1000 apologies for the delay of the final installment. Domestic responsibilities, church ministry, and some extra clutter has slowed me down. But before the Chinese New year, and the next elections. I thought it’s best to wrap this conversation up for now. Thanks for persevering through the ride ๐ If you want to catch up a little … you can go back to Part I, Part II and Part III. All those in blue are added to the original interview…
Christian concerns and needs of churches
Chun Wai: The number of Christians has risen to around nine to 10% of the population, even larger than the Indians at about 6.3%. Why is the voice of Christianity more subdued than other religions?
Kim Kong: The church’s main concern is spiritual rather than political. Also, the church, as a whole, does not have a common political agenda to bind them together. I think the separation between the state and religion is a very clear doctrine of Christians.
Steven: It is a false dichotomy to differentiate between spiritual and political. Christian spirituality encompasses the material world and this includes politics. As I have mentioned, we have a very strong precedence in the ancient biblical prophets. And it was shown that Jesus himself saw that his ministry was not merely spiritual in our popular understanding but had a tangible social agenda. Thus to say that being spiritual is one thing and being political is another is a huge fallacy, albeit one which has plagued certain sections of the church for centuries.
Raj: True Christian spirituality must involve how we live our whole lives. We cannot differentiate between being more concerned with spiritual matters verses political. Our political involvement can be an outcome of, and an expression of our spirituality.
Sivin: I prefer to say that the church’s main concern is for the good of the world, and especially for people – whom may be seen as the least, the last and the lost. Least in the eyes of society, last to be given needed attention, and lost in terms of life direction and overall purpose of existence. And since the church connects this with God’s agenda for the world, thus the spiritual dimension transcends our limited human vision, an integrated and holistic perspective is still in touch with human life and suffering which has both personal and public implications. So, here again we run full cycle in this conversation and cannot run away from dealing with politics. The church cannot be driven by political agendas outside of herself, but the church cannot ignore decisions made by politicians affecting the environment all people live in. So, there is a kind of critical and yet creative engagement with the public sphere – perhaps more directly in partnership with civil society, and indirectly and cautiously with the government and even political parties when necessary. This may take a more institutional form like the Christian Federation Malaysia as an important voice to public discourse, or the encouragement of individuals who are already engaged in various spheres of influence.
Hermen: I think we have to complement that with the reality of the Catholic church which has a strong presence and has always made its position known. If you read their Herald (the Catholic newsletter), it is different from the other Christian newsletters as they raise issues like pro-life, migrant workers and a host of other things, which are part of their agenda.
Bob: Notwithstanding what Rev. Wong said, I disagree that the church’s main concern is merely spiritual. This is as much a fallacy as saying the church’s main concern is merely social. The gospel as I understand it has a unified message that is multi-dimensional one that proclaims Jesus as the Saviour who died for sinners and was raised to rule as Lord at God’s right hand. It also proclaims Shalom (peace) and the reconciliation of mankind both to God and to one another.
Jesus’ ministry targeted a generation of people who had various Messianic hopes and expectations of salvation and his preaching concentrated all these into one central theme the entrance of the “kingdom of God” into human history. The source and hope for this message is in the restoration of all things; both spiritual and physical; under the Lordship of Christ. This work of reconciliation and restoration starts with the church and is a foreshadow of the fullness of things to come.
We see this also in how the disciple were taught to pray rather than being called to despise this world and look longingly for redemption in the thereafter, they are to pray for the arrival of the kingdom of God and the establishment of God’s will both on earth as it is in heaven. Spiritual things are sought, not as other-worldly contemplations, but as necessities for earthly existence.
The gospel of Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”.
I don’t see how this can be consistent with the contention that the church’s main concern is spiritual.
Sivin: Many people see the word “spiritual” as an other worldly posture, which critics scorn as of no earthly use. Like the word “politics:”, we need to take a richer meaning of spiritual encompassing all of life rather than becoming a compartmentalized faith which is often seen as avoiding the hard questions raised in our socio-cultural-political climate.
Chun Wai: Let’s talk about the needs of the Christians, what they would like to see done, and what is being done.
Lee: Freedom of religious practice is always paramount. Number two, places of worship have always been an issue. Under our existing guidelines, when we approve any project, we have to allocate places for mosques and suraus. Two years ago, the Cabinet came up with a decision that any project more than 50 acres must provide places of worship for non-Muslims as well. It is a good step but some go round this directive by proposing less than 50 acres, so the ruling is not effective in this aspect.
Hoh: Youths today are facing a lot of problems. If we Christians can step up and solve this problem and help society, this is good. As for education, we can see the Chinese are very concerned about education. Christians can also be involved in raising funds, providing scholarships. These are some of the things we can do.
Kok: The concern is the missionary schools. When crosses are taken down, for instance, this has become an issue; also, the Bahasa Malaysia documents and bibles. When I attend campus student gatherings, their prayers and songs are all in Bahasa Malaysia. When the Government interferes so much over the language issue, it creates some kind of unhappiness in the Christian community.
Why are not many Christians involved in politics? I think we have many good quality, educated Christians but they are involved in evangelical activities. They think it’s godlier. Also because of their background, they are more educated, upper middle-class people, they don’t want to dirty their hands because getting involved in politics also means getting your name tarnished, and your hands dirtied. There are also Christians who ask me to leave politics and get involved in more spiritual work.
Sivin: I think what you do Teresa as a Christian in politics to be equally spiritual with what I do as a pastor. Christians need to move away from the superior-inferior view of vocation and one’s calling. Of course, there are those who see church work as inferior even though they pay lip service and say it’s spiritual. Each occupation has its hazards ๐ and I suppose not everyone is cut out to be a politician or pastor. But someone has got to get the job done!
I think the role of the church is to provide pastoral and spiritual support and guidance for those involved in politics (rather than spending energy asking them to get out!). This would apply to those in the corporate sector, civil society, charity work, as well as church work.
Bob: This is a question that you can ask a dozen Christians and get a dozen different answers. Each of us have our own unique expectations and wants. Personally I’d like to see us transform our wants into what we see our neighbour needs. This, in my opinion, would be consistent to the Golden Rule of doing unto others what I would have them do to me and the commandment to love our neighbours as ouselves.
There is a community element in Christianity that needs to be re-emphasised. There is a call to seek the common good; sometimes through our impact on the lives of individuals. In my opinion, one of the tools that can bring about this common good is in the respect and upholding of the rights of people; whether its civil and political rights; or economic, cultural and social rights. These rights were not formulated by a few people sitting in cloistered halls over a few days but represent the collective noble values of humanity throughout history and it would encompass all the concerns mentioned above; and many more which are left unmentioned in this interview; all of which would be legitimate concerns of Christians.
Chun Wai: Dr Hermen, in all these issues that have cropped up, when you speak to the leadership and dialogue with the Prime Minister, they are very fair. The problem starts at the lower level, when one or two officers start to implement rules that make the cases complicated
Hermen: I think the only way to get through to this, when the down line becomes problematic, is to deal with the issue as an issue, not as a religious one. They would want to make every issue religious, that’s their problem.
For example, the case of the confiscation of books at MPH. These are Christian books in English with pictures of Moses, Noah and all that. This one unit within Internal Security says you cannot show a picture of Moses because it is sensitive to Islam. This is not an Islamic book. I would like to appeal to the Prime Minister to look into this matter.
Chun Wai: Do you agree that when these bureaucrats start imposing these rules according to their religious interpretation, it shows the politicians in power are actually affected?
Steven: The failure to coordinate their subordinate shows the failure of good governance on the part of the senior officials and up to the Ministers and Prime Ministers. We cannot keep hitching on bureaucratic problems, it all boils down to effective leadership from top-down.
Hermen: Yes, correct.
Kok: I think the Prime Minister should interfere. He has the Islamic credentials and he is a moderate Muslim. He needs to speak up.
Bob: As mentioned by Dr Hermen Shastri, these aren’t a religious issue. However, many problems in Malaysia end up being ethnic or religious issues, primarily because we fail to acknowledge and take a rights based approach to matters. A rights based approach would help pare down a lot of these issues into matters of common concern and help remove the more thorny partisan and communal elements from the issue.
Unfortunately, generally speaking, incumbents in power tend to view such an approach with less enthusiasm because it curtails their liberty to take advantage of their positions and manipulate circumstances and issues. And in our context, it would seem that the continued segmentation of issues along narrow communal and religious lines acts to the incumbents’ advantage. I don’t see any change in attitudes forthcoming in the near future.
Chun Wai: In conclusion, the Christians make up a substantial chunk of votes in the elections and these are issues of concern to them. In the battle for hearts and minds, their voices and their votes certainly matter.
Sivin: Here’s a little after word following Chun Wai’s conclusion, many thanks to the invisible blue gang – Bob Kee, Steven Sim and Pastor Raj for joining me in this creative non-fiction exercise. There’s is an obvious lack of women’s voices in our conversation. Let’s not forget the East Malaysian input as well. I see the obvious lack of representation of other communities even in this creative non-fiction effort. This is partially descriptive of my immediate contacts, as well as the speed in which we wanted to get some views out. Conversations like this should be never signify an end to the discussion, it needs to be a starting point to hear more voices (the comments has been open for others to chip in).
Taking it one step further, our hope is that this does not just become a stimulating and energizing conversation, but all who eavesdrop on the conversations and insights would be lead to some form of proactive positive action – from the most grass root level of voting with discernment, to learning how to voice not only our concerns as Christians, but the concerns of every person residing in Malaysia. Finally, it’s more than about making noise … it’s about making a difference. And making a difference involves personal commitment and the synergy of working together. We have had some wonderful and diverse models in the Christian heritage mentioned earlier like Mother Theresa, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., etc, to guide our way forward. Perhaps now we can write history for the future of our children and become the change we would like to see happen for a better tomorrow.