3 March 2014
The Greater Kingdom Reality Calls Us to Stand Firm
by Eugene Yapp
IN a time of strife and uncertainty, there are two postures Christians may take. The recent raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia can illustrate. The incident, in which two BSM staff were taken in for questioning and over 300 copies of the Iban and Bahasa Malaysia bibles were seized, has engendered two types of responses from the Christian community.
One is a firmer approach to ensure that Malaysia does not slip further down the slippery slope of becoming a theocratic state. The second, in the name of sensitivity and caution to prevent worsening tensions, is a softer stance to avoid what Samuel Huntington called "a clash of civilisations".
Each response has its own merits and legitimacy. Advocates of a firmer stand feel the government and the courts have failed to protect a secular society, a trend arising from Islamisation policies put in place sometime back. Those who prefer the second, softer approach see the possibility of more strife and even violence, and therefore appeal to "kingdom ethics" based on the Sermon of the Mount to "turn the other cheek" (see article On Turning the Other Cheek).
However, the Christian posture to adopt in this context of civil order and political contestation cannot be decided with reference to certain selected passages of scripture alone or by an appeal to general political orientation, as legitimate as it may be. Our posture must be determined and judged by the foundational principles of broad-based Christian political tradition.
It is first essential to note the context that shapes the problem. The context suggests a growing body of law that, when enforced, promotes religious hegemony so that Islamic legal enactments govern all aspects of the religion and life.
For example, in Selangor, the Administration of Muslim Law Enactment 1952 regulates private behaviour and personal morality of Muslims, such as fasting during Ramadan and consumption of liquor. The enactment provides for the function of a religious council that will regulate such personal matters. Beyond this, there is also the Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Amongst Muslims) Enactment 1988 which was used by the religious authorities to conduct the raid on BSM.
It is clear that even non-Muslims are being subjected to this religious and legal hegemony.
The crafting of such laws go hand-in-hand with the state's monopoly over religion. These laws allow the state to brandish its religious credentials and to legitimise its regime. Over time, and with the aid of various agencies and state apparatus, this is how public opinion is shaped into understanding Islam as the "official" religion of the Federation, no longer just for ceremonial purposes as the drafters of the Federal Constitution intended it. Thus comes the need to "defend" the religion and its sovereignty.
In sum, the context we are in now is one where the state and the official religion are fused, to the result that Malaysia's "qualified-secular" polity and democratisation process is under challenge.
Given this scenario, Richard Mouw's question is pertinent: "What kind of actions, if any, are compatible with the commitments of those who are living in grateful response to what God did in the cross of Jesus Christ?"
Some have answered this question by pointing to servanthood. Pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder is one who calls for a posture of servanthood by accepting the "obligation of voluntary subordination" to government domination.
This obligation of voluntary subordination includes accepting powerlessness in the face of oppressive regimes. To accept powerlessness, Yoder suggests a "toleration of the existence of government - a refusal to engage in revolution or insubordination even against tyrannical governments". Such restraint is the willingness on our part to participate in God's victorious patience with the rebellion of His creation.
In this way and to this end, Christian engagement with hegemony takes on a higher plane knowing that beyond and above oppressive regimes, there a regime that is both higher and normative which would eventually come about.
Yoder has a persuasive and appealing argument. But the question remains whether this posture is adequate given the social conditioning and circumstances of our context described above?
Scripture testifies that through his death on the cross and his resurrection, Christ brought reconciliation between God and creation, and established the Kingdom of God.
Although there is an aspect of the kingdom that is "not yet", the presence of the kingdom is nevertheless already manifested on this earth with the defeat of evil forces and the forgiveness of sin secured. With the Kingdom of God present, any false pretension of power to usurp the rightful place of Christ and the freedom secured, has been unmasked.
Christians should therefore reflect this greater reality by resisting dominion that holds itself out as absolute and totalitarian. Lesslie Newbigin's words are illustrative,
"If the Gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the "high ground" which they vacated in the noontime of "modernity", it will not be by forming a Christian political party or by aggressive propaganda campaign... It will only be by movement that begins with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known and experienced and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusion which has remained hidden and expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the Gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life and recognize they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument and foretaste of God's redeeming grace for the whole of society."
In resisting absolute and totalitarian regimes and any false pretensions to power, the church ought to be a prophetic voice calling out right from wrong, and a catalyst for social change.
In the transforming power of the kingdom, Christians are called and set apart by the work of Christ on the cross to a commitment on a very different set of values. Being set apart unto holiness should not be taken as an excuse not to act against injustice but rather to be strategic in engaging the regimes of the word and the civil order on Christian terms.
It is only on such terms of engagement and social witness that the church will succeed in demonstrating the greater reality of the Kingdom and His righteousness on earth as it is in heaven.
In this respect, Christian social witness must reflect what Carl F.H. Henry says concerning the necessity of public engagement to transcend a partisan agenda and be based on social justice that reflects God's universal demand for righteousness.
In so doing, we should not be naïve. Such forms of engagement will draw criticism and even hardship. While Christians ought to bear in mind that our God is able to overrule circumstances and work for the good of those who love Him, there must always be a realism that Jesus did declare to those who follow him to first "deny themselves and take up the cross".
This surely suggests that bearing the shame, living out hard times for the sake of truth, justice and righteousness, are the order of the day rather than deliverance from every hardship. In short, we are to be prepared for difficult and trying times ahead.
What will come in the days to come, nobody can tell. Circumstances may improve or may worsen drastically. But the call to live out the Gospel by speaking against and remedying the wrongs cannot be neglected and glossed over. It is indispensable to a vibrant Christian witness that is both faithful to the Gospel and yet one that is modest; resting on the hope that God will intervene for His own and bring to completion what He has started.
Richard J Mouw, Politics and the Biblical Drama. Eerdmans, 1976
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Eerdmans, 1989
John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus. Eerdmans, 1972