Power Corrupts

MarcosI have just finished reading a brilliant volume on the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, The Marcos Dynasty: The Corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I have always had an interest in Philippine history and was pleased to see that the author, expert in Southeast Asian modern history, Sterling Seagrave, took great pains to present at the very start the context and place in time of the nation: its struggles under colonial rule of Spain then the United States, its national heroes, politics and civil and foreign battles, and its strategic importance in Asia and the Pacific.

What presented an intriguing aside throughout the book was the ongoing interactions between the Filipino Leadership and American Presidents, Generals, Diplomats and Secret Service agents, especially surrounding the Japanese invasion and the aftermath of World War II. Truly, as one critic praises it, this book reads like “a fast-paced thriller” and displays “an underlay of thorough investigative work.”

Very few come out looking good.

In fact, Seagrave challenges the popular history that was largely written by the powerful figures at play in this drama and paints a picture of the corruption of the power structures of both the Philippines and the United States, and the stealth by which the CIA and its agents were involved in a multitude of critical political and business decisions in the region during the course of the 20th century. Men who were thought to be heroes, great military leaders and global freedom advocates turn out to be weak, indecisive, and abusers themselves.

The adage is true: Power corrupts, and Absolute Power corrupts absolutely.

Time and time again, the opportunity presents itself to govern wisely and compassionately, and personal gain is chosen over national interest.

  • Billions of dollars was divested from Government accounts into Swiss accounts in the name of Ferdinand, Imelda or any of the Marcos children or companies.
  • Bribes were paid by companies seeking to do business in the Philippines and this money went not to the nation but into the hands of its leaders.
  • Lucrative and over-priced government contracts were awarded to the President’s family, friends, or those who could afford to pay the necessary ‘taxes’ into the Marcos’s personal accounts. Corporations with family ties were given exclusive rights to mining, oil drilling, sugar cane and pineapple plantations and logging.
  • Family members were given plush positions of authority from ambassadorships to provincial governorships, with all the salaries and perks appropriate to such offices.
  • Extravagance was king. From Imelda’s bulletproof bras and huge shoe collection to private jumbo jets with gold fittings and personally-owned hotels, highways, casinos and clubs, no expense was spared.

But this all started as an honest attempt at being a compassionate and patriotic Filipino and having a desire to not only see the nation gain its independence from its colonial rulers but to also grow to be a world leader and influencer in the region.

*  *  *  *  *

I am reminded how this follows the same pattern that many have chosen—or fallen into, not often intentionally but over time, in many small steps, and often with the best motivations.

In Government, a politician will perhaps start off as a local council member. She will delight in helping her community grow, her constituents succeed, and the residents prosper. All her time will be spent working for the people who elected her. Until she starts moving up the ladder of success to state level. Suddenly, so it seems, she is in Federal Parliament/Congress and has a large staff, huge budget and allowances, and spends little, if any, time in her constituency. Rather, lobbyists wine and dine her. Corporations start courting her vote by depositing large amounts into her election campaign. She takes extravagant first-class trips overseas (or ‘study tours’ as they are called). She starts using the nations funds to pay for private parties, flights and holidays for her family. Corporate bodies court her vote on legislation. She ends up betraying the trust of those she represents and selling out so enlarge her own profits and prospects of employment post-politics—if she makes it that far without a corruption scandal.

A young man decides to attend seminary because he is so passionate about Christian community and wants to invest his life in helping folks just like him to grow spirituality and as a community of faith, making a positive impact in their city. He graduates and secures a Youth Pastor position in a small church (often considered the first step in any ministerial career). He loves his job and the kids more than anything and sinks hours of time and immense portions of his life into nurturing and supporting them through all the ups and downs of teenage life. He marries and has a few children. By now he has accepted a call to a larger church as an Associate Pastor and, what seems like such a short time, becomes Senior Pastor. The Church starts growing in numbers and assets. He hires his friends because ‘why not?’ if they are good for the job. He slowly gets rid of the naysayers in the organisation and, before long, the board is populated with those who agree with his ‘vision’ for the church and who will rubber-stamp anything he puts forward. He starts writing books that become bestsellers. His church expands which results in a new multi-million-dollar high tech campus—or two or three. By now he is much in demand as a speaker at conferences around the world. He is at his own church perhaps half of the Sundays in a year. He buys a bigger house, better cars, spends much of his time on expensive holidays none of his parishioners could afford and, eventually justifies a private jet and commands large ‘love offerings’ wherever he speaks. He looks forward to the time he can retire—if he can keep that indiscretion quiet or that affair on the hush-hush long enough.

* *  *  *  *

In the end, the Marcos Dynasty ended in shame when, after the blatant murder of Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino (Marcos’s foremost critic) by Marcos’s henchmen, and the final corrupted election (1986) where Ninoy’s wife, Corazon, was overwhelmingly swept into power. Ferdinand, Imelda and their children were forced to flee Malacañang Palace and the Philippines under allegations of immense corruption and scandal. They took with them an estimated $5-$10 billion that rightfully belonged to the Philippine people. Corruption that occurred during the Marcos’s era of dictatorship is still evident in the nation and will continue to have a ripple effect in the region for years to come.

Whether a position of power is ‘earned’ or ‘granted,’ we must be very cautious in using it. It can just as easily turn into abuse and manipulation, a distrust of everyone as a possible usurper of our rightful authority, and a beast that will end up destroying our soul. And the question we must always remember is this: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and  lose his own soul?”

Politics & Religion

I find at this time in the cycle of American politics, people on either side of the political spectrum seem to truly enjoy slinging mud at each other and speaking ill of each other’s preferred candidate. This is true to some extent in any country. And those who claim to be Christians seem to be the greatest offenders.

I’ve always been perplexed at this seemingly incongruous fact. Bruce Reyes-Chow reflects on this in his blog and offers some insight:

It seems that supporters of both parties are pretty inconsistent when it comes to examining what the campaigns are putting out there about the economy, healthcare, foreign policy, taxes, poverty, etc. Generally speaking, when we like and support a candidate, we believe them and if we don’t support a candidate, we find every way to discount their every claim as an utter lie.

Seeing as many of the people who show up in my various news streams are of the Christian variety, I have noticed the same patterns when we approach Scripture. Now don’t worry, I am not trying to equate our political system and God’s movement in the world. I am only pointing out  how we tend to approach our beliefs in times of disagreement. These are the things that I have noticed:

When we read the Bible, The Word of God…

  • We lean into and take at face value passages that reinforce our already held beliefs.
  • We dig deeper into the history and context of the passages in order to discount any that call our beliefs into question

When we hear words from politicians…

  • We lean into and take at face value the words that our preferred politicians says.
  • We dig deeper into the words from politicians we don’t like in order to discount their version of the truth.

In both of these cases we are basically doing two things: one, finding all the support we can to affirm our already held beliefs and, two, finding anything we can to discount the beliefs that others might hold as true. In the end, we are more concerned with making sure that we are right, rather than being open to the possibility that our beliefs might need to change, shift or … heaven forbid, be scrapped in totality. (Read the full post here.)

I don’t believe anyone could agree 100% with any politician’s policies or values. That is a reality of life. It’s up to responsible citizens to weigh what is being said and what is being done against what is right and good for the nation, and then vote accordingly.

Brian McLaren has put this well in his three recent politically-focused ebooks: The Word of the Lord to . . . Democrats, Republicans and Evangelicals respectively. These are well worth reading and are available via Amazon and other reputable ebook sales sites.

Regardless of how you choose to vote–either in the upcoming U.S. election or in next year’s Australian election–don’t simply tow the party line. Look at the issues and values and vote for the leader who best reflects God’s concern for the world: the poor, the marginalised, the stranger, and the vulnerable.

. . . Oh, and we need to remain open to the reality that many of those beliefs and ‘truths’ we now hold dear may one day turn out to be poorly founded or totally wrong.

Realising this, Reyes-Chow concludes his post:

In the end, there are no easy answers and I find strength in the fact that we will always fall short of perfection. But if we can all acknowledge these realities of shared hypocrisy and extend a little grace towards our enemies in these times of battle, maybe we will all see the other side of this election season a little less bruised and battered from the fight.