I am uncomfortable with throwing around the word “miracle” too easily. In many cases I prefer to speak of Divine Providence, working in history and bringing together a series of contingent—might have been different—events and human decisions to bring about a definite outcome. Let us look at the Edsa 1986 event and some of the happenings and decisions that led to it.
First, there was the way in which, two-and-a-half years earlier, the Filipino people reacted to the terrible evil that lay at the heart of society, revealed in the assassination of Ninoy Aquino: the hush that initially descended, the uncompromising but calm voices of Cardinal Jaime Sin and Fr. Guido Arguelles on Radio Veritas, the lines of people waiting at Times Street to view the bloodied body of one whom they were calling a martyr, the T-shirts with the message “No greater love … than to give his life for the people,” the magnificent funeral oration of Cardinal Sin, the nine-hour funeral procession and the follow-up prayer-sessions and marches. Clearly, in that time of crisis the Filipino people sought meaning in their deepest, religious values.
Next came the Active Non-Violence Movement spearheaded by Fr. Jose Blanco that spread with amazing rapidity through Metro Manila and beyond.
Came 1986, and the violent Left decides to boycott the snap election.
The election is stolen, evidenced by the walkout of the computer technicians, among other things. The anger and frustration of the people rise. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, despite “advice” from Rome, issues a pastoral letter denouncing the election as “unparalleled in fraudulence” and providing no moral basis for Ferdinand Marcos to remain in power.
Juan Ponce Enrile and Gringo Honasan plot a coup, which is discovered and aborted. Enrile flees to Camp Aguinaldo; Fidel Ramos joins him and together they announce their defection from the government of Marcos and call for military support.
Cardinal Sin takes the momentous and extremely risky decision (what if the military opened fire and hundreds were killed?) of calling on the people “to bring food to our friends.” Hundreds of thousands respond, and the Edsa People Power Revolution is under way.
The violent Left, judging the uprising as futile, hangs back until the end, as Edsa is blocked by more than a million people, praying, singing hymns, attending Masses on makeshift altars, carrying religious images and reciting the rosary. Key members of the military shift their loyalties. An officer ordered to shell the rebels’ headquarters refuses to fire. On the fourth day, it is all over.
If any of these events and decisions, and many besides, had been different, the outcome could well have been a very different story. Together, these provide good reason for the believer to say “God was there.”
And yet, that is not the whole of the story. Let me recall a personal experience, at a barricade on Libis behind Camp Aguinaldo, that Monday night. A group of us, religious and lay people, were blocking the road upon which the Marines had come the night before. But our vision was being blocked by residents of the urban poor neighborhood, drifting out into the street, onlookers waiting to see what would happen. One of my friends went down more than once, asking them either to join the barricade or stay back, out of the way. They would retreat to the side for a while, and then drift out into the road again, cutting off our vision of what might be coming up.
On reflection I noted that the crowds at Edsa were mainly middle-class people. The urban poor at Libis and many like them apparently did not see the ongoing conflict as having anything to do with them. They were watching it as they would watch a cockfight, interesting but not something that would change their lives.
And in this they were largely right. On the Sunday following Marcos’ flight I was on my way for my Mass at Payatas by the dumpsite, and I noticed that some children, probably not yet in their teens, were working the garbage. I thought to myself, “Now that Marcos is gone, that obscenity will soon be a thing of the past.”
Political, not social
How wrong I was! There are now, 28 years later, about 150 scavenger-children there under the care of the Vincentian Missionaries, and I do not know how many there are outside their care.
Why? Edsa was a political revolution, not a social revolution. The faces changed, initially for the better, but the social structures—the landholding and legal systems and the educational and tax systems—did not change sufficiently to change the lives of the poor. In the first election under the new government, the traditional local elites reasserted their dominance, and shortly after that the House of Representatives emasculated an already weak agrarian reform bill. And so it has gone on for 28 years, with small, marginal changes in response to the growing frustration of the poor.
In the Bible, God’s people again and again fell into the sin of worshiping false gods, and the Lord punished them. In response to their pleas for mercy, he time and again sent leaders to help them reform, but they soon fell away again. Under Roman domination, they called for a Messiah to save them. He did send a Messiah, who refused to fight the Romans but demanded reform, personal and social. The elite crucified him, and 40 years later Jerusalem was laid to waste, the Temple destroyed, and sacrifices ended forever.
There may be a message there for us today, believers and unbelievers alike.
First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.