In his 2018 Holy Week address, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte waxed piously about how Filipinos can be good and better Christians. His words resounded with the authority one might expect from a virtuous, God-fearing figure: “This is a time to revitalize and renew our relationship with God and our fellowmen...As we reflect on the Catholic values and embody selflessness, compassion and love instilled in us through the years, let us remember to always help and uplift the downtrodden because it is only through charitable actions that we make God’s presence visible among us.”
The poignant language that Duterte reserved for his Easter audience added political value to what otherwise is a disturbing pattern on his part of psychopathic provocation, a doubling down on insults, crass vulgarity, and undeviating intolerance for dissent. While Duterte’s reflective advice has its political advantages, it also gives us a glimpse into his moral hypocrisy. After all, how can man who has publicly called for and applauded the out-and-out murder of thousands without due process of law or for the compassion and love he espouses come across as a credible paragon of humanity?
International human rights groups estimate that up to 12,000 Filipinos have been killed in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign going back to his ascension to office in 2016. What is worrisome in regards to that total are the accusations that Duterte’s government is actively lowballing the number of deaths.
The true number of killed being suppressed by the Duterte regime may never be known. In any case, do the numerical totals really matter as much as the fact that thousands have been gunned down as the concepts of truth and legal due process are violated possibly beyond recognition?
In my head, the numbers of drug war-related deaths don’t register to the same extent as being confronted with the haunting portraits of dead bodies from Duterte’s bloody obsession. When you learn that many of these bodies once belonged to young and impoverished Filipinos who may or may not have been involved in drug use or distribution, you are freighted by an underlying question: is Duterte’s moral rhetoric merely a cover for his immoral actions?
The most empirical answer is no. Preaching from the pulpit is easy, but doing terrible things are even easier. Duterte is well-accustomed to hanging whatever superficial moral strains there are in his political lexicon out to dry whenever he cannot curb his impulsive need for hard, direct measures. Mixed with the rubble of the aftermath of his largely ineffective and detrimental actions is Duterte’s rhetoric which helps legitimize the extreme viciousness of what he has done. However you look at it, Duterte’s moral compass is horribly misaligned with his controversial drug war.
So how does Duterte resolve the chasm between his professed Christian faith and his remorseless, narrow-minded, dead-of-night, drug war killing sprees? The answer is simple: he cannot, not objectively. To bring Christian teachings and the extrajudicial killings together into a neat, cohesive whole is akin to fitting a prickly circle into a smooth square. It cannot be done, nor should anyone try least of all Duterte. Indeed, religious teachings dissolve in the face of the brutal killings which only fortifies my thought that religion is nothing more than a tool for Duterte. It is a tool that allows him to castigate and censure the ensemble of perceived objectionables arrayed against his policies.
Duterte’s adherents take comfort and delight in their leader’s religious articulations. They like to point out that the president’s religious proclivities help form the basis of his power-to-the-people narrative. But Duterte’s purported religious values are as spontaneous as are his mood swings which can bring out the worst in him.
The autocrat Duterte comes out especially when he brainstorms out of anger. His standardized reactions to contrarian opinions or policies cover the spectrum from casual sarcasm to brimming pugnacity. What might be more significantly dangerous is Duterte’s Manichean worldview which reinforces his passion for managing his anti-drug campaign in black-and-white terms. For Duterte, drug dealing and usage are both cause and effect. Therefore, dealers and users must die with no recourse to legal processes, deeper understanding, or Christian charity.
And yet, when it comes to a powerful entity in China, Duterte suddenly embraces pragmatism---his detractors call it “submission” or “kowtowing”---in the face of a stronger adversary. In short, Duterte likes taking the easy way out: kill the weak (low-born drug dealers and users) but be diplomatic and respectful while Beijing’s military might percolates throughout Philippine territory in the South China Sea undeterred.
Whatever happened to, to use Duterte’s Easter sentiments again, “let us remember to always help and uplift the downtrodden” and to “selflessness, compassion and love?” Duterte doesn’t know or doesn’t really care what being Christian is all about.