Despair and the Jubilee message

It is difficult not to feel demoralized as a Filipino at a time like this.  The country is being torn apart by war, and you wonder if our leaders care.

Innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire, or maimed or killed by bombs exploded in public places.  Hundreds of thousands abandon their homes and farms to live fearful and unproductive lives in refugee centers.  Filipino soldiers lose their lives reclaiming a highway.  How many more have to die to keep it open the rest of the year?

Dead suspected Abu Sayyaf rebels are put on display in the town plaza, while authorities dare their relatives to come and collect their bodies.  The foreign media show desperate tourists, abducted from a nearby Malaysian holiday resort and brought to Philippine territory, being held by an armed group that is searching for a more respectable reason than money for taking them.  Filipino troops surround the kidnappers but are unable to free the victims without putting them in danger.

Meanwhile, the country’s currency slips in value at a time when those of our neighboring nations are recovering what they lost in the regional crisis of 1997.  Economic activity is picking up fast in the rest of Southeast Asia, while our own economy chokes and sputters from lack of energy.  Investors are pulling out.  Foreign-assisted government projects are unable to start because we cannot put up the counterpart funds.  Debts remain unpaid.  Banks fail, and depositors withdraw their money in panic.  The stock market is virtually dead, killed by a scandal that has not been explained.

Everyone else in the region seems busy repairing their political and economic institutions, while we mindlessly corrode ours by daily acts of cynical corruption.  Legislators brazenly avoid a credible investigation of the damning public accusation that the laws they make are for sale.  Politicians chatter about the prospects of a government-instigated coup even as they prepare for next year’s elections.  And the President travels.

As if things were not bad enough, we become the focus of global attention not because our candidate won the Miss Universe but because a misguided Filipino computer student succeeded in destroying 45 million computers worldwide with his amorous virus. We cannot go on like this, projecting ourselves to the rest of humanity like a rogue nation that has lost control of itself, unable to harness its talents and resources properly, and lurking like a menace to others.

But all is not lost.  Things that give us back a little of the self-respect and hope we need to survive are quietly happening.  Buried under all the negative news is the Great Jubilee Pilgrimage Against Hunger, now on its third week.  This is a 40-day journey across the archipelago from Mindanao to Visayas and then to Luzon, covering 2000 kilometers.  Filipinos who love their country are knocking at the doors of those who care to join them in a collective pilgrimage of rebirth.  The language in which they have wrapped their message is the Jubilee, an old Biblical concept of renewal that occurs every 50 years, when slaves are freed, debts are written off, and the land taken from the original tillers is returned so that everyone may have a fresh start.

The travelers include 10 core pilgrims, representing peasants, workers, urban poor, women and indigenous peoples, and a staff of 10 others.  They walk 20 kilometers a day, like a learning caravan, engaging local communities in dialogues about local problems and their national and global interconnection.  They spend the nights in churches or convents, and move from island to island by jeep or ferry. The whole journey is variously described as a walking university, a spiritual quest, a call to community, a self-cleansing, and a selfoffering.

While visiting Ormoc City in Leyte this week, my wife and I chanced upon them in a small parish in the outskirts of the city.  I have heard the Jubilee song, and I have read about the Jubilee campaigns.  But I was not aware of the Jubilee Pilgrimage Against Hunger.  One of the core pilgrims is a woman with the most haunting eyes I have ever seen.  Linda Ligmon, a member of Higaonon people, wrapped her arms around me when she saw me; she had been a guest on my TV program during the hunger strike of the Sumilao farmers.  Hopeful and unbowed even after the Supreme Court ruled against their entitlement to the Bukidnon property, which the owners had cleverly converted to avoid agrarian reform, she personifies the hunger for land.

The pilgrims speak about the 5 R’s from a deep personal experience: Release the land, Release the slaves, Rest the earth, Recall the debt, and Reclaim the feminist principle.  Each of these messages pertains to a basic problem that has kept the majority of our people in a state of degrading poverty:  landlessness, oppression of labor, environmental destruction, national indebtedness, and the exploitation of women.  For instance, nearly thirteen years after the passage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, more than a million hectares of the largest private lands remain outside the reach of the law.  All kinds of schemes have made it possible for landowners to avoid returning the land to its tillers.

The Mindanao problem too is really all about land.  The cultural and religious differences between Christians and Muslims, Moros, Lumads, and Filipino settlers became pronounced only when land was privatized or taken over by the state.  We grossly misunderstand the problem when we approach Mindanao as a peace and order problem rather than the complex political and economic issue that it is.  What Mindanaoans need is relief from despair and oppression, not a war of pacification.


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