Miriam on God, hell and the middle finger

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago jokes about corruption and Pacquiao, and reflects on the existence of God and the meaning of life

Ayee Macaraig

1:0:0am April 2, 2015

9:32:6am February 25, 2016

Illustration by Raffy De Guzman/Rappler

Illustration by Raffy De Guzman/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – “As for all those jerks in government who are my enemies, they are the reason why God created the middle finger!”

Only Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago can mention God and that naughty hand gesture in the same sentence. The woman businessman Manny Pangilinan calls “the most popular speaker in town” does not shy away from taboo topics like God and religion. 

After all, her kilometric CV includes a master's degree in Religious Studies from the Maryhill School of Theology in Quezon City. Besides authoring law books, she wrote a volume titled Philosophy of Religion: Western and Eastern Religions. Ever irreverent, Santiago at times turns commencement addresses, Senate hearings and press briefings into lectures jumping from earthly scandals to divine mysteries. 

She's not all punchlines and quips. The so-called in-house philosopher of the Senate also grapples with existential and theological questions that she relates to her experiences of love, loss, sickness and success. 

This Holy Week, we look back at the Holy Queen of Politics' reflections on God, religion, spirituality, and the Catholic Church, and inspirational lessons from a full life. Her views might strike some as contradictory, much like her infamous “I lied” slogan.

Hail Miriam, full of gab! 

'VERY RELIGIOUS.' Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago says at a young age, she was 'very religious' and read the Bible even if doing so was then prohibited. File photo courtesy of Santiago's Facebook page

'VERY RELIGIOUS.' Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago says at a young age, she was 'very religious' and read the Bible even if doing so was then prohibited. File photo courtesy of Santiago's Facebook page

1. 'I'm clueless about what God is.' 

The young Miriam was a devout Catholic who read the Bible, and walked to church alone every day. The senator from Iloilo says she “inherited” her religion in this predominantly Catholic country, and was bent on studying ethical values “to understand what life is all about.” 

Even after years of studies, the legal eagle says she is no expert on God. 

“The only thing I know about God is that God is inscrutable. In other words, I don’t know a single thing about God. I’m clueless about what God is. Maybe Jesus or the other historical figures around which religions had been built, would be more approachable. But God itself, being on a divine level, I think it’s just impermeable to human intelligence,” she said in an interview with Esquire Philippines in 2011. 

She wants to “put to death or just put over the cliff” people who dictate what God is. 

Bakit ang mga pari, matataas ba ang mga IQ nila? For me, it is very, very dangerous for a person to say, 'I know what God wants.' Really?! Bakit, may cellphone ba Siya?” (Why, do priests have a higher IQ? It is very dangerous for a person to say, 'I know what God wants.' Why, does He have a cellphone?) 

2. 'Corruption is evil.'

Santiago often discusses God in tandem with her favorite topic: corruption. 

When the Supreme Court struck down the graft-ridden pork barrel system, and the Ombudsman proceeded with plunder charges against 3 senators including her archenemy Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, she proclaimed, “There is a God!”

'GOD CRIED.' Santiago's collection of jokes include a conversation between God and the Philippine president on when the country will be corruption-free. File photo from Santiago's Facebook page

'GOD CRIED.' Santiago's collection of jokes include a conversation between God and the Philippine president on when the country will be corruption-free. File photo from Santiago's Facebook page

“The Filipino people have no choice; We have to keep on fighting. I remain a staunch believer in God, and the triumph of good over evil. We have to remain adamant that good will triumph over evil, and that good governance will triumph over corruption,” she said in November 2014.

In classic Miriam fashion, she even dramatized the subject through a joke that goes:  

Nagkaroon ng pagkakataon ng tig-isang tanong kay God ang mga Presidente ng China, USA at Pilipinas. Nauna ang China.

China: God, kailan mawawala sa bansa ko ang corruption at kahirapan?
God: 300 years, anak.
Umiyak ang presidente ng China. 'Naku patay na ako niyan.'

Sumunod nagtanong ang USA.

USA: God, kailan mawawala sa bansa ko ang corruption at kahirapan?
God: 500 years, anak.

Umiyak din ang presidente ng USA. 'Patay na ako bago mangyari iyan.'

Sumunod nagtanong ang presidente ng Pilipinas.

Pilipinas: God, kailan po mawawala sa bansa ko ang corruption at kahirapan?

Umiyak si God.

God: Patay tayo diyan!

(The presidents of China, USA and the Philippines had a chance to ask God one question each. China went first. 

China: God, when will corruption and poverty be eradicated from my country?

God: 300 years, child. 

The president of China cried. 'I'll be dead by then.'

Next came the president of USA.

USA: God, when will corruption and poverty be eradicated from my country?

The president of USA also cried. 'I'll be gone before that happens.'

Then came the president of the Philippines. 

Philippines: God, when will corruption and poverty be eradicated from my country?

God cried. 

God: We'll be dead!)

PACQUIAO-MIRIAM. Boxing champion Manny Pacquiao and Santiago clash on the Reproductive Health law. File photo of Pacquiao by Jhay Otamias/Rappler, Santiago photo by Tom Tolibas

PACQUIAO-MIRIAM. Boxing champion Manny Pacquiao and Santiago clash on the Reproductive Health law. File photo of Pacquiao by Jhay Otamias/Rappler, Santiago photo by Tom Tolibas

3. 'It is dangerous to apply the Bible literally.'

Even before Floyd Mayweather Jr agreed to a fight, the “dragon lady” took on boxing champion Sarangani Representative Manny Pacquiao in the contentious debate over the Reproductive Health (RH) law. 

Santiago was a co-sponsor of the measure that provides contraceptives and other reproductive health devices and services to the poor. A born-again Christian, Pacquiao quoted the Bible in opposing the law. 

“May I just make a point of grammar please?,” Santiago said in 2011. “The Bible does not say, 'Go out to the world.' It sounds very much like God is encouraging us to go out and copulate in public.”

“God said in the Bible, 'Go forth and multiply.' That meant that God wanted man, not necessarily to literally multiply, but to go out to work with the rest of the human beings of this planet and to apply the stewardship theory. Meaning to say, taking care of each other.” 

She made a jab at the absentee lawmaker. “It is very dangerous to quote the Bible and apply it literally as Pacquiao is doing. Bakit mo papasukin ito, eh kaming mga senador hindi papasok sa pagboksing? Pero kung gusto mo, eh di puwede rin! (Why will you get into this when we senators will not enter boxing? But if you want, we can do that, too!) 

PURPLE MOVEMENT. Santiago says her push for the RH law affected her standing in the Catholic Church. She is photographed with Gemma Cruz Araneta and Heart Evangelista and other RH supporters in 2011. Photo courtesy of Santiago's Facebook page

PURPLE MOVEMENT. Santiago says her push for the RH law affected her standing in the Catholic Church. She is photographed with Gemma Cruz Araneta and Heart Evangelista and other RH supporters in 2011. Photo courtesy of Santiago's Facebook page

4. 'The world is not black and white.'

The outspoken senator admits that her push for the RH law harmed her standing as a Catholic. Still, she repeatedly criticizes Church efforts to meddle with politics, particularly the campaign against pro-RH legislators in the 2013 election. 

“The Catholic Church is not the official state religion,” she said. “It has to exhibit an attitude of tolerance to the other religions because the rule in constitutional law is the state should be neutral to all religions, plus those who have no religion at all—the atheists and the agnostics.”

TOUGH CONFIRMATION. Social Welfare and Development Secretary Dinky Soliman was confirmed only after 4 years as Santiago gave her a difficult time, at one point taking issue with the Black and White Movement. File photo by Cesar Tomambo/Senate PRIB

TOUGH CONFIRMATION. Social Welfare and Development Secretary Dinky Soliman was confirmed only after 4 years as Santiago gave her a difficult time, at one point taking issue with the Black and White Movement. File photo by Cesar Tomambo/Senate PRIB

In 2011, she also turned her ire on the civil society group Black and White Movement during the heated confirmation hearing of Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman. A former member of the group, Soliman explained that the movement believes that “God is the one that sets the norm of what is good and evil.” (READ: Who knows what God is? Not you, Miriam tells group)

Santiago bellowed: “That is the egotistic problem in seeing the world as black and white. Who is to decide what is black and white particularly in such a complicated profession as politics? I would like to see the appointment papers of the Black and White Movement people from God and signed by God.”

5. 'Don't subscribe to the bahala na attitude.'

The former trial court judge urges the youth to distinguish between faith and defeatism. For a people braving 20 typhoons a year, poverty and endless corruption scandals, Santiago says the bahala na attitude is not a mark of resilience. 

Huwag tayong maging kampante at isabahala na lamang sa Diyos o sa gobyerno ang mga problema natin. Tandaan: mainam na bumangon tayo sa bawat pagkadapa, pero dapat matuto tayong huwag madapa muli,” she told high school students in March 2014. 

(Let us not be complacent and just leave to God and the government our problems. Remember: it is best that we rise from trials, but we must learn not to fall again.) 

Quoting Irish politician Edmund Burke, she added: “A nation is only as strong as its people. Do not subscribe to the bahala na (come what may) attitude and allow things to go with the flow. For evil to triumph, it is enough for good men to do nothing.”

6. 'What kind of God would do these things to innocent people?'

Personal tragedy made Santiago question the presence of God and evil. The death of her son, Alexander Robert, in 2003 was beyond the vocabulary of the master orator. 

This God is an underachiever. I'm sure that if you were a god or if I were the God, I would be doing a better job. Therefore, the only conclusion can be that possibly, God does not exist.

- Sen Miriam Defensor Santiago

She reflected on death when asked about the 2012 plane crash of Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, her fellow Ramon Magsaysay awardee. She called it “the question of the suffering of the innocent, also known in theology as the problem of evil.” 

“You and including myself have our own nominees for who should have been there in that piper plane. But of all these dozens of people we could nominate, why did it have to be him? There is no answer to that theologically,” she said.

In an interview with ABS-CBN's Korina Sanchez in 2012, Santiago spoke about her son's loss in words that some critics branded as blasphemous. 

“I do not understand why God can be all love and still inflict this kind of pain on people. This God is an underachiever. He does not do whatever he is supposed to be doing, whatever his sex is. Whether he's an it or a she or a he or whatever. But I'm sure that if you were a god or if I were the God, I would be doing a better job.” 

“Therefore, the only conclusion can be that possibly, God does not exist.”

MIRIAM'S NEMESIS. Santiago earns criticism from a theologian and a bold gesture from impeachment prosecutor Vitaliano Aguirre for berating prosecutors as 'gago.' File photo by Edward Ganal/Senate PRIB/Pool

MIRIAM'S NEMESIS. Santiago earns criticism from a theologian and a bold gesture from impeachment prosecutor Vitaliano Aguirre for berating prosecutors as 'gago.' File photo by Edward Ganal/Senate PRIB/Pool

7. 'There is no hell.' 

Santiago again stirred controversy in 2012 for calling prosecutors in the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona “gago(fools). Citing the Gospels, renowned Jesuit theologian Fr Catalino Arevalo was quoted as saying that she was “worthy of the fires of hell” for that insult.

A fuming Santiago shot back that in theology, hell is not a geographical place but a metaphor for distance from God. 

“Under Vatican 2, there is no hell, but even if there is, there is nobody there,” she said. “The priest is saying that he is close to God, and I’m not. I say to the priest, judge not, that you shall not be judged." 

CROWD FAVORITE. The senator loves speaking before young audiences, and is a frequent guest in university fora and lectures. File photo from Santiago's Facebook page

CROWD FAVORITE. The senator loves speaking before young audiences, and is a frequent guest in university fora and lectures. File photo from Santiago's Facebook page

8. 'Life is not a race among the vain.'

When she's not squabbling with priests, athletes or Cabinet secretaries, Santiago makes it a point to be the motivational speaker. Graduations are rituals she dares not miss.

Reading from her Philosophy of Religion book, she asked future doctors from UP in 2012 to “find inspiration in our Third World circumstances” and stressed “happiness in serving others.”

“Life is not a race among the vain. Vanity merely yields the prize of material riches, which endanger the spiritual outlook. Life is a journey to the absolute truth, in the course of which we develop the ability to communicate with God.” 

9. 'God is not out there but in you.' 

The meaning of life is a theme Santiago often contemplates on. She says that while God's existence can be proven, “the possibility of a designer of a universe is highly probable.”

“God is neither up above nor out there. Instead, God is found in here. In the human mind, in the human conscience,” she told UP Cebu graduates. “That is why, you are not only graduating with a bachelor’s degree today, you are graduating to a place nearer where God is. Because God is in here. God is in you.”

She says viewing life as predestined or random is unintelligent. 

“We must confront the most difficult truth about ourselves. In a godless world, we have no alternative but to choose – and in that sense to create – our own values. In other words, we create the meaning of our life.”

Watch Santiago's full speech at UP Cebu here:

10. 'God just goes ahead and I just say okay.' 

After her political, personal and professional battles, Santiago faced a different rival at 69. With her classic sense of humor, she faced the cameras in July 2014, refused to shed tears, and announced that she has stage 4 lung cancer.  

BRAVE FRONT. Santiago says of lung cancer: 'My attitude is one of total surrender and resignation to the will of God.' File photo by Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB

BRAVE FRONT. Santiago says of lung cancer: 'My attitude is one of total surrender and resignation to the will of God.' File photo by Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB

This time, the feisty senator spoke of God without expressing doubt. 

“God never asks us for an opinion. God just goes ahead and does whatever is in his hands. I just say okay.” 

Later in another university speech, she said she is winning her fight against cancer. In keeping with a personal tradition, she ended her remarks with poetic lines, from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;

His truth is marching on. – Rappler.com