On ground zero of Duterte's drug war, Church grapples with 'unruly theology'

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Nov 05 2017 06:35 PM | Updated as of Nov 05 2017 09:10 PM

Zhander Cayabyab, ABS-CBN News

As Filipinos flock to the Edsa Shrine on November 5 for a healing mass and a show of strength on the issue of extra-judicial killings, many of them will be asking, “what took the Church so so long?”

The change of heart in the hierarchy was not so much because of the figures of the killings, but because of the actual encounters with the families of the victims, theologian and Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priest, Fr. Ben Alforque, told ABS-CBN News.

The priest said the experience of the religious dovetails with that of the general population reeling from the effects of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.

“We have all walked the same journey,” Alforque pointed out.

The landscape has been all shades of gray.

Filipinos overwhelmingly want suspects to be taken alive. Many believe summary executions are part of the drug war. Majority fear they or their loved ones could become victims, too. Yet, a big majority also continues to support Duterte’s drug war.


Nardy Sabino, convenor of Rise Up For Life and Rights, which helps some 200 families of drug war victims, said the current campaign against extra-judicial killings is vastly different from past ones.

Families of past EJK victims looked at them as heroes. They served the communities and believed their people were worth fighting and even dying for.

Rise Up had to break down walls erected by drug-war families “who were ashamed, even angry with their kin.”

Though the almost 4,000 killings from police operations involve several with connections to the illegal drugs trade, many of the slain had histories of drug use.

With their families, it would always be a mix of anger and shame, Sabino told ABS-CBN News.

“Lagi, halong galit at kahihiyan,” he said. “Sasabihin nila, gumagamit naman po talaga sya. O, pasaway din talaga.’”

They didn’t want their kin dead, he stressed. But they were also ambivalent about fighting for justice.

“May takot siempre. Pulis ang kalaban. Ang Presidente. Tanong nila sa sarili, karapat-dapat bang ipaglaban o mag-asa na lang sa Diyos,” Sabino described the process that families underwent.

(They were already afraid. They would be going up against the police, the President. Of course, they asked themselves if it was worth it.)

The unrelenting killings, many involving clear summary executions, prompted a hardening of resolve among the Rise Up families.

Those who had first chalked up the killings to abusive cops, Sabino said, eventually lost patience with Duterte’s incendiary remarks and contempt for the poor.

Grassroots prophets

Alforque sees the families who give testimonies about the drug war as prophets, helping Filipino Christians confront their “unruly theology.”

Life can turn our beliefs upside down, the priest said. Citing Pope Francis, he said clergy cannot always package a neat theology.

“We stumble as our flock stumble,” Alforque pointed out.

In the case of the drug war, personal encounters with the families of victims stripped away rationalizations for murder, said Alforque.

The mothers, he said, made all the difference.

“Many went to the priests, told their stories and kept at it, until the priests went to their bishops,” said Alforque. “They told them, this is happening on the ground. These are our people.”

Everywhere, the waffling would end whenever the grassroots priests asked prelates and fellow clergy and nuns to listen to the families.

“Even though they did not know the victims, because the family went and talked with them, they would see the problem with new lenses,” Alforque said.

Sabino’s description of the struggle of conscience of the urban poor, who make up the bulk of around 12,000 killed since Duterte assumed power, is also that of the clergy.

"Why do the widows of murdered husbands weep alone? Why must they raise frightened children without the comfort of our Catholic consolation? And why do we insist that only the innocent deserve our love?"

Educator, community worker and writer Nash Tysmans raised these questions in August after Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle called for a national dialogue and a united response to the problem of illegal drugs.

The Catholic-educated Tymans felt Tagle’s pastoral letter focused too much on prayer and too little on the need for action and solidarity with victims of human rights violations.

A surge in killings linked to President Duterte’s drug war had just taken the lives of several minors, prodding thousands to take to the streets in protests.

In Caloocan City, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David faced down cops demanding the turnover of witnesses to the killing of 17-year-old Kian de los Santos.

After a year of muted response to thousands of killings, the Church hierarchy finally broke cover.

Nuns, priests, seminarians and laity turned out in big numbers at the September 21 Luneta rally of the Movement Against Tyranny.

David and other clergy started preparations for mission centers to succor the besieged urban poor communities of the national capital. Rise Up saw growth in volunteers for programs aimed at aiding the legal and economic challenges faced by survivors and the families of the slain.

Troubled journey

Sabino said one of the most eloquent speakers of Rise Up had actively helped with Operation Tokhang, the Philippine National Program (PNP) to get drug users and dealers to surrender and pledge to turnaround their lives.

The purok leader used to escort cops to the homes of known drug users.

“She didn’t want them dead; she wanted them cured,” said Sabino. “But they started dying. And soon after, her son, who didn’t even use drugs, was also killed.”

“Masakit. Masakit ang puntahan ka ng kaanak ng mga naunang pinaslang at sabihang, ‘ngayon alam mo na ang naramdaman namin.’” (It is painful to be grieving and have the families of Tokhang victims come and tell you, now you know how we feel.)

For the hierarchy, judgment is a long process, Alforque said. "Many felt, he (Duterte) is new to the job, let us give him a chance."

Alforque said many priests, nuns, and leaders of the laity supported Duterte in the elections. They thought he was a visionary with the political will to match his pledge.

“Can you imagine, in the beginning one priest actually said, ‘He is a prophet,’” Alforque recalled of the heated debates in the Church. “There was fascination. Many of those disappointed by past administrations believed his promise of good government, completing the peace process, combating corruption and criminality.”

Even Duterte’s shocking, foul-mouthed tirades were seen as a necessary evil. In the Visayan language, they said, “Ginutingkay nya ang baho ng nalubong.” (He stirred the soil forcing out the stench of buried truths.)

The mothers of the drug war victims forced the Church to confront the hard issues: Why has killing become policy? How do we respond when the victim is someone we would normally see as a predator of the innocent?

The Church doesn’t yet have all the answers. But its membership and leaders are finally having that dialogue.

The poor are forcing people often considered their betters to re-examine their conscience.

“Our story in this last year shows again a profound truth. It is that the capacity for salvation or conversion does not really come from above. People are the main source of salvation and conversion of the self.”

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.