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Separating church and state

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Separating church and state

A little time and distance to permit passions to cool down provide a better perspective on the Iglesia ni Cristo issue.

First, let us give credit to whom credit is due: Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, for upholding the judicial process despite pressures for her resignation; Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, for supporting the Department of Justice while extending maximum tolerance in the Department of Interior and Local Government’s handling of the INC rallies; and President Aquino for decisive action in addressing the INC protest.

The INC hierarchy also deserves commendation and thanks for pulling back from the brink and peacefully ending the rallies. The forcible dispersal of the demonstrations would likely have caused physical harm to citizens and police officers, not least to the demonstrators themselves. It would also have inflicted serious damage on the INC as an institution.

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Next, let us expose those politicians who tried to profit from the problem. The term used by many observers was “pander,” from Pandare, a character in one of Chaucer’s medieval tales who arranged sexual connections. “Panderer” originally alluded to “pimps and procurers.” Absent any sexual transaction in the INC case, why the term? Because its modern use now includes those who “cater to the lower tastes and desires of others or exploit their weaknesses” for personal gain.

Statements from Vice President Jejomar Binay and Senators Francis Escudero, Grace Poe and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. were singularly unhelpful. They appeared to accept the narrative that the INC was suffering persecution for its religious beliefs, lending credibility to the misinterpretation of the constitutional provision on the separation of church and state, and, thereby, encouraging their protests. Hence, “pander.”

Before tackling the case of illegal detention filed by an expelled INC minister against some of its leaders, they suggested that De Lima concentrate on the pork-barrel plunder cases or the Mamasapano incident. Doubts raised on the DOJ’s priorities pose the question of how it should manage its case load. Ideally, equity would demand that all cases receive full and undivided DOJ focus until their resolution.

Binay and the senators could have helped define the criteria they would use to govern the selection process—the gravity of the offense? the personalities involved? the public attention it receives? its actual and potential damage? Mamasapano resulted in the death of 44 Special Action Force commandos in a firefight. The Maguindanao massacre killed 58 civilians. The suspected murderers are imprisoned, and the case has been in court for over five years. Which case should receive the DOJ’s preferential attention?

The DOJ had the obligation to respond quickly to the INC case. The crime was serious, received front-page media treatment and widespread public attention, and involved powerful personalities. The INC is an important national institution. Surely, the leadership itself would want a just and speedy resolution of the case to prevent further damage to the integrity and reputation of the church.

Finally, let us reflect on lessons learned to reduce the recurrence and the impact of similar problems. Clearly, we need more education on the principle and the application of the “separation of church and state.” In a community of different faith traditions, we must faithfully follow the biblical injunction to give to God and to Caesar what respectively belongs to each. Baptism into any religion does not confer special political privileges on the church or its faithful.

The exchange on social media clearly showed mis- and dis-information circulating among INC followers, including the report that the DOJ had issued an arrest warrant for INC head Eduardo Manalo. The government might have asked the INC to disseminate through its broadcast media the actual circumstances of the case, something rally speakers were not doing.

It appears time to review government guidelines for the mass gathering of people pursuing political or religious purposes. Churches have the right to practice their faith and to gather in peaceful assembly to promote their goals. We need now to consider as well how the government should protect other citizens in the exercise of their rights—to travel, to work, to security—that mass demonstrations in an already fragile urban environment inevitably violate.

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The government can restrict gatherings of a certain scale to parks, like Luneta, where they will not disrupt the delivery of public services and infringe on the rights of the community. Demonstrators actually seek the disruption of normal life to put pressure on the government to accommodate their demands. But the government and civil society must negotiate the necessary balance between ends and means. It is not necessary to escalate immediately to the most destructive civil action options.

Church leaders should also reflect on how religious ceremonies and good works, such as the Black Nazarene processions or the INC social services, impact on the health and safety of the participating faithful and on the common good. The expression of collective religious piety should not inflict collateral damage on innocent bystanders.

Edilberto C. de Jesus (edejesu@yahoo.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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TAGS: Department of Justice, Iglesia Ni Cristo, INC, Leila de Lima, Mar Roxas, nation, President Aquino
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