There is a saying: “The law may be harsh but it is the law.” The Sta. Ana police station in Manila was confronted with this legal truism when last December 10, the security chief of a supermarket in the neighborhood brought a store clerk to the station and complained that the man had stolen a can of corned beef worth P31.50.
The man said he knew it was wrong but at 5:40 p.m., he had not yet had any lunch and he succumbed to the temptation of swiping a small can of corned beef from the supermarket’s shelves. He was spotted by a security guard.
The police at the station said they did not know what to do. They knew the law had been violated. But jailing a hungry man for swiping corned beef worth P31.50? At a time when so many cases against some officials are in court involving involving millions and billions of pesos?
But the police said they had to follow the law and so filed the complaint for qualified theft and kept the man in jail for the next eight days until his mother was able to raise P2,000 for his bail.
The story went viral on social media and many offered to help. Among those who spoke out on the matter was Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, vice president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. “For heaven’s sake,” he pleaded, “let’s get this man out of jail!”
This Sta. Ana case recalls a story in the Bible where a woman was to be stoned to death for adultery because that was the law. Jesus did not call for the law to be violated. He just said: “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone.”
There is also the story of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables. Valjean was sentenced to 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread of bread to feed a starving nephew. The story pitted the ideal of justice as strict adherence to law vs justice as humanity.
In the case of the Sta. Ana supermarket clerk jailed for stealing a P31.50 can of corned beef because he was so hungry, we have a modern version of Jean Valjean and Les Miserables. It is a story worth pondering in this season of Christmas celebrating the birth of Christ, the same Person who was later to save a doomed woman, finding a way to uphold love and humanity over strict adherence to law.