When the poor are not preferred
“Commitment to the poor is based on the Gospel; it does not have to rely on some political manifesto”—St. John Paul II (Conference of Latin American Bishops, Puebla, 1979)
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor; it cannot save the few who are rich”— President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Adress, January 20, 1961)
It was an allision. That is, the poor Filipino fishermen’s boat was stationary, not in motion, when it was hit by a foreign ship. They were at rest; most of them, in fact, were asleep. For still undetermined reason(s), the offending ship fled and left the sinking boat of poor Filipino fishermen to the elements, till they were eventually rescued by another foreign ship from Vietnam. The nationality of the rescuers is worth mentioning here not only for their humanitarian action but also for the fact that they also come from an often aggrieved and poor sector of another developing country like that of the victims. It was, in a word, a case of the poor taking care of the poor.
Reactions from different sectors in Philippine society are a study of a predictable babel of contrasts. Government officials initially condemned the abandonment by the perpetrators of the poor fishermen; then, they later changed their tune to characteizing it as “an ordinary maritime incident” or “accident”, a version adopted by the leader of the land, a bit surprisingly because it followed—some say ‘kowtowed’— closely to the perpetrators’ own. The opposition predictably saw the other side of the picture. They came out almost in unison decrying the way the poor Filipino fishermen were twice abandoned: first, by the foreign ship that rammed through theirs; secondly, by their own government. As of this writing, even the president appears to hold the poor fishermen partly responsible for their own plight by implying that the fishermen ignored the competing claims on the area by their country and that of their perpetrators, counseling them further to be “careful” in their conduct within the own country’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone).
Excuse me, but it is simply beyond this writer’s ken how the poor fishermen could be more careful than being stationary and sleeping. Or, pray tell: has it become illegal or, to put it bluntly, “careless” to rest and sleep in the middle of the fishermen’s collectively considered safe side of the ocean?
On the other hand, the Philippine media have feasted on and exposed the incident with the starkness of detail, though often with the flair for the sensational and controversial. But truth has been served by them as well. Ordinary citizens, depending on whose side of the political spectrum they support, have also been busy opposing or supporting actions taken on behalf of or against the victims. Their often opposing political views notwithstanding, majority of citizens take the side of the poor fishermen. The reason is mostly the off-again-and-on-again patriotic spirit of Filipinos that does not always translate into positive results.
Where is the Church in issues like this, it is often asked. Often too the Church is understood narrowly to be the hierarchy or the priests and bishops. But that is a gross misunderstanding that dies hard despite document after document, catechesis after catechesis on the preferential option for the poor and on the Church as meaning all the baptized, both the hierarchy and lay faithful.
That is to say, the Church is very much present among the fishermen, the government officials supposedly protecting and promoting their interests, the opposition figures who protest the fishermen’s plight and the unsympathetic treatment they have received from their own government, the media that have trained their sights on them, and ordinary citizens reacting on the sidelines.
All the baptized, basic catechesis tells us, belong to the same Body of Christ in a manner and fashion more intimate than blood or nationality. But the question is: Are they standing where Jesus Christ stands? Do they prefer his preferences?
Allow me a story.
A king saw a very beautiful woman. He inquired about her. It was a love at first sight. He came to know she was a peasant’s daughter. Not wanting her to know he was a king, he came to her dressed as an ordinary peasant and even joined her and her friends in working, hoeing the soil, planting etc. She eventually fell in love with him. It is then that he revealed himself to be king. In consequence, she distanced herself. On the other hand, the laws of the kingdom forbade the king from marrying a woman not from a noble family. So the king made a decision. He abdicated his throne and handed it to his younger brother. Then he became a peasant and it was then that the woman agreed to be his bride.
This is the story of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the King of kings. He fell in love with us sinners. He left the glory of heaven and became a slave when he took our sinful human nature to himself. Paul the Apostle speaks of this eloquently in a passage every priest and seminarian as well as every conscientious lay faithful should know by heart: Philippians 2:6-8). This is the so-called love of preference for the poor. PCP II shows us the three levels of Jesus’ actualization of his own love of preference for the poor.
One, Jesus himself became materially poor, associated himself with the poor and even considered them blessed. The pattern of his entire life was a testimony of this love of preference for the poor” (PCP II 48): he became poor so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9); his first beatitude extols the “poor”(Lk 6:20); he chose poor fishermen as his followers (Lk 5:1-11); he lived the poor life of “an itinerant preacher” homeless; he lived and died poor, “buried in a grave that was not even his own” (ibid.)
Two, Jesus associated himself with “the morally poor, and those who were uninstructed in the law (Lk 15:1-3) but were humble enough to acknowledge their sinfulness, unlike the proud scribes and pharisees. He declared that it is not those who are well that are in need of a physician but the sick. He did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Lk 5:31-32)” (PCP II 49).
Three, Jesus called to himself and showed love for the socially marginalized, “the little ones”— such as children and women. “Let the little children come to me and do not prevent them” and made “a little child the model for his followers (Lk 18:15-16); he went against the tide of social culture that considered women second-class citizens by associating himself with them in his ministry (Lk 8:1-3) and even chose them to be “the first witnesses to his resurrection (Lk 24:1-10; Mt 28:1-10) [PCP II 50-51]”.
The fishermen’s plight points to the plight of the poor in the Philippines. Often they are treated as proganda or scoop material; they are seldom treated the way Jesus treats them and everyone else—with “love of preference” (to borrow the language of St. John Paul II).
And when the poor are not preferred, Jesus Christ is not preferred.