For whom the bell tolls

John Donne’s immortal poem “No man is an island” speaks to our time. In part the poem goes:  “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Ernest Hemingway used a line in the poem – “For whom the bell tolls” – as the title of his novel about the experiences of American Ronald Jordan fighting for the Republican guerillas during the Spanish Civil War. In more recent times, this same line also inspired a song by the thrash metal band Metallica – a commentary on the futility of war.

Donne’s epitaph explores the idea of inter-connectedness among people; that a human being cannot live all by herself, as she is dependent on others in contrast to the self-sufficiency of an island; everyone must depend on the company and comfort of others in order to thrive. As such, every death, pain and suffering of one diminishes the collective whole.

In the wake of many killings in the island of Negros, all its bishops Gerardo Alminaza (San Carlos), Julito Cortes (Dumaguete), Patricio Buzon (Bacolod) and Louie Galbines (Kabankalan) issued a joint pastoral letter and ordered the tolling of church bells nightly as a call to end the violence. The bells will continue to toll until the killings stop.

The tolling of the bells of the churches of Negros is accompanied by an an “Oratio Imperata to End Killings” to be prayed by the faithful during Masses. This will   also continue to be uttered until the killings stop.

The Negros bishops implore: “We ask God to disturb those who are responsible for this evil and have blood in their hands that they may have a change of heart and be renewed. O God, our Father, who hears the cries of Your children, look upon us in Your mercy. We pray that we be delivered from the evil of the killings that stalks our island. It is a violence that has deprived our people of peace; a violence that has orphaned many families; and a violence that has traumatized and instilled paralyzing fear in our communities.”

The bishops hope that government officials will be emboldened to speak out against the killings. They challenge the police and military personnel to fully embrace their mandate to serve and protect the people. They pray that those responsible for the evil killings and have blood in their hands, especially the ones who are impelled by their ideological agenda are disturbed and have a change of heart and be renewed.

I welcome this call of the bishops of Negros. In fact, I believe this symbol of protest is as fitting in Negros as in all other islands of the Philippine archipelago as death and violence are everywhere. Among others, the thousands of killings in the illegal war against illegal drugs are unacceptable acts of inhumanity; indeed, they are crimes against humanity.

The killings become more vicious when encouraged or at the very least tolerated by the State even when justified as a measure for the attainment of greater common good. It is also doubly repugnant when torture accompanies the killing as alleged (though denied) in the recent killing by the NPA of the four policemen in Negros.

Yes, let me be clear, I condemn the killings and human rights violations of all those who commit them, and regardless of justification – whether its the war against drugs, the necessity of a social revolution, or an anti-communist reaction to insurgency.

The call by the bishops of Negros to toll the church bells may be an empty gesture, a fool’s errand, to some; after all, they would say, the killings will continue no matter how shrill people protest. Yet this small gesture of tolling the bells is to remind us of the grim reality that something dies inside ourselves when we remain silent in the midst of evil.

We are all diminished by any person’s death, more so if done without due process.  The tolling of the bells is not for the dead as much as for the living. The soul of the dead cries out in heaven for justice. The grief stricken mother, wife, sister, son, daughter and friends – every single one intimately connected to the person – also dies inside by the death of a loved one.

The slaughter in Negros leads to the kind of despair that a friend of mine from the island shared with me last week: “I am now losing hope … We will never attain justice here in Negros . . . I feel weary and tired everyday to see more innocent people murdered.”

I understand my friend’s agony, her family also being a victim of the violence. And I am afraid that it will get worse with President Duterte poised to declare martial law in her island.

 Our self-respect dies with every killing, our dignity and our humanity dies with it. People cannot sit idly by and wait for change. Change does not happen by chance but through action.  After all, the most vicious lies are often verbalized through silence. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said – “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”

The deaths in Negros, in Cebu, Bulacan, and in Caloocan, among the farmers, urban poor and the Lumad diminish us in our helplessness. The killings of human rights lawyers and defenders diminish us because they are the best of our race and we lose them when we need them most. The failure of our legal and judicial system to protect colleagues from such great organizations like the National Union of Peoples Lawyers and Karapatan diminishes and threatens all of us. The deaths of our fellow Filipinos diminish us because it threatens our future and the future of our children.

While the tolling bells remind us of how diminished we are by the massacre of the poor and the killings in our islands,  it should also be seen as a call to action.

Resistance and solidarity is the response called from all of us. It’s the only possible response for what we are confronted with.  As one on my heroes, Fr. Danny Pilario, has articulated, resistance can come in various forms: in engaging in open democratic spaces which are still available for rational deliberation even as these spaces are getting smaller and smaller each day; in acts of civil disobedience, remembering the words of King  – “I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”; and finally resist by honoring the martyrs and helping the survivors.

I am reminded of another poem, a song actually – Anthem by Leonard Cohen. I end my national situation briefings by playing it to my audiences.  It’s refrain haunts and inspires all of us: “Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring; Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything). That’s how the light gets in.”

This terrible time in our history will pass. I actually believe that the end will come soon and we will have an opportunity for renewal. But those who have been killed will stay dead and we will struggle to find the meaning of that. As for us who will survive, we will be judged by what we did to resist the evil in our midst and how hard we worked and fought so that the light will come in.


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