Monday, October 27, 2008

An anonymous Christian citizen

RECENTLY, inside a plane, I had a glimpse of a person’s soul. The glimpse was unintended. My seat was next to the aisle and to my left were two other seats near the window. Seated were two men who actually had just met. I closed my eyes to catch some sleep.

Before long, the two were having an animated conversation, although one did most of the talking. He was gushing unabashedly about the physical allure of the stewardesses. He then confessed to having only recently gotten married. Meanwhile, his conversation partner mentioned that he was working with an NGO. This prompted him to say how he hopes one day to reach out to the voiceless as a lawyer since he was taking up law. He also said that he gives financial help to the Missionaries of Charity, preferring them to a parish since he sees where the money goes.
The man remembered minute details of people, places, and events. I marveled at how God had delivered him from harm. “A week before the MV Princess of the Sea went down,” he said, “I was on it. I had taken the vessel so many times before that I knew many of the workers on it. I could have been on it.”

I continued closing my eyes while praying for this anonymous soul and his journey. I saw his aspirations and struggles. Both gifted and flawed, aspiring to do good yet driven by lower instincts, he had dreams that refused to die yet was coming to grips with his mortality. Baptized a Catholic, he was uncomfortable with what he judged as a lack of transparency in his parish.
For me, the ambivalent poles in the life of this unknown person represent the great challenge of formation of conscience. Conscience, which is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man (where) he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths,” must be approached with the greatest sensitivity and even awe. We are treading, after all, on holy ground. This secret core, as one bishop puts it, is “the greatest untapped resource of the Church.”

How can we journey with such souls and strengthen the voice within commanding them to “do good and avoid evil” in a society that has all but canonized the so-called “lesser evil”? What questions and truths need to be shared so that their goodness may shine even more? How can the goodness inherent and latent in their persons be activated and channeled amidst their own doubts and brokenness? How can we form consciences that are sensitive to social issues and not just their individual relationship with God? How can we as Church become a more credible formator of conscience?

The challenges are enormous. Less than one out of every ten adult Catholics has had adult catechism. Globalization and the media are a mixed blessing. While contributing to a world without borders now described as “flat,” these often espouse relativism and permissiveness, making moral absolutes and even faith look out of touch with reality.
Yet formation of conscience is a duty and within the competence of the Church. The gospel readings of the last two Sundays of October deal with this competence and lay the groundwork for the Church’s engagement in public life.

When Jesus’ opponents seek to trap him, he tells them to “give to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). He reminds his listeners of their debt to both the Roman emperor and to God. The way the imperative is constructed in v. 21 shows that while one has obligations to the State, this obligation is relative to one’s greater obligations to God. The two authorities are unequal. Cesar is not on the same level as God. Even the syntactical arrangement of v. 21 shows this since what is usual in Jewish argumentation is to start with the lesser to the greater, the lesser being “Cesar” and the greater being “God.”
For Matthew God is the greatest reality: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Mat 6:33). Hence, “when those demands are not at odds (as here), obligations to both can be met (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:17). In cases of conflict, however, it is manifest which authority requires allegiance.” After all, Jesus himself says that no one can serve two masters who are at odds with each other (Mat 6:24).

The “things of God” include the primacy of conscience. Formation of correct conscience demands that the inner voice of God be obeyed vis-à-vis the Word of God and the teachings of the Church. The proposed reproductive health bill makes a mockery of conscience and imposes a secularist mindset. The “things of Caesar” seek to dominate the “things of God.”

A few verses later, in Mat 22: 34-40, there is convergence between the “things of Caesar” with the “things of God” when Jesus connects love of God with love of neighbor. The two commandments, from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18, form a single whole. Matthew’s community has an expanded view of “neighbor” which goes beyond blood, ethnic, or even religious ties (Mat 5: 43). Anyone in need is neighbor: “Whatever you did for one of my least brothers, you did it for me” (Mat 25:40). This is echoed in 1 John 4:20: “One who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen.”

This constitutes a biblical basis for heroic Christian citizenship and leadership since acts of good citizenship and leadership can express one’s love of God and love of neighbor. By segregating garbage, falling and staying in line, coming on time, to give but three examples, we are actually loving God and neighbor. We are being good stewards of our God-given resources and being considerate to others.

This is a message that needs to be told more loudly. I suspect the anonymous Filipino on the plane would appreciate it.
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Monday, October 13, 2008

Driving to Heaven

“I AM really relearning the joys of driving,” my friend Alex said to me while maneuvering the steering wheel of his vehicle. His face evidenced joy. “Why?” I curiously countered.
“When you drive you adjust to all kinds of people. You learn to be a good citizen,” was Alex’s quick answer. As I listened to him explain his rediscovered joy, I realized that for him the arduous task of driving on Filipino roads has become a sort of school for the virtues. “Why,” I mused to myself, “driving then can make one holy.”

Our van was now meandering on a steep climb up the crest of a hill. The engine then made what sounded like a sigh of relief as we found ourselves once more on level ground. Then Alex made a sudden stop.

“What is it Alex?” I asked. “Si Manang naglalakad,” he said as he pointed with his nose to a stooped figure several yards behind us. Putting the van on reverse, he moved slowly towards the old woman who was carrying a wooden staff taller than herself. “Saan po kayo pupunta?” Alex asked. “Sa San Isidro po,” the woman responded. By this time Alex was out helping the woman climb up the van.

The first time I heard about Atty. Alexander Lacson was in 2006 when the late Max Soliven featured him in his column. Max was narrating how one day, as his car had conked out on a busy Metro Manila street, a stranger had stopped by to offer help. Visibly touched by this act of bringing him to his destination, he asked for the man’s name. It turned out to be Alex. This Filipino stops regardless of one’s station in life.

In 2001, Alex and his wife, Pia, were thinking of leaving the Philippines for abroad. They agreed that if the country will progress in 20 years, they would stay put. If not, they would leave. Then they realized that if they would only do something today, there would be change. After all, change starts with oneself. Wasn’t it Plutarch who said: “What we achieve inwardly will change outward reality?”

Atty. Lacson did just that when he wrote the book, Twelve Little Things Every Filipino Can Do to Help Our Country. The book identifies 12 doable actions that when done habitually and in solidarity with others can contribute significantly to nation building. It has since become a best seller with its author having given talks to more than 500 different groups in a period of two years. That’s nearly one talk every day.

When Alex was writing his book, there emerged, in another part of the country, several initiatives that eventually became advocacy groups. One reached out to OFWs and their families; another sought to do something about illegal drugs and the use of drug profits to influence the pillars of justice (i.e. narcopolitics); and a third promoted graft and corruption intolerance. The three has since been consolidated into Dilaab (“conflagration,” “passion,” or “tongues of fire” from Dila and Alab). Three children gave birth to a mother.

Advocacy groups are not easy to “sell” especially to people in the pews. Suspicions lurk as to the ideological underpinnings of such endeavors. Advocacy work, they feel, betrays an activism incompatible with faith. Many feel the risks are just too great. Why stick one’s neck out? Why be confrontational? Why not just try to be honest even if others are not honest?

The challenge of a Church response for social transformation becomes apparent when we read The Catechism for Filipino Catholics, 1193: “Since we Filipino Catholics constitute the great majority of our nation, we hold the primary responsibility for building a just Philippine society.” If rampant graft and corruption is any indication, this responsibility is yet to be carried out to the full. Perhaps there is need not only to be good, but also to try to influence others to be good and to be with others who want to be good. We need to take sides.

Through the modern wonders of technology and networking, I was able to connect with Alex. Soon our paths converged. Nearly two years ago, Dilaab launched its Heroic Christian Citizenship and Leadership Program (HCCLP). The message is simple: “A good Christian should be a good citizen and a good leader.” Acts of good citizenship and leadership, when done through the eyes of faith, can bring us to heaven.

Or, one might even say, these acts give a glimpse of heaven on earth. Matthew 22:1-14, the gospel reading for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, has a peculiar detail: a man who was not dressed up for the wedding festival of the king’s son is kicked out of the assembly. Some say the garment may have been issued by the host himself and especially made for the occasion. It was worn over the guest’s regular clothing. Whatever the cultural realities, the garment became requisite for participation in the feast. Matthew’s penchant for “righteousness” (this appears 7x while used only 3x in all the other gospels) has led some scholars to identify this garment with deeds of righteousness.

The biblical concept of “righteousness” refers to the state of being in the right, i.e. of being vindicated in the eyes of God. It has to do with being in right relationship with God and with others. Perhaps this starts with the heart being in the right place (cor-recto?). When such godly order of relationship exists, we get a glimpse of heaven here on earth. When acts of good citizenship are impelled by faith, there result deeds of righteousness.

Good citizenship expands our notion of family. The daily chaos in our streets—where I often feel like an endangered specie as a pedestrian—speaks of a predatory mentality that results when one’s notion of family remains constricted. I have often asked myself: “What if each driver would imagine pedestrians trying to cross pedestrian lanes as their mothers or family members, wouldn’t they be more considerate?”

My friend Alex thinks so.
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