I’m happy the two earlier blog posts Christian Perspectives on Politics in Malaysia I and Christian Perspectives on Politics in Malaysia II is generating some conversation even though there isn’t an avalanche of comments. Maybe the Invisible Blue Gang isn’t that provocative or controversial. Then again, we always meant to join the panel to talk about the issues not to focused on rhetoric. Tonight we carry on the third installment. Let’s see where this will lead us. đź™‚ perhaps to a better tomorrow?
Chun Wai: In Malaysia, politics have always been quite partisan and even emotional at times. While the church may agree on certain issues, there’s always the question of approaches that can divide the congregation. For example, the pastor can be very anti- or pro-government, and the congregation is made up of people with various political affiliations and they may not be too happy with the stand taken by the pastor. Will that create division in church?
Steven: There are many issues that can divide an institution not just politics, but I guess this is where maturity and the Christian’s concept of brotherly love comes in. Everyone ought to be welcomed and given the space to express themselves and with such space respect ought to be given for the persons even if we differ in ideologies. We cannot treat our congregation as childish and immature to handle differences.
Hermen: You just take one issue, let’s say our response to a certain concern. And then, you will find in the church some will say get involved, others say don’t. They are no different from the rest of society.
Sivin: The church has always dealt with divisions since day one. And we still do, whether we like it or not. We have been learning and still learning how to cope with diversity of legitimate view points without being divided, and yet sometimes division maybe inevitable on this side of heaven. This may range from the what may seem the most trivial like musical taste to the more critical doctrinal differences. I’m confident we can learn to deal with the issue of politics. My reading of the Gospels give me an impression that even Jesus early disciples came from differing political persuasions. Historically and even today we can locate a diversity of responses to politics and our relation to the government. So handling strong diverse views is a constant challenge.
The question for me, is why do people take these positions? What are the factors influencing them to decide their conclusions? Even if a pastor’s stand may at first glance appear to create division. Perhaps, we need to ask deeper questions beyond whether one is happy or not with the pastor’s opinion. We’re talking a little too abstract here. Which frustrates me a little. Let’s take a concrete example, if I take a stand to choose to dialogue not only with UMNO or MCA politicians but also am willing to engage PKR, DAP or PAS politicians (which usually is seen as anti-government), it is potentially divisive because we are seen as being used by either party, but then it may also reflect the maturity of the church in engaging strongly opposing views. What if the dialogue is in order for me as a religious leader not only to clarify their views, but also hopefully they would be open to our input?
Chun Wai: Teresa, you are a Catholic and Catholic churches are known to be more vocal, please share your experience.
Kok: We are duty-bound to speak up for justice. If you can’t speak up, can’t act, at least pray for the situation. I used to attend mass in Petaling Jaya and during the community prayer time, the priest always has no choice but to bring certain issues into prayer, and certain religious words banned, you have to pray for that. And ISA being used, you pray for the detainees and the families. And we pray for press freedom, religious freedom, for independence of the judiciary, pray for the Prime Minister so that he has the wisdom to rule the country – that is all for the good of the society.
What I also find interesting is that the priest also prays for Chua Soi Lek, so that he can have reconciliation with his family. All these, you can say they are political messages of prayers, but it is our duty to pray over what is happening in our country. People might think this is political. But, in fact, for me, it is not. It is our duty as Christians to bring out all these messages to act, and to pray, and participate in the restoration of the wrong things that are happening in the country.
Chun Wai: But when certain approaches are taken, do you feel that sometimes this particular church can be seen to be anti-government? Will it help at all?
Steven: I must reiterate that the church is called to be biased towards justice, peace and truth. While we are non-partisan, we must not be seen as afraid to play the prophetic role of speaking against anyone who sought to compromise these values. I must say though, there are many ways we can go about doing this but whatever we do, our undergirding principle must be that of charity, love.
Sivin: I’m trying to understand where we are heading if we are locked into this “anti-government” or “pro-government” talk … if the government has failed in any of it’s promises, and there’s concern or even criticism coming from the church, even helping the church members articulate their frustrations in prayer and intercession, is that not a legitimate response. We also have times where we express affirmation to good government policies or give thanks for good changes, does that make us “pro-government”? The fact is churches or pastors taking a more critical reflective stance towards how the faith of the community is connected to sociopolitical concerns is a minority (especially in the protestant circles), and I think these voices are needed. I’ve always been challenged by the Catholic church which like Chun Wai said is more vocal.
Kok: I have heard that some parishioners had left that parish and they go to other Catholic parishes because they don’t like the priest to talk about or pray like this. But it has also encouraged parishioners to be more socially and politically concerned.
Lee: I think you have to differentiate between current issues and also party issues. There is nothing wrong for a church to talk about or pray about issues of the day. But I don’t think there is any church that will say, oh, I support the MCA or DAP .
Church leaders have to be neutral on the pulpit but on the ground, if he or she supports a political party, or take part in a rally, or attend a pro-government activity, I think he or she has that right.
Bob: The polemic of being “anti-government” is something that those who are in power will have to deal with. We didn’t invent it and don’t appreciate it being imposed on our discourse. I don’t think the church is going to abdicate theological interpretation to the state.
I have yet to see partisan politics being advocated from the pulpit. This may have been true in the past when the pulpit was used to bash “ungodly” ideologies like communism, et al, but I think those times are over.
However, to have social concerns being voiced and advocated over the pulpit ought to be expected. If the powers that be are consistent in their practice with principles and values that Christians hold dear, then there ought to be no concern for any form of “anti-government” feelings by the former.
Chun Wai: But Datuk, if pastors, whether they wear their collar on Sunday, and after that, never wear their collar, should they be involved in politics?
Hoh: Definitely not, because it can be very sensitive for both sides. But let’s say it is a social programme like a charity and they help as individuals, that is a different story.
Sivin: In one sense, Datuk Hoh is right. If I were to join a political party as a pastor, this is problematic because it’s harder to play the role of a guide when one has to campaign for a party position. That’s why at least in the denomination I serve in we are not allowed to do so. And what he mentions in terms of social programs is one level of engagement. But I think for some of us even as pastors especially in the Malaysian context, who in the process of seeking to be in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, the disempowered and marginalized, and also helping churches to be in touch with the suffering of others, suddenly find ourselves unable to ignore the political dimension and systemic problems beyond what is seen on the surface.
Like it or not, in all honestly and being true the calling of following Jesus, one is moved to another level where the we’ll have to ask the hard questions, and in good conscience apart from being more politically informed and aware, step into some form of engagement with those more directly involved. This may range from participating in a candle light vigil to giving a voice to issues in specific forums, and this does not mean involvement in such activities is officially alignment to a political party or endorsement to political personalities. It’s a road not many will travel, but some will. And of course, some will go further. While I personally won’t do get involved in party politics, I respect those who feel this is a move they want to make.
Bob: It really isn’t that uncommon elsewhere. A person’s decision to participate in partisan politics ought to be the person’s prerogative; even if that person is a pastor. There are, of course, concerns that due to a pastor’s position, he or she might have undue influence over their respective congregations.
This can, in part, be mitigated by better public education about the role of politics and civics in general. Unfortunately, due to the lack thereof in Malaysia, this is a legitimate concern. This is where individual denominations and churches will need to prayerfully and wisely consider and decide on their policies as to whether or not to allow serving clergy to take up non-clerical roles outside their official functions.
Having said that, I believe that there are circumstances, especially in cases where mitigating factors exist, that pastors, as community leaders in their own right, need to take up a more overt political role and challenge existing systems. This isn’t unique. In the 20th century alone, these pastors from the various Christian traditions have all taken similiar paths – Dr Martin Luther King, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Boenhoeffer, Oscar Romero et al
Steven: I cannot do better than Bob to raise the example of Christians ministers who wear their collars and brought real transformations to their society because of a direct involvement in politics.
Raj: And lets not forget people like William Wilberforce who helped end slavery in England.
Sivin: In Wilberforce’s example, while he was in the frontline, the pastoral support and encouragement was more hidden and invisible played an important and I believe an influential role. This is a more indirect way of being involved in politics through specific members who are called to confront specific issues and play key roles in society. This can be one good model for us to consider.
Chun Wai: Rev Wong, in Sabah and Sarawak, it is very common for pastors to be involved in politics. I think there are quite a number of pastors in PBS. Why do you think it’s different in Sabah and Sarawak?
Kim Kong: They are slightly different in terms of political engagement because of the social fabric of the community. They are more conscious of the political process because their social economic status compels them to be more politically orientated.
As a result of that, pastors being much more exposed and educated, the chances for them to alleviate the social condition are much higher compared to Peninsular Malaysia. As a result, some of them engage in politics but there is a very clear demarcation, in a sense that if you have to be involved in politics, you have to resign as a pastor.
Then, the second issue is, Christians or people in general need to distinguish between political parties and the Government. I may meet the Prime Minister or minister, but it does not reflect that I am meeting the Umno president or the MCA president. I think there’s a need to distinguish between the role of the Government, of the Prime Minister and their role as the presidents of the political parties.
Chun Wai: Teresa, can you tell us about the DAP fielding a pastor in the election?
Kok: This is a pastor from Sabah, Pastor Jeffrey Kumin. I was introduced to this pastor and every time we pray together and he’s the only pastor who is willing to pray for me and the DAP … (panel laughs). My party approached him and he agreed to stand as a party candidate.
Sivin: I think the many of us would love to sit down and hear Pastor Jeffrey Kumin’s story. (The Invisible Blue Gang members Bob, Steven and Raj, all nod their heads virtually in smiling agreement) đź™‚ đź™‚ đź™‚