Monday, April 23, 2012

The Pulpit And Politics (Part 1)

The Bible and the Ballot is a collection of articles produced by a group of Christians who are concerned with Christian political engagement in Malaysia today. They come from various church traditions who share connection with Friends in Conversation network. It was premised on the Lordship of Christ over all of life and sought to encourage other believers to think of their role as responsible citizens. In the following review, I will pick up some key themes and proceed to comment on selected articles.

The first contributor, Alwyn Lau, examined if the pastors could tell people how to vote from the pulpit and gave a clear answer: “Yes”! The argument is buttressed by references to biblical prophets and apostles who openly challenged corrupt kings and religious leaders of their day. Did Jesus pull punches in his confrontation against the Pharisees and Sadducees?

At least one reader/preacher expressed this concern, “Wouldn’t the pastor’s sermons, then, reek of partisanship when he takes side for a particular political party or candidate? What about separation of church and state?”

No, Alwyn argued, because a church becomes partisan only when she blindly swallows the rhetoric of a political party “lock, stock and ballot” without being a discerning critic of its faults also. After all, a church council could recommend to purchase its audio equipments from a particular brand (let’s say, Yamaha) without being accused of playing ‘favorites’, could it not?

As much as I welcome his concluding remarks about the centrality of the cross in our political engagement (“to serve and suffer for the community”), it seems that this “Yamaha sound-system” argument committed the fallacy of a ‘weak analogy’. A more representative analogy would sound like this: “Should a preacher recommend  from the pulpit that church-goers purchase Panasonic air-conditioners because its greener technology is more in line with a creation-caring trajectory of the Bible?”

Then it becomes more apparent why many pastors would be hesitant to countenance the possibility of the pulpit being hijacked for profiteering or politicking agenda. When they preach the Word, they are supposed to speak as representatives of the Almighty.

Perhaps a more fruitful and concrete question to explore is, “When, if ever, is it appropriate for pastors to make such recommendations from the pulpit?”

It would appear that such unusual homiletic ventures are conceivable to the degree that
-         the facts are beyond reasonable doubt that Panasonic/Pakatan Rakyat are “far better”
-         in unusual circumstances where failing to do so causes significant harm to others (i.e. all other brands emit disastrous ozone-depleting chemicals or BN is guilty of some heinous crimes against humanity)

Even granting that a government agency is guilty of detaining people without trial, it is not always clear whether the best course of action is to preach up a mandate for the Opposition. Could it be a vote recommendation against the Home Minister instead of the entire political platform? Or would a press statement or candlelight vigil on this particular issue be more effective compared to a pulpit message? How did you respond when evangelical pastors publicly endorsed George Bush Jr. for President of America because of his stance on abortion?

Such Brian-McLaren-esque questions throw up the ambiguity and diversity inherent in such daunting, complex socio-political issues. As Christian leaders, we should not shy away from our responsibility to be engaged at various levels. But it does caution us to humility and not to be too quick to take sides from the pulpit.

Recently, I heard desas-desus of a local church that is blessed (or cursed?) with two pious believers from across the political divide facing off with each other. It may not be the most pastoral approach to endorse one candidate and not the other. However, I believe it is appropriate for the pastor to discuss pertinent issues that affect the community and explain his personal affiliations on that basis. In fact, Pastor Soo Inn did precisely that in his article entitled “Vote for Change: My Decision at this point in History”. In that capacity as a concerned citizen, the Christian leader could still engage meaningfully with such public issues without risking the tarnish of partisanship for the Church. 

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