Transforming Society – Part 1
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” – 2 Timothy 1:7
I stood there for a long time looking at these verses from the Bible on the memorial plaque. My feet touched the ground where the World War II German Lutheran Pastor – Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – was executed by hanging at the age of 39 because of his involvement in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The rainy and misty day at Flossenbürg was unforgettable. The brief meditation I had there has since left a deep imprint on how I engage in Biblical reflection. These verses from 1 Timothy 1:7 which I memorized as a youth was brought in touch in a forceful manner in the most complicated circumstances, the most conflicting of choices, and the most courageous of people in western history. It was hard to even try to read them with intellectual detachment and cold objectivity. The interaction between the message of the Bible and our search for meaning was never meant to be in mere abstract ideas anyway. Even when we do not have all the details sorted out, and we are forced to make hard choices, the voice from the ancient manuscripts breath life, courage, strength, perseverance and wisdom for us to at least take the next step. Steps which perhaps will lead us forward for the long run.
Fast forward to the year 2008; sitting before me were not pastors nor were they professional theologians, but a group of about 35-40 young working adults, all below the age of 40, who desire to make a difference in society. It was about 2 months after the 12th General Elections of Malaysia, not in the midst of World War II. We were sitting comfortably in a Baptist church, not near a cemetery for war heroes. There was an expectation that we can begin to do something more concrete then ever in a war-free and generally peaceful Malaysia. There were three of us on the panel. One was asked to share from the angle of a Christian involved in public policy discourse, another was planned to share on issues relating to corruption and transparency, and I was asked to share the Bible’s point of view.
It would have been easy to just launch into a discussion without any reference to the Bible. The Bible historically also has been used either to justify unthinking submission or violent unilateral action. Furthermore, we are always tempted to use the Bible as a proof-text of our firmly set positions to shut up those with different opinions. Some might have preferred to just go into the practical aspects. I went to the forum hoping to show that perhaps there’s more to Romans 13 that could guide our footsteps in desire to “impact” Malaysian society as the way into the discussion.
As Christians, the Bible does not play an encyclopaedic role that we can flip to a single page and get all answers we want. There is no one “Solve-it-all” Biblical formula which doesn’t require the hard work of praying, thinking and working through as an individual and as a community. The early church as well as the people of Israel in the Old Testament, in facing differing circumstances, were guided by the Spirit to respond in a variety of ways. Simplistic solutions didn’t have their way in the Holy Bible. What we do have is a mosaic of inspired insights and perspectives which guide us not only in what was said to the context, but show us how the people wrestled with the complexities before them. The God who guided them in the past is also the one whom we look to humbly to lead us in the present. And this is a God who steps into the historical complexities of human existence whether it’s through the mouth of a prophet or the voice of a Rabbi from Nazareth to shape the way history should be written. First, we needed to acknowledge the richness of Biblical wisdom and how God reveals, guides and interacts with fragile human beings like us.
Secondly, on a more personal note, we needed to admit how often we are so trapped with a “Me-focused” way of reading the Bible. While the Bible is personal and not impersonal to our human situation, a privatized reading of the Bible often imprisons us from getting to the heart of God’s will for the wider world. Many Christians in Malaysia are already trapped in a whirlpool of self-preoccupation and worse still is when we are deaf to the liberating message of Jesus because of being overcrowded by the noises which demand answers for our private preferences and concerns. By the time we try to learn to read Scripture as a community (which was the way the early church read the Bible), and even begin to extend it further to the concerns of the world, we have no more energy and imagination left. A “Me-centred” way of reading the Bible has already fed into the existing blind spots and we are stuck in a vicious cycle of adventures in missing the point of the relevant message we need to hear. When the “Me” is too big, it’s hard to have any more energy to pay attention to others.
So, a conscious shift needs to be made when we look at the Bible again for insights. And this change requires ongoing discipline to see how we – the “me” – fits in the wider Christian community and more importantly the greater good for the World. We read the Scriptures not just as individuals struggling with our own lives, but also as a people seeking to be faithful in reflecting the best of God’s intentions in the here and now, and we read as a people who are living with others who get the same rain and sunshine as we do. However, there are many who may not enjoy the many benefits of health and wealth that most of us enjoy. The shift from a “me-centred” approach to a broader “missional” approach reminds us that we come to hear God’s message as a common humanity who are all in need … some with more immediate basic needs of food, shelter, protection, etc, than others. A “missional” approach considers how God’s mission is to see the broken world restored back to wholeness again. This mission overflows to all aspects, from the intimately spiritual to what many would term as most secular aspects of human life and flourishing.
A common experience nowadays, to take one example, is that in a gathering of Christians, or in many prayer or bible study groups, we hear requests to pray for career advancement and better job prospects for church members. Sad to say, usually we end there. We may even talk about Christian books on how we can learn from Jesus to be better in business and climb the social ladder. Some would even go further and give the impression God is their banker and success fairy God-father (probably not in those words but in all honesty that is what we mean)! But how often do we consider the minimum wages of our friends in the factories? What are the conditions and benefits for their employment? So even when we say we go back to the Bible for guidance, if our starting point and, often, end result revolve around our own agenda, how can we really hear what we need to hear more than what we want to hear?
This shift from my self-interest to the common good of all, which I believe is God’s will, also opens our hearts to act justly, mercifully and humbly as individuals and as a corporate body, especially the Church in society. And especially now, when we desire to impact the public square , perhaps even before we jump into digging deeper for Biblical perspectives, we need to have a quick self-examination as to how big the “me” agenda is that is clouding our views. It goes beyond a constant check on our self-preoccupation; it requires “giving up” self-interest as the starting point. That giving up even includes our self-preoccupation on how much good “I” can do and the recognition which may come even with the noblest of intentions. Then we’re freed up to change the Way we live and serve as instruments and voices for the Will of God in our complicated, messy, broken world that is not without some glimpses of beauty and hope with courage, love and a sound mind.