Sunday, July 28, 2013

Here In My Home: The Role Of Church And Civil Society in Nation Building

Sermon audio may be downloaded here 

In 2008, a group of Malaysian artists - filmmakers, dancers, singers, musicians, producers got together to produce an anti-racism national unity music video. Nobody would be paid. Nobody was threatened with a knife. Only because they love Malaysia. It’s a gift to the nation, from those who love this beautiful country to those who feel the same… I first shared this song in church for a Merdeka Day sermon in 2008. It’s still as inspiring and relevant after these five long years… And I think it sets the tone well for how we can approach the topic today: The Church and Civil Society in Nation Building.

Do you find that meaningful? The song was written by Pete Teo and directed by Yasmin Ahmad and Ho Yuhang. You can’t help but feel a sense of loss thinking how much we need people like Yasmin Ahmad and her vision of an inclusive Malaysia.

Merdeka Day is just a month away. Where are we going, as a nation? Where is Malaysia now after the 13th general election? Barisan Nasional is still in power with a comfortable majority of seats even though it lost the popular votes. “Ini Kali-lah” turns out to be “Lain kali-lah”. BN is unable to regain its super 2/3 majority, but it took back Perak and Kedah states. There is a continuing crisis of confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. Pakatan Rakyat has filed a lawsuit against the Election Commission in a bid to annul the election results. Many people that I know feel a sense of disappointment, disillusionment, anger with the results. Once upon a time, there was a dream where Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazan, Melanau and various ethnic groups grow up happily together, we smile and hug each other like in those heart warming Petronas Hari Raya advertisements, we eat together in the school canteen and not inside smelly toilets. That is the narrative, the storyline that we have been brought up with.

But looking at the depressing headlines these days, you really wonder if it’s all just a myth: Allegations of non Muslim students having to eat in a changing room during fasting month and non-Malay doctors refusing to treat Malay patients. Alvivi’s idiotic stunt on Facebook received swift action (they were charged for insulting Islam and denied bail) but the Perkasa f’lers walk free as a bird. No action was taken even though Zulkifli Noordin had earlier insulted the Hindu faith and Ibrahim Ali called for the burning of Bibles with the word “Allah”. While we reject insults to any religion, the government needs to show that it works without fear or favor in acting against all those who do so. And we have to be concerned at the level of polarization in our society today. We need to actively pursue this elusive thing called “national reconciliation”. 

Because when the rakyat couldn’t care less or passive or silent or “tidak-apa”, that’s the perfect condition for injustice. Tyranny of the majority can very easily happen in a democracy. 

If you hang around CDPC for long enough, you’d realize that this kind of topic like cultural engagement is something we try to be intentional about… to nurture a kind of spirituality that is grounded in the real world where we live, work and play. Just this year alone, Michael/Tom have preached on Engaging Culture (how God has given us the cultural mandate to rule over creation as responsible stewards, transforming the world instead of isolating from the world or conforming to the world), Meng has also preached on Christian engagement in politics leading up to the general election, and Eugene has encouraged us to be culture makers (how everyone is called to bring the gospel story of creation/fall/redemption/hope to bear on every area of life, wherever we are). They have laid a solid biblical foundation that we can build upon, so I’d try to apply that to our Malaysian context. Nation building is a complex issue that requires much praying, thinking, doing and feeling. I hope our reflections today may point towards some ways in which we as a church can be a blessing to the country.

Let me begin with a hot cili padi question: What kind of nation are we building, anyway? Who are we, really? What is our national identity? More specifically, is Malaysia an Islamic state or a secular state?

During election campaigns, both PAS and UMNO would try to appeal to Malay Muslim voters by out-Islamizing each other. PAS promises to implement shariah laws and hudud laws when in power, and Umno steals their thunder: “Excuse me. But we are already an Islamic state, lar”. Prime Minister Najib Razak once said: “We have never been secular because being secular by Western definition means separation of the Islamic principles in the way we govern a country… But we have never abdicated from those principles. Malaysia have been always been driven by, and adhere to the fundamentals of Islam”.

Ambiga Sreenevasan who was the Bar Council president then represents the other view: "No, Malaysia is a secular state, not an Islamic state. The law is clear about this whereby the supreme court in a 1998 case stated clearly: we are a secular state and the civil court administers secular law. Certainly, Islam receives special treatment in the Federal Constitution but that does not mean Malaysia is an Islamic state…”

Is it possible to find a way beyond this deadlock? Imagine you find two entrenched people arguing past each other and refusing to budge an inch. It’s always risky when you try to be nuanced and say, “I see what you mean but have you thought about this concern that she brought up?” You are likely to be shot at from both sides. But Jesus says blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called sons of God. Our role is to break down barriers, tear down walls and build bridges even if it means bearing the cross, isn’t it? What can Christians contribute to this conversation?

I believe Christians are in a strategic position to bridge this divide. Because we can better understand that for Muslims, Islam is a comprehensive way of life that speaks to every aspect of human life (from how they eat, how they dress, how they worship and pray, and how laws govern a country, its legal and banking system). For Christians, the gospel is about God’s grace reconciling humanity through Christ’s sacrifice for our sins instead of just a set of rules and regulations. A transformed heart is needed first before obedience to the law is possible. But the gospel also has a social dimension in that God’s rule has now begun to renew and transform every area of our lives. So we pray: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. It’s for all of life. If you ask Muslims to leave out their faith from public life totally, you will hit a wall. I think Christians can see a valid concern here where secular-minded folks just don’t get it.

We can also appreciate that secularism as an ideology can be extremely oppressive as well because it insists religious ‘values’ be kept at home while public policies are shaped by value-neutral ‘facts’. This can be seen in Marxist countries during the time of MaoTse Tung, Stalin and Pol Pot where people try to create a paradise without God. And the result is not exactly what John Lennon would imagine when he sings of a world of peace and brotherhood without religion. When people push away God, they always find a substitute god in an idol, a dictator hero, an –ism that is as oppressive, if not more oppressive than any cult.

 The fact is: every moral decision you make in public policies (whether it is on corruption, divorce, environmental conservation, same sex marriage, education) is influenced by your assumptions about what is ultimately real, what is human nature, what is right/wrong, your worldview. So when the secularist asks us to “check out your faith at the door before discussing public issues”, he’s actually taking a very narrow, hostile approach that “You must adopt my worldview before I allow you to talk”. That’s quite dogmatic, is it? Isn’t it more open minded and inclusive to hear and discuss views from various beliefs, bring them to the table and evaluate, critique them in open dialogue instead? It doesn’t matter if they come from secular or religious assumptions… 

So on one hand, we can see why our Muslim friends insist that Malaysia is not a ‘secular’ state in that ideological sense. It may be surprising to some of us how much common ground and bridge building can happen here.

But on the other hand, we can also understand deeply that the state must respect the multiracial, multi religious nature of Malaysian society. We are a pluralistic nation and that’s a rich diversity to be celebrated. If we impose laws to force minority groups to conform to another religion it will only violate their rights to believe and practice their own beliefs. In an Islamic state, Muslims may enjoy full legal status under Shariah law but non-Muslims are seen as ‘dhimmis’ – they are excluded from full participation in the legal system and public policy. Would it not amount to a form of religious segregation? Second class citizens? 

Ambiga is right that the supreme law of Malaysia is the Federal Constitution that says: “Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” During the formation of Malaysia the original framers of this document assured the Sabahans and Sarawakians that this clause “does not imply that Malaysia is not a secular state.” Put positively, Malaysia is therefore a secular state.

But that doesn’t mean that the state is hostile to religious faiths. It simply means that the state respects the integrity and equality of diverse religions. The government deals with temporal matters (such as education, fighting crime, economic policies) instead of making itself the supreme authority in religious matters. For example, the state is simply not competent to tell others how the Alkitab should be translated in Bahasa Malaysia. Separation of church/state or separation of mosque/state just means that politicians should not be allowed to exploit religion for selfish gains. So institutions like the church/mosque can be independent from state control. They can hold the state accountable to a higher moral authority. Instead of undermining Islam, a secular state in this sense actually lifts up the dignity of the mosque from being manipulated by self serving politicians. So it is not true that a secular state is inherently anti-religion.

The world is eagerly looking for examples of how a Muslim majority country can function with democracy and diversity. Whether you are Muslim, secularist or Christian, the challenge is for each one to bring resources from his or her respective beliefs to address practical issues, how to build an inclusive and just city. But what alternative vision of Malaysia could Christians work for? How can the gospel enter into this story line and bring some sort of resolution to its tensions? 

Dr Ng Kam Weng, a scholar at Kairos Research Center, suggests that we move away from the predictable, emotional reactions in the ‘either Islamic or secular state’ debate and focus instead on strengthening a pluralist democracy as a positive agenda. A pluralist democracy seeks to build a platform to resolve differences among the rakyat so that consensus is built from grass root interaction rather than imposed from the top. A pluralist democracy does not favor a particular religion to the extent that it discriminates against other religions. It does not require you to give up your faith or secular beliefs in order to join in the conversation.

Kam Weng draws on the biblical theme of a covenant as a framework for nation building: Throughout the Bible, God deals with humanity through covenants - he commits himself into relationship with them, binds himself/His people to obligations and responsibilities, blessings and punishments. It is not a uniquely Christian concept because the prophet of Islam made covenants with Jews and Christians during his time too.

A covenant is a moral agreement based on voluntary consent (it's not being forced on you). A covenant is established by mutual loyalty and promise keeping (rather than a concept of ketuanan/master-slave relationship). A covenant is witnessed by some transcendent higher authority between peoples having equal status/mutual respect, with obligation and responsibilities. So it balances freedom with social order, allows diversity in unity. It is realistic about human weakness in dealing with power.
Reinhold Niebuhr said: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Because we are all made in the image of God, blessed with common grace, we expect to see a lot of goodness, wisdom and integrity in our fellow Malaysians who do not share our faith. I have a lot of admiration and respect for the leadership, wisdom and courage of people like Marina Mahathir, Zainah Anwar, Farish Noor, Ambiga, Rafizi, Nurrul Izzah, Lim Teck Ghee and others that make it possible for democracy to function. If everyone is hopelessly greedy and easily bribed by promises of “you help me, I help you”, then there is no hope for democracy. 
But at the same time, man is inclined to injustice… he is fallen and power corrupts him just like the ring of Sauron can corrupt even the innocence of Frodo or a well-meaning Gandalf. So democracy is necessary because we cannot put absolute power into any person or group’s hands. C.S. Lewis says: “I support democracy because I believe in the Fall of Man… Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellow men”. Because God is Trinitarian, relational and love at the core of His being, we are not interested in creating any “Christian” state that imposes our will upon everyone else. You cannot trust me with absolute power because I am also a fallen sinner and I will turn into an ugly, twisted Gollum if you do.
So we do not want to build a state that is all-powerful and sets itself up as god. Instead, the state must see itself as only one institution among many players in wider society. Its authority is limited in scope. Churchill: Democracy is the worst kind of government except that it’s better than all the other systems.
How could the church then be publicly relevant without being coercive?

Which also brings us to the question: What is Civil Society? Perhaps the simplest way is to see civil society as a "third player" distinct from government and profit making business (the market). Civil society refers to "intermediary institutions" such as professional associations (Bar Council for lawyers), religious groups (the church/mosque/temple), labor unions (MTUC), citizen advocacy organizations (BERSIH, SUHAKAM, SUARAM) and interest groups (WWF, Himpunan Hijau, Dong Zhong, Perkasa) that give voice to various segments in society. These groups enrich public participation in a democracy. Volunteering is often considered a defining characteristic of civil society, which in turn are often called Non Government Organizations, or Non Profit Organizations.

This definition is helpful but there are always grey areas. For example, the news media is called the fourth branch of government (judiciary, legislative (Parliament), executive (The Cabinet – Prime Minister and all the ministers). If not for the online media raising a public uproar over the recent amendment to allow one parent to convert their minor children to Islam, nobody would have known about it. But because people spoke up, the amendment was pulled back for now. So a free and independent press is a crucial element in civil society. But most newspapers and TV stations including Malaysiakini are run as profit-making organizations, so are they part of civil society or part of the commercial world? Anyway, the definition gives us some helpful idea on what civil society is.

Perhaps by your work, education, calling or industry experiences, you can see that you gravitate to one of these areas already. That’s why we have Faith and Work conversations every Sunday, so we can pray for, challenge, equip and send out people to be salt and light in the different corners of our world.

Abraham Kuyper is a well known Dutch reformed pastor, artist, journalist, founder of the Free University of Amsterdam and Prime minister. I don’t know how he does it, but his life demonstrates that the lordship of Christ covers every area of human existence. He also argues that there are different spheres in society such as business, schools, family and church that should have its own freedom and sovereignty. They are all related to one another and build up each other. And the state should not encroach upon their independence. Civil society represents different voices and stakeholders in building a healthy democracy. And the church needs to get in there, and be a part of that.    

How can we contribute to nation building? What can the church do to strengthen civil society?
Even though the church is a small minority, we can make a difference by focusing our effort on a few key strategic things like

Caring for the poor regardless of race and build greater respect and trust among different groups. Think of the orang asli ministry and English tuition ministry to children at the Enggang Flats. Malaysian Care is an NGO involved in that.

Support and lobby for transparency, integrity and anti-corruption in society. NGOs: OHMSI, Transparency International. Are complaints of corruption ignored while the whistleblowers penalized?  

Promote greater freedom to be informed. Write to the newspaper editors or online media. Write a Facebook comment to MP or speak up for a cause? Ken Yeong set a good example by writing on environmental issues at the Bakun National Park, which is also a social justice issue for indigenous peoples.

Does our education system produce students with character, creativity and critical thinking skills? Or are they insular, boxed in and unemployable? A member of our church (Grace Boey) decided to go beyond complaining and be part of the solution. She went back to school to teach. 

And she posted this on her Facebook in April:  
Today as I was walking to class, I saw a few of my students borrowing sejarah text books from the class next door and my mood immediately lit up. Then I went into the class and they proudly showed me the books, telling me that they borrowed it just for my class (their own books got confiscated). I couldn't help myself but put on a wide grin. I acknowledged and praised them publicly and they brimmed with pride. It’s so ironic because these are the exact students who kept challenging me in class at the beginning of the year. These are the students who refused carry out my class activities or pay attention when I am teaching. These are the students who asked me to stopped trying to change them because there is nothing that I can do to help them and that they are useless so please stop wasting my time. Today, they showed me a different side of them. A side I have patiently waited and hoped to see. And when one of them (the most notorious of the group) started copying my notes, I almost wet my eyes. I am so proud of you guys. You have proven everyone else wrong about you. Please keep up the good job. I am cheering for you. People ask why do you teach? I teach to help people live better lives and that is why I Teach For Malaysia. 

If you would also like to make a difference and stop education inequity, apply now for Teach for Malaysia. (NGO)

What about you? What about me? How can we be a part of this? Be part of what God is doing in Malaysia. Things are changing fast… maybe not fast enough for some of us. But never underestimate the power of little platoons, small groups committed to acts of mercy and justice to effect social change. It can happen organically, one heart at a time, from bottom up. Not necessarily from top down, political change. Jesus says that the kingdom is like yeast that permeates and influences the whole dough silently, unassumingly.

 Do we feel a sense of ownership of the problems and potentials of our country and take action? Many people will engage in protest, but even more will follow if you offer them a better way. To give an alternative is harder, requires more work and creativity than just shouting and chanting "Hancur BN"! Don’t get me wrong – there are times when we gotta be angry with the nonsense happening around us. Some of us have been on the streets for BERSIH 1, 2, and 3. And we will probably go for a 4th, if there is one. 

But the power of protest is not in its anger but in its promise, in its invitation that something more beautiful is indeed possible. Not in a common hate, but a common love. That’s what excites people to give their lives for something bigger than themselves. That the ugliness we see today will not last. We shall overcome one day.

If you see the photos or experience the gathering of peaceful, passionate, multiracial, united Malaysians at the BERSIH rallies, you begin to imagine and realize that in principle, another Malaysia is possible. Standing together, we are proof that this other Malaysia is now coming into being; tangible evidence that its time is near. The old social order is dying, but the new is yet to come. In the midst of all the ugliness in this transition, the primary responsibility of the church is to be itself, a people who have been formed by the gospel story. Every Sunday, when we worship, we retell and re-enact the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption and hope. The gospel shapes us to be true to who we are - a new humanity, an alternative society in this fading evil age.

That means: If we want to see transparency and accountability in our leaders, we should begin with ourselves. If we want social equity, then we ourselves need to live simple, sustainable lifestyles and care for the poor. Change starts at home. If we want to see racial harmony, then the church has to be a diverse and reconciling community first.

Someone wrote: The Christian community is the only community in Malaysia that has no single dominant ethnic group, and embraces all ethnic groups with the exception of Malays. Even the last caveat is misleading since there are believers like Lina Joy and substantial numbers of pri-bumi peoples (Sengoi, Iban, Kadazan, Melanau) are very closely related to the Malays linguistically, culturally and ethnically. It is the only non-Muslim community in Malaysia with a strong interest in the Malay language since Bahasa Bibles have been in use for over 150 years. (excerpt from Proclaiming The Peacemaker, by Peter Rowan)

Friends, how we relate to each other, how we deal with gender roles, social class and ethnic relationships will be a witness to this fragmented society. It’s a long, long road. It's not going to be easy. 

Let me end with another quote from Niebuhr: Here’s the thing. The other Malaysia we long for may not happen in our lifetime but "Nothing worth doing is completed in one lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.” Hope: that God will bring it to completion one day even when we don't live to see it. "And nothing true or beautiful or good ever makes complete sense in our immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith". Faith: that God is able to lead when our sight is dim, and we do not see how we fit in the bigger scheme of things… "And nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love". Love overcomes the walls that divide us and walks alongside us when the shadows fall. The night is always darkest just before dawn.

And now these three remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love. 


Anonymous said...

:D well done! This is the church to be @ if preaching is done like this every week! :D

Dave Chang said...

Thanks bro - if it helps, feel free to share or tweet it :)

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