Immunity for the plunderer, not for the sunflower vandals
I have been thinking about forgiveness recently, nudged by news reports about George Clooney's fiancé looking into Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's detention; the bullying against Cadet Jeff Cudia; the vandalism of the sunflowers at the University of the Philippines in Diliman and; the granting of immunity to Ruby Tuason for her participation in plundering the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
All these cases are proving controversial and it is not about what the persons accused have actually done, but whether we should forgive and/or punish.
In this country which still has not benefited from the full implementation of the secularism mandated by its Constitution, religious concepts of “sin,” “forgiveness,” and “punishment” often get mixed up with legal concepts of “crime,” “immunity,” and “penalty” to the detriment of both justice and compassion.
To be clear, I think that there is wisdom in religious concepts of morality. However, I also do not agree that secular concepts and laws are “amoral.” My understanding of secularism is that this nation of various faiths and non-faiths has agreed on certain common guarantees and limitations about what we can and cannot do to each other. These agreements are based on an understanding that without these common agreements and limitations, none of us can lead the moral lives most of us seek.
The sins of the bullied
Let me give you an example of when concepts of sin get in the way of rights and compassion. It really is of no interest to me whether Cadet Cudia had actually lied about the reason for his being two minutes late for class at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). From the beginning it seemed to me that whether he lied or not, stripping him of his honors and degree was plain and simply cruel.
As it turns out, our Commission on Human Rights has declared that his rights were violated because the process for decision-making, even by PMA's own standards, were flawed. The only reason one might decide to punish Cudia so harshly is that this lie is taken by the PMA to be indicative of his entire nature (sinful). The concept of someone's inherent sinfulness has been the basis of much bullying such as when lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals are bullied in schools. Similarly, fascist (as opposed to professionally disciplined organizations) often have subcultures that impose obedience over critical thinking, justified by some impossible and untested moral standard (never lie, always obey).
There is no empirical evidence that the honor code in the PMA has led to honest or even disciplined officials of our armed forces. As for the punishment for violations? A just and moral secular society prescribes through law that certain penalties be meted out to certain crimes, suiting the severity of the punishment to the gravity of the crime. Only religious theocracies and fascist states and organizations would prescribe such things as stoning for infidelity, caning for chewing gum, or stripping someone of their college degree for a small white lie.
The other side of sin is forgiveness. Rappler has been following a social media post that went viral about a mother and her daughters stealing and vandalizing the sunflower display along UP Diliman's main avenue. This, despite signs saying that this was banned by the university and the netizen's request that they stop the uprooting the sunflower plants.
What is upsetting about this is that the woman who posted pictures about the violation has herself become a target for people who accuse her of being vengeful and unforgiving. She is even accused of cyberbullying. As Rappler reports, people defended the vandals with the biblical quote, “he who is without sin should cast the first stone.” (Parenthetically, I can't help noting that if we would take the Bible literally, the women cannot be subject to this because the Bible should have said “he or she.” Literally taken, this is only about men's sins.)
It is obvious that the netizen who posted about her direct experience, who even had photographic evidence of the violation she witnessed, committed no violation. The women who uprooted the sunflowers, on the other hand, did commit a violation. The situation seems cut and dry from a secular standpoint. Penalties should be meted out to the vandals and no penalty to the netizen who reported. Once the penalty is meted out, then the vandals are no more to be bothered with and may go back to their private lives. This is not forgiveness, it is simply rights and justice. Not letting them live in peace after they has paid her dues – that would be bullying. Perhaps also, once the penalties have been served, we can consider forgiveness.
Whether I or any citizen wants to “forgive” these vandals is really a matter of individual decision. But since the violation is so petty and I don't know these people, I hardly think I should waste my moral energies on the question of forgiving them. Kahlil Gibran's Jesus says of these petty evils, “"Too many are the worms that crawl about my feet, and I will give them no battle.” If asked, I could easily forgive them because I have no emotional or ego-involvement with strangers. But that cannot excuse them from paying whatever fines or penalties the university should impose.
Recompense and atonement
As a further argument for the moral correctness of secularism, I might add that the poor implementation of laws that govern crime, punishment, and justice gets in the way of the moral development of our citizens. Thus, we are asked by no less than the Catholic bishops to enter into the spirit of forgiving Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo even if she has not done any real recompense or atonement. Has she owned up to her stealing? Will she return the money?
Ruby Tuason, on the other hand, has been the only person I know in contemporary Philippine history who has given compensation (to the tune of P40 million). She has also expressed atonement, stating that she prayed hard for this and seeks forgiveness from us and her God. Yet, I don't see any religious who note this difference. Indeed many religious reactions to Ruby Tuason remain unforgiving. Certainly the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines is not yet moved enough to call for forgiveness.
In truth, that the government has granted immunity (secular) to Tuason is one case, and I would agree with them. I also think she should be forgiven (spiritual). Tuason is as much a stranger to me as the sunflower vandals. But in one sense, I feel more compelled to forgive her because she clearly has asked for forgiveness from me as a member of the Filipino people against which the crime of plunder has been committed.
I might add that I should be less forgiving of the sunflower violators who have harmed me as a member of the UP Diliman community. They have not even asked forgiveness nor made any recompense. Instead, they seemed unashamed when confronted.
Nevertheless, Tuason is more worthy of my attention because of the gravity of her wrongdoing (plunder is a crime), while the vandals are mere worms about my feet who have committed a violation of good taste and civility. My call for forgiveness for Tuason is also strategic in nature: perhaps with her we can start a culture of secular recompense and spiritual atonement to replace our present culture of stonewalling, hopes for extreme unction and last-minute-get-into-heaven-free cards.
A secular nation is a just nation
In any case we are so aware of the fact that the vast majority of those who steal from the government get away with it that we are blood thirsty. We cannot accept government's decision to grant Tuason immunity even if a genuine assessment of the merit of her plea has been taken by the proper authorities.
We cannot forgive because no one gets punished. Our anger and our disempowerment over those who have harmed us stand in the way of our ability to forgive without asking for the last ounce of flesh. For me compassion is that we are able to forgive because a harm done to us can never be fully recompensed. Compassion however does not demand forgiveness without justice. If only crimes and violations big and small were indeed punished with the appropriate penalties the religious among us may better contemplate what to them constitutes sin, forgiveness and compassion.
French Muslim scholar Sohaib Beinchek argues that secular separation is in fact good for religion. He argues that secularization returns all religions to its original state, which is that of belief adopted out of pure conviction uninfluenced by fear or force. In this way belief professed out of cultural compliance or for gain is minimized. He notes that the “community of believers” envisioned in Islam cannot be translated into anything that resembles state imposed religion.
Reiterating the theme that there is a need nonetheless for religions of all kinds to lend their wisdom to society, Beinchek calls for the free interaction of moral and ethical arguments in the public sphere. This benefits religion as well because religion is renewed when it confronts social realities and reinterprets doctrine towards social relevance in democratic dialogue.
Perhaps, if we, as democratic citizens of a free Philippines, cared more about crime than we did about sin, we might end up with a more just and compassionate society. – Rappler.com
Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also holds a PhD in psychology. She is director of the University of the Philippines Center for Womens Studies and professor of the Department of Women and Development Studies, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines. She is also co-founder and chair of the board of Likhaan Center for Women's Health.