Monday, November 12, 2007

A Christian Social Vision for Nation-Building

By Dr Ng Kam Weng, Kairos Research Center

A Christian Philosophy for the Common Good

“The Church must exercise prophetic witness towards wider society and to government,” exclaimed the young man as he urged his friends to join a candlelight vigil in front of the High Court to express their concerns over a recent High Court judgment that was seen to be in conflict with fundamental liberties.

I can sense the earnestness of this young man and other young people like him who are willing to fight for social justice. They challenge the older generation not to remain indifferent out of cynicism towards authorities who enforce unjust policies that make life difficult for the common people. These two groups demonstrate two opposing tendencies among Christians on how to relate to wider society. Some Christians retreat into their spiritual ghetto so that authorities will leave them in peace. In effect, these Christians compromise their ideals of justice and end up supporting the status quo.

Other Christians exploit the gospel as a tool for social activism, if not as an ideological weapon, to condemn anyone who does not share their views for being de facto, on the side of the oppressors. It was not too long ago when some radical theologians reduced the saving work of Christ to mean nothing more than political liberation. In this case, anger and self-righteousness led to a distortion of the gospel. Given these competing approaches, the urgent question that Christians need to be answer is: in what way is the church to present a prophetic witness to authorities?

Sober realism should alert Christians to the tendency of the state to become an embodiment of the collective egoism of dominant tribes in a nation. Such states will not take kindly to any criticism from minority groups and idealistic social activists, especially when political contestation becomes intense. The state will certainly hit hard at social activists, agitating for political equality and social-economic justice, with its arsenal of police power that ranges from intimidation to arrests and imprisonment.

If Christian social engagement were merely one of following cues from wider society, albeit cues from recognised experts, it may be wondered why the church needs to get involved in the name of Christ. Furthermore, without sustenance from a deep Christian spirituality, it is doubtful if Christians can sustain a long-term witness in the face of threats and intimidation. As such, Christian social engagement needs a biblically-informed and well-thought out social vision that includes concrete benchmarks of social justice and democracy. Christian engagement that is based on informed moral convictions will persevere in the face of adversity.

One fundamental category that has helped Christians devise a comprehensive framework for political engagement is the concept of ‘Covenant’. Michael Walzer correctly captures the social character of the covenant: “The covenant, then, represented a social commitment to obey God’s law, based upon a presumed internal receptivity and consent. It was a self-imposed law, but the self-imposition was a social act and subject to social enforcement in God’s name” (Michael Walzer, The Revolution of The Saints, pp. 56-57).

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