Column: Killing suspects is also unchristian

Published on September 13, 2016.

THE VILIFICATION of the United Nations seems to have stopped; now the focus of presidential ire seems to be on the United States. But it is only a matter of time before UN involvement in Philippine affairs comes under attack again; the flawed but functional guarantor of international arbitration and human rights campaigns will necessarily be heard from again.

Here’s a thought, to prepare for the inevitable: The UN is not a remote organization, located half a world away and only distantly connected to goings-on in the Philippines. It is in fact intimately involved in Philippine society. In response to a query I posted about how many people the UN has working in the country, Martin Nanawa of the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in the Philippines wrote back: “We have 1,449 National and 240 International Staff in the Philippines under the UN umbrella, which is spread over more than 25 different Agencies, Funds, Programs, and Organizations.”

That’s a lot of ears on the ground; it is folly, or wishful thinking, to suggest that UN experts do not know what is going on in the Philippines.

* * *

To the policy and legal arguments against the extrajudicial killings at the center of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, I would like to add the religious dimension—not because I am particularly religious or find myself on moral high ground, but because many men and women who fight this war or support it are Christian.

I do not mean to equate religion with Christianity alone, but in largely Catholic Philippines, the religious justification for a war on drugs often follows a Christian cast.

A good many in our police forces are conflicted by the war’s unconscionably high death toll; this is part of the reason I join with those who refuse to think of the Philippine National Police as a monolith. But there are also others who say the war is necessary and offer Christian justifications.

This reasoning is reflected outside the PNP by a range of views, from those provided by born-again Christian Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who argues from the Old Testament, all the way to those advanced by philosopher-academics like favorite mentor Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ, of Ateneo de Davao, who uses the argument from human dignity (Catholic theology’s central contribution to political philosophy) to understand the context of President Duterte’s war on drugs.

* * *

The President himself says he subscribes to the “classical” view: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” He repeated this law of retaliation just yesterday, at an oath-taking ceremony for new officials in Malacañang. The source of this famous passage from Exodus is worth quoting at some length. From the King James Version:

“If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

But this classical view is not Christian; rather, it is pre-Christian. It is an understanding of the law that does not take either the teaching or the sacrifice of Jesus Christ into account. (To see just how outdated the context for this law is, read the immediately following passage: “And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.”)

The Sermon on the Mount is one of those moments in scripture when we see the New Testament complete and supersede the Old in a radical way. In Matthew, we read (again from the King James Version):

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”

I realize that life, or death, can be more complicated than this passage suggests; it is certainly the duty of the policeman to protect the community from criminals, even to the point of shooting them. But the police killings in the war on drugs share a common characteristic: Except for the odd case, all of the suspects were shot in the head or in the back. There was no attempt to disarm or to maim, if the suspects were in fact fighting back.

That is because the marching orders are to kill as many “drug personalities” as possible in the first six months of the Duterte presidency. This does not only run counter to the best practices of effective antidrugs campaigns in the world, or to the constitutional guarantees of due process and the protection of human rights, but it is also, strictly speaking, unchristian.

I hope this point was brought home to many of us last Sunday. The Gospel reading was a meditation on the lost sheep, or the lost coin, or the lost son, and an affirmation that Christianity believes in the possibility of redemption. Call the extrajudicial killing of a suspected drug personality whatever you want, but don’t call it Christian.


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

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