submit, we need to constantly pray for “God’s amazing grace” to make us listen and learn.