Whose Side Are You On?

Living in the US for the past 4 years has been an eye opening and life changing experience for me. My views of the intersection between religion and politics have changed in many ways. Some previously held opinions have been reinforced while others have undergone a slower, more gradual evolution.

Prior to coming to the US in July 2004, my views of the religious right in the US – evangelical Christian who vote mostly for the Republican Party – have largely been shaped by their support for George Bush Junior’s successful presidential run in 2000. Bush came across, back then, as a man of sincere and deep religious convictions. He had a great story to tell, a story of a back sliding life that was turned around by his turning to Christ. It was a story which many Christians, not only in America but elsewhere in the world, could relate to. I would count myself as a believer then in Bush’s convictions and his story. Many Christians in America saw Bush as ‘one of them’, someone who could speak a language which they understood. Because of this, he was ‘anointed’ as the religiously correct choice among Christians in the 2000 presidential race.

Thou shall not criticize my president

The evangelical voters were still strongly behind Bush in his re-election campaign in 2004 even as signs of a badly prosecuted war in Iraq that was based on deceptions and a less than honest presentation of facts were emerging. Today, evangelicals are probably the only group left in America whose approval rating for the president is above 50%.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that one cannot strongly support a certain political leader. This is well within one’s democratic right, Christian or not. But what irked me – and this dawned on me only gradually – was the feeling that many evangelical Christians in the US thought you were almost insulting God if you said about bad about Bush. It almost seems as if he was above reproach. And I thought that this right was only reserved for those who are infallible.

Sometime in 2002, I attended a gathering of a group of Christian lawyers from all over the world who were meeting in KL for their annual conference. I came away pretty impressed by the solidarity shown by many of the lawyers over issues of commonality such as fighting for religious freedom. But later, a Malaysian Christian lawyer, whom I respect a great deal, told me that he had pulled out of this organization after he was berated by one of the organizers for criticizing Bush’s invasion of Iraq in an email circulated within the group. He was of course criticized by an American, one of the ‘higher-ups’ in the chain of command within this organization.

We could fight for religious freedom but the buck stops at criticizing our Christian and God chosen president of the US of A. How ironic. It was only after coming to the US that I realized how pervasive this sentiment was among evangelicals. I think it has subsided somewhat because of how unpopular Bush has become but it’s still something that is not ‘kosher’ for any Christian evangelical leader to do – criticize Bush that is – at least in public.

In lock step with the administration

It is not surprising that evangelical Christian leaders feel compelled to support Bush and his policies. Many of these high profile leaders including the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and the President of the National Evangelical Association are regular invitees to the White House for presidential ‘pow-wows’. When ‘one of your own’ is in the White House and you have regular access to him, the intoxicating lure of power might be too much even for Godly men.

To put it cynically, it is easy to ‘buy off’ prominent Christian leaders with political access and with symbolic policies (such as the much criticized Faith Based Initiative) who would then act as your surrogates to the larger Christian community.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that it should be the responsibility of Christian leaders and pastors to put forth their thoughts regularly on political issues. But I do think that it is a mistake for Christian leaders to be co-opted into supporting policies that are perhaps out of one’s ‘jurisdiction’, so to speak. This was certainly the case for the war in Iraq as many a Christian leader gave their stamp of approval that it fulfilled the conditions of being a ‘just war’. It is not hard to see why the same Christian leaders would find it hard to withdraw their support for such a war when it was later revealed that it was based on faulty intelligence. It is not hard to see why the same Christian leaders remained quiet when the gruesome photos of Abu Ghraib came to light. Being in lock step with the administration run by ‘one of our own’ presents its share of pitfalls for Christian leaders.

Abortion and gay marriage

Another realization that again, has only gradually dawned on me is that many evangelicals base their political support for a party or candidate on a couple of so called ‘hot button issues’, the most important of which is abortion and followed closely by gay marriage.

If one were to plunk a Martian in the middle of the US presidential elections in 2004 and ask ‘it’ to come up with an understanding of what Christianity is about, it would probably say something like this – ‘Christians are a group of people who do not want others to be able to abort babies or to allow couples of the same gender to marry one another’.

I would readily admit that I’m pretty conservative when it comes to social issues. I think that abortion is a terrible thing to do to one’s own body and one cannot underestimate the possible physical and more importantly, the emotional damage left after such a procedure. I also happen to think that marriage between two people of the same gender is unbiblical. But I’m much more libertarian when it comes to whether and where the government should draw the line on these two issues. I say this because I do not think that all my views on social matters should be translated into government policy. I think that in many instances, the church probably has more of a role to play in these kinds of issues.

Why not look within our own church communities to examine if our own daughters are getting pregnant and then wanting abortions or if our own sons have problems with their sexuality? Why do we need to look to government legislation under the false pretense that if we somehow make it harder to get an abortion or if we ban same sex marriage, these problems would somehow vanish from society or from within the church?

Furthermore, should Christians base their political support solely on these two issues? After all, the last time I checked, abortion and homosexuality do not figure prominently in the bible. No where does it say in the Great Commission that one should go forth and prevent abortions or same sex marriage from happening.

I had great respect for James Dobson while I was in Malaysia for his Focus on the Family ministry. But here in the US, I’ve been exposed to another side of him; the side which berates presidential candidates if they do not conform to his moral worldview based on his own reading of the bible. Partly because of the media soundbytes which we are exposed to here, but James Dobson is often relegated to ranting on just one issue – you guessed it, abortion.

What about the discussion of policies which encourage more responsibility in managing our God given environment or policies which aim to provide affordable health care to the poor or policies which crack down on corruption and the abuse of power and so on? Are these issues less ‘biblical’ than those to do with abortion and same sex marriage? I’d like to think that I believe in a God and in a faith which requires its followers to have a more expansive viewpoint of the world and of the role of government in it than just one or two ‘hot button’ issues.

Thankfully, some Christians leaders, most notably Rick Warren, are challenging Christians to get involved in issues such as preventing the spread of the HIV virus and are preaching responsible stewardship of the environment. But they are still most definitely in the minority.

What about Malaysia?

How then does this translate into my understanding of the intersection between religion and politics in Malaysia? And in regard to Christian involvement in and understanding of politics in Malaysia?

Firstly, it reinforces an already held opinion that we should not hold a leader, Christian or political, to a higher esteem than necessary. We should resist the temptation to support a politician just because he says that he is ‘one of us’. Many Christians in the US supported Bush on this very premise and in doing so, gave him a free pass on many other important matters.

While we don’t expect there to be a Christian PM in Malaysia anytime soon, there are some politicians who profess to be Christian. It is not in my place to judge the sincerity of their faith. But I would caution us to be wary of politicians who ask for our support just on the basis of their faith.

Of course, a Christian politician in the Malaysian context would be in a better position to understand the problems faced by Christians including the difficulty of building places of worship and the distribution of Christian literature. But I would want to evaluate my support for politicians more on just on the basis of their faith. (More on this later)

Secondly, it has been made clear to me that as voters and members of society, we should not base our voting decision on the basis of just one or two issues. Being a responsible member of society requires that we not just support the politician or party which can find us that building permit approval to expand our church premises or guarantee us another 5 years of economic growth, important though these issues may be.

We should weigh a number of factors in the process of determining our political support. We should consider the ruling party records on a whole host of issues including economic stewardship, respect for religious freedom and human rights, environmental stewardship, treatment of workers and laborers, crime and safety, integrity and honesty, and so on. We should evaluate the promises of the PM made at a previous election (or of his party) against his actual record. We should consider the performance of our individual MP and state assembly representative over the past years. At the same time, we should weigh the promises of the opposition parties and candidates to see if what they say matches up to what they can do and have done. It is a complicated process which cannot be reduced just to the faith of one candidate versus another.

Thirdly, my experience in the US has convinced me of the need to have rigorous competition in all segments of the political ‘marketplace’ including the religious marketplace. It would not be an outlandish statement to say that the Republican Party has a stranglehold on evangelical Christians. Regular church goers (at least once a week) vote overwhelmingly for the Republican Party. Of course, some of this has got to be blamed on the ineffectiveness of the Democrats to reach out to those who take religion seriously.

(Hopefully this will change in the upcoming Presidential elections since there are signs that a religious ‘left’ is banding together to support the Obama campaign)

To put this in the Malaysian context, think what would happen if most of the religious Muslims in Malaysia were to throw their support behind PAS because it can promise its followers and voters more ‘Islamic’ policies including the passing and implementation of Syariah laws, just to name one. I have many friends within PAS and I admire the honesty and integrity of many of their leaders but from a policy and political perspective, I am more than happy to see a vigorous contestation for the votes of the Malay community, which is not based solely on religious issues.

Fourthly, my experience has made me wary of those who say that it is more ‘Christian’ to vote for one side rather than the other. I don’t think that one can make a case that it is more Christian to vote for one side because it is the only side that can guarantee political and social stability (true as this may be) or that it is more Christian to vote for the other side because it is the side which fights for human rights (true as this may be). I think it is perfectly reasonable to make arguments in support of one side or the other – I have friends, many of them Christians, from both sides of the aisle – but I think that these claims should not be on the basis of one’s Christian faith.

Barring a regime which is so corrupt and so repressive – which I think Malaysia’s regime is not, even though many may disagree – I don’t think that one can confidently use biblical language or mandates to justify that it is more ‘Christian’ to vote for one side rather than the other.

Finally, I think that there should be institutional independence among Christian organizations and perhaps even Christian leaders, or at least those who are in active membership of a church or para-church organization. It is far too easy to be seduced by the lure of power on one side or by the prospects of political ‘martyrdom’ on the other, as unlikely as the latter option may sound.

The experience of evangelical leaders in the US has shown me the dangers of being too closely associated with the powers-that-be so much so that they were co-opted and accepted the views of the White House uncritically.

Thankfully, I don’t think any of the major Christian groups and organizations can be said to be in the back pocket of the government (or the opposition for that matter). This has enabled them to take principled stands when it came to matters of direct concern to Christians such as the use of the word ‘Allah’ either in the Iban bible (the Bup Kudus) or in the BM portion of the Catholic publication, the Herald.

I would probably say the same for most church leaders as well. Their responsibility, in my opinion, is to be a good shepherd to their respective churches and challenge them to be responsible citizens. It is certainly not wrong for them to engage with political leaders of various stripes or to guide those within their congregation who want to be politically active. But I would be more wary of those who want to hobnob with the powers-that-be to gain access and perhaps a possible Datukship or even Tan Sriship down the line.

Critical junctures

There are times in a country’s history when the ruling regime becomes so corrupt, so repressive and so evil that it would be impossible for Christian leaders NOT to denounce the actions of the regime. A contemporary example would be Zimbabwe today which is ruled by a president, Robert Mugabe, who has failed to protect the livelihood and security of most of his citizens. Another well known example in history would be standing up against the Nazi regime which was what Dietrich Bonhoeffer did and for that he had to pay the ultimate price, death. Being a Christian leader or follower during such trying times takes tremendous courage and faith.

I do not think that the US is anywhere near requiring a universal denouncement of its president, disliked as he is by many within and without the country. I don’t think the current BN regime is also anywhere near a situation which requires Christian solidarity in standing up against it. Despite its track record of having a less than stellar human rights protection, corruption, abuse of power and so on, it has managed, over the past few decades, to deliver on economic growth and stability and has assured, to a large extent, religious freedom for the non-Muslims.

If there was any episode in recent memory which required the moral conviction of Christian leaders and followers to make their voices heard, it was the arrest, trial and conviction of Anwar Ibrahim in the late 1990s. (Some may point to the aftermath of Operasi Lallang in the late 1980s as another example but I was too young to remember that) Some Christian leaders did make their stand on the matter public, most notably Goh Keat Peng, who also dipped his toes into the political realm for a bit. Most kept noticeably quiet, even those who had previously wanted to be seen as ‘close’ to Anwar.

There might be a time in the near future, when the prospects of an imminent collapse in the BN government might prompt some sort of brutal measures from the incumbent regime against opposition politicians and activists that might make Operasi Lallang look like child’s play. I hope that this day won’t come. But if it does, then, I would be compelled to urge my fellow citizens, Christian and non-Christian to make their voices heard loud and clear. I would urge Christian leaders to do the same.

But until that day comes, we should remain engaged as politically and socially responsible citizens of our country, be driven by our convictions, be persuaded by a menu of issues (and not just a few) and ask our Christian leaders to be politically neutral and independent but at the same be engaged with their congregations and with politicians on issues of importance to the country.

18 Replies to “Whose Side Are You On?”

  1. Yes, I totally agree with you Mr Ong that we ought to know on whose side we are on. It is an art and a challenge to submit to the governing authorities and engage meaningfully with them with regards to public policies in Malaysia. The civil rulers mentioned in Romans 13 were probably pagans at the time Paul was writing. Christians of that age may have been tempted not to submit to them and to claim allegiance only to Christ but even the possibility of a persecution did not shake Paul’s conviction that civil government is ordained by God.
    What are the options available? Let me quote your words: ‘we should remain engaged as politically and socially responsible citizens of our country, be driven by our convictions, be persuaded by a menu of issues (and not just a few) and ask our Christian leaders to be politically neutral and independent but at the same be engaged with their congregations and with politicians on issues of importance to the country’. We cannot submit to the temporal governing authorities without first submitting to God’s authority (translated into Bahasa Malaysia: Kita tidak dapat taat kepada pemerintah tanpa terlebih dahulu taat kepada pemerintahan Allah).

  2. I agree that Christians, under normal circumstances, should be politically neutral and not be bound to a self-proclaimed Christian leader.

    However, you well know that Malaysia is facing some very worrying trends that have resulted in the upheaval of in public’s confidence in the 8 March election results.

    yes, Christians should be wise enough to examine a host of issues when giving their political support to any party or individual.

    However, the big issues that infringe on spiritual matters are the ones that we should act on wholeheartedly.

    These issues include the destruction of churches and places of worship (one single incident is enough), the decline of law and order, the rise of religious extremism and the unbliblical use of race in politics and economics.

    If we do not voice our protest and affirm our values today, when will we do so?

  3. If I read Mr Liang rightly, he says that of all matters, big issues that infringe on spiritual matters should move us to act. Such as destruction of churches, religious extremism – these are issues that concern Malaysian christians.

    The problem with such a point of view is that he is saying we should really act when issues that affect us (as Christians) arise. For other issues, our attitude will be “biasa-lah”. That would be no different from Malays who care only when the Malay agenda is affected, or Indians who agitate only when Indian interests are harmed. Or Chinese who are roused only when their own rice bowl is threatened. Would we really say that this is what the Bible teaches us to do?

  4. I said that Christians should act decisively when there are issues that affect our society spiritually. For example, the decline of law and order affects all citizens. How can a Christian be stirred to act for his own kind when crime affects everybody.

    A Christian who voted for Pakatan Rakyat is actually in a dilemma because if you look at it, the vote is also for PAS which advocates an Islamic state, a concept that will affect not only Christians, but all other Muslims who are against hudud laws imposed on them.

    So why do Christians take a stand against BN in the last GE? It is only after weighing the pros and cons of PR. It is a protest vote to check the power of BN.

  5. In Malaysia, Christians tend to be known for only two hot button issues, i.e. (1) Freedom of Religion (e.g. The Lina Joy Case) and (2) Places of Worship including burial grounds.

    While these two issues must not be neglected, and it has indirectly forced Non-Muslim groups to work together as seen in visible work of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hindusim, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), and are rights we believe enshrined fundamentally in the Malaysian Constitution, it would be a grave mistake on our part to be reduced only to these 2 issues.

    The way forward Malaysians and the Christian contribution specifically is for us to move beyond what concerns our immediate communities to wider issues of poverty, human rights, civil and political reform, etc.

    A caution for Christians in Malaysia is that we need to guard against importing the issues and tone which dominate American Christianity and politics into our own context (of course, this doesn’t mean we isolate ourselves). This means we need to make more conscious efforts to keep our focus on local issues.

  6. Mr Liang, I am continuing this debate only because you have written that Christians should engage in discussions. Not trying to find fault at all.

    Honestly, “the decline of law and order” is so broad that it will fit most criteria, including, yes, “issues that affect our society spiritually”. The problem is you emphasized that the criteria for acting decisively is when these issues affect our society spiritually. Wouldn’t it be more consistent with what Jesus taught to say that Christians should get involved because we are concerned about the welfare, needs and rights of our neighbour. The focus is on the neighbour and his concerns. Perhaps the Samaritan can in some way say that he was helping the Jew who was robbed and wounded, spiritually. But that’s not really the point, is it?

    As for voting on March 8, a Christian can only vote on the choices available. If you have to choose between a candidate that stands for a corrupt regime BUT secular in philosophy, and a candidate that stands for honesty BUT also establishing an Islamic state, you just have to make the best choice you can. What Christians need to ask is what they can do to ensure that they have better choices at the next elections. But if you do nothing, then the next time you will still have choices that you are uncomfortable with.

  7. I hope this dialogue does not lose its focus as my earlier remarks were in response Mr Ong’s article, which raised many complex issues about politics and faith.

    I am no theologian but I do not share his view that abortion does not figure prominently in the Bible when the 6th commandment says thy shall not murder.

    Anyway, it is important to distinguish between a vote for a politician/party and moral support for a fellow Christian (who happens to be a politician).

    On political issues that should concern Christians, there is a fine line here. For example, I support BN for its policy in raising fuel prices and I think Anwar is mistaken in his plan to cut petrol prices.

    Is this a crucial issue that should be decided on religious grounds? No, it is an economic issue and Christians should recognise it as such. Is the invasion of Iraq a religious issue or it is a geopolitical issue motivated by the need to have control over oil? Bush probably failed because of poor execution, bad PR or lack of divine guidance in geopolitics. I don’t have enough info to judge his track record and hardly dare to judge his or any Christian’s character for that matter.

    Should Christians be more active in social issues? Yes, to show the love of Christ. But please remember we can’t expect to build God’s Kingdom on our earth on our own efforts before He comes back. Unless one believes in “Kingdom Now” theology, which I hope none of us share.

  8. I feel that people who use the name Christian as a definitive label whilst actively engageing in the ways and publicising the values of Caesar as though these were reflective of Biblical teaching are doing a gross injustice to the name “Christian” and actually forfeit that name as a true and proper reflection of themselves – thereby rendering it the profane reputation as a label rather than a name designated by God to largely distinguish a chosen people from the rest of the world. I cannot stand the fact that this name, which is supposed to be held in sacred esteem is bandied about by many in this world, often by those who claim the name for themselves whilst earning it a reputation that makes the unsuspecting world equate the name with labels like “Westerner” or “American” when in actual fact the latter two catagories are simply labels for people from certain geographical locations and bear no significance whatsoever to the cultural characteristics which define what it means to be Christian. I am horrified that this type of cultural misappropriation is actually rife (and has historically been so) within the educational institution of the church. After all, I cannot truly conceive of the institutional church as anything other than another educational institution like any other university or college system except for the fact that it does promote a certain worldview which has it’s origins in Christian culture, however vague and incomplete that worldview may be as a reflection of this culture. And by the way, I am someone who is rather deeply entrenched within the tertiary education sector (having studied at university for many years), so I am no outsider when it comes to that playing field either – this is how I can understand the internal dynamics of institutional makeup, particularly educational ones, and politically factionalized ones at that! More to this is that I can commend many of the lectures that I hear at church of a Sunday morning and feel that these, like those from other places which have helped me everso much in shaping my walk with God, offer much merit to the increase of my knowledge and understanding in spiritual matters. So I am not suggesting for a minute that univeristies, colleges and the like are necessarily corrupt to the core – far from it (and thankfully!) otherwise, I would have been out on my arse years ago! But more to the point that the church as an educational institution of sorts cannot serve the dual function of being a birth-giver (direct) of real Christian community as well as a bearer of the knowledge of Truth in society at large until it sheds it’s corporate-style veneer and it’s phariseic ivory-tower mentality which is senselessly lorded over the congregations from upon the pedistools of “a man-made high” of leadership cult. Even supposedly neutral universities sometimes do better at their education-styles than do many churches and Bible-colleges. It’s time that the latter humbled themselves a little more and learnt something deeper about the blessings of non-hierarchical tutorial approaches to learning where tutors are facilitators of dynamic discussion rather than dictators of ideological position which leave no room for dialogue and consensus. A good idea to read the book: This Little Church went to Market. Hence it really hurts to see and hear the name “Christian” being loosely touted by many of these institutions as though they owned it!!!! Talk about cultural misappropriation and monopoly of a name which God has desired to be wholheartedly (not just superficially) but wholeheartedly reflective of the innate character of His own Son within a community context, a tribal one even, due to the indisputable fact of history that God designed it so that the early Christian community be born out of the 12 tribes of Israel as a new tribe, a holy nation. Why doesn’t the institutional church simply identify themselves to the world as “supporters of Christian values” (and genuine ones in their heart of hearts no doubt) rather than exaggeratingly calling themselves “Christian”? – after all there is a difference.

  9. Siuyin,

    I understand how you feel. This is the dilemma that all religions face. Witness the desecration of the meaning of Muslim by the hordes who understand nothing of it. Ditto for the other religions. But this is inevitable because of what religion is.

    You see, while spirituality is the relationship of a single person with God, religion is the organised culture of a group of people sharing common spiritual values. The two troublesome operative components are “organised” and “common values”.

    Once an activity becomes organised, soon there will be leadership, hierarchy, power… and we know that power corrupts.

    Common values lead to the desire to exclude values that are not common which leads to the imposition of conformity which leads to the deprivation of individuality and independent thinking.

    This was how the noble ideals taught by Jesus became corrupted into the Inquisition – the darkest of times in the Christian church.

    While religion is important, there is danger inherent in it. It is far more important for people to individually become spiritually strong, to be able to challenge and question their leaders if they see wrongdoings, to realise that, on Judgement Day, their church leaders will not be there to plead their case, that each person will be individually answerable to God.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that, within each church, there has to be a continuous Reformation so that values are kept true. As for those have gone astray but continue to wear the label, leave them be. Let God deal with them. Their misdeeds will not, in any way, undo the good that you do.

  10. Singam, you are spot on that the Church global (Universal and worldwide) as well as local churches are in need of continuous reformation. What is true for the church as a people in our organized form is also true for us and individuals. This “reformasi” must not end, and in all fairness has never ended. We are called to be part of this reformation with a reminder of Gandhi to “be the change we want to see in the world”.

  11. Hello Singam,

    I completely endorse what you have said about the unfortunate popularity of negative images, particularly in the mainstream West, concerning Islam. I was reading the comments posted on an American blog called “Free Republic” last week and I was so shocked at how blatantly racist and culturally biggoted about Muslims many of the comments on that blog were. So, I can see where you’re coming from here. The blog moderators of “Free Republic” said that they wanted their commentaries to be free from racist remarks and so I had readily pointed this out in response to the trash that was being said. But sly retorts came back to me of the like: “Muslims are’nt a race”. By such statements these biggots tried to ‘justify’ their slander. So I told them that whether race, heritage or spirituality – it’s all about “xenos” – one of the Greek root words for culture – hence we derive the English word “xenophobia” from this, meaning a irrational dislike or hatred of foreign qualities, values, things, whatever cultural characteristics of “the other”. And as for anything specific regarding Islam, let me not speak on behalf of this, as I am not of Muslim heritage – I would prefer Muslims to speak for their own. And if this is you Singam, please feel free to perspectivise how you see things from within the context of Islam. However, as an indigenous Christian, I feel that it is appropriate to emphasise that in actuality, Christianity is a culture rather than a religion as such – this is the fact that much of the world tends to ignore – a culture which has as it’s foundation, spirituality. Organization (as in structure) is a composite of any culture or society – there is not one single society on the face of the earth which does not have a structure of some kind! Even the most decentralized societies such as the early Christian communities and other such tribal cultures still have a way of organizing themselves – the only difference between these societies and other more complexified ones such as those of ancient Greece and Rome or of the modern industrial West is that the latter have in-built institutional hierarchies from within which most of the organizing power is summoned.

    I must also apologize for my serious lack of paragraphs in the last comment I posted (26 Nov) – sorry for that Singam (and to anyone else who reads it!) but I was doing the commentary late at night and was rather flustered about other matters simultaneously so I rushed pasting it – which reminds me, a really good idea to have on this site would be a self editing button – I currently write for a blog that has this function and what it is is just a button which automatically becomes available to the writer of a submission to edit his/her own writing (i.e. you cannot edit another’s but you can edit your own anytime).

  12. Hi Siuyin,

    Don’t worry too much about the paragraphs. I know people who don’t use paragraphs and remain oblivious. At least, you wish you could go back and make corrections. 🙂

    I am not a Muslim. But I honestly don’t think that disqualifies me from making fair comment. I used Islam as an example because they are currently suffering from a severe image problem – the consequence of the phase of growth they are in. What they require is a Reformation, the kind that Martin Luther brought to Christianity, to depose the rigid leadership hierarchy and allow the people the freedom to rediscover God.

    Through my explorations, I have discovered that all religions have more similarities than differences. But often, the differences are what critically defines what is unique about each religion. Therefore the differences become more important than the similarities. And these differences lead to the wars in which more people have died than for any other cause.

    As to the origins of religions, none of the “founders” ever set out to found a new religion. They simply set out to restate an old truth that they had rediscovered, whether by divine revelation or by meditative introspection or whatever, and wanted to remind the people of it and bring them back to the correct path. (Of course, to Christians, Jesus is different. Let’s just leave it at that.)

    It is the followers of the teacher who found the religion. Most of the time, a single person can be identified as the one most responsible for the structure and direction of the “new religion”. I would in fact name him as the real founder.

    This is probably why the organised religion often ends up looking so different from the simple lessons of the original teacher. And that is why, as Sivin pointed out, churches at all levels, including the temples within each of us, need to undergo continuous reformation, always examining whether they have strayed from the path set out by the original teacher.

  13. Siuyin,

    Once I was so disillusioned with Christians, I refused to be called a “Christian”, and I preferred to say I worshipped Yeshua Hamashiach. I sometimes feel like doing the same now.

    Kian Meng,

    Not having been to the USA, i still have never seen the appeal of Dobson or the Republicans. They never have had a ‘bright side’, to my mind…

  14. Hello again Singam,

    If you had of read my passage thoroughly you would have acknowledged that I wrote about Christianity as “a culture” instead of “a religion”,
    you would have noticed I desribed at length the basis upon which Christianity can be defined as a culture – because actually, that is the true nature of Christianity – (whether you choose to accept that or not) – it is in fact a CULTURE because of it’s orginal mode of social organization, which is too often overlooked in the present to a large degree as well as historically but I understand there are many, like yourself, who insist upon looking at Christian culture from the angle of a religion. Before I learnt that Christianity was far more diverse in it’s expression than being purely a “religious phenomenon”, I used to classify it in the same way as you currently do – however I have since then broadened my experience in terms of that diveristy in forms of expression that it, as a culture, can take hence my current passion and enthusiasm in identifying with Christian culture in it’s most far reaching implication as one of the most, (if not the most) ancient of life-ways kind of common to many small-scale societies globe-wide. Please do not get me wrong here – I am not intending upon belittleing your outlook since I do understand from my own recollections regarding my personal experience of perceiving Christianity as “religion”, the inner motivations which can bring one to perspectivize it as you are doing. There can be much merit in this but at the same time, can I entreat you to consider the fact that spirituality, (whilst it has a purposeful process or structure which serves to organize how dynamics blend, converse and coherently mingle), also embraces life in it’s myriad of relationships and events, many of which do appear on the surface to exist outside the sphere of obvious spiritual encounter but nonetheless have deep spiritual implications insofar as the interactive ramifications of decision-making processes and the outcomes of choices are concerned.

    And thanks Daniel for your comment because I can sense the reality of what you said in my own past experiences also. There was a time (and sometimes that time still resurfaces once in a while!) when I was really embarassed boardering on ashamed of being called one – and I coudn’t really work out why until the Lord showed me how unrealistic and superficial (blatantly unrepresentative of His Son’s ways) the institutionalized church can be with history being particularly indicative of the types of worldly ideological conceptualizations that has so beseiged the church’s outward appearance to the point that they resemble in many epochs the caricature of the pharisees whom bore much righteous criticism from Jesus Himself. In addition to this, there was also a residual ingrained woundedness which actually stemmed from having my Christian identity distorted by these phariseic notions – there was a resentment about my identity having been the victim of a colonization of sorts whereby institutions were trying to acculturate me of all my Christian characteristics to the point where they had hoped I wouldn’t perceive those characteristics as being “Christian” anymore – instead it was their desire to see these authentically Christian characteristics replaced by an articifical diluted plethora of traits that were upheld and proclaimed by these instituions as ‘Christian’ when in actual fact they were nothing but the very opposite or at least rather foreign to indigenous Christianity. God furthermore convicted my heart that real Christians do not idolize institutions for God never intended His body to be reduced to an institution. It is meant to function as a people who are a Holy nation set apart by God for His glory. In fact, the early Christian community never used the word “church” to describe themselves. They were simply a community who culturally held a seperate identity from both the Hebrew nation and the other (gentile) nations, as based upon the model of both personal and community formation established by Jesus. Whilst it is simultaneously true that the word “ekklesia” was used amongst Greek speakers, it was intended primarily to function as a descriptive term to describe the organizational structure of role composition with communities. It was not intended to evolve into another word (i.e. “church”) to be used for denoting the whole body all of the time, thereby reducing it to nothing other than a lossely knit aggregation of individuals sharing the same philosophical outlook managed by an institutional hierarchy of officials who strikingly resemble wordly administrations in the details of structures and in their dealings with the rest of mankind and God’s creation. But just like the people of Israel when they had desired a worldly king to rule over them, they essentially disputed God’s desire for them to stay in a pure and unadulterated communion with Him as a simple society, and thereby sought to copy the sociocultural models of pagan societies, employing these for their own political and social organization.

  15. Siuyin, my apologies.

    It’s not that I missed your point about a culture arising from a religious doctrine. I didn’t realise that was the crux of your argument.

    Each Messenger who brings a message of change ends up triggering the formation of a new religion that eventually evolves into a culture. Religion is only a convenient label used to describe a group of people.

    Most people are not aware that there is no such religion as Hinduism. This was a label concocted by the British when they wanted to classify the people in India. They had their Christians and their Muslims. But they also had this huge non-homogeneous mass of people of Hindustan (the land beyond the Indus) without any label… whom they recorded as Hindus, and the label stuck. In fact, the native name is Sanathana Dharma – the eternal dharma: a way of life, more than a religion.

    Ask any Muslim and he will tell you Islam is a way of life, not a religion. Ditto for the Buddhists, the Sikhs… the term religion is only applied to the “others”. So believe me, I understand and accept your point of view.

    When you speak of a Christina culture, you must be aware that there are several cultures claiming that label. Those who live by the example and teachings of Jesus, those who live according to Old Testament rules, those who hold a bible in one hand and do nasty things with the other, even those who actively participate in that commercial gifting festival called Christmas.

    You and I could say they are not really Christian but they claim the label and insist they have the right to do so.

    At the end of the day, it’s not the label that counts. We may disagree about some of the specifics but we will surely agree that a large part of being a good person is about loving thy neighbour, offering the other cheek and doing good.


  16. Singam,

    I appreciate your apology in that towards the middle of your reply you actually made reference to how people from whatever society or culture they come from can position their spiritual outlook as “culturally contextualized”. I did not say though that Christian culture ever arose from “religious doctrine”. I basically said that it was the other way around! I am simply bewildered how you could have missed the main thrust of my argument when I stated it more than once, twice, three times – in different ways!!!!! That the original culture (of Christianity) had been turned by some into a religious doctrine is actually what I had clearly explored in the content of my replies – or should I say touched upon somehwat??? After all, I didn’t go into depth at examining how this actually happened – I merely made references to the fact that the fashioning of religious institutionalism out of a radically simple indigenous culture was in fact what happened to Christianity historically. To quote my first reply to you, I stated: “However, as an indigenous Christian, I feel that it is appropriate to emphasise that in actuality, Christianity is a culture rather than a religion as such – this is the fact that much of the world tends to ignore – a culture which has as it’s foundation, spirituality. Organization (as in structure) is a composite of any culture or society – there is not one single society on the face of the earth which does not have a structure of some kind! Even the most decentralized societies such as the early Christian communities and other such tribal cultures still have a way of organizing themselves – the only difference between these societies and other more complexified ones such as those of ancient Greece and Rome or of the modern industrial West is that the latter have in-built institutional hierarchies from within which most of the organizing power is summoned.” In my second reply, I maintained that Christianity “is in fact a CULTURE because of it’s orginal mode of social organization.” From there I went on to describe how one could also appreciate it from looking at it as a religion without this perspective necessarily detracting from Christianity’s intra-cultural diversity of expression.

    Relative to the issue of naming, I am also emphasizing the too often overlooked fact that “Christian” originally meant far more than a superficial label (given that the idea of a name bears different connotations to that of a label). My very first sentence read: “I feel that people who use the name Christian as a definitive label whilst actively engageing in the ways and publicising the values of Caesar as though these were reflective of Biblical teaching are doing a gross injustice to the name “Christian” and actually forfeit that name as a true and proper reflection of themselves – thereby rendering it the profane reputation as a label rather than a name designated by God to largely distinguish a chosen people from the rest of the world…” and again later on I stated: “Talk about cultural misappropriation and monopoly of a name which God has desired to be wholheartedly (not just superficially) but wholeheartedly reflective of the innate character of His own Son within a community context…”

    Summarily then, reducing the culture of Christianity to a religious doctrine, thereby tarnishing it’s name in the process of “labelizing it” frivolously has caused a severe misrepresentation or misrendering as it were, of Christian values out there in the world at large.

    I am glad Singam, that you did give some insight into the construction of “Hinduism” by British colonial rule. That part was very interesting to read!!! In some ways that struck a chord of similarity in my mind about the way in which “the church as an institution” was formed. Believe it or not, it wasn’t formed institutionally by the Christian community (which was at that time greatly reduced in number, not to mention in sociocultural morale as a result of the era of the persecutions) but by the government of the day – the Constantinian Dynasty in Rome.

  17. Siuyin,

    Thank you for trying to understand what is obviously a poor effort by me to explain what I am thinking. Allow me to try again…

    None of the Messengers sought to found a religion. All they did was to seek to bring their people back to the core values that had been taught before them but which the people had failed to follow. That was why Messengers had to be sent again and again.

    What they first achieved was a cultural transformation of their followers. So all of the “religions” in fact began as a culture, exactly as you say. It is the followers who institutionalised the culture into a “religion”. This truth is central to my understanding of religions. To me, it is so obvious that I failed to emphasise it.

    At the time of the beginning of a “religion”, there was no “holy book”. There was only the words and teachings of the one they followed. These words and teachings were remembered and recorded by the followers and eventually became Holy Books. In fact, for some people, these books became so holy, they became more important than the words and messages inside.

    I hope you can see that we are on the same page as far as understanding that Christianity (and the other religions as well) in fact began as a culture, and that culture is more important than the religion that followed. If we can go back to living the culture that was taught by the one we choose to follow, we will become good people.

    Of course, salvation is another matter altogether, but that is not the subject of this discussion.


  18. Thankyou Singham for your explanation of how you had interpreted what I had said previously. Whilst there obviously is a popular “religious paradigm” within the cultural evolution of Christianity, this culture is nonetheless remains intrinsically true to it’s own makeup as a culture regardless of what anyone has ever done to divert the world’s attention away from (whether consciously or unintentionally) knowledge of it’s true form. And what’s more is, truly “good people” could not possibly remain unaware of the hallmark of salvation in some way shape or form.

    Peace to you also.

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