A call for a militant Christian ministry

(With permission of the Author)
Commencement Address delivered during the 109th Commencement Ceremony of the Union Theological Seminary, April 2017)

The President Dr Eleazar S. Fernandez, the representative of the Board of Trustees, Atty. Juanito Carlos, Jr., Ecclesiastical leaders and pastors, the members of the Graduating Class, their parents, family members and friends, members of the faculty, dear students, friends, ladies and gentlemen, good day to all of you.

I want to thank President Eleazar Fernandez for his leadership in this leading theological institution shaping young minds to become good keepers of humanity. I know that you left a more economically rewarding life in the United States to assume the highest leadership post in this seminary. The Union Theological Seminary must be so blessed by your presence.

I am very honoured to have been invited to this graduation ceremony, the 109th. I know it is an important and meaningful milestone in your lives and to share it with you, with your parents and loved ones who supported you all the way, is a rare privilege. A few minutes ago, I was told that the last lawyer to deliver a commencement speech in this institution was The Great Claro M. Recto. That is intimidating. I hope I will not be a big disappointment.

Your graduation from Union Theological Seminary must be twinned with huge expectations. I read the vision-mission statement of this premiere theological school. It says, “Being faithful to God’s call in Jesus Christ, is to promote theological education for ministry to all of creation. In partnership with the churches, the seminary’s mission is to educate students: to grow in faith while being conscious of human limitations; to proclaim and live the gospel in a liberating way; to be guided and empowered to serve with the help of God’s Spirit and grace; to be committed to work as agents of justice and peace toward the fulfilment of basic human needs and for the integrity of the whole creation; to celebrate life in all its fullness in the midst of struggles for dignity and respect for life. … For years, UTS has advocated sustainable and people-oriented development, and its theologies have emphasized the integrity of creation and land and justice.”

What a mission you are now being asked to fulfill in the ministry you will establish after today. You chose a work of vocation. And this is a work of contribution to the common good, to the ending of injustice and inequality. It is a herculean mission, one that more than a century of alumni have been able to live up to.

Thus, I am confident your education adequately prepared you for the challenges ahead. The difficulties of the last years involved mostly school works—papers, graded recitations, class discussions- that your professors required. But now, the command is coming from Jesus Christ himself: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.[1] This is called the Great Commission and it entails huge commitments. But remember what Jesus said, “Lo, I am with you always.”

It will serve you well in your ministry to remember what education is for. From the Vision-Mission Statement of your school, it is clear that your education prepared you to play key roles in social transformation to dismantle structures that perpetuate social injustice and inequality. I am sure that during the four years you were in this venerable institution, you spent a great deal of time critiquing social injustice. It prepared you not to forget that people can contribute to strengthening structures of inequality and perpetuating the systems that keep so many people in poverty by closing their eyes, by being silent when they must speak out, by folding their arms, and by being bystanders. You were chosen to play a decisive role in a country where the economic participants are mostly rent-seeking landlords and tenants, corporate masters and slaves, and the multitude of poor.

Education must not maintain the status quo. Education must liberate and socially transform. Specific to your case, your education is a parrying response to widespread social inequality and injustice.

In your ministry against injustice, it is always important to be grounded despite willing heaven for everyone. It is important to know the facts, know the baseline data.

If the wealth of a country is to be measured on the basis of how much natural resources we have, then we should be one of the world’s wealthiest. The Philippines is the fifth most mineralized country in the world. We should be exporting products derived from steel. We should be manufacturing our own cars and selling them to the rest of the world. Yet, we cannot even produce our own spoons, nail-cutters, or safety pins. We do not even own a steel industry.

There is an international economic order under the economic globalization regime that makes it very challenging for us to use our own resources for the people. We have an international economic order that created and then exploits the bankruptcy of Global South countries with loan offers that come at high cost to the developing world. This includes the reduction of expenditures on social services that hit the poor and needy most. They call this austerity measures. There are multinational corporate investments that demand lax regulatory mechanisms and favorable investment climates. The international order is concentrating wealth in the hands of a few.

Under the free trade system designed by international law, the domestic economies of many poor countries are controlled by a few global elite. The power of governments has been shrunk to accommodate the wishes of a few multinational corporate players. Governments are now merely instruments and infrastructures of globalized corporate capitalism.

Developing countries have become economically dependent on the direct investments of global corporate actors whose license to operate is hinged on the economic benefits they are thought to generate with their technology and capital these countries lack. This dependence is spawned by the reality of dire economic situations such as heavily indebted central banks, lack of technology to turn their resources to cash, and bourgeoning pressures coming from the major actors such as the World Bank to allow foreign investments. Governments, afraid of the prospect of losing the economic benefits brought in by businesses, look the other way when these businesses perpetrate human rights violation on their soils.

Thus, the combined force of the international trade and financial institutions and transnational corporations has erected a global economic order apathetic to the rights of the masses and created human rights problems in the weaker economies and political systems where the imperatives of social justice for the promotion and protection of the rights of the weak are clearly in jeopardy.

To show you how powerful corporations have become over people and governments, let me tell you that in 2003, Walmart, the world’s biggest corporation generated sales amounting to US$256 billion which was larger than the economies of the world’s countries except those of the thirty richest, and its daily sales are equivalent to the gross domestic product of thirty-six (36) countries combined!

In January of this year, news came out that the wealth of the eight richest people in the world is way more than the total wealth of half of the people on Planet Earth. Oxfam reported that the eight multibillionaires have a combined fortune of $426billion. On the other hand, some 3.6billion people, roughly half of the world’s population, have a combined wealth of $409billion. This led Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB Chief Executive, to say, “This year’s snapshot of inequality is clearer, more accurate and more shocking than ever before. It is beyond grotesque that a group of men who could easily fit in a single golf buggy own more than the poorest half of humanity.”

In the Philippines, it is cliché to say the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. But as it has been true then, it remains to be true now.

In 2014, the Philippines was named “the second fastest-growing economy” – only next to China in Asia. Economic reports claimed that about US $16.6 billion were added to the Philippines’ GDP. But the growth did not trickle down to the poor who did not feel it. Of the $16.6 billion increase in the GDP, 51% or $8.45 billion was added to the coffers of the Philippines’ 50 richest families.

In my lifetime, I had the grand opportunity to meet Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. He put up the Bangladesh-grown Grameen Bank which lends to poor women at no interest for them to run micro-entrprises. He said that the debtors always paid. He said to us: “The skeptics told me that the poor are not credit-worthy. I did not believe them. After the 2008 economic meltdown, tell me: who is actually credit-worthy? The big banks, the big businesses crashed. They asked to be bailed out by the government. No, the poor did not ask to be bailed out. At all.” He also said, “We always blame the poor for their poverty. We say they are illiterate, they are lazy… The poor are like bonsai plants. Their growth space has simply been constricted. Poverty is a condition imposed from the outside.”

I agree with Mr. Yunus. The situation of indigenous peoples validates his claim. While they are a numerical minority in the globe making up 5% or 370 million of the world population, they inhabit 20% of the Earth’s land surface, and stand for and are caretakers of 80% of the world’s cultural and biological diversity. The resource-rich last frontiers of the planet are mostly located in their domains. In the Philippines for example, they are estimated to make up seventeen (17) percent of the population but they host most of the country’s remaining biodiversity and the large-scale mining companies operate in their ancestral domains. These resources have become magnets of State oppression in the face of economic globalization. In the world, indigenous peoples are the poorest and most oppressed and are disenfranchized. They are victims of militarization to stop their opposition to their displacement. They endure environmental destruction that destroy their food sources. They are being killed or extrajudicially disappeared.

As in other parts of the world, poverty in this country is the result of sustained and systematic imposition of dominant forces’ dictates legitimized as laws and policies that favour the rich and landlords and their multinational partners and cohorts. This is dehumanization. How can a wealthy country have so many poor people?

We are also living at a time when there are killings happening. Police figures show that crime rates have gone considerably lower than before Pres. Duterte took over. People feel safe in the streets. But there is a trade off: Drug-related killings have gone up.

It cannot be denied that there is a co-relation if not a causal relationship between drug use and criminality. Many of the most bestial and horrendous crimes committed in this country were perpetrated by people under the influence of shabu. It is therefore understandable that many of our fellow Filipinos support the drug war no matter how violent, how bloody it is. They want to stop worrying whether their children who work during the graveyard shift will be killed or raped before they get home. They want to be able to walk the streets at night with a sense of security.

We want that, too. But must blood be shed more than necessary? We understand that a drug war is a war and is expected to involve some violence. The main characters, on the one hand, are people of immeasurable political power: drug lords, politicians, protectors in the judiciary, in the prosecution service, the police force, and the bureaucracy; on the other hand, you have the poor runners and the addicts, and law enforcers who sincerely want to enforce the law. The drug traders have used violence and killings in the past to control and promote the business. Are we to expect them to be tame this time to stay in business when the odds against them are higher? No. And so the drug war is shedding blood. Drug lords are killing their enemies and eliminating their competitors using the drug war a convenient cover. The drug trade would not have attained an unimaginable magnitude of power if it was not protected by scalawags in the bureaucracy including police generals and other officers and allegedly a former Cabinet Secretary. It is not implausible that these protectors are responsible for some of the killings to eliminate people who could tell on them. Unfortunately, it is alleged that some rogue elements in the military used the drug war as an excuse to round up political dissenters and activists. Some rogue elements in the police force used the drug war as a convenient cover for their illegal activities. This shocked the President who said that the PNP is rotten to the core. How then can a drug war be won with them playing a lead role? Thus, he momentarily suspended the drug war and then reinstated it in a form where the PNP no longer plays the leading role.

In the drug war, a lot of poor people fell prey. They are the easy targets. They do not have the resources to hide in secure places. In some cases, they get killed like cattle and some are innocent.

And there, too, are labor issues. The rich people in our country and the multinational corporations are committing labor rights abuses. Not only do they refuse to share their wealth (unless sharing means tax deductions for them), they also exploit the working class’ labor to expand their capital. In this country, contractualization of labor is a recurrent problem. This means employees are hired as contractuals for 5 months. If you hire them for 6 months, they become regular employees. The corporations have resorted to all schemes imaginable to steal the actual monetary cost of the proletariat’s sweat. Workers in this country are like dead leaves: They are easily swept aside under contractualization schemes.
In all these narratives, it is the poor who end up holding the shorter end of the stick.

Where do we now situate ourselves in? What role do you play in this turbulent world? The Bible says we cannot serve both God and mammon. You have chosen to serve God and admirable is not even enough to express how I feel about that honourable choice you made. That means you have chosen to be on the side of the poor. As you leave the portals of this great school to serve the poor, I also leave you some advice.

Have faith that is not dead.

Faith is all we need for salvation. But this is the faith that manifests itself in good works. The Bible says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.[2]

For an example of good works, all we need to do is look at the life of Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.

Like an ordinary human being, Jesus Christ was a victim of human rights violations. The criminal justice system in his day failed him. He had to be silenced- this man who was rocking the boat. He was falsely accused. They concocted a case against him. They tortured him. He was found innocent by Pontius Pilate but like many leaders of today who see wrong when it happens, he did not stop an injustice from happening. He merely washed his hands to insulate himself from blame.

So Jesus Christ’s fate was left to the mob who condemned him without trial. He was meted out a cruel and unusual punishment- death by crucifixion – reserved in those days for the most heinous criminals. What did the Pharisees do? They enabled the crowd to do as they did. No one was innocent in the unjust killing of Jesus. It was an extrajudicial killing sanctioned by the State and the religious.

Jesus Christ’ death was one death too much and too many. It was all it took for salvation to be accessible. And we must honor this death by listening to his admonitions on how we can make the world a better place to live in.

Be a community organizer. Arouse, organize, and mobilize.

Referring to the poor, Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly.” He sought out the fishermen, the poor. He did not seek out the Kings and Queens. I am glad he had one lawyer with him. He educated them about justice. He organized them. We should do this, too, as pastors and ministers and as advocates of God’s justice and equality.

Do not stop raising the consciousness of the poor about their rights and other justice issues. Remember that knowledge is power. Educate the rich members of the flock as well so that they will realize that their comfort is a responsibility to do good for others. Encourage critical thinking as this school did to you. Create an environment for community analysis of issues affecting the oppressed and marginalized that may foster a common view of issues which becomes basis of unity for further actions. Say this from the pulpit. Say this during Bible Studies.Say this during prayer meetings. Say this during family days.

As community organizers, bring the members of your flock together to pursue an agenda of communal interest. This builds people into a collective power for social change. In your organizing projects, adopt a conscientization approach. Assure the masses to never forget that God is a God of justice and all his ways are justice according to the Book of Deutronomy. Let us not for a moment then encourage our brothers and sisters to think of their oppression and marginalization as the will of God that must be accepted. Make the poor realize that they are poor not because God willed that for them but because of unjust structural relations and order that inequitably distribute wealth. Make the marginalized see the realities of the world around them when they come together to dissect their issues and study the roots of the injustice they suffer. This inspires critical consciousness.

Condemn the idolatry that worships the Golden Calf.

Never tire telling the rich about what Jesus thought about wealth. Remind them about the rich young man who asked him what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus recited the Ten Commandments. The young man said, “I have done all of that. What do I need to do further?” Jesus told him, “Sell your possessions, give to the poor.” The man of immense wealth left with a heavy heart for he could not do as Jesus asked. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven,” Jesus remarked sadly.

Jesus disdained profiteers. When he went to a temple, there were so many merchants – money changers and people selling doves. In those days, doves were sacrificed in the temple by the poor who could not afford sheep and goats. Enraged, Jesus turned the tables upside down, cracked a whip he made and drove out the merchants while denouncing them for converting the temple into a den of thieves. The merchants must have been reaping more profit than what reason permitted. Why else did the reasonable Jesus call them thieves?

We cannot serve mammon. Christianity must stop the spread and worsening of unfettered capitalism. By keepin quiet about it, we enable the rule of mammon. We entrench idolatry abhorred by God which worships before the altar of the Golden Calf.

I urge you that in your ministry, dialogue with banks and the rich and make them realize that they are an important force in eradicating economic injustice. They must open their hearts and lend to the poor. Proverbs 19:17 says that when you lend money to help the poor, you are actually lending to God. What an honor this is! Do not be afraid to tell the rich to be ashamed of their wealth when they do not use it to do justice for the poor as God commanded in Psalms 72. Always remind them about what Paul wrote to Timothy: “As for those who in the present age are rich … They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”[3]

Rise above your fears.

You will leave this institution expected to aggressively challenge injustice and unequal power arrangements in society. You will need all the courage for these colossal engagements. I cannot tell you not to be afraid. Be afraid of risks. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the ability to rise above one’s fear because the end, the goal of an equitable society is bigger than our fear. It is bigger than the hands of oppression.

In the face of the oppression that the poor are burdened with by a system that favors the oligarchy, we cannot value silence. From the pulpit, we have to speak out against the oligarchy and their agents in the bureaucracy. Let us not fear the rich and powerful. It is our obeisance to them for decades that nourished their strong sense of entitlement, their feeling that systems are in place to serve their interests, and the existence of the poor is necessary for them to maintain their esteemed position in the country.

We will continue to condemn the policies that allow malls to thrive and drive out of business hundreds of sari-sari stores on which thousands of poor people depend. Let us never stop asking why the wealthiest in this country are not the top taxpayers. Let us never question government when its policies are skewed in favour of the wealthy. Even Pres. Duterte keeps on emphasizing the need to end the control by the oligarchy of our life as a nation. Christian ministry should be active in ending the servile attitude of the government officials and employees when it comes to dealing with the powerful. Remind them that God required the rulers of Israel to make sure that their constituents were treated justly and fairly. Speak out against corruption. John the Baptist told the tax collectors, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Plato said a long time ago that “the penalty good people pay for indifference to public affairs, is to be ruled by evil people.” So do not be indifferent. We must always choose action over apathy or we lose our moral right to complain against the evil that we tolerate with our silence.

Be watchful of government.

Government might be doing a right thing but not in a right way. I will give you an example. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the Cojuangco-controlled Hacienda Luisita must be distributed to the peasants, more than 6000 agrarian reform beneficiaries were awarded 0.65 hectares each by the Department of Agrarian Reform. When Sec. Rafael Mariano assumed the DAR highest post, he found out that more than 50 percent of the beneficiaries had their lands mortgaged, rented out, or sold. The farmers got the titles from the government but not the support services to make them realize self-agency. Their dependence on the landlord was not severed. But the purpose of the agrarian reform law does not end with the distribution of lands; it is to empower the peasants and make them self-reliant. Thankfully, we have a DAR Secretary who strongly believes this and is now trying to move the bureaucracy to make this happen. This week, he cancelled the sales, mortgages, and lease agreements the farmers were forced to execute.

My Story.

You might think I blabber a lot but what did I do about my education? Who am I to stand before you to say these big words as if they are doable?
I was raised as a Sunday School Child. My sense of justice was shaped as I read the Bible and studied it with my family and our church. It is true that when you train up a child in the way she should go, she will not depart from it when she grows old. In fact, I can still recite all the books of the Bible as I did when I was a little girl even if I stopped going to our church since I turned 15 or so.

When I finished law school, I was named one of the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines. I became a lawyer and got invitations to work under conditions that would guarantee me wealth. But my choice was already made even before I entered law school. I decided to take the less travelled road. I became a human rights lawyer. I went to communities, held the hands of battered women, raped women, girls, and babies, political dissidents, the homeless, ambulant vendors, indigenous peoples, persons with disability, laborers, the LGBT community, and other marginalized sectors. I fought for environmental justice. Did I have any regrets? I never had. Not even when I had a stroke and well-meaning friends and family members were telling me to rest. I learned a lot from the people whose rights I fought for by working with them. They gave me opportunities to be a better person each time and I always felt thankful for every chance to bring out the best in me. Sometimes, my mother would express a little displeasure in what I was doing. She always worried about my security. Did I do things that could expose me to danger? A lot of times, yes. But as I said, justice is bigger than our fears. Thankfully, my mother would always pray for me. Yes, God answers prayers. That is why I am able to speak before you today.

Then this foul-mouthed man from Mindanao won the presidential elections.

I was asked to be part of the peace process. I said yes. What a singular opportunity to work for peace. Peace as we understand it is not just the absence of war; it is the presence of justice. So I am now a member of the Reciprocal Working Group of the Government on Political and Constitutional Reforms. The peace talks are going well. Both panels- the government and the National Democratic Front agree on a lot of issues and no party questions the sincerity of the other.

I was also asked to join the Department of Justice. I did not immediately say yes. I had been a human rights lawyer for 16 years and becoming a government worker would be a revolutionary shift. For more than a decade, I had been a vocal critic of the justice system in the country— how it serves the wealthy and powerful, how it is against the poor. I have had so many frustrations as a human rights lawyer. But I believe in the vision of Pres. Duterte to give back the power of the people. He promised change. I know that his promised change will not happen with his election as President. The social ills we suffer from will only be dismantled if the system that generates, that produces, that creates them will be changed. The system that favors the rich and powerful and oppresses the poor and marginalized will not fall by the mere changing of guards in Malacanang. But it is refreshing that there is someone- the highest official of the land- who wants that revolutionary change to happen and would make it happen if it was up to him alone. It is inspiring to work under an atmosphere like that.

Pres. Duterte has the biggest heart for the poor among all people who became President of this country. Of course, he also has the biggest dirty, foul, uncouth mouth among them all. We hear a lot about the heaven-shaking, hell-raising statements he makes in public speeches. Frankly when he gives long speeches, I keep hoping he will not say something that will make people cringe. There is no contest that the mouth of this President is unprecedented in the history of Philippine leaders, except for Gen. Antonio Luna who was said to liberally insert expletives in his speeches. But the President has bias for the poor.

Let us all pray that he will stop liberally spewing expletives as we continually pray that he will always remain on the side of the poor, the pariah class that the oligarchy in the current capitalist system wants to maintain to continue its supremacy. Some people may find it difficult to reconcile our strong commitment to human rights with our support for Pres. Duterte. But this support is coming from the places of poverty and wretchedness where we have been to in our human rights advocacy. It is a breath of fresh air to have a President who understands that the root cause of poverty in this country is the unequal distribution of wealth perpetuated by an unjust system that favors the rich over the poor. It is inspiring to work under a President who always stresses that we have to put the poor first, who recognizes that the poor have the right to food, the right to jobs, the right to land, the right to security in times of disaster, the right to security in times of old age, the right to housing.

Only a President who loves the poor would appoint to the social welfare agencies in his Cabinet people who truly care for peasants, the environment, the poor and needy, the indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups, despite the opposition of a Congress dominated by the oligarchy.

And because I believed I could do something about justice and equality under the Duterte presidency, I eventually accepted my appointment as Assistant Secretary of Justice. Every now and then, I meet an acquaintance or friend who congratulates me for my appointment. What is so huge about the appointment? It is not some entitlement. It does not make me a demi-God of Mt. Olympus. But their reaction is perhaps characteristic of how we look at our government officials due to the quality of education we received. We look at them as people on pedestals that we must serve. No, we are not supposed to be served. What my appointment made me is a public servant as I have always been, but this time in the government institution. And as our employers, you need to monitor our actions closely and castigate and take us to task when we do things against public interest. Currently, in my position, I see a lot of opportunities to help the poor and needy. When I am asked to review legal opinions in the DOJ or when we have discussions in the different inter-agency bodies, I find that I always think of the poor and marginalized. And I never forget that those who have less in life should have more in law. All things being equal, I cast my vote in their favour. I know that the rich are already protected by their money, and even by the law. They are overrepresented in the State. Their powerful class dominates the law-making bodies. Their interests are well protected by the laws Congress makes. It does not hurt them at all when people in the bureaucracy champion the causes of the poor. In fact, it takes more than an empathetic bureaucracy to reverse their misfortune. We just have to keep trying.

I intend to stay on the same pro-poor path. If I deviate, I will appreciate a reminder from any of you of my statement today. And by the way, please accept my apologies for the social ills we face now. It only means my generation and those before us did not do much to shake oppressive social structures. But the future generation will hopefully be a better one than the one we leave you with. Just do not ever let go of your moral compass and pursue the task of pursuing social justice and equality this school adequately prepared you for. Believe me, the future will thank you. Always remember that if you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. Be a part of the solution.

So like me, you did not choose a career of money. But it does not matter. It is what you do with your chosen career to be meaningful to the lives of the poor and marginalized that matters way more than wealth. Besides, the Kingdom of Heaven waits for us.

Thank you very much and good day.


[1] Matthew 28:19 (stating, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”); Mark 16:15 (stating, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”)
[2] James 2:14-17
[3] 1 Timothy 6:17-19