On Sunday, Jan 20, the largest English daily, the Star, in its column, Cafe Latte Chat, brought together a group of Christian leaders and politicians comprising "Seputeh MP Teresa Kok, Subang Jaya assemblyman Datuk Lee Hwa Beng, Balakong assemblyman Datuk Hoh Hee Lee, secretary-general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) Malaysia Rev Wong Kim Kong, and Council of Churches Malaysia secretary-general Rev Dr Hermen Shastri to ponder on the issues that are of concern to the Christian community and how these will impact on the general election."
Several issues were covered in this interview: Christian perspective on the elections; politics from the pulpit; and Christians concerns and needs of churches.
After reading the entire interview, I personally find the article not only lacks substance despite the representation from different political parties and national church leaders (as correctly highlighted by Jack Said), it also exposes what seems to me some very fundamental erroneous understanding of the scriptures and Christian theology as expressed by one of the national leaders. This should be a matter of grave concern for the Christian community.
Of course, I must qualify that perhaps the entire conversation has been edited. Perhaps it does not fully reflect the position of all the participants. Perhaps there is the possibility that some of the conversations have been misquoted.
I must confess that I am appalled at some of the statements made by one of the national leaders, if all that were said are not misquoted by the press. Of course, I am not sure whether this leader was speaking in his personal capacity or as the representative and spokesperson of the organisation he is representing. If he was speaking as the voice of the churches the organisation is representing, then I have reasons to express my deep concern (providing that he is not misquoted by the press), and I am sure that my fellow theologians and biblical scholars within the Christian circles would agree with my observation.
Let me take, for example, some of the statements made in the article:
"Christians look for spiritual guidance as to what is God's plan for the nation."
"I think the Bible is very clear - the church has to be apolitical and not be involved in the political process directly."
"The church is a neutral institution."
"The church's main concern is spiritual rather than political."
"The separation between the state and religion is a very clear doctrine of Christians."
Of course, one needs to read the entire interview to understand the context out of which the above quotes are taken. But one could not help but to feel that based on the conversation by this national leader, the primary agenda of the church is merely "spiritual" and that our task as believers is to ensure that we get people into heaven, separate ourselves from the corrupted world, and the most that we could do for what is left on this earth is to passively pray about it.
But let me highlight some scripture texts from the NT (I will not touch on the OT as this is not an area that I am very familiar with) and I will only draw on two from the birth narrative of Jesus to make my point:
Song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55: "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me-- holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers."
The words of Simeon in Luke 2:34-35: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed."
Is this apolitical? Or is the birth narrative of Jesus simply a "spiritual" event?
It is not necessary for me to go into great length to address some of these issues as Jack Said has eloquently responded to the interview, and I have also examined in some depth elsewhere the issue on "Was Jesus Political? A New Testament Perspective" during the OHMSI Inaugural Dialogue.
What's left is for me to raise some further questions for us to reflect: Have we not forgotten that the term ekklesia (from which we obtain the English translation church) is in itself a political terminology in the first century world? Have we also missed out that Paul's use of the titles "Lord", "Son of God" and "Saviour" for Christ is in itself political, having borrowed these titles from Caesar? How would the first century Roman citizens would have felt when they hear the titles ascribed to Caesar now being borrowed by the early Christian communities in addressing Jesus Christ? Didn't Paul set his gospel of Christ and the new communities he founded in opposition to the Roman imperial order? Didn't we forget that the very word translated "gospel" in Greek is also used in the political sense?
The editor, Datuk Wong Chun Wai, ended the interview by commenting that "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." I wonder how can our voices and votes matter if all that we are concerned are to merely "look for spiritual guidance", "to be apolitical", to exist as "a neutral institution", and to make our "main concern...spiritual rather than political"? Can we be genuinely concerned for the poor, the marginalised and fight for social justice in our community but yet remain apolitical? Can we ever be the true ambassadors of Christ in bringing the ministry of reconciliation to our community through the power of the authentic message of the gospel and yet remain focused merely on the "spiritual agenda"? Can we ever live out the authentic message of the cross and to allow it to penetrate all aspects of our lives and yet as a community of believers we remain "a neutral institution"? If this is so, can we ever become the community of righteousness and the justice of God in effecting the powerful social transformation as embedded in the gospel proclaimed by Paul (cf. 2 Cor 5:21, remembering that the word translated "righteousness" in its original sense can mean both "righteousness" and "justice")? Can we ever be the salt and light Jesus commended us to be?
This is indeed the deep struggles and concerns of the budding NT scholar concerning the direction of the evangelical church in Malaysia, if what is represented above is true and not misquoted. At the same time I also share the frustrations of JackSaid. And I think YB Teresa Kok hits the nail on the head when she answered the question, "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."
O Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy...