Christian Civic Engagement

January 20, 2015

This is the revised transcript of my talk at the NUS Varsity Christian Fellowship’s Fellowship Teaching session on 20 January 2015. I have added clarifications that have resulted from my interaction with a panel and the audience. The transcript is also available on Facebook.

I like to thank your Ex-Co for the surprise of inviting me down this evening. I haven’t spoken to a mainstream Christian group for what must be a good twelve years now. To be among you, standing here – it already feels like homecoming.

You see, I used to be a part of VCF too, times that I remember fondly but some would rather you be ignorant of. But this is the truth: in my Year 2 in NUS, I was the Arts Chairperson. Exactly two decades ago, I was in the Ex-Co as Evangelism Chairperson – can you believe that?

During that time, I organised exhibitions and concerts, engaged in apologetics, wrote and drew tracts myself, even produced an evangelism guidebook for you. A few of the methods you find Christians practising of late: we have already talked about them twenty years ago. They were methods that, as time past, I grew more and more uneasy about because I realised that they couldn’t be ethical even if they were permissible.

I shared my thoughts with old VCF friends then. Today, before you, the community with which I first considered these methods, I formally renounce them.

We know as Christians that we will be saved and can enter Heaven if we repent of our sins and believe in Jesus Christ. The essence of evangelism is simply this, to tell that Good News: the Greek word euaggelion literally means Good News.

But an old preacher said to me a long time ago: “Our God, the Christian God, is not just a gracious God; Scripture describes him as ‘the God of all grace’ (1 Peter 5:10). One day, when we arrive in Heaven, we may well be surprised to find that it is far bigger than we have imagined. We will see people who we have assumed won’t be there. Conversely, some people we think should make it easily may not be around.”

The thought is provocative, of course, but there is much that can be pinned down biblically here. You see, against the Good News we both receive and tell, we further know of two facts. First, other than the private, last-minute conversion of the thief on the cross and a few secret conversions in The Book of Acts, there is also the story Jesus told of a rich man and the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.

You may know this story: both men die, and Lazarus is taken by angels to Abraham’s side while the rich man goes to a place of torment. To the puzzled rich man, Abraham explains that he is where he is for having only lived luxuriously on earth while Lazarus wholly deserves the well-being he was denied all his life. This story seems to follow a more straightforward notion of divine fairness, that God will judge according to how we live our lives now.

Then, there is the famous warning Jesus gave on the Mount, possibly Mount Eremos, that not everyone who cried out to him “Lord, Lord” would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a passage that has always troubled me. Jesus warned that, while you might prophesy, cast out demons, and perform great wonders in his name, if you failed to do the will of God, he would say to you at length, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Both of these sobering instances and others, and what we know about the Good News, are not contradictory. In fact, herein lies the mystery to our eternity, the paradox of salvation: we can be confident – through faith in Jesus Christ – of our own deliverance, but we cannot ultimately know where another stands with God.

Each of us can only attend to the truth of ourselves. I may believe that you believe as I do, but Heaven alone will reveal the reality. So who is to say that a common sinner or a person of another faith is not closer to the Kingdom of God than the person sitting in the same pew as you in church or in the same row as you right now? And, if you can believe in the lifelong spiritual journey of another individual, then believe in them all.

Do what I say shock you? If so, what do you think Jesus was doing when he said that, for heeding John the Baptist, tax-collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of chief priests and elders? (Matthew 21:30-32)

Interestingly, it is from the Pharisees – teachers of the Law, legalists who read Scripture literally and followed it to the word – that we derive the term Pharisaism. It means hypocrisy or self-righteousness. The Pharisees were always looking over people’s shoulders to make sure that others were living as they believed. When these asked Jesus where his so-called Kingdom of God was, they were expecting a physical place, a visible community, or a society visibly ruled in a moral way.

What was Jesus’s reply? He revealed that how the Kingdom would come couldn’t be observed, nor would people be able to say, “Here it is” or “There it is”. Then he spoke the crux: “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21).

I want to stress the word “you” here, the second-person pronoun, because Jesus didn’t say “us”, “them”, “he”, “she”, or “one”. “You” is confrontational, direct, personal: it cuts through all our nonsense, the system or moral communities or puffed-up knowledge behind which we hide, and meets us as listeners, questioners.

The truth of a direct call, a direct application, is at the heart of Christianity. It is, in fact, also at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, what made Martin Luther so revolutionary in his time. The theologian Adolf von Harnack sums it best when he says that Luther was “only inone thing great and powerful, captivating and irresistible”. Luther rediscovered the Good News, a knowledge “in the God who, in Christ, addresses the poor soul with the words, ‘I am thy salvation’”: salus tua ego sum.

I and you, God and me – two persons only.

To be sure, the line between the holiness of the Pharisees and the holiness of Christ is a thin one – and Jesus even said that his followers needed to exceed the Pharisees in righteousness (Matthew 5:20). But how vastly different are the two kinds of holiness! The Pharisee looks to others to know righteousness, to measure or instil godliness, but the Christian looks directly at himself or herself, where or how he or she is with God.

This is a central difference that I feel we are increasingly losing sight of in our practice of Christianity in Singapore today. Because outward righteousness is so easy to spot, correct, and promote, we slip easily from the right kind of holiness into the wrong.

For example, there are people whose practice of Christian witness is to grow the influence of Christians at all costs, even if it means sneaking, tricking, misrepresenting, lobbying, badgering, dominating, and so on. They may quote 1 Corinthians 9:22 to show how they are being “all things to all people” so that, “by all possible means”, they can save some.

But, if we look at that passage where the verse comes from, we don’t really learn that the ends justify any means. In fact, what the Apostle Paul highlights is the place of compassion and of our own sacrificial transformation, our self-emptying, for the sake of another. So, while Paul knows that he is a free man and can do whatever he wants, yet, for Christ’s sake, he gives up his own freedom to be a slave to all.

It is in this context that Paul proclaims how, to those who live under the Law or without the Law, he has become like them respectively and how, to the weak, he has become like the weak. The Christian way is to walk alongside people, to feel their joys and suffering as our own, to see and understand as they see and understand – not to create distances.

This also coincides exactly with what Jesus himself did: to reconcile humans to God, God became one of us. In the harshest of passages, we even find Jesus being called “he who had no sin” but “made sin” by God – for us! (2 Corinthians 5:21)

You see, to preach Christ, to manifest the faith, is fundamentally inseparable from being Christ-like. I am here to address Christian civic engagement – and I assure you that there issuch a thing that is, must be, distinct from non-Christian civic engagement. But my point can only be made if you are able to recognise the example of Jesus, the spirit of Jesus.

I say this because my own experience during the AWARE saga of 2009 alerted me to an underlying problem. You know of that notorious incident which, I must say sadly, left a blotch on decades of good Christian reputation in Singapore. At the time, a group of well-meaning Christians thought it morally urgent to plan a leadership takeover of a secular women’s rights organisation to redefine its activities. As the date of an extraordinary general meeting challenging that leadership drew near, I wrote a Facebook note to share about how Christians ought not to support such covert, quarrelsome, and restrictive – unethical even if legal – operation by Christians.

Among the many online dialogues I ended up getting on top of hate mail was one where I said that we simply needed to ask what Jesus would do in this situation. The answer wasn’t nothing. The other party could have reflected on the possibilities with me, but instead she shot back with the words: “How dare you, as a mere human and sinner, put yourself on a par with Jesus?”

I think that this cry spells out the fundamental problem in all our awkward civic engagements so far. Truly, I hope that you will realise this today if it hasn’t hit you: our being Christian is not about creating and protecting Christendom, let alone enhancing it. It is precisely, simply to live the life of Christ, to let Christ live through us. I dare say that there is no point being a Christian if your aim isn’t to become Christ-like in all aspects of your conscious existence. I am not sure why, as Christians, some would want to be Moses-like or Joshua-like or David-like or Elijah-like when God has given us an example He openly approved of, he whom the Athanasian Creed teaches us to call “Perfect God and Perfect Man”.

Christians, look to Christ. When you do, you will realise that the Biblical answer to how a Christian should engage today’s society has always been there, hidden in plain view, in the Gospels. Indeed, it is not any of the law-givers or judges or prophets but Jesus who had lived, approved by God, in an Israel under secular Roman authority that was multiculturally vibrant, with middle-eastern, Hellenistic, and Asiatic influences as well as faiths such as Samaritanism and those of various Jewish sects. Other than the Pharisees and the Sadducees, we detect the Essenes and the Nazarenes and read of the politically motivated Zealots and Iscariots, or the Sicarii, and the new cult of the Baptist.

Jesus’s own followers came with such diverse backgrounds, with not just different personalities and socio-economic origins but also different religious and political leanings. It was nothing like being in a modern church we know where everyone believes in the same thing and looks in the same direction.

Once you understand Christ’s example, what he did in this surrounding, you’ll find how Christians should engage society to be pretty straightforward and can be extended commonsensically. I have a list of five practical points tonight, but I am sure that there will be more if we can reflect further together.

First, Jesus was compassionate and in a particular way: he had a socially well-informed grasp of suffering in his society. Remember what he knew as his mission from the get-go of his ministry. He entered the temple and read directly from The Book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).

The appearance of the word “Good News” is interesting here because it shows how directly tied God’s spiritual deliverance of humanity was to His wish that human society be delivered from hunger, injustice, blindness, and cruelty. The two aspects are inseparable, and so, in Jesus’s speeches, his imagery often bent both ways: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, give him a snake instead?” (Luke 11:11). “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Insofar as we are part of this struggle in our civic capacity, it is always Christian.

Now, while Jesus also preached repentance, do note how he confronted sin in someone. Sin was always treated as a private matter, to be dealt with between the sinner and his or her God. He didn’t have to rub sin and guilt in the faces of the prostitute, the bedridden man, the leper, and the paralytic. He didn’t even name their sins. He mentioned the promiscuous lifestyle of the Samaritan woman by the well only when his disciples were gone.

Conversely, look again at who Jesus was regularly hurt or enraged by. The people who hurt and enraged him most were precisely those who went around sin-spotting and using their religion or piousness to hurt, shame, and demean others – in public or often in the name of being helpful!

Second, I am always puzzled by how easily offended some Christians are these days by all sorts of cultural exposure and trends. Surely, such quick, reactionary alarm and subsequent abrasive outrage cannot be Christian! The world will always be changing; it is its nature. Meanwhile, we who are Christians are called to live our lives attuned to the mind of Christ always. There is no convergence of natures such that a Christian is threatened more if the world changes more!

Yet, in recent blow-ups between Christians and various sectors of secular society, it often seems hard to tell how different Christians were in their behaviours, in the stridency, tone-deafness, and defensiveness of their words and actions. To be offended easily is surely ironic since we are followers of Jesus, the one who is the Bible’s great scandalon. Didn’t Jesus call himself the stone rejected by builders that had become the cornerstone? Didn’t he proclaim that anyone who fell on him, this stone of stumbling, would be broken to pieces while anyone on whom the stone fell would be crushed? (Matthew 21:42-44)

Who, in Scripture, was broken and crushed by Jesus? The company he kept had shocked the conservative Jewish society and, in particular, the religious folks who either held their own righteousness in high esteem or were afraid of being tainted by unclean, irreligious, secular people. But Jesus surrounded himself precisely with the people of the world, and he dined and enjoyed himself with them. He was being what he told his followers to be: in the world and yet not of the world (John 17:16). Jesus stumbled people out of the narrow-mindedness with which they looked at other people; he himself was never quick to be shaken or to feel threatened by difference.

Again, remember what the legalists, the Pharisees, conversely said among themselves. They asked why a man of God like Jesus would spend a damning amount of time with tax-collectors, prostitutes, and the likes. You see, for these, as I have pointed out, righteousness was tied to outward appearance and the instability that came with it, not the certainty of one’s own relationship with God. Yet, if one lives right with God, nothing can truly corrupt the soul: that is God’s promise to us. Indeed, “to the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15).

Jesus’s counter-challenge to fear was expanded when he instructed his followers to love not just those others couldn’t love but even those they couldn’t love! “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43). What good do you gain if you love our own kind, your own church community? A Christian loves the different; he or she spreads love and does not keep selfless love circulating only within believers. Love is at its most divine when it is felt by a recipient outside the church.

Third, by extension, talk with people, not just fellow Christians but other people, all kinds of people. Talk with them, not across or above them, which also means, in equal measure, stoptalking about yourself and listen. Engage others more in a dialogue than in a debate. Make real friends, real connections. A sense of humour helps.

This may sound so straightforward and obvious that it would seem an insult to any sensible Christian – and, if it does, I apologise – but Jesus talked. Examine the Gospels, and you will find them replete with instances of Jesus talking with a broad sweep of people. He talked with the Pharisee Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the Roman Centurion, the outcast, and even the possessed! We do not know whether he changed everyone he talked with, but we know that all he engaged respected him. Indeed, the fact that respect is gained from dialogue is a Biblical point we Christians seem to overlook when we refuse to converse with people we nonetheless choose to disagree with.

You know people who have talked and people who haven’t. People who talk have a touch of compassion about them. Through talking and attempting to understand another, they encounter their own faith in context. They struggle with legalistic tenets of what they believe and are able to work towards holding on only to what is essential. They recognise what ultimately matters. They are “ministers of a new covenant”, as 2 Corinthians 3:6 puts it, “not of the letter but of the Spirit” – because they understand how “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”.

“The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). In this sense, compassion and dialogue often go hand in hand. The talkers learn to forgive and to ask for forgiveness and break real barriers to make friends with people outside their normal fellowship circles. They don’t go on about feeling offended because there is just little space and time for that! They realise that quick indignation is a direct challenge to their capacity to exercise Christ-like love.

Yet, when Jesus got angry and he did, note too who his anger was consistently reserved for.Never the worldly people, however sinful they were, but those in the religious community who precisely undermined the understanding of love, the self-important religious leaders and the profiteers from faith!

Four, take every opportunity to examine yourself and strive towards Christ-likeness. The Bible may tell us not to conform to this world’s pattern, but, in the same breath, it also says to let our minds’ renewal transform us – why? (Romans 12:1-2) Because, in disciplining our bodies and our own development, we naturally run the mental danger of stiffening, narrowing, regressing: we become less open to the reality of difference that is outside us, in the world. But the Christian is not just body but also mind, and the Christian mind needs constantly to grow young.

Use therefore every bit of your natural interactions to understand people and society as a means to transform yourself as a Christian fit for a changing world. Remember that only by being Christ-like, radically true to the empathetic spirit of Jesus, will you make a Christian impact on society. Whatever moral battle you may fight and win, however consequential it is, means nothing per se. What good is your civic engagement when you can push through the implementation or maintenance of a conviction but, in the process, lose the spiritual interest and respect of your audience?

This crucial question then brings me to my last point. In every Christian struggle, the means is as important as – immediately even more important than – the end. In other words, no means is justified by its goal alone, but all ends are primarily meaningful because of their means.

After all, we are called to be “the light of the world” – is there a clearer statement of our commitment to transparency and integrity in our every dealing? Jesus said: “A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl” (Matthew 5:14-15). We are each called to be that town and that lamp, and thus our every speech and action should be able to stand the scrutiny of all ears and eyes as evidence of the reality of Christ in us.

Yet, there seems to be a rather peculiar current trend where it is assumed that, so long as we are convinced of a moral point being Christian, we are justified to uphold it by any means. This is an odd interpretation of being the world’s light and salt – when the colour of our faith is not the dullness of a moral police but the brightness of love. The taste of our faith is not the bite of moral gate-keeping but the difference of love. Believers who think otherwise should really read Matthew 5:16 again, this time to the end where it says: “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.

The end of shining is so strikingly clear here that I wish that it is spoken of more by vocal Christian leaders. Our light – our work and witness – should be such that people cansee how it is good and spontaneously give praise to “your Father”, our Father, in Heaven. That is how the dynamic should work! Yet, it is always painfully ironic to see calls to be this light and salt of the world tend towards Christians patting one another’s back for a stand well-made. Let’s be clear once and for all about how we know when an end is Christian. It is not just when our own brothers and sisters congratulate us on what we perceive as good but when non-Christians can see Christ in our deeds.

Indeed, here was an incredible show of respect and confidence Jesus had for the secular world! He had suggested that it knew what was right from wrong even if it, like Christians, did not choose right consistently. The point even extends back to us so that we should be able to find a sense of our own Christian witness in the response of others.

Having such a mirror that humbles is important: remember that a Christian’s great failure is not just to fall into sin but also to turn into a hypocrite, a Pharisee. We all face this constant temptation. But no Pharisee is ever known to recognise that he or she is a Pharisee: it is precisely a Pharisee’s trait, to be incapable of seeing the log in his or her eye. Indeed, check yourself if you are now finding yourself doubt that non-Christians are fit to be your moral mirror. Jesus never had such doubt and often appealed to the sense of right and wrong in all his listeners, religious and otherwise.

Returning to being transparent to all, if you therefore feel that you must make a point, statement, or stand as a Christian, at least don’t do it sneakily. Don’t scheme and manoeuvre like politicians do, don’t join or support a lynch mob or a hate group, don’t say and do things under online anonymity, with fake names and contacts – because all these undermine your whole position! It suggests that you are unable or afraid to let truth prevail or others think and choose for themselves. It reveals that you lack integrity and a deep belief in good and that you don’t believe your own Christian life can stand up to scrutiny.

Conversely, by speaking out as yourself and with respect, you are taking responsibility for what you assert and, in doing so, show yourself honest in more than just words. If you are wrong, you are corrected and you learn; a Christian is always an open wound for learning. This is your cross to bear. An anonymous voice learns nothing. And, by also engaging in open dialogue rather than choosing wile, you demonstrate respect for others as free-thinking and mature individuals as well as the means to social harmony, and you avoid tempting others into the sin of vicious anger.

What all these add up to is a manner of behaviour I like to believe as Christian. It is Christian because we are being paradoxically more secular than the secular world tends to be, and, by this, I am indeed extending Jesus’s challenge to always go the extra mile (Matthew 5:41). We really ought to be more respectful towards others than they may be towards us, moreready to listen than others are to us, more willing to converse that others have been, andmore gracious in accepting outcomes.

The dominant perspective today nonetheless signals that we all have some way to go. In seeing a deep-seated war between self and world, we still ask, for example: how can I be a student, doctor, lawyer, teacher, entrepreneur, or administrator and a Christian? How can I be this as a Christian? But those occupations are just that, functions: there is no inherent compromise as a result of being any of those. Rather, we should be able to see that being a Christian in whatever station we find ourselves means letting our Christ-likeness shine through there: we enrich that station through love, integrity, and humanity, through a belief in the freedom to be for another.

For the same reason, we should revise the question of how one can be a secular citizen and a Christian. There is no contradiction, seeing that being a responsible, functional citizen doesn’t threaten one’s faith insofar as one is free to seek and worship. Instead, we should ask how we can be more of a citizen, that is, one who manifests the centrality of love for another in the notion of citizenry. We shouldn’t be failing as Christians in our civic imagination to dream of a warmer, freer world for all and falling back into something inferior, a divided society.

So, my friends, with this I wish you no fear. Aim to be today and henceforth the Jesus whom those around you can see and wish to know.

Thank you.

Gwee Li Sui


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