The Philippines has been on the news quite a bit in the past year with the rise of president Rodrigo Duterte and his infamous crackdown on drugs. I won’t repeat the full history here, but I recommend J. Weston Phippen’s article on The Atlantic for a summary of what has been going on. Basically, a brutal crackdown on suspected drug dealers in the Philippines has led to the death of thousands of people, most of whom have not been established as guilty in the court of law. Official government estimates say that the number of people who have been killed is at 3,500, but other sources put the actual number to as high as 13,000. This has led to thousands of people protesting against extra-judicial killings. Christians in the country are divided over Duterte, with some supporting him and others opposing him.
Now, I grew up in the Philippines until I was 17. Many of my relatives still live there. So, I do have a personal stake in what happens in that country. Furthermore, as a Christian, I believe that I ought to examine everything that is going on from a biblical lens. The Bible has a lot to say about matters of law and justice, and it would be good to look at what it has to say on this issue.
Four Considerations from the Bible
First off, just because something is sinful, doesn’t mean it should be criminalized. This should be fairly obvious to most people. The Bible condemns lying, but it doesn’t prescribe a civil punishment for it. We don’t expect the government to punish people for lying, unless they’re in court and are lying under oath (which will be discussed below). One of the major debates that goes on in many countries today is the question of whether or not the state should be involved in penalizing the consumption of drugs to begin with. Several countries have, for example, already made the sale and consumption of marijuana legal.
In fact, the very idea of having the state punishing people over the consumption of illicit substances is a relatively recent phenomenon. It began in the 19th century with the Temperance Movement, and in the 20th century was expanded to include prohibitions against mind-altering substances (Marijuana, LSD, etc.). Before that, people were punished for criminal acts that they committed under the influence of such substances, but they weren’t punished for the consumption of those substances themselves.
From a Christian perspective, we recognize that there are separate spheres in life–family, church, state, marketplace, etc. While it belongs to the state to punish those sins that the Bible recognizes as being civil in nature, the vast majority of sins are not regarded as being within the purview of the state to handle. If we go by what the Bible does and doesn’t give penal sanctions for, then the use of drugs doesn’t fall into the category of civil offenses. Instead, it ought to be the duty of the family and the church to handle sinful practices such as consuming harmful substances. Details for how to handle such behaviour exist in such passages as Matthew 18:15-20, where the church community is instructed to admonish the wayward individual and excommunicate them if they refuse to repent after repeated admonitions.
Second, the consumption and sale of illicit substances shouldn’t be grounds for putting someone to death. This is a point that comes directly from the Bible. While Leviticus and Deuteronomy are notorious for the offenses where they state that capital punishment is applicable, what most people don’t realize is how relatively sparing its use of capital punishment actually is. Out of 613 laws, only 23-26 (depending on how you count them) actually have the death penalty attached to them. If you do the math, that means 4.2% of possible sins/crimes are actually punishable by death. This is contrast with many other societies, where one could be punished by death for something as small as stealing a loaf of bread (incidentally, property crimes are never punished with death or physical punishment in the Bible; the penalty is always two-fold restoration).
Are any of these capital crimes analogous to drug use? The closest one comes to this is the command to put witches to death in Exodus 22:18. Witchcraft and sorcery in ancient times was connected with the use of mind-altering substances to induce visions. Various potions were also used to poison people (incidentally, the ancient Greek word for such practices is pharmakeia, from which we derive the word “pharmacy”). However, these penalties are applied specifically in a religious/occultic context. This means that it is not the consumption of the substances themselves, but the occult practices and the intention to harm others that are being penalized. In short, this has no direct bearing on the question of whether drug use should be penalized.
Third, nobody should ever be convicted or punished without adequate evidence, especially if the conviction involves death. This is confirmed in Deuteronomy 17:6: “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” Deuteronomy 19:15-21 is even stronger in this regard. It states that if a person bears false witness against someone else in court, and this is found, the false witness bears the punishment that would otherwise have been dealt to the defendant:
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall enquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
This right here condemns the extra-judicial nature of most of the executions. Most of those executed were killed on the basis of little to no evidence. There is no regard for due process or proper investigation of evidence.
Fourth, we should be concerned primarily with the heart attitudes and spiritual state of individuals, rather than focus on their external behaviours. Yes, there is a proper place for ethics and morality, law and order. Yes, we should seek moral improvement in our societies. However, that should not overtake our primary concern, which is the soul of a person. Jesus had many harsh words to say about those who claimed to be morally-upright, law-abiding citizens, yet whose hearts betrayed spiritual deadness and lack of faith in God. One particular parable that He told illustrates this point well:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
A true change of behaviour can only come about if a change of heart comes first, and such a change of heart cannot come by external means such as laws and works of righteousness. Only God by His grace can effect such a chance. As the Bible states:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:5-8).
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Or, to echo a famous statement by Jesus: “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
So, What Does This All Mean?
I understand the concern to make the country a safer place to live. I understand the problems created by illegal drugs, and the need to curtail such drugs. However, that should not come at the expense of basic justice and respect for human rights. From that perspective, any reasonable person would conclude that what is going on in the Philippines is unjust, and anyone with any concern for justice and rule of law ought to condemn the unlawful killings and the disregard for due process.
More importantly, we should also not focus so much on the external problems that we never get around to the deeper spiritual problems that are at their root. Ultimately, the real reason these problems are happening is because people need a Saviour. And only one person is qualified to be that Saviour–not Rodrigo Duterte, nor any other politician, but only Jesus Christ.