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?”

A Good Memory

I remember.

Not everything. I’m not that good at faces and names. I’m also not as good at rote memory–memorizing lists, passages, or poems–as I once was.

But I remember well places, scenes, roads, words, sensations, textures, experiences, tastes.

I remember far too much.

Eating ice cream at midnight when I was 2. Riding piggyback on my dad’s bike to Kindergarten in Legaspi City when I was 4. Mum making sauerkraut in a bucket in her office. The mango tree behind our house blowing over in the storm and the taste of unripe mangoes with a sprinkle of salt. The words of Filipino Sunday School songs. Getting my arm stuck in the washing machine wringer. Wading and swimming in flood waters in Lupagon. Playing with Gardiner Improsso on the IGBI basketball court. Visiting the Andersons in Tagbalaran. The look on the man’s face that I mistook for my Uncle at the airport in 1972. Where I was when my sister told me Mr Wright died (I had only met him once but he took our family to Disneyland.) The smell of the musty basement at my uncle’s church in Madison, Wisconsin. My first breath of Australian air after stepping off the plane in Sydney. How sausage rolls and strawberry milk really didn’t mix well in Grade 4.

1971-05-01 Burning the Clubouse
When we left the Philippines in 1971, our parents allowed us to have a bonfire with our old ‘clubhouse. I’m third from the left.

 

It might not seem so bad, but that’s only a small fraction of my mind’s inner workings. I also remember almost every unkind word I said, every failure, wrong decision, mistake. The lie I told in 1985. The rules I broke in 1986. The car accident of 1987. The wrong song I sang in church in 1996. The embarrassing joke of 1998. The brain snap of 1999. . . Many times my excellent memory feels like a curse.

It condemns me.

It beats me up. It makes me feel inadequate, foolish and, like Cher, wishing I could turn back time.

But I can’t wind the clock back. I can’t take back those hurtful words, unwrite that nasty letter, or undo that wrong move.

People are kind. They forget—or at least they don’t mention it again. I doubt there would be a handful of folks who would immediately call to mind that failed speech I gave, or that embarrassing joke I told.

People also give me advice on how to deal with my memory problems: “It is what it is.” “Accept it and move on.” “We all make mistakes.” “You wouldn’t be where you are today if you didn’t make the mistakes you made.”

While all these are true, it does nothing to mitigate the feelings of regret, remorse, or sadness over the past.

I find it easy to forgive others. I find it incredibly hard to forgive myself.

Memory is like that.

I recall the words of a song from First Call (Yes, I am a CCM tragic straight outa the 80s!) called God is Greater. Not a hugely memorable song and, despite my outstanding knack of remembering useless stuff, I can’t remember anything except this one line: “And even if your heart condemns you, God is greater . . . than your heart.”

God, the Divine Presence, the ever-loving, always forgiving, Eternal One is greater than anything that might condemn me.

I’m not discounting the reality of the regret I feel when I remember the bad things I have done or the pain I have caused the people that I have trodden on. That is still with me every day and, quite frankly, sucks. Big time.

What I hold on to is that no matter what my perception is, or has been, the reality of God’s love overpowers all.

Sure, I messed up and, if memory serves me correctly, still do.

But my life lies open before me and I can’t let those moments pass in vain. There are lessons I have learned and I need to move forward knowing that every mistake is redeemable, every wrong path can lead to healing, and every trespass is forgiven. Love wins, always.

 

Traditions

It’s ironic, in a nation where Christmas Day is celebrated in the middle of Summer when the weather’s usually hot and humid, that the shopping malls and radio stations still play Christmas music a la Currier & Ives—singing about sleighs, snow and sitting by the fire. The Christmas dinner of choice in most households, even in 40-dgree heat (100+ on the old scale) is still a roast turkey and piping hot vegetables. And the ubiquitous Santa Claus suffers through days in stuffy faux-snow castles wearing a long-sleeved fur-lined coat, long pants and boots.

Australia_SantaWhy is it that, miles away from the northern hemisphere, traditions are carried on through the generations as if one is living in Europe, the U.K. or America?

Apart from the inroads of Americanism into our culture, Australians by-and-large carry in traditions of their ancestors to a fault (even though shrimp and cold meats are slowly usurping prime position on the table (and the turkeys breathe a collective sigh of relief).

Tradition is a powerful motivation. One only needs to visit any family in a growing number of ethnic communities to see that the holiday itself takes on different (or no) meaning, depending on the country of origin.

Christianity, too, has its traditions. And just like traditions differ between Afghans, Chinese and Italian immigrants, so traditions within Christendom vary depending on denomination and, often, nation of origin of that denomination.

Regardless of the origins or the variables evident, traditions—rituals, liturgies, stories, histories—are a grounding force in religion. I believe they are important elements of faith that bring to the table a sense of place, a history. In my opinion, we need history to show us not only where we came from, but also bring perspective into the present and help us in envisioning a trajectory into the future.

Traditions may be rituals such as candle lighting during Advent, special stories read on Christmas Eve, a Christmas Day church service, the pennies baked into plum puddings or great-grandma’s hand-embroidered doilies on the dinner table. They may be the Christmas hymns we sing (a.k.a. carols), the legend of St Nicholas, or the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Traditions are like points on a map that show us where we have been, or like mile markers to show us where we are or how far we have to go.

They give us a sense of belonging.

They ground us in our ever-changing culture.

They give us a sense of stability.

They show us, in symbolic picture, prose or ritual, what is possible.

They give us hope for those who follow, that they too will be able to grasp the meaning and find a way to live in generations to come with purpose and faith.

Traditions may change. Rituals may evolve. But may the myriad of ways they speak into our lives always bring us joy, peace, love and a sense of hope for the future.

Chasing Francis: Why I Love Music & Art

The oldest known icon of St Francis ca 1230
The oldest known icon of St Francis of Assisi, ca. 1230 (Church of San Fransesco, Pescia)

I’ve just finished reading Ian Cron’s book, Chasing Francis (2010: Navpress). Wow! What a history/ theology/ philosophy/ creativity/ post-modernity lesson it was. I can’t believe how much of my being resonated with the words in this book about an ancient Saint!

I love music and art. I always have, to some degree, and this love has grown and changed over the years. I always knew there was something in the human spirit that seemed to understand the language of the arts, but this was so much more driven home to me in chapter seven of Chasing Francis. Following is a portion of it where we meet up with the main character, Chase Falson, and a new friend, Carla Mellini (an accomplished cellist he meets in Rome), at a concert.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

That evening, as I read the program, I saw why Carla was so excited about attending this performance— the orchestra was playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor. From the first note to the last, the concert was electrifying. Every so often I would glance at Carla, who, I could tell, was enraptured. Her fingers couldn’t stay still. They mimicked every note the cellist played. I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of my favorite pieces, Finzi’s Ecologue for Piano and String Orchestra, op. 10, was part of the evening’s program as well. The Ecologue is lyrical and haunting; it surfaces all the unfulfilled desires of your life. My father always told me that my disdain for most atonal works was an indication of my lack of musical sophistication. One more thing I didn’t get right.

When the final note was played, Carla was the first person to leap to her feet and cry, “Bravo!” When the applause finally subsided, she grabbed both my hands and said, “Wasn’t it magnificent?”

*  *  *

The post-concert lecture was held in a. small rehearsal space near the main hail.

The speaker was Liam Cudder, a British musicologist from Cambridge. I was prepared to see a C. S. Lewis type—a portly man wearing an old houndstooth jacket with leather patches on the elbows, trousers wrinkled from top to bottom. Cudder couldn’t have been more different. He was elegantly dressed in a double-breasted blue blazer with gold buttons, perfectly tailored gray flannels, and expensive-looking tassel loafers. His accent betrayed an upper-class pedigree, but there was nothing condescending about him; in fact, he was boyish and animated. He spoke for nearly an hour-deconstructing and analyzing the pieces we’d heard, helping us discover the brilliance of Finzi and Elgar.

Toward the end of the lecture, his remarks took a peculiar turn. CCJ have spoken for what must seem like an eternity to some of you.” The audience laughed. “Now I am interested in knowing what you felt during the concert,” he said.

There was an awkward silence. Finally one brave soul said, “Joy.” “Grateful” someone else called out.

Cudder listened to a handful of responses, nodding his head after every reply.

I am always brought to tears when I hear a marvelous performance followed, by a standing ovation,” he said. “I feel that at the climax of our cheering, we cross a boundary and unwittingly begin applauding some other reality, a performer we know is there but who cannot be seen. We want to thank Beauty itself.”

He held his finger up to his lips and paused. “Let me be bold for a moment. Is it possible that during this evening’s performance, we unconsciously sensed Someone standing behind the beautiful, Someone who is its source, and we were moved to praise him as well?”

A hush fell over the room. The good doctor had moved from musicology to theology.

“I am a musicologist, but I am also an ordained priest in the Church of. England. For years I have tried to separate the different hats I wear, but I have been quite unsuccessful, so if you will indulge me, I would like to conclude my remarks this evening by suggesting that there is a distinct relationship between beauty and the heart’s search for God.”

Cudder leafed through his notes. He found the page he was looking for.

“In Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak describes one of his main characters like this: ‘Lara was not religious. She did not believe in ritual. But sometimes, to be able to bear life, she needed the accompaniment of an inner music. She could not always compose such a music for herself. That music was God’s word of life, and it was to weep over it that she went to church.’ ‘What was it about music that awakened the spiritual in Pasternak’s Lana? It was this: The object of all great art is beauty; and it makes us nostalgic for God. “Whether we consider ourselves people of faith or not, art arouses in us what Pope John Paul called a ‘universal desire for redemption.’”

Cudder sat on a three-legged stool. “All of us are meaning-seekers. We approach every painting, novel, film, symphony, or ballet unconsciously hoping that it will move us one step further on the journey, toward answering the question, ‘Why am I here?’ People living in the postmodern world, however, are faced with an excruciating dilemma. Their hearts long to find ultimate meaning, while at the same time their critical minds do not believe it exists. We are homesick, but have no home. So we turn to the arts and aesthetics to satisfy our thirst for the Absolute. But if we want to find our true meaning in life, our search cannot end there. Art or beauty is not the destination; it is a signpost pointing towards our desired destination.”

Cudder, picked up a page from his notes. “C. S. Lewis puts it so elegantly in The Weight of Glory: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through was a longing. . . . For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Cudder wisely paused to allow Lewis’s words to rest on us. “My hope is that through our future encounters with music and the arts, we will discover this ‘heavenly country’ we have not yet visited but long to find. Thank you for your very kind attention this evening.”

People remained glued to their seats. Cudder’s remarks had been spoken with such humility and respect that everyone was charmed. After a few moments, the spell’s effect .passed, and people gathered their belongings, and began leaving.

Carla stood up. “Let’s say hello,” she said.

Cudder was surrounded by a group of admirers peppering him with questions. Carla and I stood behind them, patiently waiting our turn. Every so often, Cudder would peer over at us curiously, then continue fielding questions. A heavyset woman in red evening wear, dripping pearls and diamonds, asked in a loud, affected voice, “Professor Cudder, what is the true vocation .of the artist?” Her question would have been a good one if she hadn’t sounded so enamored with herself.

“Perhaps you should ask our friend here,” Cudder said, nodding at Carla.

The group turned to look at us.

“If I’m not mistaken, this is Carla Mellini,” Cudder said, “one of Europe’s most important up-and-coming cellists.”

Carla smiled and said, “Thank you, I’m honored.”

I looked at Carla out of the corner of my eye. I felt like we needed to be reintroduced.

“Any thoughts, Miss Mellini?” Cudder asked.

Carla took a lengthy pause before answering. “My teacher once told me that artists help people to see or hear beyond the immediate to the eternal. Most people look only at surfaces. A great poem, story, song, or sculpture reveals the hidden meaning of things.”

Cudder looked impressed. “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear,” he added, quoting Jesus.

Everyone in the circle nodded appreciatively. Carla’s answer rang true.

“I am sorry to say that it is time for us to leave,” Cudder announced; “It has been a wonderful evening, but it is getting late and the custodial staff needs to close up. Thank you so much for coming.”

As the small band of devotees began filing out, Cudder came to us. “I hope I did not put you on the spot,” he said.

“Not at all. And please call me Carla. This is my friend, Chase Falson.”

Cudder shook my hand. “Very glad to meet you,” he said to us. “My name’s Liam. The title Professor is reserved for my students’ use.” He turned to Carla. “I heard you perform Schumann’s Cello Concerto in London last year. It was very stirring.”

“It’s an amazing piece. I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Carla replied.

“Did you enjoy the performance this evening?” Liam asked. Carla paused. “The orchestra’s first cellist is a friend, and he’s a wonderful soloist. I wish the slow movement had been more romantic, but otherwise he played it flawlessly.”

Cudder began stuffing his notes into a well-worn leather portfolio. “Do you suppose the two of you would join me for a late dinner? I am absolutely famished.”

Carla looked at me. “I’m  game, I said.

“The Caffe Greco?” Liam suggested.

Carla hesitated. “It’s a little pricey,” she said. I think she was worried more about the minister’s budget than anything else.

“It’s my treat,” Liam replied.

*  *  *

Expensive restaurants in Rome are generally not as opulent as those in Manhattan. Italians care more about great food and creating an intimate atmosphere. The Greco is an exception. Renowned for having been the haunt of famous nineteenth-century writers and artists, it gives you the best of everything— elegant decor, magnificent cuisine, and small tables for easy conversation.

It was yet another feast of food, wine, and passionately expressed ideas. Liam was a true Renaissance man. He was charming, funny, and oblivious to his own brilliance; His rakish good looks and refined demeanor reminded me of a young Roger Moore. We could have listened to him all night.

“The church has a mottled history with artists. In some eras, they have been appreciated, and in others, vilified. There have been seasons when a stifling artistic Puritanism reigned, and others when the arts were celebrated. Some Christians are still ambivalent about art.” Liam leaned across the table and spoke as if he were telling us a ghost story around a campfire. “They might arouse the lower passions.”

Carla covered her mouth and laughed. Liam flagged down one of the waiters and pointed to our empty champagne bottle. The waiter nodded and ran to the cellar to get us another.

“I came to faith in a Baptist tradition that was suspicious of anything having to do with the imagination,” he continued. “They thought it was the source of all kinds of evil ideas and impulses. And, to some degree, that is true. The depraved imagination has the capacity to dream up all sorts of dreadful things, but we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We did not recognize that  the redeemed imagination was capable of producing works of beauty that revealed the Glory”

Carla winced. “My parents think the arts are trivial. They say you should go to church to get good teaching, not a sonata,” Carla said.

Cudder politely wiped his mouth. “That is ironic, really. First, the Bible is a great literary work of art filled with poetry, songs, stories, parables, history, apocalyptic drama, and wisdom literature. Second, the very people who pride themselves on being focused on the Word often come perilously close to practicing a form of Gnosticism that overvalues the spiritual and eschews the material. But the Word became flesh! The Incarnation proves that the divine can be communicated through the material—color, sound, texture, words printed on paper, the movement of the body.”

“Could you write this all down? I’d like to send it to my parents,” Carla said.

Liam patted her hand. “Give it time. Hopefully your parents will come around. In the meantime, never forget that your vocation is a sacred one.”

Carla’s face opened up; she looked more relaxed than I’d seen her.

She’d met two people in the same day who empathized with her plight.

I could tell that something important was happening for her.

Her expression became pensive. “So maybe I should go back to church?” she asked.

“Now would be the time,” he replied.

“Why now?” I asked.

“The church is realizing that there is an awareness of God sleeping in the basement of the postmodern imagination and they have to awaken it. The arts can do this. All beauty is subversive; it flies under the radar of people’s critical filters and points them to God. As a friend of mine says, ‘When the front door of the intellect is shut, the back door of the imagination is open.’ Our neglect of the power of beauty and the arts helps explain why so many people have lost interest in church. Our coming back to the arts will help renew that interest.”

Carla was spellbound. I tried to imagine what she was thinking. Liam was confirming something she’d probably known all along: Her parents were wrong; It was a moment of exoneration.

A lightbulb seemed to go off in Carla’s head. “It’s like speaking in tongues,” she said.

Liam’s fork froze halfway between his plate and his mouth. “I’m sorry?” he asked.

Carla sat up straight. “Art, music, dance, theatre, literature, film. They’re all a way of speaking in tongues!”

“Of course!” I said. “They’re spiritual languages that communicate truths about God that human language doesn’t have words to express. That’s why the church needs to rediscover them.”

“What a brilliant way to put it,” Cudder said.

“Wait till I tell my Pentecostal parents that I’ve taken to speaking in tongues. They’ve been waiting for years for that to happen.”

“Wait till they find out you’re doing it through your cello.” Liam said.

I lifted my glass. “To Beauty!” I said.

Liam and Carla replied. “To Beauty!”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

One last quote from this chapter, in conclusion. In the story, Chase is writing his end-of-day journal and mentions an experience he had at a U2 concert:

A few years ago I went to a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City; just three months after 9/11 Most of us in the arena that night probably knew someone who’d died in the Twin Towers, we’d lost three people in our church alone I’ll never forget the end of the concert As the band played the song “Walk On,” the names of all those who had died were projected onto the arena walls and slowly scrolled up over us, and then up toward the ceiling At that moment the presence of God descended on that room in a way I will never forget. There we were, twenty-five thousand people standing, weeping, and singing with the band. It suddenly became a worship service; we were pushing against the darkness together. I walked out dazed, asking myself, “What on earth just happened? Of course, it was the music. For a brief moment, the veil between this world and the world to come had been made thin by melody and lyric. If only for a brief few minutes, we were all believers.

So, I am rediscovering the “why” of my love of music and art. It truly does speak to me of something–Someone–beyond myself, and opens my heart and mind in ways that genuinely cannot be accessed any other way. My response? Awe, worship and love.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

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