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How could a Christian nation even make Duterte the leading presidential contender?

(Second of Two Parts)

On Monday I explained that one answer to that question is that Christians like Protestant Perfecto Yasay and columnist Carmen Pedrosa simply refuse to believe that Rodrigo Duterte will really kill criminals without due process as he has been saying in his speeches.

He says something. They hear only what they want to hear. He says he will kill criminals where they stand, and not arrest them and subject them to the legal sysem. They insist that he will comply with the rule of law, which Duterte really hasn’t said. And if that is what he really means, he wouldn’t get a fraction of the angry masses with his I-will-kill-them-all screams.

A Davao Death Squad victim. “It will be bloody,” Duterte told a shocked Makati Business Club the other day.
A Davao Death Squad victim. “It will be bloody,” Duterte told a shocked Makati Business Club the other day.

But then that doesn’t answer what is probably the more important question: Why do the masses, who profess to be Christians, still support Duterte (at least going by the surveys) despite his statements that he will kill without due process (suspected) criminals, even if the most important tenet of their religion is reverence for human life?

Catholicism, in fact, has been the most militant religion in today’s world in championing such reverence, even objecting to the taking of human life by a state-nation purportedly duty-bound to defend its members (as in the case of capital punishment) or by a woman who asserts her freedom over her body (in the case of contraception and abortion).

The answer is unpleasant, which many social scientists, however, have pointed out before, even before this Duterte phenomenon prodded us to ask the question.

The Philippines isn’t really a Christian nation, but a pagan community divided into clans and tribes, professing Christianity by force of tradition shaped by four centuries of Spanish colonial rule. After all, it has also has made the exploited classes docile, as they are told they should bear patiently with class rule, and just wait for the classless Kingdom of Heaven after they die.

Study our purportedly revered practices like going to Mass, veneration of the Santo Niño, the sea of people risking life and limb following the Black Nazarene on a hot day, immolating one’s self on Black Friday. Most Filipinos are really worshipping tribal gods to ask for a boon – for the recovery of a cancer-stricken loved one, to win the lotto, to get a visa for work abroad.

Filipinos live basically as tribal groupings, with family, then clans, being the basic unit. This nation’s dominant religion isn’t really this treasure of mankind we call Christianity, and its people are formed not really as a result of a mass experience of some supernatural revelation but as a product of cultural evolution and rationality.

‘Fear of God’

Ask a Filipino what Christianity is, and he is most likely not going to reply, it’s reverence for human life. He is more likely to say, “fear of God,” by which he means trembling before Moses’ jealous god demanding worship for people to get his gifts.

This is the reason why a candidate who boasts of killing people and throwing their corpses away like garbage has become a leading contender, supported even by some of our educated, religious elite. (“Ibaon sila sa isang butas lang, [Just bury them all in one big hole in the ground,]” Duterte himself said as he narrated how he ordered his men to dispose of the corpses of the 16 convicts killed in the 1989 Davao hostage crisis.)

In their frustration over rampant criminality in the country and the little progress they see in the course of their lives, many Filipinos opt to simply revert to their tribal consciousness, tossing into the dustbin their Christian beliefs.

The elections give them a chance to clamor for a strong leader of the tribe who, as in ancient times – before Christianity, before the advent of the rule of law – can be ruthless enough to kill their enemies. (I was a bit shocked at how Duterte could even rouse the tribe into a violent frenzy: Imagine Ramon Jacinto, a big Duterte fan, calling for a “Rock D’Avance” for his candidate, the big attraction being such rock and folk stars as Pepe Smith and Freddie Aguilar. At the end of his announcement, RJ says, “Upakan na natin! [Let’s go hit them!” What happened to the make-love-not-war ethos of our usual rock concerts?)

The tribal ethos is obvious in that the surge of support for Duterte occurred in his tribe’s territory, Davao City, and spread of course in Mindanao where residents regard him as a tribal brother.

Such tribalism is also obvious in the case even of Perfecto Yasay, a very educated lawyer, whose father was even a Protestant pastor. But he is from Mindanao, born in Kidapawan, with his formative years spent in Davao. He says he has known Duterte for decades. For that, his decades of education on Western civilizations’ principle of the rule of law, his religious upbringing, were quickly shed to support as President an admitted killer. RJ, of course, had been a habitué of Davao City, the nearest urban (entertainment) center from his family’s Iligan Steel Mills.

There have been surges of tribalism in modern history, with disastrous consequences. In Germany, one of the most civilized nations on earth that had produced geniuses in philosophy and art, the tribalism Hitler roused – the belief in a superior Aryan race, the bigger set of tribes – resulted in history’s most horrific war, and the extermination of 8 million Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and other tribes that the Nazis believed blocked the Aryan tribe’s domination of the world.

Closer to home, strongman Suharto of the “Bumiputra” (Malay race) in the late 1960s led a pogrom against Indonesians of Chinese descent, on the flimsy excuse that they were communists and communist sympathizers, resulting in a near genocide of 500,000.

Inhuman creatures

One distinctive invariable characteristic of tribalism, or the racism that Christianity and modern civilization have struggled to overcome for two centuries, is the deep belief that certain classes of humans aren’t really human beings, such as the Jews Hitler killed en masse or the Chinese Indonesians in Suharto’s pogroms. This gives them a perverted justification to exterminate such “creatures.” Christianity and modern civilization though, really only in the last century, have been victorious in having the world embrace the notion that all human beings, without exception, have the same spark of divine life in them.
But this isn’t how how Duterte sees criminals.

For him, criminals aren’t human beings.

Duterte sees criminals as some kind of non-human creatures that must be ruthlessly eradicated. This is probably because of his experience in Davao, which also happens in our biggest cities, where criminals often are those from the hinterlands, taga-labas (outsiders), mostly poor farmers or farmers’ children thinking they could escape rural poverty in the cities but finding little work and becoming desperate, are sucked into urban criminal subcultures.

Note how Duterte has argued in one speech, sounding as if there were creatures (like the Orcs of the Lord of the Rings) who once and for all must be exterminated: “Ano ang mawawala sa Pilipinas kung patayin ko lahat ng mga kriminal dito?” It escapes this idiot totally that if he exterminates this generation of criminals, a new one would just emerge in the absence of an efficient police force and legal system in an egalitarian, prosperous society. He assumes — or perhaps relishes — that when he becomes President, he will kill all criminals. “It will be bloody,” he declared the other day before a shocked group of Makati businessmen.

It is totally beyond Duterte’s thinking that probably at least half of criminals in this country were pushed to live that way because of abject poverty or because they were sucked into sub-cultures where criminality prevailed as a way of life.

It is beyond Duterte’s small mind that other than an efficient police force and legal system and egalitarian economic development are the ingredients to minimize crime, as other cities in the country, among them Cavite towns, Cagayan de Oro and General Santos have proven. It is certainly not coincidental that countries with the highest crime incidences have been countries in abject poverty, such as Nigeria and South Sudan.

Demagogues rousing base tribal instincts invariably promise a desperate people a single, simplistic vision – that they have found the key to lead the tribe into prosperity, and they pretend to be messiahs willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the tribe. Thus, Hitler promised his Thousand-Year Reich that would mark the total domination of the Aryan race over the planet. Suharto promised his New Order that would make all pure-blooded Malays as prosperous as the ethnic Chinese.


This megalomaniac mayor promises a crime-free Philippines, even as incontrovertible data shows that Davao is as infested with crime as most of the urban centers are, despite his 23 years of leading it as mayor, and desperate Filipinos believe him.

Of course, he promises to usher in a Federal Republic, a dream of Mindanao and Visayan politicians ranting for decades against “imperial Manila.” And columnist Carmen Pedrosa, whose life-long passion has been for a Federal Philippines, totally, unconditionally believes him, and shoves aside the most cherished tenets not just of Christianity but of modern civilization – reverence for human life.

Pope John Paul II had pointed reverence for life isn’t just some goody-goody notion but the basic foundation of modern civilization as we know it: “Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace. (Evangelium vitae, 1995, no. 101).

There has been one episode in our history in which such Christian tenet for cherishing life proved Pope John Paul II’s words right — in February 1986.

As the political crisis unfolded at that time, the revered Jaime Cardinal Sin didn’t really ask Filipinos to overthrow Marcos. Sin just had such a grasp of Catholicism’s deep reverence for life. He, therefore, called on the faithful to mass around Camp Crame, where the rebels had declared they would make their last stand, in order to prevent the loss even of a single life.

Will the Church leaders of today have such an unwavering moral compass, and speak out loudly against a candidate who openly boasts of his irreverence for life?