Political Lent

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I attended a Lenten reflection together with some co-workers and volunteers of pro-poor movement Gawad Kalinga. The reflection speaker was a newly-ordained priest, Fr. Luis Lorenzo, whose parents are committed supporters and volunteers as well of the movement. It was only a half-day session, but very refreshing for tired hearts and bodies. Poverty is an unbelievably massive curse that looks bottomless. Taking it on as a monster to defeat is extremely challenging and many give up along the way.

Of course, because it is the Lenten season, the central theme of most reflections is a sacrifice. Lent is a Christian tradition that zeroes in on the most painful moment of the life of Jesus – his arrest, torture, death march, and crucifixion. Most important, though, is the bigger context from which sacrifice must be understood – its what-for. Once more, it was time for that pause, for that reminder, for that “what’s this all about” review.

The separation of Church and State is an admission that democracy has not succeeded in making government purely of, for and by the people. The institutional Catholic Church fails as well to make the Christian faith a defining lifestyle of Christians in the Philippines. The shortcoming in the application of democracy and Christianity forces what in essence is anomalous – the separation of governance and the fundamental belief system of a people. How does one separate body and soul of a human being or a human society? But life is about compromises, too, and the Church and State separation is one big one. It also explains why Muslims want Sharia law.

The religious organizations are very busy explaining or reminding Christians about the significance of Lent. I am no priest so I will not be focusing on religion and ritual. But the essence of sacrifice predates religions, whatever religion. Sacrifice is part of living nature. Pain and stress are part of life itself. Yet, when we use hindsight and history, then reflect on these, certain patterns will emerge. One such pattern may give us an insight into the nature of sacrifice, the indicators that point to its purposeful existence, how one thing can be sacrificed for another but a greater thing.

Sacrifice does not seem to exist simply to bring pain but to bring pain for a greater cause. That cause cannot be a greater pain but its opposite, call it joy, contentment, ecstasy, pleasure. What is it that man would want so much that its pursuit can merit sacrifice freely given?

Religions talk of the afterlife as the primary home of the ultimate prize, or endless suffering. I leave that to the religious experts. Let me instead focus on what in our lifetime can be the reward worth the sacrifice. I mentioned earlier that it could be joy, contentment or peace, ecstasy, and pleasure. Many have always been desirous of money or material wealth. Others seek power. These goals have driven a man to sacrifice without being forced to, freely as it were, to attain or achieve a goal.

What, then, would be worth for communities and societies to sacrifice for? Why would people work and share their produce or profit with the government? Why would they follow rules and regulations even if these can cause serious inconvenience and delay gratification of the desired goal? The sacrifice of citizens of a country are many, and only a few are masochists. Most accept sacrifice because they have clear rewards for their sacrifices. Parents want their children to live, to grow, to be able to achieve their own dreams. For that, they sacrifice almost without respite. There are other dreams, of course, and all of them promise enough for a man to sacrifice.

Poverty, though, is a misery, not a sacrifice. Poverty is not freely chosen. Its pain and suffering are imposed and the victims can only choose to absorb their situation or risk death prematurely. Many have historically done so in intervals, risk their lives to end misery immediately, hoping to win against the odds. We have called these option as revolution or rebellion against authority with greater power and resources. Some win. Most lose.

Yet, the misery of poverty will ultimately end up with death, whether it is by suicide, by illness and hunger, or by violence. Because human nature is not designed to take misery indefinitely, in intensity or longevity. Something has to give, even for the peace-loving or the cowardly. One ends up lying and stealing to have a chance at survival. Others lull themselves to numbness, to tune out of normal life and resign themselves to being more animal than human. A few choose to fight – then mostly die quickly than not.

This natural process and limitation of man be unable to sustain endless suffering peacefully is the reason why most governments are wary of poverty. Whether democratic or autocratic, governments monitor and measure pain and suffering because they know how it will end. Some governments actually care; those who do become clear models of the international village of nations because their system promotes more benefits for their residents than others. Modern measuring tools, too, not just look at levels of income but even levels of happiness. These model are not driven by fear but by vision.

In the priority values of mankind, survival of physical life is the most primal. Yet, the greatest efforts devoted to survival do not build prosperity; the only sacrifice towards a vision builds a nation. This is why we must strive for higher goals. Only the pursuit of these can sacrifice bring the kind of success that is worth more than the effort. Poverty does not allow this among its victims because their energies are focused on mere survival. If they cannot lift themselves up to productive levels, then they will be like millstones around the neck of society’s progressive members.

Lent in politics must focus on poverty. Even forms of government, changes in Constitutions, or federalism must all prove that what they want can and will address poverty before anything else. In other words, politicians must also observe Lent.

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