Romans 13 as a Pharisaic Political Strategy: Approaching the Tension from Historical Perspective

by Nestor Ravilas

How much of his Pharisaic formation stayed? And how does this residue of his former religious upbringing correlate with his new found faith? Catherine Mills doubts that anyone is capable of breaking out from one’s identity formation. Although Judith Butler, out probably of her Hegelian training, casts a positive stance on this issue of identity shifting. She winces a bit, however, telling us that the task is next to impossible. Was Paul then a converted Christian with his Pharisaic foundation remains intact, lurking beneath and indirectly assisting him all the way in reading and interpreting things happening around him, including his new religious persuasion? Was his feisty stand against those “trouble makers” in the churches of Galatia bespeaks of Pharisaic symptoms who are known for intolerance of competition as demonstrated earlier by the Pharisees who bothered and interrogated Jesus throughout his life for his non-Pharicsaic reading of the Torah?
Paul’s conversion is a watershed in the drift between the Rabbinic Judaism and of Christianity. He is not only the man who popularized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, but demeaned at the same time its fiercest rival, the Pharisees. It was commonly accepted that after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, only two of four religious schools of Judaea survived: the Pharisaic party that turned to be the Rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus movement that later becomes Christianity.
Pharisee/Rabbinic Judaism on the other has a long and celebrated history than Christianity. Their formation might have been occasioned by the reforms initiated by Ezra and Nehemiah. The earliest mentioning of their group, however, was during the time of the greatest Hasmmonaean prince, John Hyrcanus, as reposted by Josephus in his Judean Antiquity. Since then, despite the effort of Josephus to discredit the group as observed by Steve Mason, the Pharisees become an influential and popular Jewish sect. Although opinion varies as to whether they remained popular and influential during the time of Herod, the Synoptic Gospels however attest to the fact that during the time of Jesus, the Pharisees remained that way. If indeed correct that the Pharisees were the forerunners of the Rabbinic Judaism that survived the onslaught of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it only says that the influence and popularity of the Pharisees have never receded from the time of Alexandra Salome up to the fall of Jerusalem. This might be the pride and honor bear by every Pharisee, including former members who converted to other sects.
In the history of the Pharisees which occurred much in the narration of Josephus of the Hasmonean dynasty in his book, the Judean War, their influence and popularity is attributable to their political cunning in playing along with those in power. The golden years of the Pharisees occurred during the reign of Hasmonean queen, Alexandra Salome. But having John Hyrcanus, father-in-law of Salome, as their student says that their dominance against their rival group, the Sadducees, predates the said golden era. Through the shrewdness of the Sadducees, however, the Pharisees were dropped by John Hyrcanus and declared as outlaws and their precepts or Torah interpretation was replaced. The tension of the Hasmonean house with the Pharisees was inherited by Alexander Jannaeus, son of John Hyrcanus and husband of Alexandra Salome. The fray went berserk that many Pharisees were killed by Jannaeus. Jannaeus reign, however, was beset by trouble throughout because the people sided with the influential Pharisees. Thus, in his deathbed, he asked his wife, Alexandra Salome, to reconcile with the Pharisees, so as not to inherit the grudge he and his father, John Hyrcanus, had with the Pharisees and the Jewish people who had supported them.
Alexandra Salome did as she was told, she reconciled with the Pharisees. To make the story short, the Pharisees reigned supreme in this time of puppet government of the queen. They established well themselves, made their legal precept installed, making their dual Torah acceptable, and ruled both Jewish religion and government. Everything the Pharisees did was ingrained in Jewish society that even during the time of Herod the Great and of Jesus they remained the most popular and influential group to reckon with.
Does this Pharisaic pride slip the mind of Paul? Was not the Alexandra Salome incident the inspiration behind his appeal for Christian to submit to a friendly Roman government? To play along so as to accomplish much while the government is unsuspicting of his group? It could be a Pharisaic political strategy tried to mix with the Christian activism inherited from the Baptist-Jesus tradition. This does not suggest, however, to drop such stance of the Baptist and Jesus against oppression and injustices, but a proposal to seize the time while the ruling government is friendly and just. The Alexandra Salome period which is the golden years of the Pharisee might be the model to Paul’s admonition in Romans 13, but it does not say anything once the political tide turns to an Alexander Jannaeus’ style of rule who hanged thousands of Jews while having a party in the palace. Definitely, the tune will really change in such kind of political condition.

I am Kian: The Blood of the Innocent is the Fire of Revolution

by Nestor Ravilas

It was commonly argued that the shift of execution of criminals from open public square into a secluded chamber bespeaks of a moral progress of every civilized society. This was even touted as the rationalization of once primitive way of dealing with wayward members of any given society. The public has to be spared from the horror and trauma of public executions. The justification that public display of execution was being done in order to warn the public that crime does not pay does no longer hold water, they said. It traumatizes more the public than affecting the criminal-would-be. Thus, punishments and executions for felony are now being exercised in private.
Social critics, however, see sinister motives beyond this shift. Michel Foucault, for one, argues that the transfer from public to private was not a move from barbarism to civilized way of dealing with criminals. Rather, it was a move to hide from public scrutiny the atrocities and abuses of people assigned to administer punishments. It was attested that most public uprisings occurred in history were actually inspired by public execution of people allegedly accused by the state as criminals, but perceived, on the other hand, by the public as innocents. The public execution of “innocent criminals” agitated the public and provided them courage for uprising. This is what happened in the first half of the first century in Palestine when they publicly executed an innocent man by hanging him on the wooden cross. To stave off these kind of revolts to occur again, punitive societies then moved to hide torture, punishment, and execution of alleged criminals inside prisons and in secluded chambers.
What, therefore, is the difference of Kian de los Santos’ execution from those of other minors killed in this war on drugs of the state covered under the darkness of the night? Kian’s happened to be partly caught by surveillance camera while he was being dragged by his executioners. And more to this, there are witnesses that could vividly describe the last moment of Kian in almost high definition narration of the fatal event. The morbid state of the dumped carcass in the mud was photographed before the complicit funeral parlor arrived to hold hostage of the body in exchange of ransom called funeral service charge. All this public display of the brutal killing of an innocent boy tagged as criminal by the state is now hammering our sense of mercy and justice and our love for the value of life in general. The same agitation instigated those bystanders who witnessed the execution of innocent people during the despotic age of the monarchs.
By providence probably, Kian’s brutal execution was publicly displayed before us. The next steps are now left to us. What will we do next determine where this nation is heading into! May the good Lord enlighten us all!

Religion and Violence: Why Religious People are Attracted to Authoritarian Power?

by Nestor Ravilas

“Why dictatorship keeps on coming back again and again?” asked by Shalmali Guttal of the Global South during the talk on the Rise of Populist Authoritarianism that featured Walden Bello and other international political thinkers. The talk basically calls out the emergence of dictatorship, not only in the Philippines and in the US, but in the global context. What is more alarming is the deliberate effort to efface history of mass killings and genocide committed by past despotic leaders which is obviously being carried out to pave the way for the rise of this new totalitarianism. I thought at first that this phenomenon is constrained only in the “German Debate” where Jurgen Habarmas himself feisty contested this eradication of the atrocities of Shoa (Holocaust) to liberate, as its proponents aggressively argued, Germany from the horror of its past crimes against humanity. This trend, as spilled by the panelists, is actually global, and the Philippines is riding the tide in trying to eliminate or dampen the horror of the Marcos regime, obviously, to give way to Duterte’s brand of authoritarianism.
The question then raised by Guttal is distressing, and becoming more distressful when no answer is offered on why totalitarianism keeps on coming back in political scene, and why people keep on cowering under it. With so many questions raised during the three-hour talk, it was the one who keeps haunting me and brooding deeply this big “Why?” thereafter. Another significant thing in the talk is the absence of any trace of religious language. I understand that secular politics has to be free of religious language. Democracy goes with secularism since the greatest obstacle for any pursuant for self-determination are the despotic monarchy and arbitrary religion. This repugnance, however, to religion of dogmatic liberalism is in my opinion the reason why the question remains unanswered. Contrary to what Marx prophesied, religion, up to this day, remains a power to reckon with. Churches in Europe and in other countries outside Europe might have been suffering from declining membership or attendees for years as mentioned by Ulrich Beck, but it does not mean that people stopped being religious. Religion remains a force that shapes identities and personalities of people living on this planet. To exclude religion in our social and political dialog which is supposedly geared towards anticipation of egalitarian arrangement is doomed to fail from the very start. That is the reason why even those branded as dogmatic liberals like Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Richard Rorty, etc. started to engage religion in their own discourses.
Why religion matters then in the discussion of political theories? Because religion is the breeding ground for what Michel Foucault dubbed as “docile people”. It is the institution where people trained and conditioned under a despotic and authoritarian rule. I know no world religion that is not despotic and totalitarian in its imposition of its dogma and practices. Religions are efficient in what Foucault called “internalization of subjugation,” which thus producing subservient and obedient people who practice their docility even in their private lives where no authorities are present to monitor them. Hence, its members or constituents are framed and condition in this kind of relationship to power. It is not therefore surprising that the pertinent political blocks that supported and keep on supporting despotic leaders like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte are religious people, Evangelicals to be precise.
It was said that religions with male gods as their deities are more prone to the interplay of power and docility. Female gods gave birth to everything; humans included come from her and therefore part of her. I am not familiar with any society that worships a female god, hence I cannot confirm whether this kind of society is more humane on their social arrangement. A male god, on the other hand, is authoritarian from the very start; he created everything as he commanded them into being. Religions of most prominent societies we are aware of revered male gods or male prophets. They are basically religions of orders, of commands, of power, of despotic imposition. This is what we hear from President Duterte, and this is what the religious people of this country love about him. We love being dominated, being ruled, being directed, being dictated, being bullied, being abused, because that is how we are framed and produced by our religions.
How then could we expect a person who have just emerged from worshiping his god to be a different person in his political participation? It is the same person! Docile and subservient. Person whose docility was internalized; person who finds salvation in being ruled and dominated by power, whether religious or political. Because of this, we cannot simply change society by shunning out religions in our social discourse and social participation. Ignoring religions will not stop them from producing people that give us Trump and Duterte. Rather, we have to engage them and take them away from those who are maligning them by misinterpreting and misrepresenting them that only ends in this perpetuation of repulsive docility to tyrannical power.

Manny Paquiao & His Violent God

by Nestor Ravilas

I shuddered at the very thought of elevating Manny Paquiao to power when he first ran to public office not so many years ago. I know for sure it will be a big mistake. It is putting a violent man, and his violent god, to power. I campaigned against his bid for senatorial seat not only to save Evangelical community from shame, but to spare Filipinos from the predilection to violence of this man.
Human nature is so complex to put it in single equation. There is no notion of human formation that is not up for discussion. What is obvious and accessible to our perception is that the identity of the man, now sitting as senator and generously offering his public opinions presumed covered with authority, is formed and shaped in violence. Sen. Paquiao lives his life from the very beginning, and seemingly intends to end it, in violence. Born in abject poverty, deprived of decent life, abandoned by his father, beaten by his strict mother, left his house in a young age to get himself from one onerous job to another, and did his rigorous training in dilapidated-makeshift gyms as aspiring boxer while doing hard labor in construction sites, he is indeed extremely subjected to violent formation. Finally, as probably written in his destiny, gained his fame and wealth in trading punches and spilling blood with other warriors amidst the frenzy fans of violent sport. Manny Paquiao’s identity is forged and shaped in violence, and therefore expected to live out this violent constitution.
What is worst is that he is using the Bible to satiate his violent nature. Having given to an abrasive and authoritarian mother, Manny’s other side is somewhat a docile persona. He shows in public an amiable and meek image. But once put in an arena where violence is perceived legal, he would unleash his monstrous identity and aspire always for a knock out or for a kill. Now that he is sitting as elected senator and garbed at the same time with pastoral office, he has both the power of religion and of the state. Like in boxing ring, violence there could be turned legal and sacred, and Manny, so far, is taking advantage of this privilege to satisfy his thirst for blood. From demeaning gay people, to supporting EJK and the return of death penalty, now he is using his political and religious position to provide support to Martial Law and its extension. John Collins is right in saying for the evil to justify violence he can definitely find lots of support in the Bible. And Many Paquaio is an example of a violent person who finds exactly a violent god in the Bible.
Sen. Paquiao may not be aware of his violent formation, and worse, the chance for him to discover his evil side might be at slightest possibility as his spiritual mentors assure and cajole him every day of his privilege position as renewed “son of god”. What we have now is an authority who occupies the space on religious-political discourses that is skewed by his own violent formation. And the God of peace and life cannot change a man who himself is blinded by his own evil, and worse, sees it rather as his earnest crusade for the “god of his own”.
Sen. Alan Pater Cayetano is an addition that pushes us really to rethink our religious formation as Evangelical Christians!

Are Robbers my Neighbors too?: Chasing Alterity in the Parable of the Good Samaritan

by Nestor Ravilas

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is radical and audacious in many ways. It was Jesus’ trump card in his struggle against the religious and political leaders of his time. It basically questions the prevailing religious and social norms that formed and shaped social relations and arrangements of first century Palestine. First, the parable points out the inadequacy of written laws to embody the demand for social responsibility. That every accomplishment of each moral code written will only give you this strange feeling of insecurity of not having done enough to satisfy the requirements of ethics. To declare, therefore, that you have already done all of them is only to say that you have finally reached the limit of language, and what you are facing now from that edge is the infinite abyss that separates you from the demand — love your neighbor. Thereafter, every act of goodness you make, in hope to reduce the abyss, will always count insufficient to make the two horizons kiss. The demand therefore has no satisfaction, only its iterable cycle of beginning, of doing good again and again.
It calls out in the same way our notion of neighbor. Language is contrived to describe and to designate, thus is has its innate weakness to distinguish one from another. Demographically, neighbor is distinguished from stranger. Relational, it is defined against enemy. Having chosen a Samaritan as the main actor who is “taking to himself the plight of the other” is to overcome both demographic and relational barriers and thus affirms proximity of all human beings.
Jesus in the same way saves passion from those who are in the business of demeaning it. Emmanuel Levinas himself, who is now shrines as the precursor in the return of god in the 20th century via ethics, detaches love from emotion by describing love in his rational innovation as “taking to oneself the plight of the other”. Although the Plato-Kantian tradition may find ally in him, and Martha Nussbaum in the same way may gloat to this, Levinas however fails to take account of what motivates the act of “taking” in the first place. Judith Butler, although standing in the shoulder of Levinas, provides what is lacking from her main interlocutor. Responsibility emerges from affects, from emotions, she said. Was not the Samaritan himself prompted by pity and compassion before the exposed vulnerability of the “other” that he disregarded the ontological animosity between Samaritans and Jews, and opted rather to be driven by emotions? Does Jesus is telling us not only to train our mind the rigors of science, math, and philosophy (theology) but to appreciate, nurture, and cultivate good emotions and passions?
All of these were accomplished by a single parable. Nonetheless, an alterity always exceeds human intentions and purposes. It indeed serves the purpose of Jesus, but unfortunately it brings to the fore another serious problem. Serious than what he intends to resolve. If the half-dead victim, who is presumed a Jew and religiously framed therefore as enemy, is now a neighbor to the Samaritan, and the Samaritan is now a neighbor to the inquiring “expert of the law” who is also a Jew, whose neighbors then are the robbers? What particular response I should have to demonstrate, therefore, before such awful view of punching, kicking, and robbing the helpless victim? If the centuries of animosity between Samaritans and Jews overcome by compassion, are they not compelled to show the same compassion to the robbers? Unfortunately, Jesus did not bother to answer it. Thus it leaves us to ask, “Whose neighbors are the thieves then?”
Let me pause for a while and share this question with you; hoping to hear response from you.

Weaponizing Theology

by Fred Laceda


Religion and politics’ connection is interesting, at times odd, and often times explosive. One contemporary depiction of this relationship is between Stannis and Melisandre in The Game of Thrones. The former’s political ambition is bolstered by the latter’s religious idea that Stannis was the chosen one. Politics and religion, in other words, has an intimate relationship. The offspring of such intimacy is hoped to be a blessing, but Melisandre and Stannis’ offspring offers a cautionary tale: Melisandre bore a shadowy, perhaps cursed, child.
In the Christian context, for instance, the interface between religion and politics produced an interesting union. A watershed in this unholy alliance is one between the Church and an Empire in decline. The Church adapted the mechanism of control of the Empire; and use authority and power that can be called as “coercive.” This religious/political complex otherwise known as Christendom remained for over a millennia. This arrangement would give way to another instance in the entanglement between politics and religion: the emergence of modernity. The configuration of the various spheres in the modern period radically altered the intersections between politics and religion. By creating a separate, secular sphere—religion become its ‘other’. Religion quickly shoved to the newly created “private” sphere. This exile restricts religion’s participation in the secular public life. Yet Carl Schmitt offers an interesting genesis of modern politics and its inherent and generative connection with religion by saying that—“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts…”
Moreover, there is another way by which religion and politics conspire. The contemporary scene in Philippine society is fertile for analysis of the religion-politics matrix. Religion figures prominently in the current political scene. Whether supplying “biblical text” for certain laws (e.g., death penalty) or religious concepts such as “forgiveness” for a past wound that still haunts the present (Martial law). In these examples the role of religion is quite interesting. Religion provides a justification or legitimation for a certain political ideology/practice. In what follows I argue that Religion is being used as a weapon of politics. It operates by using religious-theological ideas to reinforce a socio-political injustice.
Take for example the use of “forgiveness” in our current religious-political discourse. One may argue that “forgiveness” is the most abused concept of the day. All social and political ills are seen through the prism of forgiveness. Abuse of power? Killings of the poor? Bleed our coffers dry? All are consigned to forgiveness. What’s interesting, though, is that even so-called “theologians” are harping on such use of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not just offer religious redemption it also now is seen as a panacea for political ills.
But how can forgiveness reinforce a certain injustice? The utterance of forgiveness shuts the door for an appeal because we are forced to forgive at all cost. The problem with this is that it views forgiveness in a vacuum. Forgiveness presupposes that something wrong was done, which include a perpetrator and a victim. It includes, in other words, a social context. It includes a social structure where forgiveness and justice are both in existence. And we know that the relationship of justice and forgiveness are complex and complicated as attested by the latest work of Martha Nussbaum. Thus one is forced to be sensitive by the timing when forgiveness is being given. Forgiveness is abused when it is use to absolve the perpetrator and aggravate the agony of the victim.
Lastly there are those who argue that their view and use of religious concepts such as forgiveness are legitimate religio-political position. They argue that we should go beyond our differences in positions about such matters so that we can preserve unity. This is an ingenious way of saying that we can support such killings but we should not be liable for our views because we as persons are different from our positions. It hides from a misuse of postmodernity’s idea of “relative.” Again, this is one way where religious idea becomes complicit with a certain socio-political abuse. Of course in trivial matters we can in fact say that we allow a diversity of opinions. But in such cases involving the killings of human life, we cannot just consign it to a diversity of opinions. Unless we view life as utterly trivial. This view also hides the ethical implications of our positions. When it involves killing those from the margins there is no neutral ground. Our position either condemn the killings or it incites and encourages it. Discourse and words can reconfigure reality or it can reinforce injustice because discourse is performative thus it translates to a practice.

Poor Joseph: Another Horror of Christmas

by Nestor Ravilas

Whenever I read this part of nativity story (Matt. 1:18-24), I could not help but to sympathize with the plight of Joseph. Not that I claim Joseph suffered and sacrificed more than what Mary had given up just to realize the divine plan. Only that his credulity in some sense flays down the most endeared image of macho Filipino male. I am wondering up to now what moves Joseph to acquiesce to such abject role in that divine drama; whether for the love of Mary or for God, I am not really sure. Since the drama was already done and we are all aware how the story has ended, Joseph was redeemed into heroism or sainthood and the role he played is now recognized as an act of indomitable faith. Prior to that, of course, he was nothing but an idiot easy to fall to such dimwitted narrative of the divine visiting the earth. And there is nothing more enduring, more torturing, than the part of yourself mocking you, saying, “You’re shit, you’re so gullible to believe that Mary is carrying the savior in her womb!” I pity him for that!
It is to expect too much from the man Joseph if he did not teeter a bit. Nonetheless, commendable indeed his courage and faith. The only reason given by the passage to justify such seeming incongruity is that the one carried by Mary was about to save them from their sins. Whether this assertion is a post-resurrection insertion to reflect Christian musing with the problem of sins, it does not depart however from the long awaited salvation from all forms of oppressions through the agency of the Chosen One. Hopeless and insoluble was the social malaise that Joseph humbly set aside his own interest for the “will” of God, and then embraced whatever the moral and psychological stigma this might bring to him just for his people to be redeemed. After all, it did not require his life as demanded from Jose Rizal or Ninoy Aquino. As Christmas is just around the corner, it is good to recall not only the boy in the manger, but also those who put the spotlight on him, so bright that it blinded the ‘viewers’ of the characters in the scene, so luminous the others seemed to be sketchy outlines in a haze. Was Joseph’s sacrifice satiated by the consummation of its very intention? Are we really redeemed and evil has finally diminished if not completely gone?
As far as I remember, we are the only Christian nation in Asia which is expected to be the only country to celebrate the festivity. But here is the irony: we have now the most corrupt president among all the corrupt presidents we had in the past. To miss the top position is not something to rejoice thus the government should stop touting it, but to fall second or third makes you still a corrupt country and it doesn’t make us feel any better. In this country you don’t need to tediously and meticulously plan a crime, you can pull the trigger at anyone at any time in a broad day light and walk free as if you just spit on someone’s face. And this is a country where you could be startled and mesmerized by the ostentation of the rich and famous and at the same time harrumphed on the obnoxious sights of famished majority of our people. In all this ironies, your only help is to look back to the manger where Christian religion all started and ask the question, “Whose failure is this?” The government for sure is one to be blamed, but the institution which has emanated from this nativity event has a lot more to explain. It is the church more than the government should be held responsible why this supposed redemption becomes a dive to perdition.
Thus, I could not help again but to look back to mystified Joseph and sigh, “Truly I pity you”!