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[OPINION] God gave us Duterte

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] God gave us Duterte
The unfortunate reality is that the biblical injunctions are blind to the social conditions that lead to the proliferation of drug use and criminality in our society

In his recent piece for Rappler, Broderick Pabillo, the venerable auxiliary bishop of Manila, insisted that “God did not give us President Duterte”. He rejected the saying “vox populi, vox Dei” not only because it is not found in the Bible. Many authoritarian figures in history came to power because people voted for them: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Ferdinand Marcos. By the same token, Duterte became president not because of God but because of 16 million voters in 2016.

His ideas are reasonable. Everyone should accept them. But do they?

Religion informs people’s moral worldviews and political choices. In a society that prides itself for being the only Christian country in Asia, this should not be difficult. Christians, regardless of denomination, ought to uphold life. It is after all in the 10 Commandments.

But why is President Duterte still popular in the midst of killing? This is the big question that many, even outsiders, are asking. What do religious people have to say?

The only problem is that religious people themselves are divided. If it were not so, there would be no need for Bishop Pabillo to make his case. He even invoked Elie Weasel to “always take sides” because “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victims”.


Did God give us Duterte? We only need to listen carefully to what priests, pastors, and other religious individuals are saying.

Erron Medina, my colleague at the Ateneo de Manila, and I interviewed religious leaders in an urban poor community affected by the war on drugs. We wanted to know what different Christian groups were doing to address the problem of drug-related and other unexplained deaths in their vicinity. We also wanted to know if they were doing anything to help left-behind families. We met with Catholic priests and pastors and lay leaders from various denominations, all of whom were accommodating.

Our observation is that only a few groups, one of which is the local Catholic parish, actively helped the victims. The rest were very much focused on their evangelistic work. Some pastors even partnered with local barangay officials to identify drug users in the community. In their view, this was their way of helping the government achieve its “righteous” purpose.

In the course of our fieldwork, we heard many religious leaders assert that God “needed to appoint Duterte to clean up society”. After all, the Lord “disciplines those he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). Others took a more militant position that Duterte is God’s judgment on the country. Either way, the point is that Duterte is heaven-sent.

Their statements fly in the face of Bishop Pabillo.


These statements are not isolated to our urban poor community. Around the country, there are religious individuals who are more than ready to invoke the Bible to defend Duterte.

Oft-quoted these days is Romans 13:1-2, which, in so many words, commands Christians to obey authorities because they are ordained by God. In fact, these verses also say that rebelling against authorities is rebelling against God Himself. This should serve as a warning to Duterte’s critics.

Among some Protestant preachers, the President is being likened to Josiah. They refer to his story in 2 Kings 23 where the king administers national renewal by destroying shrines and idols around Judah. To these preachers, Duterte’s campaign against criminals and drug addicts around the country is divinely ordained national renewal.

Furthermore, a priest has appealed to Luke 17:2 to argue that “it would be better” for some people “to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around the neck than for them to cause little ones to stumble”. In effect, what this priest is saying is that Jesus condones the anti-drug campaign that has left in its wake many fatherless children.

According to Fr Albert Alejo SJ, a colleague and friend, one priest even told him that “yes, life is sacred. But if you are scientific about it, given that there are 100 million Filipinos, the death of 6,000 is nothing.”

Therein lies the unmistakable theological assumption: The right to life is, in fact, a privilege.

Kingdom of God

The use of these verses to uphold the divine authority of President Duterte mirrors the rhetoric of his staunchest defenders. In their own ways, Mocha Uson and Harry Roque, among others, have warned that those who do not support the President do not love the country. Alongside drug users and criminals, the critics of the President are the enemies of the state.

In their worldview, the president and the state are one and the same. Everything must be done to fight the enemies.

The unfortunate reality is that these biblical injunctions are blind to the social conditions that lead to the proliferation of drug use and criminality in our society. It is far easier to lay the blame on a few, arrest them, and even execute them.

In a religious society like ours, people’s beliefs matter. They are consequential. Their vision of the Kingdom of God is one that exacts justice – bloody, ruthless, and without hope for redemption. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist of religion at the Ateneo de Manila University. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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