Thursday, September 28, 2006

Thank God for UP Diliman

A few weeks ago Patricia Sto. Tomas, a UP student who writes a column for a major Philippine newspaper spoke strongly and eloquently in defense of academic freedom. She denounced Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez’s demeaning statements about the decline in the quality of UP graduates whom he calls the “destabilizers that haunt the country every year.” Sto. Tomas defends the UP students by giving her definition of destabilizer,” a destabilizer is an obstructionist who deliberately chooses to oppose current norms. They mistrust much of what is currently claimed, perpetually demand for answers, and admit only truths that they believe have basis in fact, logic, theory or precedence over their personal standards.

In the academe, they are neither called destabilizers or obstructionists. The common word for these vile creatures is scholar.” (Cf. Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 3, 2006) A few days ago, another voice, this time from the academe came out in UP’s defense. Dr. Ganni Tapang, a professor at the UP National Physics Institute wrote a reflection entitled “Bad eggs and right conduct.” Dr. Tapang wrote his article shortly when after the controversy created by students who threw eggs at the picture of the new Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Esperon. Professor Tapang criticized, “the anti-communist hysteria and Mc Carthyist red-baiting as is being done by Alex Magno and his friends in the seat of power in Malacanang.” Alex Magno, a UP professor turned Malacanang consultant equated the students’ action with fascism and communist terrorism. Professor Tapang laments that Magno merely “parrots and tows the military’s fallacious and dangerous reasoning that unarmed students are no different from their NPA targets.” (Cf. Dr. Giovanni Tapang,, September 26, 2006).

Academic freedom should be exercised in democratic space. Thank God for UP. Outside UP is a dangerous jungle where people actually get killed simply because they dare express and live out their convictions. Expressing anger by throwing eggs at a symbolic target is different from actual trouble making and civil disturbance. The students have every right to express anger over something that is more than an academic issue. The disappearance, torture and murder of student activists is serious and calls for consistent vigilance and dissent.

Alex Magno who has become an extremely loyal apologist of the Arroyo administration sounds like a parrot when he speaks about Maoists, Communists and Terrorists. He should listen to himself. Someone should show him all of his writings and how much of it is pure Palace hogwash and propaganda. Yes communist propaganda, strategy and tactics exist. But how about Malacanang? What is Magno doing? What are Bert Gonzalez, Raul Gonzalez, Palparan and Esperon all about?

I thank God for UP students whether Maoists or not, for keeping the flames of truth and dissent alive. I thank God for UP, for the relative safety of its endangered democratic space. I hope that the UP administration would continue to appreciate both the value of the young's idealism and capacity for moral indignation and the value of maintaining the extremely important but endangered values of academic freedom and the democratic space crucial for its exercise....Mabuhay po kayo diyan sa UP mga kasama. Tuloy po ang mapayapang pakikibaka....Nagdarasal para sa inyong lahat.....(Long live UP. The peaceful struggle goes on. Praying for all of you…)

Fr. Roberto P. Reyes

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An Open Letter to New Bishop

Dear Bishop Brod,

The last time I saw you was outside the World Trade Center along Roxas Boulevard. It was the National Retreat for Priest in 2004 where you gave the most applauded talk on “poor priest among the poor.” After your talk, I thanked God for the gift of your life. I somehow knew about your struggle as a scripture scholar and professor and member of the Salesian Congregation. You had wanted to teach scriptures while living among the poor. Apparently, the idea did not sit well with your superiors.

Eventually, this led to your radical decision to actually live among the poorest of the poor in the poorest parish of the Diocese of Palawan. I even remember visiting your little bahay-kubo in Palawan. I saw your Hebrew and Greek Bible, Biblical Dictionaries and Commentaries sitting on a bamboo shelf above a simple study table. Books of erudition and bamboo usually do not go together but they can. You have seen a lot of bamboo, discarded plywood, rusting and perforated corrugated steel sheets or “yero” and various shapes and sizes of cardboard and tin biscuit containers or “balde” beaten flat put together by your poor parishioners to build their houses.

Indeed, I was deeply moved by your choice quite uncommon in this times of affluent congregations and posh parish churches and rectories. It takes no simple courage to leave the comforts of convent or rectory and find one’s abode among those pushed and trampled upon by the comfortable and secure. I left you and your little “bahay kubo” and thanked you and quietly spoke to the Lord asking Him to teach me the same radical simplicity and courage to choose the unpopular.

Now you are Auxilliary Bishop of Manila. You will be surrounded by willing and generous benefactors who would fall head over heels to get close to a bishop as though this were to be their passport to eternal life. You will no longer live in the naked and vulnerable simplicity of a “bahay kubo.” You will no longer have as much time to spend with the poor, unless….unless…
I am no biblical scholar. My field is social science. But this much I know, that in reading scriptures there is hermeneutics or the science and art of understanding and interpreting texts. Hermeneutics gives importance not only to texts but to their context. This helps us understand text the way they were understood by the people in the times these were spoken and eventually committed to writing.

Thus, an excessively literal reading of the text can lead to dangerous fanaticism and parochialism. But the opposite is also true. One can read too subjectively into the text that it becomes thoroughly washed and becomes almost antiseptic if not cosmetic.

Today’s Gospel is from Luke 6:20-26, the Beatitudes. It begins thus, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” Somewhere before the end, it reads, “But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.” There are two ways of looking at this, one literal and the other figurative or subjective. In any case, our priestly lives are based on a conscious or unconscious interpretation of the beatitudes whether literal or figurative, radical or liberal.

Now that you are bishop, I pray for you as I do for another young and new bishop, Ambo David who incidentally is another scripture scholar. Jesus was neither scripture scholar nor priest. He did not have the luxury of long study, reflection and agonizing choices. He simply was true to Himself as the Son of Man sent to live and be among the poor, outcast, the pushed and trampled. I guess, a professional hazard of bishops, priests and religious today is precisely having a choice between the comfortable Jesus and the radical Jesus whose life was a constant testament to love, justice and compassion for the trampled and the pushe

One in the constant striving to follow Jesus,

Fr. Roberto P. Reyes
September 13, 2006

Monday, September 11, 2006

How Far, How Deeply Do we Remember

A young student of my mine shared her grief over the unexpected and violent death of her mother. Her mother and thirteen other passengers perished in a bus hit by a train. While I listened to her, I was quietly surprised at how she referred to her mother’s death. A number of times, she paused and solemnly expressed, “that painful memory of 7-11 will never leave me.” Her mother died on July 11, hence 7-11. Today, it would have been two months since my student’s mother perished. The memory is necessarily painful as it is fresh. Today, a not too fresh memory is nonetheless still painful. In the United States, relatives, friends of the victims of 9-11 will gather at ground zero to pray and remember. They will not be alone. Even ordinary Americans who have no relations among the victims will be there. Beyond the boundaries of the American continent, non-Americans, ordinary citizens of other lands will remember.

There are two modes of remembering here, one engendered by blood, another by a conscious choice. Those who have loved ones among the victims of 9-11 will always find reason to stand on the hallowed grounds of ground zero. Each time, they will more and more come to terms with a grief and loss that time may somehow heal but not remove. And there are those who choose to remember to nurture the memory that feeds the fire of a passion against an evil whose constant occurrence, has become, in the words of Hannah Arrendt, “banal” or quite ordinary.

While the families and friends of victims remember 9-11 with deep pain, we wonder how leaders remember? How does George W. Bush remember? How about Blair and Howard? And what do they remember? What do they seek in their remembrance?

Sometime this week, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo must have listened uncomfortably and tensely to the remark made by Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja at the opening of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, “while the European Union welcomed the abolition of the death penalty in the Philippines in June 2006, let me add, however, that we also want to see an end to the political killings which still form a harsh reality of that country.” (cf. Philippine Daily Inquirer, p. A1, September 11, 2006, “Europeans rebuke Arroyo on killings.”) Surely on Europe’s soil repeatedly turned crimson by a long history of wars, peace that stands on justice and respect for human rights is a value deeply revered. Blood flowed generously from the time of the Cesars to the Crusades, all the way to the dark decades of the 20th century that saw the Holocaust, the First and Second World War, the atom bomb dropped in Horishima and Nagazaki, and various wars fought within and beyond nation’s boundaries. Yes Europe does remember but not all in the same breath and depth. Britain’s Blaire should remember, yet like Bush and Australia’s Howard it is a peculiar remembering that selects some and conveniently forgets others.

Our President has announced her plans to invite the European Union to see for itself what she dismisses as the exaggerated and propagandistic claim of militant groups about her serious record of human rights violations. A voluminous book on memory has been written by the philosopher Paul Ricouer. In it he speaks of various maladies of memory. Apropos of our President and quite typical of other leaders, the concept of “manipulated memory” can be applied. This kind of memory produces “abuses, resulting from a concerted manipulation of memory and of forgetting by those who hold power.” (Cf. Paul Ricouer, “Memory, History, Forgetting,” University of Chicago Press, 2004, p.80)

We live in a frightening world run by sick leaders whose obsession with power and themselves does not make them hesitate to manipulate memory and remembrance either by gentle massage or violent brainwashing. The European Union must not fall into the trap of collecting data, of facts and figures whether provided by the Philippine Government or its critics and leaving without noticing something more fundamental, the sinister mind or minds manipulating the facts.

Fr. Roberto P. Reyes
September 11, 2006