Wednesday, 23 January 2008

The Church has to be Apolitical?

It is not very usual that when a local newspaper published an article on the Christian perspective on certain political and social issues affecting the nation, it would repeatedly cause me to go "huh?"

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...


Jack Said said...

Not to forget the word metanoia was used by Josephus to call for the surrendering of a brigand against the Roman empire.

Today we hear metanoia/repentance as a call to turn away from private sin into a personal piety to god, I call that closet relationship.

I am sure it meant this, a turn away from sin towards god but how we make the powerful call of metanoia, of letting go of one's agenda to trust in god's into a little more than change of religion.

How many times the Church chose to the be taken in by "tranquilizing drug of gradualism" (Luther King Jr). How we forget the powerful picture of Rev. Luther King Jr., of Ps. Bonhoeffer, of Dr. Abraham Kuyper who each in their own time donned not only their collar but also assumed the responsiblity to bring about real political transformation to their society.

I say it's time Pastors and Priests go down the street like their Burmese buddhist counterpart. Not even to be anti-government, but to demonstrate with unmistakeable deeds the Church's bias for justice and righteousness.


Sze Zeng said...

Hi KY,

You got it right. The word 'Lord', 'Son of God', 'Saviour' etc were used with much political tone.

I just dont get it how does displaying a big signage "Jesus Is Lord!" bear any contemporary significance to passer-by. Once I suggested that we should change it to "Jesus Is Prime Minister!" or "Jesus Is President!" or something like that. That will really hit people in our time with the gospel message, though the political scene has changed (we have constitution rather than emperor..but the message still as relevant).

And I think if the representative was not misquoted or his speech was not edited, then I think he should be replaced because he has failed to represent the voice that he ought to represent.


Kar Yong said...

Hi Jack,

I concur with you on your observations on reading "repentance" in a complete spiritual sense in our Christian church has, to a certain extent, distorted the true picture particularly presented by Paul.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Joshua,

I agree with you on the contexualised use of "Jesus is President" or "Jesus is Prime Minister." That would be provocative today, and surely it does not sound "apolitical" or merely "spiritual."

I am giving the representative the benefit of doubt in the event that his statements are misquoted or edited. I have written to him seeking his clarification. Let's wait for his response.

Perng Shyang said...

I remembered that during the Bersih and Hindraf demostration, I encouraged a friend to create awakeness among the Christian community where he involved in by having discussion with them and etc.

The answer I received sounded this,"Shouldn't we talk politic in the church, should we?"

Thanks for the reflection. I'll create a link from my blog to here.

Kar Yong said...

Thanks, Perng Shyang. Looks like we have lots of work to do in educating the people in the church.

Paul said...

Please post Kim Kong's response (when you get it) to your query.

Personally I think NECF stance leans heavily towards pro-government rather than a-political.

Kar Yong said...

Hi paul,

If what you say if true, that NECF seems to be pro-government, does this mean that NECF is therefore partisan?

I wonder if DAP or PAS or PKR approaches NECF for a dialogue, would it be welcome, like the welcome given to MCA?

keropok lekor said...


Undilah Yesus Kristus.

At a nationally televised press conference, He explains His position. Political analysts puzzle over his statement, "My campaign for change transcends the realm of human politics" (John 18:36). In His typically enigmatic style (Matthew 13:34-35), He implies that His present whirlwind of public appearances will soon be over but that, at a future time, He will again rise to political prominence. He then associates His destiny with a gripping story about a world leader's extended trip to a distant destination to prepare for the future office He will accept (Luke 19:11-27).

Raffi Shahinian said...


Outstanding post. There is so much more to say about it, I don't know where to start. How about the entirety of Romans 1. How about Paul getting into so much trouble for declaring that there is another king, namely Jesus. Like I said, I'm not sure how anyone can read the NT and conclude that the followers of Jesus must stay apolitical.

I've also tackled the issue of how/whether the Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to the issue of politics, but from a slightly different angle. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian

sp lim said...

I'm a bit late here. Not sure whether to leave a comment since I've left one in Jack's blog. Anyway, this is my observation. There are 3 possibilities not unlike like C.S. Lewis' trilemma

i) He (Rev. Wong) didn't know the difference between apolitical and non partisan. If this is true, it's rather alarming for a Christian leader of his stature.

ii) He was misquoted. This is not the first time (re: Donation to RELA). Misquoted so many times by the press. Hmm, not unlike most politicians

iii) He really meant what he said and he was aware of the meaning of 'apolitical'. If this is true, then I'll be surrendering my Associate membership of NECF after more than 15 years.

I know you have emailed him to seek clarification. Let's await his response.

Whatever his response, I wonder which version of the Bible he is using since he said the Bible is very clear on these issues, I suspect the NIV (Non Inspired Version). No offence to those using the NIV ha ha ha. But I would recommend the ESV (Extremely Solid Version)which is an improvement over the RSV (Really Solid Version)

Kar Yong said...

Thanks Keropok lekor, for the link.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Raffi,
Thanks for dropping by. Will take a look at your thoughts.

Kar Yong said...

Hi SP,
Thanks for your comments. I have received a response from Rev Wong, and will seek his permission before I post his reply to the blog - he may or may not be aware of our conversations in the blog.

What I can say at the moment is that if the trend of some within the evangelical circles in holding on to anti-intellectual and anti-theological education and discourse continues to be prevalent, then I would say that the future of the evangelical church in Malaysia is rather bleak indeed. Perhaps this explains why I am still unrepentant of not wanting to join NECF as an associate member.

Rev. Sivin said...

the creative non-fiction is on .. part one. Nothing fancy or scholarly ...