Ideas are like seeds. They are like seeds that grow to create a culture that promotes individual salvation, exclusivism, triumphalism, fundamentalism, passivity, patriarchy and apathy. But ideas can also create a culture of communal salvation, inclusivity, compassionate service, radical hospitality, advocacy, partnership, and prophetic witness. Jesus used the seed as a metaphor, in the Gospel according to Matthew, to describe the “Kingdom of God” when he described it as a mustard seed that grows into a tree. Ideas create culture, and culture empowers people to act. Thus, ideas are dangerous.
When Trump began to talk about America for Americans during his campaign, it was just an idea. Today, he has set back America by at least 200 years, bringing back racism, sexism, classism and Islamophobia. Trump’s ideas are dangerous to minority groups, women and LGBT, the working class and the poor, and nations that dare to go against the U.S. Empire. Jesus’s idea of “the Kingdom of God” was and is also dangerous. It was a critique and a direct challenge to the Kingdom of Rome then. Jesus could have used so many other words besides ‘kingdom:’ family, household, community, people, but he did not. He preached about “the Kingdom of God” to dismantle the empire, the dominating force that denied people life and dignity. Then it was Pax Romana. Today it is Pax Americana. But is the message we preach about “the Kingdom of God” still dangerous for the oppressors? Or worse, is the Church’s preaching now dangerous for the oppressed? We must reflect on the following questions: What seeds are we planting in our congregations? What ideas are we preaching in our pulpits? What culture are we promoting in our society? What actions are we allowing to be institutionalized and perpetuated in our Motherland?
War on drugs, martial law, charter change, cancellation of the peace talks, tax reform, federalism. The killing of criminals, the bombing of Lumad communities, the closure of Lumad schools, the arrest of political prisoners, the curtailing of freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The government under the leadership of Duterte is planting seeds, promoting ideas, creating a culture, enforcing actions. Are these dangerous to those who abuse power and authority, or are these dangerous to the already powerless and oppressed? Are we challenging these ideas or are we enabling them in our silence? Does Duterte still embody the struggles and aspirations of the Filipino people, especially the 16 million who voted for him in 2015? Why is it that people can continue to support him and defend him? Finally, can Duterte bring peace to our land?
As I was reflecting on the current Philippine political, economic and cultural context, I was reminded of the story of David, the so-called ‘greatest king of Israel.’ At the beginning of his story, he was the underdog. Not unlike Duterte. His father did not think he was important among all his sons and he was not even asked to be present when the prophet, Samuel, came. Then, as small he was, he defeats and kills the Philistine champion, Goliath, with a sling and a stone. He was the anointed one and even Jonathan and Michal, the children of Saul, chose him over their own father. David, the underdog, rose to power and became the champion of the people and the chosen one of God. Most of us repeat these stories again and again in Sunday school and in the pulpit. David in our minds is the greatest king of Israel. But was he?
Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, points to the stories we have forgotten in glorifying David. After escaping from slavery, after entering into a covenant with God and becoming a nation called Israel, Israel becomes like their oppressors and builds a kingdom. Brueggemann critiques the dynasty of David, saying that this king ‘paganized’ Israel and inverted everything that Moses and the Israelite people fought for. In the Exodus story, the Hebrew people escaped from slavery to create an alternative community where each of them was accountable for the quality of life of the other. In David’s monarchy and dynasty, a new kind of tyranny oppressed the people. And like any empire, David’s monarchy was not content in ruling over one nation. Like other kingdoms, David wanted to expand his empire. However, this was not David’s greatest sin. In the creation of a dynasty and in building a temple for God, David ‘owned’ God. No longer was God to be worshipped in the mountains; no longer did God lead the people through a cloud of fire. The acts of God were limited to one bloodline and God was contained in one place, the temple. David’s greatest sin was to claim that his dynasty embodied God. And as John Dalberg-Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The story in II Samuel 21: 1-14 reveals the corruption of David. It begins with a famine of three years during David’s reign. In the narrative, when David asked God what caused it, God said that Saul was guilty over the killing of the Gibeonites. David, then, asked the Gibeonites what it is that he can do so that they may have justice, and they answered, “let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord….” (v.6) David, the king, handed them over. He took the two sons of Rizpah, the concubine of Saul, and the five sons of Merab, the daughter of Saul, and the Gibeonites impaled them, a form of torture where a victim’s body is pierced with a stake, like an animal for roasting. Seven sons from the house of Saul were tortured and killed. Rizpah guarded the bodies “from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.”(v.10)
Two characters play vital roles in this Biblical narrative on human rights violations: David and Rizpah.
David, the king, has power of life and death over the people. He may attribute to God and the Gibeonites the judgement upon the seven sons, but as king, he chose to have mercy on the son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth, who was the grandson of Saul. David, the king, chose to let one live and let seven die. Who is David today? Who has the power to dictate who lives and who dies? Who authorizes the killings and empowers the killers with impunity? Who uses the name of God to justify violence and death? Do we dare to name their evil deeds and reject them?
The other character, Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, guarded over the bodies of seven sons: two of them were her own and five of them were the sons of Merab who was silent in the text. But we cannot condemn Merab. We must condemn those who strike so much fear in the hearts of mothers like her. It takes a mother to raise a child, but it takes a brave woman to struggle for justice. Rizpah’s struggle took courage: she left the comfort of her home and community; she stayed for months on a mountain which had the stench of death; she defended the rotting bodies of seven males from wild animals. Her very presence in the face of death was a challenge to David, the king, who would have wanted her to accept the death of seven sons in silence. Just as her sons were victims of human rights violations, she could also be the victim of the same. Who is she today? Who is she whose son or daughter has been killed even if they begged for their lives and claimed to be innocent? Who is she who has to suffer the pain of burying her own children? Who is she who refuses to be silent and demands justice from those who hold the power?
Furthermore, the seven sons say nothing in the text. We do not hear their cry as they are taken away from their loved ones; we do not feel their pain as they are tortured to death; we do not see their dead bodies after they are killed. Who are they today? How many have suffered the same violent deaths? Did they have any dreams for themselves and their loved ones? Did their deaths end crime and bring peace to their communities?
Today, if we allowed the Davids of our time to torture and to kill, will there be peace?
Today, if we asked the Rizpahs to accept the punishment and death of their children, husbands, wives and friends, will there be peace?
Today, if we sacrificed the sons of Rizpah, and sacrificed more, will there be peace?
David, in the Samuel text, believed that the killing of the seven sons in the household of Saul was the way to peace. We have been told by the Duterte Government that the killing of ‘terrorists’ and those involved with drugs, and more, is the way to peace. But we know that violence and death is not the way to peace.
But what is peace? Is peace the absence of conflict? Is peace achieved by the laying down of arms by those in a revolutionary army? Is peace ensured by building alliances with world powers like the United States and China? Is peace attained by uniting everyone in Congress and Senate to act as one body under the president? Is peace fulfilled when foreign investors invest capital and profit in their operations in the Philippines? Perhaps, these can achieve the kind of peace desired by those who have power and authority. The rich will become richer and the powerful will become more powerful. And when this happens, the ordinary people will be denied more and more the most basic of human rights.
There a definition of peace that makes sense for ordinary people like you and me. It is simple. Peace is the absence of fear.
Peace is the absence of fear.
There is peace when a mother is not afraid that her children will go hungry or be killed in the streets.
There is peace when a student is not afraid that he or she may no longer be able to go to school for lack of money.
There is peace when a farmer is not afraid that the land his family has tilled for generations will be taken from him.
There is peace when a laborer is not afraid that she has to leave her children to work in a foreign land to earn just wages.
There is peace when Lumad children are not fearful for their lives in their own land.
There is peace when a nun, a priest and a pastor is not fearful of persecution and death as they preach, teach, and advocate for fullness of life for all.
This is the peace we seek. It is not about wealth and power but about the most basic services and privileges being available to the Filipino People. It can be achieved through socio-economic reforms which ensure the common good, justice, and equity.
Finally, in the pursuit of peace, we must choose between the Rizpahs and the Davids. We cannot be in the middle. Shall we join the Davids who hold the power and authority, and sacrifice and kill those who they call their enemy? Or shall we stand with the Rizpahs, the powerless and the victims, who will not allow those who have been killed to die in vain but will struggle for a world where mothers no longer have to bury their sons and daughters, and where there is just and lasting peace.