It is significant that Lent this year comes before a major election in our country. The current campaign gives us a chance to reflect on the roots of our most persistent problems, while the coming of a new government after May brings with it the expectation of release from these problems.
The association between Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, on one hand, and the continuing struggle of the Filipino nation for a better life, on the other, is of particular saliency these days. I myself do not recall a time when we have felt so desperate and so needful of redemption as today. I do not mean this in the sense of feeling more impoverished or more oppressed. I liken it rather to the feeling of being strapped to a stationary vehicle that moves and turns but ultimately goes nowhere.
That feeling translates to a conviction shared by many that whoever wins in May will not make any difference to the way the country is being run. Corruption will continue unabated because it is precisely built into the expensive electoral system. Economic growth will remain sluggish and uneven because of its excessive dependence on foreign capital. The poor will multiply and become more resentful because the state is increasingly unable to intervene in their behalf. Criminality and political instability will continue to block the nation’s path to progress as the structure of opportunity collapses for the many. Endless politicking will further weaken our remaining institutions. And the social trust that binds us as a nation will finally be exhausted.
Over the years we have seen how our leaders have proved inadequate to the enormity of the problems we face. The graver our problems become the more we turn to leaders we believe to be possessed of magical and extraordinary qualities. The more fragmented we become as a nation, the more frantic our search for strong leaders who can show us the way to salvation.
Without realizing it, we have actually been searching for a political messiah, someone who can lead and inspire us to become what we imagine ourselves to be, a great people. We have always felt we deserve better leaders, and so we have tended to measure the ones we have against unattainable ideals. The result has been an unrelieved frustration that every year heightens our despair.
In all this we are probably reenacting the childlike quest for a healing God who can wipe out all our doubts, illnesses, and our sins with a single touch and replace these with a life of joy and peace. Such a quest is very strong in our Christian tradition and revisits us regularly at Lent like a positive neurosis. One wishes that someone who understands how Jesus of Nazareth began attracting crowds by his healing powers could draw a theology of self-liberation by means of faith. It would help us greatly in our search for a redemptive politics for our time.
Such a theology could be glimpsed from the fascinating book, Jesus of Nazareth, by the Jesuit theologian Raymund Schwager. By chance I picked up this book recently and had been reading it. Schwager attempts an imaginative reconstruction of the life of Jesus not unlike Mel Gibson’s creative re-telling of Christ’s last moments on film. What strikes me about Schwager’s work, however, is the way he focuses on Christ’s own gradual self-understanding of his gifts and of the purpose of his own life in the course of his encounter with other people.
“In the evening Jesus spoke to the crowd, who still knew nothing of peace and joy: ‘The Lord brings peace like a river to Israel. He forgives everyone his sins and heals the broken-hearted. He makes the deserted vineyards bloom anew and turns the heart of the fathers to the sons and the hearts of the sons to the fathers. Forgive one another, just as the Lord no longer remembers your offenses! Blessed are they who work for peace.’”
The crowd wasn’t sure how to react to this man who spoke of a loving God and the virtue of forgiveness. “Though his speaking had still sparked no response, he gave himself profoundly over to the desire and distress of those who came to him. He kneeled down to the little ones, and a liberating power went from him upon the numerous sick people. Those healed began to shout and soon they drew the crowd with them…. He walked out into the night. Questions stirred within him, questions which he had to take to his Abba in prayer. Already in the short time of his mission he had been able to perceive how a spark of trust had flashed between the sick and himself.” They hailed him for his healing powers, but his preachings produced no such responses at first. The crowds were always waiting for miracles, as if this was a precondition for listening to what he was saying.
The true miracle of Christ seems to me to proceed from the “spark of trust” that he created between him and the people who gathered around him wherever he went. That trust brought out the best in people, and restored their faith in themselves.
It is amazing how the absence of trust in a community can weaken its members and reduce them to a point where they are totally stripped of self-confidence. Such collective demoralization is the single most important malaise gripping our country today. Our people’s quest for an inspiring leader who can break this demoralization is nothing less than a search for a messiah. They may often seem as if they are constantly waiting for miracles. In truth, they are only looking for someone who can heal the cynicism and distrust in their hearts.
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