Forgiveness Is Not The Opposite of Justice

The subject of forgiveness weighs heavily on my mind these days. For one, I just learned that my biological father who abandoned us in 1972, just before martial law was declared in the Philippines, has died. Then, the 30th anniversary of the People Power in EDSA has brought again the issue of whether or not Filipinos have forgiven Ferdinand Marcos enough to allow him to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Being a martial law baby who transitioned into adulthood during the newly-installed revolutionary government of Corazon Aquino, I could not think about my relationship with my biological father without relating it to how I feel about my nation’s then father, the only father I have ever known growing up.

Like most kids of my generation, the television set was my baby sitter. As an only child of a working solo parent, television was my best friend. In an era before multi-channel cable television and video streaming, I learned about the world by watching Sesame Street, Miss Universe pageants, and Ferdinand Marcos.

And because I grew up in a predominantly Ilocano family, Marcos was a “genius” who’s building the “new society” that would “make this country great again.” I had no reason to believe otherwise.

We weren’t rich but I lived a pretty comfortable and sheltered (or probably just oblivious) life. I never felt deprived. I did not miss having a male presence in my life. Marcos served as my strong father figure. I grew up believing all those rules and regulations embodied in his presidential decrees were all for my own good. They were necessary to instill discipline in me and make me a productive citizen of the new society.

In some twisted way, Marcos provided the stability my unreliable dad could not. Marcos was a constant presence that filled the void of my father’s absence. Marcos was the proof I needed that there is forever. That there were men who stayed and never left.

When Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, my sheltered life got rattled a bit. Suddenly there were alternative sources of information. Another, darker version of Filipino society emerged. Stories of abuses, violence, and corruption by Marcos somehow found their way to me, a very curious teenager by then. No, I did not learn them from my trusty television set that broadcasted only channels controlled by the government. I learned them from the dinner table when the adults in my family talked, often in whispers and in code for the protection of my innocent ears. I learned them from my mom’s secret subscription to Mr. & Ms. magazine and Daily Express was slowly replaced by the Malaya newspaper.

I also learned about them by reading the placards and streamers during Yellow Friday and Welgang Bayan rallies. There was no Internet then so I could not just Google for more information. I just took the word of those people who said they experienced the abuses first hand. They were so angry and so passionate in their demand for Marcos to step down.

And then one day, the unthinkable happened. Marcos left Malacañang. And this supposedly ruthless, violent dictator, who was known to kill those who got in his way, just left without a bloody fight. It was so unbelievable it could only be rationalized as a miracle, a super divine intervention because, as the religious among us believed, Filipinos had suffered enough and prayed enough.

I did not mind so much my biological father’s absence in my life because it did not really create a significant vacuum in my life. No major upheaval. Not much drama. But life without Marcos left me a bit disoriented. Suddenly, all the government programs I grew up with were stopped and replaced with less effective ones managed by less competent but more vindictive people. The constitution was changed. Laws were repealed.

My world was organized into two distinct categories: “During Marcos” (bad) and “After Marcos” (good). Marcos was like the devil and Cory was like the Virgin Mary.

During Marcos, you knew who was in charge. After Marcos, everybody wanted to be in charge and grabbed power for themselves.During Marcos, there was only one source of information, one version of the truth. After Marcos, everything was relative. The truth depends on whose relative you are. During Marcos, only one group of people can lie, steal, and cheat. After Marcos, it’s a free for all; everything is fair game and sold to the highest bidder. When before it’s only the oligarchs who enjoyed certain privileges, now that same privileges can be enjoyed by a lowly nobody like Janet Napoles. I guess that’s what restoring democracy means in the Philippines.

So because the wife and children of Marcos are now back in power, does it mean that we are now “During Marcos” again? And does it mean Filipinos have forgiven Marcos?

I see forgiveness as the intentional and voluntary act of no longer feeling resentful or angry against an offender. It is transforming feelings of ill-will and bitterness into genuine empathy and compassion. Forgiveness is a conscious decision of the person who forgives without expecting anything in return (revenge or restitution or even apology from the offender).

There are many studies that show that forgiveness is good not just for the soul, but also for the body. Forgiving people have better health. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, forgiveness is ultimately an act of self-interest. If you wait for remorse from the offender you may be waiting forever.

That is why forgiveness is something that is widely encouraged in our society, especially in the predominantly Catholic Filipino society. Catholicism teaches unconditional forgiveness and love and this year Pope Francis has declared it as the “year of mercy.”

Now justice is another matter. Forgiveness may be personal but justice is social.

Pope John Paul II said: “Forgiveness is the opposite of revenge, not of justice…Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to right the wrong done…Forgiveness is above all a personal choice, a decision of the heart to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil…The ability to forgive lies at the very basis of the idea of a future society marked by justice and solidarity.”

Pope John Paul II explained in 2001, when he talked about “no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness” in response to the 9/11 attacks, that true peace is the fruit of justice. He defined justice as that “moral virtue and legal guarantee which ensures full respect for rights and responsibilities, and the just distribution of benefits and burdens.”

So, perhaps, that’s what we need to do as a people – forgive. Not just Marcos but also ourselves for what we did and failed to do after Marcos. And then we can seriously work on genuine justice and restoring real democracy. Instead of the cheap version of change that we have now — a group of elites seeking revenge against a rival group of elites, a fierce competition of who gets to have power over the rest of us.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, March 3, 2016