Someone’s death is always a cause for sorrow and grieving—especially when it is unexpected and unjust. Such is the instant impact of University of the Philippines student Kristel Tejada’s death on all of us who have links with UP. Lament is our first response. We shake our heads in utter disbelief, and, even as we try to pin the blame for this tragedy on particular individuals, we silently seek expiation for our own guilt. We cannot be blameless when one of our promising students is forced to drop out because she cannot pay her student loan. That is how I see the flurry of efforts to repair and compensate for a system whose built-in wickedness has victimized this young student.
We should not underestimate the power of lament. “The face of the earth,” says the writer Elias Canetti, “has been changed by the religions of lament and, in Christianity, they have attained a kind of universal validity.” In this season of Lent, one is encouraged to interpret Kristel’s sacrificial death as a reenactment of the ancient script of redemptive passion. Someone precious has to die so that the lives of others who survive may be better. The dead one thus becomes the savior of the living. This is the essence of Christianity.
But, grief is fleeting. We must ask, says Canetti, what it is about some forms of lament that crystallizes and endures over time, and eventually changes the way we live. Four things seem to spell the difference.
First, the mourners have a strong wish for their hero to remain alive or to continue to be a living presence in their own personal lives. This is the whole meaning of resurrection. Someone’s death sparks a light in the hearts of the living, and this is passed on to others who then become part of an ever growing community.
Second, the act of mourning is opened up to take in pilgrims and believers from everywhere. “It begins with the few faithful who stand beneath the cross; they are the kernel of the lament. At the first Whitsuntide there were possibly 600 Christians; at the time of the Emperor Constantine about 10 million.” This happens because no line is prematurely drawn that serves to exclude the many who want to be part of the grieving. There is room for everyone.
Third, this death is unlike any other—it comes to represent the condition of all the helpless and the forsaken. It drives us to reflect on the way we ourselves have often unknowingly fed “on the torment of weaker creatures.” The lament thus progresses into a reflexivity that makes us ponder our own personal accountability for the way things are. We are prompted to reflect on the system in which we find ourselves and on the endless games of pursuit it offers us as participants. “Men lived as pursuers,” Canetti tells us, “and as such, in their own fashion, they continue to live…. Most of them perhaps do not divine that, while they feed their bodies, they also feed the darkness within themselves. But their guilt and fear grow ceaselessly, and, without knowing it, they long for deliverance.”
Deliverance is sought, strangely enough, not from restitution, but from identification with suffering. As soon as it takes on a religious form, the quest for deliverance does not result in a call for the simple end to all predation, because, under the system, the predators include us. It culminates rather in a call to align oneself with suffering. Why this is so is perhaps the whole mystery of religion. I can only suppose this is what separates religion from revolution. Canetti’s irony is sharp in this regard: “Thus it appears that religions of lament will continue to be indispensable to the psychic economy of men for as long as they remain unable to renounce pack killing.”
“Pack killing”—the organized foray for survival that preys upon the inability of the weak to protect themselves—takes many forms in modern society. Its basic logic is eloquently depicted in the recent film “The Hunger Games,” where everyone is forced to be a hunter if she does not want to end up being the prey. The more structured and anonymous the game is, the less heavily it weighs upon our conscience.
The few times we gain some insight into its intrinsically brutal nature, our attention tends to be riveted to the reform of the system. But, what the system has done to the person in each of us, the way it has numbed and dehumanized us, largely escapes notice. By permitting us to identify with the sufferings of others, religions of lament induce us to discern and atone for our own personal failings.
It is interesting that one of the responses triggered by Kristel Tejada’s death has taken the form of a move by some legislators who are UP alumni to draw from their pork barrel allocations in order to build a fund for student scholarships. This laudable initiative is pregnant with irony. It uses a mechanism that is better known for its gross abuses to gather financial resources to benefit UP students. As such it bears all the marks of privilege. It privileges UP over other state universities and colleges. It allots to tertiary education scarce resources that could be put to better use in basic education. I don’t wish to sound critical of what is basically a generous act, but again, are we not playing predatory games here? What moral right do UP alumni in government have to prioritize UP’s needs over those of other schools?
I think what makes religion, in a sense, more exacting than politics is that it requires insight into oneself as a precondition for speaking out on a lot of things.
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