WE were wondering—Bishop Rodolfo Beltran of Bontoc-Lagawe and I—who would get the first 10 (or 30?) per cent in kick-back money from the one billion 600 million pesos earmarked for the new road project linking Bontoc, Tabuk and Tuguegarao. The scuttle-butt in town was that already, even before the first inch of cement had been laid, 600 million of that allotment had been distributed in our unsurpassed system of public works corruption.
If the thought of the easy loss of millions was appalling, just as appalling, I thought later, was the sure expectation on our part, the bishop’s and mine, that stealing of public money would occur on such a massive scale—and callously, with no nod whatsoever to public opinion and the basic demands of the common good. What the CBCP has been saying all along about the way we, ordinary citizens, accept corruption as SOP in our political and economic life as probably the greatest obstacle to our correcting of the evil came to mind as soon as we posed the cynical question about the division of spoils.
The thought made me recall another: “They (Filipinos) are poor because they are corrupt.” The judgment on our national character was made by a simple farmer in a rural parish in Manitoba, Canada after a talk I had given on our situation in the Philippines. This was five years ago in 2003. I had been invited by the CCODP (the Canadian Catholic Office for Development and Peace) to help in their Lenten program of social justice education for that year. I bristled when the remark was relayed to me. But later, in a calmer moment, I had to agree: the man had hit the nail on the head, but only if the first “they” was taken differently from the second: “They are poor”—the majority, that is, of us Filipinos; “they” are corrupt”—the few and their ilk that bishop Beltran and I were speculating about who routinely and shamelessly steal from public monies and thus make us all the poorer by their thieving.
Much later, however, remembering what the CBCP has been saying about our cavalier tolerance of corruption, I had to revise my exonerating of our people from all blame. We Filipinos do have a share in the sin of corruption, grand or petty, in our rather supine, unquestioning acceptance of it as a given we can’t do too much about. If this weren’t so, we wouldn’t have a hard time, for example, trying to explain to non-Filipinos why we keep electing to public office proven thieves and criminals who steal not only money when they are in office but other things besides, like votes, when they seek office in our system of election-cheating; and why despite the fulminations of bishops against corrupt politics, despite the constant—and nauseating—bombardment of our sensibilities by daily accounts in media of sleaze and thieving in government; despite the “revelations” of fact-finding bodies in Congress (which seems to be the main thing that that honorable body does)—things remain unchanged, the evil only gets worse.
The sense of despair of such citizens as are concerned about the deterioration of the country’s political morality is deepening. Solutions galore are proposed: impeachment of the President, coups d’etat by unknown “liberators”, a fourth and a fifth and a sixth EDSA People Power Revolution, marches, demos, etc., etc. Nothing effectively grabs the public imagination, and I suspect the reason is that deep down they know in their guts that none of the solutions being proposed so far will work. So what will?
Nobody seems to really know, pompous know-it-all solutions notwithstanding from all sorts of self-proclaimed pundits. I don’t intend by any means to join their august company in this column. But let me speak as an ordinary believer in Jesus Christ. And I can only think in terms of the power we have as Christians and which we don’t seem to know we have: the power of faith and prayer.
“More things are wrought by prayer than the world dreams of.” I can’t for the life of me remember who the author of those words was. They stuck in my mind as a callow seminarian 60 years ago. They have been with me ever since. And I have seen them verified again and again. Most especially at EDSA I, when people most naturally fell on their knees to beg for protection against the guns and minions of a rejected government. “People power”, we call it now. But it also was first and foremost prayer power—to the thousands at least who kept prayerful vigil those four heady days in February 1986.
This is what I would like to highlight in our Advent prelude to the celebration of Christmas this year: a whole nation on its knees in humble prayer before the Child of Peace asking for the peace of the nation—possible? A prayer then for the conversion of us all to be like him in his unselfish concern for others—which concern, if we only had it, would be the end of corruption in the nation. It is hence not a prayer for heaven’s vengeance on all the corrupt. I know sophisticates will laugh at this mode of reforming Philippine society from its besetting sin. Not, however, those of simple faith who have heard these words and believe them: “Ask and you will receive—knock and the door will be opened to you—if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you’d say to this mountain ‘move’ and it will move.”
So we pray with faith that the Lord will do as he said. And on our part, even as we pray that he touches hearts—especially those hardened by corruption—we do whatever is humanly possible to lessen the harm they do to our people. He can touch hearts in a way we humans can’t, so we humbly yet confidently have recourse to him in prayer.
“Look up and see, your redemption is at hand.” This is the message of Advent to all of us who believe. And believing, we can hope—we can make hope.