Outside of religious circles, Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David used to be introduced as my brother. Now it’s the other way around, especially after he became the latest target of President Duterte’s rants against the Catholic Church and its leaders. I take deep pride in this affinity. We take similar positions on most social issues, although, in his case, it is the faith perspective that consistently informs his convictions and actions.
“Ambo,” as we call him, is the 10th of 13 children (seven boys and six girls), all still living, of whom I happen to be the eldest. Our parents have long passed on. It thus falls on me, as head of the family the President has accused of benefiting from Church offerings that my brother allegedly steals, to counter this outrageous lie. The truth is that Ambo regularly turns to the family for contributions to his projects and charities, well before he accepts offerings from others. To accuse him of taking Church offerings to give to his family is ludicrous.
There is a quote widely attributed to Adolf Hitler that goes like this: “[T]he broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”
I thought that nothing more clearly explains Mr. Duterte’s penchant for inventing colossal lies about people he dislikes than this. Because he is President, the lies he tells are not only magnified a thousand times; a lot of people also tend to believe them without proof, and worse, to take their cues from them. That the President appears indifferent to their effect on the stature and credibility of the office he occupies only compounds the problem. It has become more and more difficult to interpret what he is saying when, after reading a few lines from a prepared script, he shifts to loose slanderous language such as that he has used against Bishop Ambo.
I had two minds about writing a column on this topic. My first instinct was to stay silent, to let others speak in defense of my brother, and to treat Mr. Duterte’s attack against him as yet another instance of his habit of speaking recklessly against other people just to generate controversy and to remain in the news. Moreover, I didn’t want to appear as though I’m using this platform to defend a beleaguered sibling. Everyone who knows Bishop Ambo knows that he can speak for himself. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is unarmed and defenseless against the myriad forces under the President’s command.
I thought President Duterte went too far when, in a recent speech, he said, from out of the blue, that he suspected that “this Bishop David” could be into drugs because he had supposedly been monitored roaming the streets of Caloocan at night. He then threatened to chop off his head if he catches him red-handed.
If my late mother had heard the President speak these words against her son—the gentlest of her children—she would have choked to death from sheer unspeakable anguish. She would have begged me to protect him from harm even to the point of gagging him.
This is exactly how some of my relatives are reacting to Mr. Duterte’s Mafia-like threats against Bishop Ambo. They fear for his life. They have seen what happens to people the President singles out, for any reason, as objects of his ire. They end up dead, or in prison on fabricated charges, or stripped of their properties, and subjected to unceasing humiliation.
My brother has no wealth and perhaps would not mind going to jail for what is right. But, our relatives fear that the young bishop, the guiding star of the clan, has just been sentenced to death. They want him to stop responding to the President’s attacks, to desist from talking about the drug war and its victims, or from attending to the urgent needs of the widows and the orphans of this war that God has put in his care—until the President’s anger subsides. They want him to go away, far beyond the reach of rogue policemen, contractual killers and fanatical death squads—until the President stops threatening him.
I must admit that the thought of asking him to go on a sabbatical leave did cross my mind. He is a pastor of great commitment, but also a gifted biblical scholar. I had mulled the idea of advising him to rest from his current pastoral work and resume his biblical studies. I thought it was easy enough to represent this as merely retreating from a futile word war that—as some observers depict it—distracts the public from the more important problems confronting the nation.
But, the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that it would be wrong for him to go on a prolonged retreat at this time. It would mean abandoning his flock when they need him most. It would mean failing to speak God’s truth to power when it is needed most.
The lofty perch that some commentators prefer would make us see crime, corruption, armed conflict, terrorism, inflation, unemployment, and, indeed, the drug menace, as the paramount issues of our time. Everything else is a distraction.
But, isn’t fear the greatest problem we face in a despotic regime? So complex is fear as an emotion that people find a thousand and one ways to redescribe and rationalize it even as they meekly succumb to it. Yet, to overcome it, they often only need to witness the power of one example.