I was seventeen when I decided to join the Jesuits. Some today may think that that was much too early to make a radical life decision, that there were too many other possibilities in life that I ought first to have explored before deciding for a life involving the evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience.
For a while, my father felt that way too. I’d actually wanted to become a priest very early on, when serving Masses regularly in our parish church at 8 years of age introduced me to a love for the altar and a youthful admiration for the diocesan priests of the parish. When I got to the Ateneo de Manila High School, my class moderator in first year, Fr. Ernesto Javier, noted my desire. He told me to join Challenge House, which I did. For two years, during my second and third year high school days, I’d left home to explore the challenge now of becoming a Jesuit priest. It was a good experience. But I left Challenge House because my father felt it was unhealthy for me to be thinking only about the priesthood at that age. He wanted me to get out, explore the world, interact more with other-thinking people, and “get a girlfriend.” So that’s what I did. But after a retreat under Fr. Raymund Gough during my first year of college, I discerned the call to the priesthood undeniable. Fr. Horacio de la Costa, then Provincial of the Jesuits in the Philippines, concurred. On July 16, 1965, I entered Sacred Heart Novitiate.
I have since lived more than three times those seventeen years as a Jesuit in the Philippines. After my ordination to the priesthood in 1983, I began my priestly service in the Resettlement Area of San Pedro, Laguna. Yesterday, I returned there for the first time in some forty years to preside over the renewal of marriage vows of a couple, Jojo Eduque and Sonny Castro, whose marriage I’d witnessed in that church 40 years ago yesterday. Jojo and Sonny remembered the dirt floor and the few rough wooden benches that were part of the luxurious setting of their marriage. The church I’d built in 1988 had meanwhile been totally replaced. But the kamagong crucifix was still there. Happily, there were some elderly women who peered into my face and remembered a youthful priest forty years and forty kilos earlier who’d served the urban poor community of San Pedro Resettlement. One declared that she was part of a livelihood project called “Lovers’ Own” which my father in Beautifont had helped me run for the people. Awesome.
So much has unfolded in my life because of a decision I made when I was seventeen. Or, from a possibly more accurate perspective, so much has happened because of a decision God made manifest to me when I was seventeen. I was only in first year college, but life had already unfolded so richly, and in its further unfolding would take me to doctoral studies in Germany and Austria, teaching at Ateneo de Manila, service of the urban poor community of Kristong Hari, Commonwealth, the rectorship of San Jose Seminary, the presidency of Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Naga University, and currently Ateneo de Davao University.
So for me, it is a very personal thing. At seventeen I was still in first year college. That today is the equivalent of eleventh grade. At seventeen, when I was pondering the differences between marriage and the priesthood, between management engineering and joining the Society of Jesus, I was the age of Kian de los Santos on the same academic level as he. That Kian was framed, shot and killed in a police action gone rogue, at a time when his life was yet unfolding, is a matter of deep personal pain for me. It could have been me at seventeen. It could have ended all. In the case of Kian, it did end all.
It has been stated that this is an isolated case. But even if it were isolated, it is one case too many. The President has just signed the Universal Access to Tertiary Education Act into law providing real hope for quality education to all Filipino learners such as Kian. But where are we if the State on the one hand undertakes to promote their welfare through higher education, but on the other hand kills them in senior high? Where are we if the State on the one hand undertakes at great material and human expense to fight a war against drugs for their sake, but on the other hand kills them. When a life is taken, describing it as an isolated case rings hollow, if not cynical. When a life is taken even as genuine collateral damage in a police operation nothing can replace that life. When a life is taken through abominable police action that frames an innocent person as a criminal and shoots him to increase the statistics of “progress” in the war against drugs, this is a crime that cries to the heavens for justice.
The war on drugs must be fought. The drug menace is international evil, driven by powerful forces of evil. This is still the case. It has for too long victimized our people with impunity.
But the war on drugs is fought ultimately because those forces of evil disrespect human lives. They are evil because they destroy human lives, human futures and human culture particularly in the Philippines. For cheap money, they bring their victims to chemically-induced highs, but cook and extinguish their brains till little is left of the human being. In this way, they destroy whole families and whole communities. They attack the entire nation. The President has declared that the Philippines, corrupted by these drugs in all levels of government, local and national, and even in its security and its law enforcement agencies, is a narcotic state. Push back is needed.
But not in the way it is being done. If the war on drugs is fought out of respect for human life, it must be guided by respect for human life. The President must be the first to cry out for this because that is why he is fighting the war in the first place, out of his love for the country, and especially out of his love for the poor. Where security and police forces are already flawed because of their vulnerability to corruption and disrespect for human life, even more care must be taken to lead them on the straight path, to direct them to destroy the enemy, and not the victims of the enemy. Certainly, the President must rally his forces to win the war and to legitimately defend their lives against the onslaughts of the enemy. At the same time, he must be keen not to encourage the dark culture of death against which he is fighting his war in the first place. High numbers of people killed dahil nanlaban – because they resisted – do not indicate the war on drugs being won.
Where the President himself was shocked at the extent of the use of drugs in this country and its corruptive effects, it may be helpful for him not only to declare that we are now a narcotic state but to make the nation aware of who exactly the big players are and where exactly the big distribution centers are located. He may wish to explain the operations of security forces against a strategy of winning against strategic targets. He may wish to tell us that if the war on drugs was not won within six months, where the nation now is in its strategy of winning this war. He may wish to help us understand how he measures his successes, or even his failures.
He may acknowledge that since his war on drugs many groups in civil society and in faith-based communities are contributing to the war on drugs through personal and communal efforts at battling illegal drugs and helping their hapless victims.
He also may wish to state unequivocally that the killing of a Kian at seventeen does not advance the war on drugs. It debases it.
Not too long ago, human rights lawyers associated with the Center Against Illegal Drugs (CAID) of the Ateneo de Davao University conducted a three-day seminar in Samal for law enforcers from Mindanao on human-rights-based law enforcement. The intervention was very well received by the law enforcers. For many of them it was the first time they had be given the opportunity to reflect systematically on their responsibilities as law enforcers in the protection of human rights. Perhaps something like this may be done in other parts of the country in order that our security forces gain personal insight into their responsibility to protect and not destroy, nor even to instrumentalize, human life.
The war on drugs is a battle for human life, for human dignity and the integrity of human society in the Philippine context. The enemy of the war on drugs is not human rights. The enemy of the war on drugs is thinking a President will be pleased with large numbers of chalked-up deaths “dahil nanlaban” that have no demonstrated strategic value in winning the war; or it is the Commander in Chief giving the troops the impression that the murder of such as Kian at seventeen is defensible in the context of a narcotic state.
The death of Kian is not defensible. He was only seventeen. Think of all the possibilities killed. Think of his goodness extinguished. Think of his bereaved family, friends and nation.
Justice for Kian!