Revisiting Christians & politics
Since the 13th General Election seems to be on the minds of most Malaysians (at least those who are online), and we’ve been very much focused on understanding how Christians are reflecting on religion and politics, I will repost an older article that made it into an English mainstream paper below.
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Sunday September 19, 2010
By ANDREW SIA
Opinions are divided on Christian involvement in politics, but most people agree on the need to fight for justice.
SINCE the “political tsunami” of March 8, 2008, Christians have become increasingly vocal on national issues. However, according to the Malaysian Census of 2000, only 10% of Malaysia’s population is Christian, with the majority being in Sabah and Sarawak (where they make up 40% of the population).
But what Christians lack in numbers, they may make up for in influence. As one local Christian politician put it, “Christians may not be so numerous but we are usually well-educated, middle-class and well-connected, especially in urban society. The moment something happens, it will be widely discussed in cell group meetings or put up on the Internet.”
Malaysian Christians praying for the Pope John Paul in 2005. Prayer aside, Christians in the country have begun to speak up and take action to contribute towards nation-building. – File photo
A minor awakening
“I have never had so many political discussions with Christians than in the past two years,” says Sivin Kit, pastor of the Bangsar Lutheran Church in Kuala Lumpur. “We are swept up by the currents of the political climate.”
Political analyst Ong Kian Ming, a Christian himself, notes that “since March 8, more Christians are voicing their concerns about political issues. However, other Malaysians are doing so too.”
In 1992, the late Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon, a staunch Methodist, wrote in the book, Challenge of Vision 2020: Christian Involvement in Politics:
“To be involved in politics, the Christians have to increase the level of political consciousness. By this I do not mean that Christians should form political parties as is the practice of Europe.
“We are a multi-racial and multi-religious nation and the injection of politics may well disrupt the religious harmony that now prevails. But there is no harm in Christians taking an interest in the politics of our country.
“By all means they should join political parties and even join the component parties of the Barisan Nasional if they so desire. If Christians so desire they may also join Opposition parties. If Christians do so, let us hope that the level of politics in this country will improve with honesty, neighbourly love and charity amongst the political leadership in our country.”
Eugene Yapp, research executive secretary of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (or NECF, an umbrella group that includes the Assembly of God, Full Gospel, Brethren, Baptist and Sidang Injil Borneo denominations) notes that after the last general elections, churches are speaking out more.
“This is part and parcel of the process towards a just and righteous society,” Yapp says.
Indeed, those who want to improve and help society face a dilemma: Should they try to apply short-term first aid to the symptoms (the so-called welfare approach)? Or should they address the long-term root causes of those problems (the advocacy approach)? Or do both?
Pastor Sivin Kit … we want to contribute to the common good.
Kit explains that “Christians want to contribute to nation building and the common good of society. We want to be a blessing to our country.”
Traditionally, the church has done this through social (welfare) work. “But, as many NGOs have experienced, one cannot ignore the structural problems in our (socio-political) system, causing problems to arise. So it’s about working towards long-term solutions.”
Dr Ng Kam Weng, research director at Kairos Research Centre, a Christian think tank, says: “There are Christians who think politics is rotten, so let’s not get into trouble and hope to migrate. But now, more Christians are very concerned about the state of the nation.”
For instance, churches have been holding talks or forums on issues of the day, like the Perak political crisis last year, he adds.
Kit observes that while the Catholics have always spoken up more on socio-political issues, the Protestants had been more quiet – until recently.
“Just before March 8, there were very well attended one-day events (around KL) with titles like ‘The Christian and the General Election’ and ‘Was Jesus Political?’”
After the elections, several “concerned Christians”, himself included, set up a Christian socio-political discussion website called The Micah Mandate.
Ong says since then, “more young Christians want to get involved, be it through Pakatan or Barisan. It doesn’t really matter which side they choose as long as their hearts are sincere.”
However, he observes, many of the older Christian leaders are still wary of anything political, to the extent of declining to promote voter registrations.
Roman Catholic Bishop of Penang Antony Selvanayagam raising an issue at a dialogue session between Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and representatives from the various Christian churches and groups in the state.
Is it right?
I asked a few times on my Facebook account if Christians should speak up on political issues and got numerous strong comments for and against. One person cited the verse in which Jesus told his followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, render unto God what is God’s” as “proof” that Christians should steer clear of politics.
Yapp says if one defines politics in the “broader philosophical sense” of how best to manage a nation’s collective life for the common good, then, “naturally, God calls us to be righteous citizens of the country. And so we do have a role to play by speaking out against all forms of evil.”
Kit admits that there is a genuine fear among some church leaders. “Since there are already so many restrictions, why should we speak out and incur the wrath of the authorities? But do we fear God more than men?”
He advocates a good balance.
“There is respect for authority. We don’t advocate a disrespectful, violent approach. As Martin Luther King Jr said, the church is the conscience of the state. In Malaysia, all religious communities should be that conscience.”
Dr Ng emphasises the “need to recover the teachings of the Old Testament where the prophets always denounced injustice whenever they saw it.”
In Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, author Ronald Sider recalls that his survey of over 1,500 church leaders showed that the conservative ones spoke out only against “personal sins” such as sexual misconduct, but not “social sins” such as unjust economic stuctures and militarism.
Indeed, many commentators have noted that President George W.Bush won his second term because of the votes from the so-called “Christian Right” which condemned abortion and homosexuality, but not the American invasion of Iraq.
Bishop Hwa Yung of the Methodist Church in Malaysia says some Christians have what he calls “life boat ethics”.
In his book Bribery and Corruption, released in April, he explains that some 20th century evangelical Christians withdrew from engaging the world as it is sinful, like a sinking ship.
“Hence, there is no point in trying to save it. Instead we are to jump into the life boat, namely the church, and leave the world to sink!” he writes.
Hwa also explains that the so-called separation between “church and state” or between “spiritual and secular” is actually a bias of Western European Christianity and Augustine (one of the church fathers), who in turn was influenced by Greek philosophers like Plato and Descartes.
Cheryl Lee, president (2008-2010) of the Independent Christian Renewal Society (ICRS), a local Catholic discussion and advocacy group, says: “The cross does not only have a vertical dimension, between you and God. It also has a horizontal element, which is about how you care for your brothers and sisters, including non-Christians.”
She thinks that is why the Catholic church has always been vocal, even in the past.
“We are called upon to embody the joys and hopes of the majority of people. The Catholic church has a ‘preferential option’ for the poor. In Matthew 25, God often comes in disguise as the poor, the powerless and the marginalised. When you help them, you are helping God Himself.
“For instance, Michael Chong (head of the MCA Public Complaints Bureau) is a Catholic who witnesses his faith by doing a lot of good work.”
The ICRS has organised talks at Assumption Church in Petaling Jaya on topics such as human trafficking and corruption. “Far from staying away, politics is a moral responsibility for Christians,” Lee adds.
Bishop Paul Tan, who oversees the Malacca-Johor Catholic Diocese, says all parishes have set up an Office of Human Development to spread the social teachings and organise programmes like giving free tuition to poor students.
Tricia Yeoh says there are many challenges to overcome.
However, before imagining any great “awakening” on socio-political issues, it’s worth remembering that all this is not the mainstream practice among Malaysian Christians. Dr Ng notes that this limited activism is usually found in the Klang Valley.
What about Sarawak, where there are many more Christians?
“The state has traditionally been almost 100% Barisan and with the usual carrot and stick policies, the churches there don’t publicly criticise the government,” he says.
Tricia Yeoh, a policy analyst and Christian, says her personal view is that “churches are beginning to wake up. They are aware of all the issues and pray for those involved in politics. But real action, the wave of reformation across Malaysian churches, has not taken place yet.”
Lee adds that “it’s not like in the past when you had NGOs versus the police. We have also invited the police for talks on topics such as migrant workers. And ministers like (Tan Sri) Bernard Dompok (Plantation Industries and Commodities) have spoken at our group events and will do so again.”
One result is that after these talks, all the Catholic churches in PJ have conducted voter registration excercises.
“It’s not just about criticising. There are good things that the government does and we support that. It’s about going against wrong-doing.”
While direct political participation may not be for all, there are many other forms of indirect involvement. After all, what is politics anyway?
“Let’s be honest, the church also has politics, so we are not immune,” says Kit, who elaborates on the verse about “rendering unto Caesar”.
“Everything is political, but politics is not everything. For instance, when we pay taxes, that is political. When we invite a politician to officiate at a church event, that is political. So what is the appropriate level of involvement?”
He points out that some scholars believe Jesus was crucified for political reasons.
“People tried to make Him a king, but He refused. The politics of Jesus was not the gutter politics of domination. It was one of non-violence, peace and justice … a broader definition of politics.”
Christians must go beyond the narrow definition of politics as Barisan versus Pakatan, or Democrat versus Republican, Kit stresses.
“There are many types of involvement. When a residents’ association discusses community concerns with the local wakil rakyat, that is political involvement too. Some may want to write to newspapers or websites, or join a group. Others may want to support quietly behind the scenes.”
Dr Ng hopes that churches can be more “big-hearted” about their talented members who want to do “God’s work”.
“Apart from working in church, they should also give them the option to join NGOs (that advocate socio-political issues). Similarly businessmen are not just there to contribute to the church building fund. They can also help bring social changes.”
What about supporting political parties?
Kit says some individual Christians may choose to contribute as a politician of any party. As for the church itself, the “textbook answer” is that no, as an institution, they should be politically non-partisan.
“I prefer that word to saying the church should be neutral. There may be specific issues on which the church many need to make a political stand. No one will say that the church should have been neutral about Hitler or apartheid. Or about corruption.”
Kit adds that, historically, the Bible has also been “abused” by certain parties to justify slavery and even apartheid.
“And part of the German church (tacitly) supported Hitler as well. But there were others like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who resisted by insisting that Christ was the true Führer (leader), not Adolph Hitler. The moment politicians demand our total allegiance and obedience, we need to pause and reconsider our priorities.”
Why did Malaysian Christians not engage in socio-political issues in the past?
One reason is historical. As a former Methodist pastor once explained to this writer, “the church came with the conquering colonial powers. Naturally, it was reluctant to speak out against colonialism and exploitation.”
In contrast, in 19th century Britain, Chris-tian politicians such as William Wilberforce and his friends were at the forefront in the struggle to abolish slavery throughout the empire. They also spoke out against the exploitation of the Industrial Revolution, when child and women workers were literally chained to their machines for up to 15 hours a day by greedy factory owners.
Some Christian evangelicals (charismatics) also subscribe to the concept of what they call “The Last Days” before Armageddon.
“Since the world is getting worse, leave it to the Devil and let’s focus on saving souls (for Heaven),” quips Ng.
Reports in The Star in November 2009 and March 2010 had it that a renowned charismatic church in KL had allegedly mismanaged church funds. Plans for a lavish “spaceship-like” RM150mil Christian “convention centre” had also split the congregation.
After some 400 church members, who called themselves the Truth, Transparency and Good Governance Group (TTG), demanded accountability for church funds, their names were mysteriously removed from the membership rolls. They then staged a demonstration against the church’s leadership and lodged police reports.
Conservative middle class
Ng thinks the other reason for Christian passiveness is cultural. “Sociologically, since Christians are a minority, they prefer to keep to themselves and not ‘get into trouble’.
There is also the inherently conservative nature of middle class people.
“Urban English- and Chinese-speaking churches can be a comfortable and conservative middle class institution,” says Kit. “They shy away from rocking the boat.”
So why are they speaking up more now?
Traditionally, the church has played a big part in social work. Malaysian Christian Association for Relief (Malaysian Care), for example, has programmes for those with special needs.
“It’s the Internet that has led the change in Christian thinking, not the church, unfortunately,” he adds. “There was some discussion on socio-political issues back in the 1990s. The Church as an institution has been conservative, but it has been pushed to respond. Now, different leaders are more vocal.”
Dr Ng observes that “Dr Mahathir’s regime was very authoritarian. Then came Pak Lah. People felt there was more room to speak up and everybody, not just Christians, did so.”
Kit, who was trained at the Malaysian Theological Seminary in the 1990s, says local theologians have been discussing socio-political concerns for at least 20 years, “but it did not go down to the grassroots”. In recent years, however, the Lina Joy case and the Allah issue have raised Christian awareness.
“More Christians are asking questions. The climate of the country is such that the church has no choice but to discuss social and political issues.”
“For me, the turning point was the M. Moorthy incident (in which his Hindu family members and the Muslim authorities tussled over the ‘right’ to bury him),” says Kit. “I was struck by the whole idea of arguing over a dead body.”
He thinks the younger Christians “who are not caught up in the old way of thinking” are more willing to participate in socio-political change.
Spreading the message
While many Christians on the ground are still apprehensive about speaking up, the organisations which represent them (at least in theory) have issued a few press statements on current socio-political concerns.
These groups are the NECF, the Council of Churches Malaysia (or CCM, whose members include the “mainline Protestant” churches such as the Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans and Presbyterians) and the Christian Federation of Malaysia (or CFM, which includes all Christians both Protestant and Catholic).
In January, the CCM criticised those trying to provoke religious conflict by throwing pigs’ heads into mosques, using a cow’s head in a protest, or burning churches.
In September 2008, when blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, MP Teresa Kok, and journalist Tan Hoon Cheng were detained under the ISA, NECF said: “As a national body that represents some one million evangelical Christians in Malaysia, NECF Malaysia is deeply concerned over the use of the ISA and printing laws against newspapers and individuals who are performing the vital duty of bringing critical issues to the attention of the Malaysian public for constructive debate.”
And in July 2009, after the death of political aide Teoh Beng Hock, CFM head Bishop Ng Moon Hing said Christians were “appalled” by the “strange circumstances” of his death.
So if organisations representing Christians are speaking up, why does it seem strange for ordinary Christians to do so?
Bishop Tan notes that Christians have made “statement after statement” through groups like CFM and also the MCCBCHST (Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism).
“The press picked up a few but most of the statements were not published,” he observes.
If the mainstream media has certain “limitations”, should the church then employ its own means to spread the word on such issues?
Kit says: “Sometimes Christians see that it’s the role of such organisations to speak out while they continue the normal religions activities at church level. On the ground, there is not much conscious talk about it.
“This makes some young people feel that the church is not relevant to the changes happening around them. My view is that these issues should be included in sermons, prayer items, church newsletters and group discussions.”
Recent religious controversies have also stoked Christian socio-political awareness. Christians have long felt uneasy about the authorities’ decisions on the approval of church buildings and the limitations imposed on (and recent confiscation of) Bahasa Malaysia Bibles.
In more recent years, there have been contentious cases (eg Lina Joy), as well as raucous protests against the Article 11 inter-faith dialogue and the Bar Council forum on religious conversion. Then came the Allah issue and various incidents of churches being set on fire.
As the authorities are perceived to be Muslim-controlled, there are questions about sensitivities.
“When you say sensitivities, that actually depends on which Muslim I am talking to,” says Kit, pointing out that the Muslims themselves have different opinions on the Allah issue.
Dr Ng believes Christians should not become more politically active only because of issues.
“I always tell church people, don’t seek justice only for Christians. Seek justice for everybody, including Muslims,” he says.
Edward Lee, the DAP State Assemblyman for Bukit Gasing, PJ, who is well known as a Christian politician, adds, “One municipal councillor from PAS told me, ‘The way you do things is like us Muslims.’ We should be magnamimous and give people a chance, not just criticise them. Malay culture has a softer way of speaking.”
Of course, it is naturally easier for Malaysian Christians to speak out for their “own” interests. But a higher and nobler move would be to speak out for everybody’s common interests, on issues like corruption, the environment, economics and education.
Kit agrees that this is a better demonstration of Christian love – which is why he is one of the few local pastors to speak out in support of Palestinians.
In January, Archbishop Murphy Packiam, the leader of Malaysian Catholics, issued a call for prayer vigils for Gaza so that “God will soften the hearts of the leaders to avoid the sledgehammer tactics of Israel or the acts of Hamas, which only further the sufferings of innocent people in Palestine.”
Bishop Hwa writes that Christians who live in an Islamic context need to be more “socially engaged”. This is because the Muslims affirm that their religion is relevant to all of life and does not separate the spiritual and secular realms.
“As long as Christians hold on to a dualistic worldview which leads us to forget about our socio-political responsibilities … our Muslim friends will always see Christianity as an other-worldly faith that has no relevance in the real world,” he says.
In short, if Christians spoke out more, they would be on the same page with Muslims since Islam advocates fairness and justice, not just in religious matters, but as an addeen (total way of life) that encompasses the moral, devotional, social, economic and political aspects of a community.
Perhaps Christians can follow the example of, and indeed join hands with, their fellow Muslims to speak up for a better society?
Kit notes that in Western countries like Germany, there is a “rich tradition” of Christians espousing positive political values and even forming political parties such as the Christian Democrats.
“This is similar to PAS. For instance, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad (Pas Central Working Committee member) has described his party as Islamic Democrats. My stereotyped view of PAS has changed.”
However, in practice, bridging the divide is not always so easy.
“We can disagree, but with respect,” says Kit. “Sometimes in inter-faith dialogues, I sense that no one is really listening and we’re all talking past each other.”
Yeoh says there are many challenges to overcome.
The Klang House of Victory, a drug rehabilitation centre, was set up by a Christian organisation.
“I suppose people are inherently self-involved, preferring to prioritise their own spiritual health and needs instead of others’. Living in a materialistic and urban (consumer culture) setting does not help either.”
Bishop Paul Tan admits that the Catholic Social Teachings have reached very few people. “As someone said, it’s the most well kept secret of the church!”
Lee believes many people are still conservative; she recalls how one Catholic priest inPJ was asked to “lay off” political issues by his parishioners.
“Things don’t usually improve with a big bang. We are planting seeds of change. And we leave it to the conscience of members to decide how to respond.”
And how should Christians respond?
In the heat of online political discussions, things can sometimes get confrontational and aggressive, with name-calling and rough language involved. “This reflects real sentiments, and we cannot ignore the frustrations displayed there,” says Kit.
“But as Christians we are called to model ‘speaking the truth in love’. To me, this means we focus on the issues at hand and refrain from getting sucked into mud-slinging and personal attacks.
“While we may get into hot debates, we must not demonise the other person. We must recognise his humanity, warts and all.
“It’s a delicate balance. The challenge is that Christians may come across as sounding too nice and therefore unclear because we are not critical enough.”
He adds that a good example of this balance between forgiveness and frankness was seen during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, held after the fall of apartheid.
Lee says that getting politically involved is an expression of Christian love.
“The essence of people is to love, otherwise they will die unhappy. I have visited sick people in hospital and I find those who have lived a full life, given and served well, tend to die peacefully. Those who are self-centred are often more scared to die.”
Yapp adds: “We believe our actions are transformational in nature rather than revolutionary. We seek to be the ‘salt and light’ to the world by being a voice and a conscience of the nation to bring about real improvements. May God bless Malaysia!”
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