A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: The enlightened choices we make

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/03 January) — Is 2017 going to be a far better year than 2016 in terms of the choices that people will make? One can only hope so, as the past year did not see many of us across the world making enlightened choices.

Considering the fact that three centuries have already passed since the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment and we can assume that humanity has moved progressively towards a greater civilization, one wonders why in 2016 most peoples in the world seemed to have moved backwards in terms of their practice of human values and virtues helping us to be kinder, tender, more compassionate human beings.

As the Enlightenment Era unfolded in Western Europe in the 17th century that gave rise to the concepts and discourses of rationality, scientific explorations, human dignity and rights, democracy, equality, fraternity and a whole range of laudable human values – expressing various tenets of religious traditions like the Abrahamic religions – humanity steadily marched towards a world where people could argue and reach consensus without going to war, where conflicts could be resolved peacefully through treaties, disenfranchised peoples have recourse to law and enjoy basic civil liberties and human rights, where countries could give birth to Constitutions that assured liberty, progress and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, the philosophical and political thoughts made popular by the Enlightenment did not stop wars and conflicts, the rise of authoritarian and oppressive regimes, the violation of people’s rights and the widening gap between rich and poor. However, in some continents, the quality of people’s lives have markedly improved owing to the repercussions of the Enlightenment period.  Thus, colleges and universities made sure that the youth would be educated in a manner that they would learn the lessons that got accumulated since the Enlightenment.

Eventually, these Enlightenment concepts, theories and discourses reached Third World countries like the Philippines via the colonial agenda of Western Europe and North American countries.  However, it is not as if the indigenous peoples have not evolved indigenous knowledge providing for conflict resolution, inter-tribal solidarity, respect for the weak and elderly and pursuing a system of an egalitarian system of governance. Many ethnographic studies done by both colonial and contemporary anthropologists have indicated the remarkable manner that indigenous people evolved concepts and practices that could be considered a product of their own “indigenous enlightenment.”

The colonial regimes,of course,had tendencies towards domination and autocratic rule. But it opened doors connecting our nascent intellectuals with the thoughts that came with the Enlightenment. Our study of Philippine history shows us that the likes of Rizal, the Luna Brothers and they who constituted La Liga Filipina came to their consciousness of a nascent “Filipino nation” due to their exposure to these ideas in Spain. And the movements of the 1860s-1890s in our urban centers and the late American period further fueled by the fiery ideas of emancipation from colonial rule made possible the articulation of a people’s desire to achieve freedom and equality.

Nowhere is this made clear than the Kartilya of the Katipunan, written by Andres Bonifacio and revised by Emilio Jacinto into a Decalogue. Some of the important items of the Kartilya that manifested a high ethical sense of the movement included: (3) True piety is the act of being charitable, loving one’s fellowmen, and being judicious in behavior, speech and deed; 4) We are all equal, regardless of the color of their skin, while one could have more education, wealth or beauty than the other, none of them can overpass one’s identity; 5) A person with a noble character values honor above self-interest, while a person with a base character values self-interest above honor…and 8) Defend the oppressed and fight the oppressor.”

However, the Enlightenment agenda has not progressed to its full fruition. Jurgent Habermas, the eminent German philosopher and social theorist, made a comment that while the Enlightenment has arisen, humanity has not become fully enlightened. At some point, some peoples and nations are able to move forward to take pride in what they are able to collectively construct in their society, but the sad fact is that there have been ups and downs.  True, there have been historic moments when humanity made noble and enlightened decisions e.g. setting up the United Nations and international courts that penalize dictators especially if they commit mass killings among the citizens, passing laws in their countries that assure the rights of marginalized groups (from the elderly to children, from women to their native populations), agreeing on certain treaties (allocating foreign aid, cutting down the use of fossil fuels, limiting nuclear armament) and the like.

Many of these are made possible because peoples choose leaders with a vision and could exert enlightened leadership.  The world has been lucky to have emperors-kings-rulers with a wise mind and a tender heart. In contemporary history we have benefited from the wisdom and astuteness of Gandhi, Nehru, Roosevelt, King Bhumibol, Nyerere, Mandela, Havel and in our own shores, we had Ramon Magsaysay. When they died, people grieved because they were such rare leaders.  Tragically many of their initiatives have not been sustained. The year 2016 might prove to be the year when the world saw a decline of the Enlightenment period.  One could possibly say this has also been true in terms of our experience in the Philippines.

So what is in store for us in the world today with the leadership of the likes of Trump, Putin and their ilk?  What is in store for us in the Philippines with a leader like President Rody Roa Duterte and the men and women who are in his Cabinet, and those of the Supreme Court and Congress? Your guess is as good as mine.  We can only wish for the best, even as the signs in mid- to late-2016 showed us a bankruptcy in terms of the country’s leadership.

But the country is us; we are the people of this Republic. And we should not just rely on our leaders to construct an enlightened society. We can contribute towards this ideal and in 2017, we are desperately demanded to do our part even as we – taking the advice of Confucious – should not cease from taking our leaders to task when they are not up to the task of building a just, free and compassionate nation.

Here are ten steps that I would take to heart myself and would propose to everyone else as the enlightened choices we should make this year and beyond: 1) Follow the golden rule which is enshrined in practically all belief traditions (“If you do not want to die, do not be the cause of other people’s death!). 2) Life of all forms – the gift of an almighty Creator – is sacred; nurture life, not destroy it! 3) If you have power – even if it is only a little bit or a lot – remember the wheel; one time you are up, at other times you will be down; so never abuse your power. 4) It is always a temptation to wish to have absolute power; but absolute power corrupts absolutely; so refrain from yielding to this seduction. 5) If you follow a certain belief system, follow the tenets of your religion of choice; otherwise you will be subject to the criticism of being a hypocrite! 6) Violence against women is a form of barbarity for how can one abuse one’s own mother and sisters? VAW starts with cuss words especially referring to mothers as p__a! 7) At nursery and kindergarten schools, we were already taught basic lessons in being polite, considerate and respectful to others; we need to return to those lessons if have forgotten them. 8) Don’t make promises that you cannot fulfill. 9) Learn the lessons of history including which actions in dealing with drug and other addictions were successes or failures. 10) Never be on denial as to the truth of one’s health; accepting the truth and being resigned to doing what must be done to cure the illness could bring wellness and peace of mind.

Enough said.  Happy New Year everyone and do your best to make enlightened choices!
[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations” and two books on Davao history launched in December 2015. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]