Paring Bert's crusade

MANILA, Philippines – "Masyado kayong pakialamero." (You meddle too much.)

This was the message, interspersed with curses, insults, and threats, recently sent by unknown numbers to Catholic bishops and priests, including Father Albert Alejo, SJ, or "Paring Bert" to his students, colleagues, and friends.

"Patikim lang 'yon (That's just a sample)," said Paring Bert in a Skype interview, revealing that other messages, similarly vile and intimidating, remain unexposed. In a press conference with Fathers Robert Reyes and Flavie Villanueva, the Jesuit remarked, "Suwerte pa ho kami dahil may warning pa." (We are actually fortunate because they still sent a warning.)

In the last two years, Paring Bert's pakikialam ("meddling" or "involvement") has attracted the attention of President Rodrigo Duterte's supporters. Two particular incidents pulled him into their radar.

First, a video circulated online showing Paring Bert discussing the drug war in California, narrating the stories of whistleblowers Edgar Matobato and Arthur Lascañas, and criticizing the "surplus of violence" that the drug war has incited in the country.

The second involved a woman from Davao City who accused the Jesuit of bribing her to lie and testify against Duterte, an allegation which he already denied.

Following the string of attacks hurled by Duterte against the Catholic Church, renewed in different instances, and at one point even suggesting the murder of bishops, Paring Bert admits his fear amid the continued harassment and intimidation. In Luzon, 3 priests have already been murdered by unidentified gunmen, adding to the thousands of unsolved killings under the Duterte regime.

Yet he stands firm on his position against the war on drugs, reiterating his plea to end the slaughter, and appealing for a different approach in solving the drug problem, a cross-sectoral solution that recognizes and respects the value of lives.

At the heart of his call is an appreciation of human worth and dignity that, if analyzed, will reveal a deep and broad philosophy that coordinates diverse elements of Christian morality and Filipino culture, enriched by years of engagement and solidarity with oppressed groups and individuals.

Early formation

Coming of age amid the fervor of student activism in the 1970s, Paring Bert took to heart the Scout Oath he had learned as a boy: "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…"

All through high school, he participated in teach-ins, discussion groups, and rallies, learning to dissect and analyze problems that plagued society and its most marginalized members.

For college, he entered the University of Santo Tomas as a biochemistry major, where he briefly considered joining the priesthood, an idea rebuffed by his father. In his spare time, he tinkered with poetry and wrote for the Varsitarian. Intrigued by the questions and ideas he was discovering in books and social interactions, he shifted to philosophy, a course that gave him space to intensively think about language, culture, and nationalism, subjects that deeply concerned him.

Writing his thesis on the philosophy of nationalism, he analyzed the ideas of Apolinario Mabini and José Rizal, developing an interest in using the Filipino language in intellectual discourse, similar to what Virgilio Enriquez, Prospero Covar, and Zeus Salazar had begun and developed in the social sciences at the University of the Philippines.

Jesuit in Mindanao

The inertia to enter the priesthood persisted, and upon learning about the Society of Jesus, he decided to join them, beginning his formation in 1979. As a young novice, he traveled around Mindanao, interacting with labor groups, farmers, fishermen, and indigenous communities, like the Matigsalug of Bukidnon and Davao.

In 1985, he started his regency at the Ateneo de Davao, where he taught in the high school department. Paring Bert remembers that Davao had its own version of People Power, led by the Yellow Friday Movement which would organize protesting Friday caravans.

This movement was led by Father Rodolfo Malasmas, SJ, from Ateneo and a leading anti-Marcos activist at that time, Soledad Roa Duterte – mother of the President.

The seeds of these formative years would later grow and inform his intellectual musings and social concerns. Much of these experiences would inspire his poems, later collected in the book Sanayan Lang ang Pagpatay, published in 1993. Containing more than a hundred poems in Filipino, this collection marked a milestone in his literary endeavors.

Tao Po!

In 1990, Paring Bert published Tao Po! Tuloy! which contained his ideas and arguments on the concept of loob (inner self or relational interiority) and kapwa (fellow human being), two important elements in sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino Psychology).

This book earned him a National Book Award. But more importantly, it placed his ideas in conversation with fellow thinkers seeking to unearth, through language and culture, the profundity of the Filipino social experience.

For Paring Bert, a person's loob consists of a series of connections. "Hindi isang sulok ng dibdib, kundi isang daigdig ng makabuluhang ugnayan." (Not a space inside the body, but a world of meaningful relations.)

For example, when a loved one is killed, we say that we feel hurt or wounded (masakit ang loob). When we are faced with difficulties, we say that our family gives us strength (ang pamilya ang nagbibigay ng lakas ng loob). In such instances, the entities related to us are, in Paring Bert's words, "kadugtong ng bituka" or connected extensions of ourselves.

Such ideas are at the core of Paring Bert's message in the light of the war on drugs. Seeking to understand those who were killed and their families as kapwa-tao (fellow being), with deeply connected inner selves, we are open to the possibility of empathy and respect.

This way of understanding is the opposite of tokhang, a process which, instead of knocking on doors, saying Tao Po! and signaling one's intentions, deploys dahas (force) – "pilit kang pumapasok, hindi ka naman kumakatok at hindi ka naman pinapatuloy." (You force yourself to enter without knocking, without making your intentions known, without being allowed to enter.)

In the context of pakikipagkapwa-tao (fellowship with shared humanity), Paring Bert asks, what if we facilitate a meeting between the families of those killed by drug addicts and those killed in the war on drugs? Helping them recognize and share each other's loss and suffering might lead them to find solace together, and through this, rely on each other's strength (humugot ng lakas ng loob) as they seek justice, recover lost dignities, and even grant forgiveness.

It might also shift our focus to the ineffectiveness of the current method, a method of killing that only results to the loss of lives without actually solving the problem. "Baka naman hinahabol mo 'yung daga, pumasok sa isang bahay, sinunog mo 'yung buong bahay, nakawala rin yung daga." (You might be chasing a rat that entered your house, and what you do is burn the entire house down, even if the rat was able to escape).

Role of the Church

In 2018, in an interview with Leloy Claudio for Rappler's Basagan ng Trip, Paring Bert said that the Chuch holds a certain amount of authority whenever human dignity ("dangal ng tao") is the subject. "Ang tao nilikha ng Diyos, kawangis ng Diyos, pero kapag sinisira ang tao, may karapatan at katungkulan pa ng simbahan magsalita." (Human beings are created by God, in His image, and if a human being is killed, the Church is tasked and even emboldened to speak up.)

He believes that the Church cannot be silent and distant when lives are destroyed, in the murder of men and women by bullets, their faces wrapped with packing tape, their lifeless bodies displayed to neighbors and spectators, their alleged crimes already decided by blood stained placards.

"Kapag lumapit ang isang namatayan, naulila, anong gagawin mo? Papaano kung ang lumapit sa 'yo ay dating pumapatay, na gustong magbagong-buhay? Hindi ba hahanapan mo rin ng paraan? Harapin niya ang katarungan pero tutulungan mo rin siyang magkaroon ng pangalawang pagkakataon."

(If a person who recently lost a loved one approaches you, what will you do? What if a person who used to kill approaches you, intending to change and renew his life? Won't you find a way to help? He will have to face justice but nevertheless you must still help him find a second chance.)

Plea to end the killings

For now, Paring Bert's crusade continues. He remains active in academic and social activities, but every now and then he wonders what next thing this entanglement would bring him. "Anong kasunod nito?" (What is next?)

But his loob is unwavering, refusing to be silenced. "Hindi natin matatanggap na basta magtuluy-tuloy lang ang ganitong takbo ng lipunan." (We cannot accept this kind of society to continue.)

At the core of his new mission is a plea which he repeats again and again. "Itigil na po natin ang pagpatay. Itigil na natin ang paniniwalang ang solusyon sa lahat ng problema ay pagpatay." (Let's stop the killings. Let's stop believing the idea that the only solution to all problems is to kill.) – Rappler.com