Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Submission To Authorities?

As Christians, we are called to usher in God's Kingdom in all areas of life: work, arts, culture, family life, friendships and church.

Ong Kian Ming, a dear friend of ours at iBridge, has been directing his energies in the realm of politics.

Since meeting him in a small group for emerging leaders, I've been struck by his passion and focus in many areas: leading a young adults group; being an
aggressive fan for an English football club; crunching through business cases as a former financial whiz; and his compendious knowledge of food and language (he can
order any dish in any Chinese restaurant in any dialect).

But what shines through most is his calling as a Christian to the world of politics.

Read through the piece below carefully. Print it out. Think through his reasoning on Romans 13:1. May his ideas and the questions below challenge us to rethink
our role as Christians living in Malaysia.

Alvin Ung

Dave: Article was written many moons ago in 2003

Submission to authorities = Pliancy at all costs?
by Ong Kian Ming

A few months ago, the Ministry of Home Affairs banned the Iban Bible and several other Christian books. Many Christians in Malaysia strongly protested against this

Is it biblical for Christians to disagree with the governing authorities? Was this action by the Malaysian Christians going against the advice of Apostle Paul?

In his letter to the Christians living in the heart of Rome (the superpower of first century A.D.) Paul declared:

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Romans 13:1

I’ve always struggled in responding to the above passage. Does this mean that this passage gives carte blanche for the government to basically do anything it likes? Is there then no space left for us to disagree with some of the actions of the government which we find particularly objectionable?

The context of Romans 13 suggests that Paul’s advice to submit to governing authorities refers to paying taxes and other state regulations. These are policies
that function for the greater good of civilization (i.e. Rom’s Pax Romana policy). This is what he argues in verses 1-5. Why do we say that Paul is using this
principle to refer to paying taxes? In verse six, Paul says, “For the SAME reason you ALSO pay taxes, for the authorities are minister of God, attending to this
very thing.” Thus, Christians are to submit to rule of law that upholds justice, fairness, mercy -- be it paying taxes or stopping at traffic lights. This also
means that we are not to blindly submit, especially when the authorities are abusing justice, fairness, mercy.

(Alvin’s input: This reading of Romans 13 is suggested by Marva Dawn, a noted OT scholar, who came to Regent to teach just a few weeks ago)

My understanding of this passage has been influenced by my recent reading of the book of Acts. Here, we read of how Paul responded to the authorities when he
was arrested by them.

In Acts 21, a lynch mob in the temple in Jerusalem was in the process of beating Paul and would probably have killed him if not for the timely intervention of …
some Roman troops?

Despite all the faults of the Roman colonial power which included the persecution and repression of its colonies, it was the Roman system which protected Paul from the lynch mob and later, an assassination attempt. Despite the flawed judicial
system (Felix was trying to obtain a bribe from Paul and kept him in jail even though he felt that Paul was innocent), it still provided a way out for Paul, as a
Roman citizen, to appeal to the highest court in the land – the court of Caesar.

The lessons for these concluding chapters in the book of Acts help us understand this passage in Romans.

Here, Paul’s pointing out that in any system set up by any government, there would be at least a semblance of law, order and justice – even if there are flaws in
the system.

Having an authority in power is better than having anarchy and lawlessness. Hence, the baseline or default mode, would be for us to obey the law put in place by the authorities.

But we also need to examine this passage in the light of the modern political system which is very different from that which existed during Paul’s time. We in Malaysia are fortunate enough to be living in a democratic system (albeit a flawed one) where we have the power elect our leaders into office and to throw them out of office.

We elect our parliamentarians into the parliament to govern our nation and we elect our state assembly representatives to govern our states. There are check and balances in the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and the judiciary (theoretically, at least). These checks and balances are there to prevent excesses and the abuse of power by governments. All governments are guilty of these
excesses be it Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or the United States. It is the extent to which the checks and balances work which minimizes these excesses.

In a parliamentary democracy, we must also remember that the opposition is also part of the system of governance although not part of the ruling government. An effective opposition would act as a counterbalance to the ruling government on issues concerning the running of the country.

In a healthy democracy, the media or the press would also play its role as the Fourth Estate in revealing any excesses and keeping the three branches of government honest.

In a healthy democracy, there would be healthy channels for citizens to make their views known to the different branches of government.

Hence, in any parliamentary democracy, we would not be disobeying the authorities if we disagree with them on their stand on a certain issue, as long as we use legitimate channels to make our views known e.g. through our MPs (government or opposition), through the media, through citizen’s initiatives.

I would even go so far as to say that our ‘Caesar’ (the authority we ultimately appeal to in our system) would be the ideals of the Constitution and not the
ruling authorities. Governments may be able to change the constitution but they cannot carry out actions which are contrary to the constitution.

In comparison to many other developing countries (see Nigeria, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh), the Malaysian government which has been in place since independence has achieved much in bringing peace, prosperity and development to our country.

But there have also been injustices which have been perpetrated in our country usually in the name of national security. God reminds us that ultimately, He holds the scales of justice.

“The ruthless will vanish, the mockers will disappear,
and all who have an eye for evil will be cut down –
those who with a word make a man out to be guilty, who
ensnare the defender in court and with false testimony
deprive the innocent of justice” (Isaiah 29:20-21).

What’s the bottom-line?

We ARE being consistent with Romans 13 if we speak out against injustices that are being carried out with the complicity of the Authorities. That’s because we are asking for change through legitimate democratic channels.

The recent banning of the Iban bible is a case in point. The action was a clear contravention of the principle of freedom of religion as stated in Article
11 of the Federal Constitution. Hence, it would be legitimate for Malaysian Christians to voice their protests to the Minister of Home affairs over this ban.

Thankfully, this ban has since then been lifted. But if it had not, it would have been legitimate for Malaysian Christians to challenge this decision in court as we appeal to our ‘Caesar’, the Federal Constitution.

Ultimately, our obedience to the system may exact a high cost. If for example, in protesting legitimately against injustices, we are put in chains under the
ISA, we need to accept the consequences. That’s exactly what happened to Paul – who ended up being imprisoned by the Roman authorities.

Finally, some food for thought:

1) What are some issues of injustice that I see happening in my country, my state, my district and my neighborhood?

2) What are some consequences that may result if I stand up against the injustices that I see in my country and my neighborhood?

3) How has God equipped me with resources to rectify some of these injustices?

4) What’s the one thing I can do, here and now, to take a stand against the injustice that I see?

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