Column: So young, and so disappointing

Published on July 24, 2007

At last week’s historic summit on political killings and politically motivated disappearances, Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno opened his keynote address with an unusual — and for precisely that reason highly evocative — salutation: “My fellow apostles of human rights,” he began.

* * *

It is no secret that Puno takes his religious commitments seriously; the Court’s website informs us, for instance, that he serves as a lay preacher in the United Methodist church. It was evident that his faith, and that service, animated the keynote speech; the language, the imagery and even the very structure of his thought were positively biblical.

He spoke about parrying initial skepticism about the summit “with the patience of Job.” He said that one of the reasons for calling the summit in the first place was to “revive our righteous indignation” (he had noted that the sheer scope of the problem of political violence had “anaesthesized” the public’s “sense of shock”). To drive his points home, he borrowed both the phrasing and the rhythm of the psalms: “The Constitution is not only the refuge of the worthy but also the worthless, it is not only the fortress of the strong but also the weak.”

He even managed to return a hallowed phrase in jurisprudence (“on the altar of,” a formula constitutionalists use to death) to its religious roots. “By calling this summit,” he said, “we are affirming that before the universal altar of human rights there can be no atheism, nor agnosticism on our part.”

* * *

Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano led the opening prayer in yesterday’s first session in the Senate, calling on “Lord Father God” to help the chamber “pass laws that will prosper the nation,” and quoting extensively from Psalm 1. It was an inspired choice. The first psalm distinguishes between two ways of life: no, not between majority and minority, but between the good and the wicked.

* * *

Another first-time senator quoted from the Bible, too. Unfortunately for the many who reposed their trust in him last May 14, the young Sen. Francis Escudero (“Chiz” to everyone) not only failed to satisfactorily explain why he broke ranks with the opposition; he also betrayed his ignorance of the spirit of scripture.

Escudero was the last of five senators to stand and explain their choice for Senate president, after Jinggoy Estrada, Ping Lacson, Kiko Pangilinan and Jamby Madrigal. He started off well: “It is written in the Good Book,” he said, that we should not judge lest we be judged. He went on to paraphrase the rest of the passage (from Matthew 7). In the New American Standard Version, the passage reads: “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.”

It quickly became clear, however, that Escudero had merely used scripture for rhetorical purposes; he defended his vote for Sen. Manuel Villar, not by discoursing on Villar’s merits, but by arguing that no one had the right to say who was truly opposition and who was not. In the mellifluous monotone (a contradiction, I know, but let it pass) that he has made famous, he said no one could claim the crown (“walang sinuman ang puwedeng umangkin ng korona”), the right, that is, to judge whether a senator was oppositionist or not.

This is a breathtaking claim. Does Escudero mean he cannot be classified as pro-administration, simply on his say-so? Does he mean his actions, his votes in the Senate, for example, really do not matter, because he is an oppositionist at heart?

* * *

Here’s the problem: Chiz thought the biblical passage he quoted meant no one can act as judge, no one can sit in judgment.

This is a misunderstanding. The passage does not seek to stop men and women from judging other men and women. How else can we distinguish between the good and the wicked? Instead, it seeks to reintroduce integrity into the act of judging. In the way we judge, we shall be judged. By our own measure, we shall be measured.

But really, all this is beside the point. Escudero’s appropriation of scripture was merely meant to bolster his argument — it was a personal decision to support Villar, he said — with the weight it did not have.

We recommend another scriptural passage for him: Mene mene tekel upharsin.

* * *

Political tacticians will be debating this tricky issue for years. Should Rep. Pablo Garcia of Cebu have accepted Speaker Jose de Venecia’s offer last Saturday to conduct a secret balloting in Malacañang?

* * *

For the first time since the legislative elections of 1987, the Senate Electoral Tribunal will be in the national spotlight. The nine-person panel consists of three senators from the majority, three from the minority, and three justices of the Supreme Court. Sources tell me that Senior Associate Justice Leonardo Quisumbing will serve as chair; he will be joined by Justices Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez and Alicia Austria-Martinez. The minority will be represented by Lacson, Rodolfo Biazon and Antonio Trillanes.

* * *

At the end of the summit on political violence, I chanced upon Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, the Armed Forces chief of staff, briefing his men (there were about 30 of them, many of them with stars on their shoulders), outside the Manila Hotel, somewhere near the entrance to the Champagne Garden. Before I turned around and headed back inside the hotel, I heard him say: “As you have observed, defensive sila ngayon. So, panalo tayo ngayon sa round na ’to [they are on the defensive. So, we have won this round].”

Call it win-win.

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