Column: Jinggoy et al as Pontius Pilate

Published on April 22, 2014.

I realize that many Filipinos will readily volunteer a comparison they think more apt: Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla, Juan Ponce Enrile and others deeply implicated in the pork barrel scam are Judas. The defining act of the crimes they are charged with is the act of a traitor; that is, someone who betrayed the people’s expectations, the public’s trust.

But it is also possible to argue that the senators and congressmen and their staff who allegedly looted pork barrel funds are, in fact, Pontius Pilate. Allow me to make that argument, but first I must prove another point: Pilate’s liability in the judicial murder of Jesus Christ is not the learned helplessness of a pragmatic bureaucrat (“What is truth?”), but rather the sophisticated use of the political power of a ruling elite (“What I have written, I have written.”)

Perhaps the most familiar image of Pilate remains that of a colonial administrator washing his hands of an impending local crisis. But we come across this image only in Matthew; in John, where we find the longest and most detailed account of Jesus’ final days, Pilate pronounces the man’s innocence several times, and yet (as in all the other Gospels) condemns him to death anyway.

But as the bestselling Jesuit author James Martin reminded his 40,000 Twitter followers yesterday, it was in fact the Roman Empire that killed Jesus. That is surely right: The political machinery that led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was set in motion, however reluctantly, by the Roman governor of the time.

One of the principal legal strategies of Estrada and Revilla, and to a lesser extent of Enrile too, has been to deny any responsibility for the actual use of the pork barrel funds released in their name or through their intervention.

In his counteraffidavit, Revilla argued that he “should not be held liable as his involvement in the PDAF released [was] limited.” Estrada made the same point too, in his own counteraffidavit, but emphasized the “clearly recommendatory” role he played in the spending of pork barrel funds. The “implementation of the projects funded by the PDAF,” he said, was “best left to the motivated and the willing.”

Last year, Estrada’s defense, as relayed to reporters, was even more specific. “The buck stops at the chiefs of staff,” he said.

We can understand these protestations as Pilate-like, not in the familiar sense of a deliberate washing of hands, but in the deeper sense of an unacknowledged complicity in the political machinery that led to the plunder of the pork barrel funds in the first place.

Let’s put it this way: If alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles did not need Estrada, Revilla or Enrile to have the funds released, would she have partnered with them? (The question is not specific to Napoles, but to any scam operator.) The Ombudsman’s joint resolutions finding probable cause against the three senators and others give us a clear answer: They were needed because of the power they possessed—like Pontius Pilate.

* * *

Like many other readers, I mourn the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; he was, simply, the greatest writer of our time. I hope to post a modest tribute soon, on my Newsstand blog.

* * *

I had the chance to attend Good Friday service last week in the parish church of Bagac, Bataan. The first five minutes of the priest’s homily made a powerful impression, despite the disorienting summer heat. Prompted by the tradition of the Siete Palabras, he began by speaking about the familiar concept of “palabra de honor,” and then deepened the discussion by dwelling on “dangal sa salita”—the dignity of words that must be protected against gossip, against hypocrisy, against the omnipresent lie.

And then he continued speaking, for 35 more minutes. A homily that started at 3:53 p.m. ended at 4:33 p.m., and by then the impact of his words had dissipated into the wavering air, and any charitable instinct he had awakened in me had gone back to sleep. He was aware of what he was doing: Sometime around the 15th minute, he alluded to the long Gospel reading which is a highlight of Good Friday, and jokingly told the congregation that, because we had stood a long time for the reading or reenactment, he was now giving us the chance to rest, to sit in the pews, for an equally long time.

He was a good speaker, with a sonorous voice that carried to the back of the church and an effective grasp of the arts of rhetoric. In encouraging the parishioners and the visitors to join the procession after the service, for instance, he riffed on the difference between a rally and a procession. “Ang rally may kapit-bisig,” and so on (and on). If his homily had been limited to the meaning and practice of the procession, the three or four minutes he spent on the topic would have been memorable. But with equal rhetorical attention he touched on eight or nine other topics, and by the end we (or at least I) had forgotten the other points he had made.

So all the arts of rhetoric except, alas, for the very first one: Don’t overstay your welcome.

Pope Francis devoted several pages to the ministry of the homily in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” precisely because the homily remains a vital part of the entire evangelization enterprise. At one point, he wrote: “A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith. If the homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and its rhythm …. This means that the words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention.”

Amen to that.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Religion

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