This summer, I started reading "A Journey of Struggle and Hope—The Memoir of Jovito R. Salonga," a gift from a colleague. Philippine Senator Salonga exemplifies that outstanding combination of excellence as a lawyer, scholar, teacher and transforming leader. He also is an outstanding church leader of our partner church, the UCC in the Philippines, and a person of deep, personal Christian faith. (For "Miss Saigon" lovers, he is the uncle of actress-singer Leah Salonga.)
The relevant vignette from the book I want to lift up here is the reference to a people's Philippine president (albeit U.S.-CIA-made), Ramon Magsaysay (pronounced "mug-sigh-SIGH"). His landslide election in 1953 brought unity and confidence to a struggling nation. His presidency, characterized by a spectacular rise to popularity, tragically ended with a shocking plane crash, even as the nation was set to overwhelmingly re-elect him.
While it would be a stretch to call Magsaysay a great president or politician, the greatest achievement rightfully attributed to him was his response to the growing communist movement in the country. The movement, formed originally as a people's army to fight, successfully, the enemy in World War II, turned toward communism when its cry for land reform was not heard and its leaders were not seated as duly-elected congressmen.
As secretary of defense and then as president himself, Magsaysay dealt effectively and peacefully with the "terrorism" of the Huks, a guerrilla rebel group. Salonga discloses that the incumbent president declared he would keep Magsaysay as secretary of defense for as long as he was needed to kill the Huks. Hearing that, Magsaysay resigned, declaring that he was disappointed with the president's definition of his job as "a mere Huk-killer" and said he would not continue serving an administration that was not interested in social reforms. In fact, it was in this area that Magsaysay's brief presidency was most successful and will be long-remembered: a land reform program that resettled and gave land to the Huks, turning them from fighters to farmers. This effectively ended the communist rebellion, which, Salonga says, "lost steam and mass support."
The idea of creating a peaceful and just resolution, instead of relying solely on a military solution in dealing with social problems and violence, is a lesson we need in our time. (Indeed, the General Synod of our church has called us to become a "Just Peace Church," one which believes in social and personal transformation.) One nation's president once did it, about whom Senator Salonga writes: "The whole nation mourned the death of one who was loved by the common people ... Magsaysay was the one political figure that ... restored the confidence of the little people in the government ... his sincerity in serving the poor and the weak were beyond doubt."
Maybe, just maybe, another nation's president can do it again. War will bring only death and destruction. Peace, however, offers life and transformation.
The Rev. José A. (Joe) Malayang is Executive Minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries and one of the UCC's five-member Collegium of Officers.