The passion of the poor

On Feb. 24, the day Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of national emergency, I experienced something that completely illumined my outlook of our country’s political crisis.  I refer not to my arrest under Proclamation 1017, but to what I saw at Camp Karingal, where I was briefly detained. There I witnessed first-hand the hidden injuries of the Filipino poor.

That same morning, the police intercepted a jeepload of residents from a nearby slum community, and brought them to the police camp. They were on their way to the Edsa Shrine to participate in the rally marking the 20th anniversary of the People Power revolution.  The group numbered about 30, and half were children.  At Karingal, they greeted me warmly, thinking that I had come to free them.  They laughed when I told them I had also been arrested.  The youngest of the group was a boy of about seven; I noticed him eating from a can of biscuits.

I learned that they expected to get a free lunch and earn about fifty pesos at the end of the demonstration.  It was customary for them, they said, to take some of the children along so they did not have to worry about their meal for the day.  One of the women acted as their leader.  She asked me if the lawyers who had come to assist me could also plead for their immediate release.  I assured her that my lawyers would help her group, and told her that the police, in any event, had absolutely no right to detain the children.

Soon after I was picked up by the police on Edsa, more than a dozen lawyers arrived at the camp to look after my rights.  Various media organizations sent their reporters to interview me.  Relatives and friends, including some heavyweights from Congress, brought some food, and cheered and kept me company throughout my brief detention. But no one came for the demonstrators from the slums. They remained invisible.  The police detained them the whole day at a nearby building, which served as the police firing range.  They were released only after my lawyers and a couple of senators interceded on their behalf.

This little parable has lit my way wherever I speak on the issues confronting our society.  It has taught me one important lesson:  No matter how often I get arrested for the things that I say, write, or do, I still belong to the privileged class.  I will always be able to call upon my community’s spirit of solidarity. The police or the military may trample on my rights, but chances are the media will be there to bear witness. I may be jailed but I will never starve.  I can talk about the primacy of political freedoms and civil rights because I have never known what it is to be hungry or poor.

The poor have nothing but their needs and their laughter, and, perhaps their faith.    From where they stand, all politics in our country today only signifies continuing betrayal of their fundamental interests. Charter change and snap election seem trivial in relation to their urgent problems.

This is not a new story.  It is as old as Christ’s passion.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he came upon a people desperately in search of a leader.  The Jewish nation could not dislodge the Roman yoke, mainly because the various opposition groups could not get their act together.  Jesus — the teacher, the story-teller, the healer – had so impressed the people in the course of his ministry that various anti-Roman groups maneuvered to enlist him as their symbol.  They viewed his martyrdom as the political spark that could galvanize Jewish unity and ultimately free Israel.

Jesus himself, however, had not spoken against Rome.  He spoke rather of a larger vision — the vision of God’s kingdom, where justice and peace reigned.  His preferred language was that of compassion with the poor, the oppressed, and the excluded. Here was a man who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:45)  It was from this standpoint that he censured the hypocrisy of the different groups that jostled against one another to represent the future of Israel.

Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus headed straight for the temple where he saw the dishonest money-changers and merchants of sacrifices plying their trade.  They were enjoying the brisk business brought by the feast of the Passover.  He became angry.  He overturned their tables and told them: “Is it not written? My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.  But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17) He detested the empty piety of people who claim to have faith but do not practice it in their lives.

Here was a true subversive.  His framework was not the political framework of the day. His vision went beyond the political ambitions of those who claimed to speak for Israel. His method was different; he was unarmed. He made himself available to all kinds of people.  To those who despaired he offered a message: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:50)  Salt, the antidote to decay, is a timely metaphor for cultures that have lost their ethical saltiness.

There is no way we can solve the recurrent crisis of our political life unless we start to correct the criminal disparities in wealth and power that exist in our society.  What this requires is more than just a change of our leaders or of our form of government. We need to review our basic values, and ultimately rebuild our whole social order on a new ethical foundation. Until then, the passion of the poor will continue to haunt us.


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