Lutheran Identity, Knowing God and the Struggle for Justice

My good friend Alwyn always has a way with coming out with titles.  While my original title “From Coins to Candles: Christian Social Responsibility Today” tries to use picture language, Alwyn helps to highlight what was the essence of the message last Sunday.

2008 Reformation 3

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The slides shown above are a slightly revised version which I used at Alwyn’s church Luther House Chapel after I felt my may have cluttered my first sharing at BLC.

This month we are working through what I call the “Reformation Series” with a special focus on the General Priesthood of all Believers as we approach Reformation Day on the 31 October,

At one level, it’s part of the LUTHER Plan initiated by Bishop Philip Lok when he was elected into office, the first letter L is about Lutheran Identity. Last year as part of the Reformation Series we walked through the 4 “Alones” – Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone and Christ Alone.  While on surface it might feel that this is an exercise is “denominationalism”, and that temptation is real, personally I took it as an opportunity to reconnect us with historical realities.  This is so needed when many of us live a context-less Christianity.  It’s not a bad idea to actually unpack why on earth we have the word “Lutheran” tagged on our church name 🙂 as well as what it means for us as Lutheran Church in Malaysia and Singapore.

I’m not interested in a uncritical nostalgic mindless appeal to the “good old days” past and glorifying the worldwide Lutheran communion, but whether we like it or not, this is part and parcel of who we are as Christians expressed specifically though some form of Lutheran identity in Malaysia. A healthy appreciation of our past can actually help us move forward while an occasional glace back.

On a constructive note, there are helpful insights and themes which being part of this particular reformation history forces us to reflect on, and what I do is I consciously confront those themes with the contextual reality we face here and now where we are at.  So, last Sunday it was interesting to explore Luther’s political ethics using the controversial  doctrine of the “two kingdoms” as a springboard.

To me, I found Luther’s teaching on God’s rule in two ways in this world fascinating historically in confronting the marriage of church (specifically the powerful Pope and Roman Catholic Church) and state, and how it set into motion some kind of separation of church and state in Christendom. As a theological shift, this move attracted my attention.   It may not have gone as far as where some would have wanted like the later Anabaptist, but I thought it was a significant move considering his circumstances.  It may be easy for us to criticize him in hindsight, then again we have the luxury of not having people chasing us to kill us!

One way I tried to approach this was also to see the link in Luther’s teaching on how one knows God is noteworthy, especially seen in his adaptation one of the Catholic approaches namely the Lectio Divina.  His addition of the component of “Tentatio” in Oratio, Meditatio and Tentatio (Prayer, Meditation, and Trial). 

What struck me was rather then contemplatio (contemplation) which was the final move in Lectio Divina, Luther highlights we know God not in resting in his presence but in the trials and struggles of life in the World. This to me goes beyond personal application into public life as well, in that we have a greater understanding of who God is in our engagement with the “worldly” realities we face on a daily basis.

A richer knowledge of God is not only birthed in the Sanctuary of within the walls of the church physically and metaphorically, but beyond those walls where we get our hands dirty with the soil of human struggle and may I add suffering.

With all that in mind, as well as the struggle we find ourselves in relating to political realities in Malaysia between Romans 13 and Revelation 13, the study and meditation on the episode where Jesus was question on the paying of the Roman Imperial Tax was helpful for me. Here we have a text where we witness Jesus being “trapped” by the questioning and coming out with flying colors with the famous phrase, “"Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s."

Hearing the story in the wider context of Chapters 21 and 22 starting with the Messianic entrance into Jerusalem and the controversy due to overturning the tables at the temple with the strong rebuke on how could they turn the “House of prayer” into a den of thieves sheds much light in the environment where the words were uttered.  Let’s not forget Jesus cursing the fig tree and adding some disturbing parables as a bonus!

I see Jesus not so much of answering our questions on church and state first, that can be worked out later in due process.  What happens here is Jesus laying bare our hypocrisy in our tendency to “frame” our lives with polarities which imprison us and betray our allegiance to whatever and whoever is in power or has power over us.

I find myself being confronted first and foremost by Jesus in his questioning of ultimately who is it that is the ultimate Lord of the World where ALL things belong to him. And thus in the light of that, that is where we work out in details how one relates to the socio-political framework we are born into. And to take it further, the identity of this Lord and what he represents in terms of Justice, Mercy and Humility (to use a Micah 6:8 frame) is what needs to order the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts as we wrestle with the corruption, oppression and evils witness increasingly on a daily basis. Whether it’s personal evil or systemic evil, all of us need to face the rigors of this Christ-like questioning! Thus this struggle is a real one and a needed one for us to be faithful to the message of Christ applied for today!

That’s why Walter Altman’s diagram from his book Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective was helpful for me to go beyond the doctrine of two Kingdoms, to a broader framework which captures the vision and hope promised by God and his reign as well as the battle we face with all kinds of “idols” which what breeds death rather than life. His framework shows clearly how we are living and struggling in between this vision and reality, and it’s most insightful to see the place of the individual Christian, the church and even the state in this “tentatio” – trial and struggle we are confronted with. It’s pretty clear when we give our allegiance to the Christus victor where we should be headed!

Now with that reframing, we look at our Malaysian context with fresh eyes and new resource to discern how we may respond, and why do we respond in certain ways. I did not have much time to talk about non-violence but I do strongly feel that whenever we talk about struggles or battles  of any kind we need to add that into the mix of conversation and reflection on any form of social change and responsibility.

This post has grown longer than I expected. It’s a glimpse into some thoughts bubbling in my mind. Deeper reflection no doubt is required for more comprehensive understandings.  This is part and parcel of working things out, but Father O.C Lim’s reminder of the power of prayer and silent witnessing still haunts me and keeps me in check.  See you at the next candle light vigil .


About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
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