A meditation on mercy
About 13 Filipinos have been killed every day these past six months as a result of the Duterte administration’s so-called “war on drugs.” Police forces have acknowledged their responsibility for only a third of these killings, which they justify as acts of self-defense. The rest of these incidents have been filed away as “deaths under investigation,” even as the police have shown no urgency to offer a credible account of these deaths.
The lives of more than 6,000 drug suspects have been claimed in the name of this war. Yet, the Duterte administration has remained self-righteous, defiant, and unfazed by criticism of its command to kill. Despite the daily killings, recent surveys have showered the President with very high approval ratings, suggesting that the killing spree may continue indefinitely. In this season of grace and forgiveness, I have wondered if the murderous machine behind these deaths will somehow take a Christmas break.
Mercy lies at the heart of Christmas. It is what defines the nature of this celebration. We greet the birth of the Redeemer. No one in God’s eyes is beyond redemption. That is why He sent His only son to our world to teach us how to live, how to love, and how to forgive. Indeed, so great is God’s mercy that it outshines His justice.
In despair, I have also often asked how much we take our faith seriously. For, nothing contradicts the meaning of this faith more directly than the apparent ease with which we accept the judgment that some people’s lives are so worthless and depraved that they deserve to be terminated. Are we so faultless that we can make such determination without blinking?
When I heard the chief of the Philippine National Police Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa ask for forgiveness for all the killings, I thought that perhaps the spirit of the season had, at last, caught up with him. But, although visibly filled with emotion, he said nothing more. Was something genuinely troubling this usually voluble man? Or was it just another one of those naive statements that seem to flow spontaneously from his mouth? We don’t know. But, as a Christian, he must know that without a clear admission of the wrong that has been committed, and with no resolve not to do it again, a plea for forgiveness cannot be anything but hollow.
In their recent book, “The Gospel of Mercy According to Juan/a,” coauthored with Nina L.B. Tomen, my brother Ambo, a scholar of the Scriptures and current bishop of Caloocan, makes the point that mercy is not an idea that is introduced only in the New Testament. I think this is important because we are wont to think of the Old Testament as a purveyor of the “eye-for-an-eye” way of life.
Bishop Ambo writes: “The God who relents of His punishment, whose sense of justice is immediately superseded by His mercy whenever He saw any little sign of repentance, is a constant motif in the Hebrew Bible. It begins right at the start: with the portrayal of a God who, before banishing Adam and Eve from Eden, made garments of skin for them and ‘clothed them’ (Gn 3:21). Even Cain, the murderer, is protected; he is marked, so that people would not harm him despite what he had done (Gn 4:1-11).”
I am not a student of the Scriptures, so this is all new to me. I used to think that the friars who came to our shores under the auspices of colonial Spain had brought with them a fearsome, Old-Testament God precisely as a weapon of subjugation. But Ambo challenges this belief. He does so by taking off from Pope Francis’ episcopal motto “Miserando atque Eligendo” (Latin for “By giving mercy and by choosing”). I never quite understood the meaning of this motto—not until now, when in the light of Bishop Ambo’s interpretation, I could hear its powerful message amid the drug killings, under a sinful president chosen from the periphery.
In past columns, I have tried to make sense of what is happening to our country using the analytical heritage of my field of study, sociology. But there have been moments when the secular sciences seem inadequate to sustain our hopes for a better world. So, today, I turn to hermeneutics, and summon help from my brother, the biblical exegete.
“Miserando—this is the proper title to the Old Testament God, contrary to His portrayal as a vengeful God. Those on whom He bestows mercy He also chooses (Eligendo). He chooses them, not because they are deserving, but because they are the least (Dt 7:7-11). Having been chosen despite their wretchedness and unworthiness, they would know how to behave like Yahweh: with mercy and compassion. That is how the Lord chose His first disciples…. Why? So that they would see the true face of God in His mercy. And having experienced God’s mercy, hopefully they could become merciful themselves.”
Hope. On that single word rests the core message of Christmas Day and all the days leading up to the New Year. We need to cling to that sentiment in this season of grace as we pray for an end to the killings, drawing inspiration from the thought that God indeed does His work in the strangest ways. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mt 9:12-13) I hope the President heeds these timeless words.
A Hopeful Christmas to one and all!
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