Constructing a People’s Theology

Merdeka 2007 the people

My friend Alwyn Lau is always faster than I can when it comes to blogging about events we’re part of.  Perhaps it’s while I’m recovering and recuperating from the event, he has new energy to reflect and write about it.  Below is how he recaptures the Merdeka 2007 event by RoH Malaysia last Sunday afternoon.

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Constructing a People’s Theology

It was a tiring Sunday afternoon. But Jojo, Sherman, Tricia, Veronica and Sivin gave the twenty or so of us folks more than a few things to ponder on at the first R.O.H. gathering, Merdeka 2007.

One theme which resounded strongly throughout was the reign of God as a world/other-redeeming project cum phenomenon which the church has unwittingly turned ‘on its head’ into a post-world/self-focused endeavor. A’la Sivin, the church is the sign and instrument of the kingdom of God i.e. the societal/communal expression and implementation of the fact that God so loved the world that He so gave Himself for it.

When the world is the mission, as a methodological start-point, therefore, the world’s unchallenged diversity of contexts and disciplines must find its way into our theologising. Hence, ROH’s emphasis on drawing upon the social sciences as dialogue partners with theology (the spiritual science?). The people’s disciplines is a key ingredient in constructing a theology for the people, with the people, by the people.

Sherman also made it clear that he did not believe there was any right or wrong way to do (this kind of?) theology. What he probably meant was that it wouldn’t help to limit theologising to only one absolute right way, as he did point out a wrong way: a theology without imagination (a fascinating area to look further into, surely).

God made and loved the world. We are called to impart true humanity to this world, fallen and craving to be all that it could’ve been. This impartation is one done via listening, discerning, understanding, imagining(?!), recognising and embracing all that God has already done in every culture and people-group.

For example, Sherman shared about his Muslim friend many years back who stopped his daily prayer to answer his mother’s call. When Sherman asked why he did that, the reply was that his faith taught that syurga di telapak kaki ibu (heaven is at mother’s feet), an eye-opening albeit not uncontroversial Hadith. The point is that God has not left Himself without witness (Acts 14:17), not least in traditional folk wisdom and religion, and the act of discernment must learn to reap such glorious – if quiet – nuggets of His truth.

To use an awkward but obvious analogy, God has lazed the targets – are we locking on? A people’s theology is a contextual theology done from the ground up, beginning with experience, using all available resources by and/or with those who’s sweat and tears have fallen on it.

Perhaps this is the intellectual component of a willingness to suffer for a particular community. And presumably only a suffering theology can be prophetic one?

Where there are people there are politics. Sunday’s session had a huge plus-point over against the recent one in October, where one (and unfortunately only one) message was clear i.e. that Christians should get involved. Tricia supplied the how. Her helpful clarification of the issues in Malaysian socio-politics served to more clearly conceptualise the players, the problems and the possible steps we could take (including the nurture of an active civil society – surely we’ll be hearing more in days to come).  (I’ll hotlink the slides once I get it).

It’s worth repeating Tricia’s remarks that, in response to the political situation:

  • only a tenth of Malaysians would opt to march and protest (peacefully, I hope)

  • another third would leave the country;

  • the remaining 60% would do nothing, content in the bosom of government

These rough statistics belie the goal of keeping government in fear of the people instead of vice-versa (borrowing some detail from V For Vendetta)

I wonder, though, about people who are far from feeling content at their life’s lot, but can neither raise their fist against the country nor flee it . They can only hope.

Which brings us to what must be a ROH distinctive (over again other theologically reflective movements in Malaysia): a heart for the marginalised and voiceless communities, the poorest of the poor. I reckon no ROH session would be complete (or should be) without some light shed on the status of these people.

A sample of their stories was brought out by Veronica, whose jouney, from rags-to-riches to enriching-the-ragged, was the sober highlight of the afternoon: Women in their 50s’ protecting grandchildren from their abusive parents; 14-year-olds’ heading their parentless families; boys seeking out abandoned (and not entirely abandoned) objects for sale; women etching out a living in the midst of mother- and widow-hood. Veronica herself lived through a time and place of bread lines and poverty which included low-rent accomodation in a haunted house.

According to Jojo, these are telltale signs that Malaysians and the Church have largely abandoned the social contract. By this he meant more or less two things, in the context of Malaysia:

  1. We must ensure that all people-groups in the country are afforded equal access to the basic necessities of life and the means of improving life i.e. education, technology, etc. Therefore…

  2. We must uphold the sacredness of the Federal Constitution (or else, says Jojo, we really should be Singaporean instead)

And why must we? Because, to put a covenantal spin on the whole thing, this is God’s arrangement for our country.

A people’s theology is a covenantal theology, one which calls us to be faithful to the deal we’ve been graciously given or the story we’re part of. This (Gospel) story, when told and lived and shared, is the vehicle of God’s restoration of our personhood.

Embodying change and sharing God’s tender and aggressively compassionate life is a crucial step in changing mindsets – this is trumpet call of ROH, which seeks to help people realise their true humanity. For isn’t the virtue which never dies also the same one which always guards the needs of others? (1 Cor 13:7-8)

A people’s theology, alas, is also a protective theology of the watchful love of God.

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About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
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