Hearing The Voice Of The Refugee

My earliest memory of anything related to “refugees” was my Vietnamese friend who crossed the road with me to school in Leicester, England. We used to play together at the nearby playground, and occasionally borrow books from the weekly book bus near the flats. Our mothers would meet once awhile for cooking sessions and chit-chats. There was an unforgettable incident when we were at the playground and some British kids were shouting vulgarities at us for no apparent reason. Maybe we looked different? Or perhaps we were invading their territory? I was simply a young boy who followed my parents to the UK so my father could complete his studies. My Vietnamese friend fled his war torn country with his family to find a new life.

I must confess that “refugees” have not been on my radar for many years. Let’s face it, we’re so busy with our own lives. Whether it’s getting settled in our job or marriage, or in the early stages of parenting, as young adults in this developing nation of Malaysia, we don’t really have a lot of time to think about anything else or anyone else. “Refugees” are an interruption to peaceful and prosperous pursuits. But we cannot ignore that once upon a time, while some of our ancestors who stepped on the shores of Malaysia were migrant workers, there were also others who could qualify as “refugees”.

Like Bono alludes to in his song “Mysterious Ways”, I found myself reminded of the plight of refugees by my new found friends working for the United Nations Refugee Agency – UNHCR (http://www.unhcr.org.my/home) the past 2 years. The extra nudge was when a church member started working for the UNHCR this year. Alice Nah, one of the Coordinators of the Migration Working Group, which advocates for the protection of migrants, refugees, and stateless persons whom TK Tan writes about in “Pieces of Alice” has increased the volume for me.

Last year, I remember vividly being overwhelmed by emotion when I heard the stories and songs shared by different groups during the event Remembering the People that Built the Nation – The Meaning of Merdeka – Celebrating Labourers, Migrants and Refugees at Central Market Annexe, KL. While there was enough tragedy to highlight in terms of the treatment they have received as people without status in our so called civilized-developing-vision 2020 Malaysia, what moved me was their resilience to live and work towards a better tomorrow for their families, especially their children. What hit home to me even more was when a little boy sang with an angelic voice which oozed gratitude more than bitterness.

So, last Sunday, I could see the eyes and hearts of some church members open wider as they watched the Hands of Hope TV Ad (http://www.unhcr.org.my/cms/hands-of-hope). Perhaps there was also some level of discomfort because some might feel that the church should be more happy clappy rather than dwell on such negativity. Shouldn’t the church be about inner peace, escaping the troubles of this world? Why bring these troubles into our worship? What do the refugees have anything to do with so called “religious people” and law-abiding citizens like us? What is a deeper motivation for us to start being concerned and further being involved?

The Bible reading for that day was timely; as the pastor of the church I knew it was one of those “mysterious ways” moment where comfortable people like you and I need to be shaken (or kicked!) from our insulated selves. Allowing the Sunday to include the voice of the “Refugees” was a needed jolt for most of us who were getting over repercussions of the recent petrol hike. The story of Hagar and Ishmael found in Genesis 21:8-21 is not story which I have often heard in my life as a Christian. And even if I did, my faint memory tells me it was not too friendly to the Egyptian slave woman who served as a surrogate mother on instruction by Abraham’s wife Sarah. Ishmael as the older son appears to be unimportant and must be discarded from the plot thus far. Then the preacher would go on to spiritualize the text towards uplifting Isaac as the promised one over Ishmael, who is seen as an interruption to God’s plan. But, I think there is a tremendous “missing the point” here.

The passage tells of how both Hagar and Ishmael were cast away into the desert, only armed with some food and a skin of water which was probably only meant to slow down their “death sentence” after being cut off from the “promised” family. What caused me distress when I read the story was the tragedy of a mother’s struggle whether to watch her son die, feeling so helpless and hopeless. The plight of Hagar and Ishmael can represent so many marginalized people, especially refugees living next to us, invisible to us unless there is a controversy worthy of mainstream newspaper reporting. The text in Genesis 21:15-16 reads:

When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

Many stories of refugees probably end here, with tears. There’s a deep drive within us to refuse to see this as the end of the matter. If that drive is there, then perhaps we are still human after all and not mere desensitized consumers waiting for our next pay check! If there’s any discomfort reading the above passage and hearing the real life stories of refugees in Malaysia, then perhaps calling ourselves people of faith has some meaning because this faith needs some action in concrete love. Beyond getting in touch with our humanity and faith active in love, it’s really about reflecting the true image of our Creator and Father of us all. Genesis 21:17-19 turns the tragedy upside down:

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

The “promise” to live and even to be a great nation was also given to the boy who by now should have been deleted from the story. Hagar’s helplessness and hopelessness is attended to, the boys’ cry is heard, and there is still a future for him! It’s not just nice sounding comforting words, but a well of water right before the their eyes. They are not only to survive but in due time thrive. The closing of this short episode is noteworthy in verses 20-21:

God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

God did not abandon the boy in the desert but walked with him as he matured, and the promise of him becoming the Father of the Arabs blossoms with his new wife from Egypt. I would be interested to hear how my Muslim friends would tell the story of Ishmael in relation to their history. I’m confident this can be a conversation in the right and respectful spirit as Christians and Muslims would find a great resource in mutual dialogue and living together.

I would not want to ignore the nuances and difficulties involved in working with refugees and the wider systemic issues, which I do not feel qualified to comment. There are others who are involved more directly and with more experience who can aid us in these details. I’m also aware of friends who are wary of religious people who are only focused on getting converts from people in times of vulnerability. The issues are complex and we do not want to sweep them under the carpet. Sincere, well-meaning, and passionate individuals from the NGO circles and religious groups will need to work out the sensitive matters revolving around religious convictions and secular aspirations. This will be ongoing, since not everyone in religious groups are preoccupied with converting people, and not everyone in NGOs would deny the importance of religious faith. There will be those who can broker this conversation further with workable models.

What is important for me at this stage, as a start, is the call to all of us, especially Christians and Muslims, who can open ourselves to the story of Hagar and Ishmael above, and find strength and guidance in this ancient text to hear what God is saying to us in relation to those who are “cast away” from their nations and into our society. The reality, perhaps, is that there are many who are like me not too long ago, when “Refugees” is merely a word and not a face in our consciousness.

Together with those who operate more from a human rights perspective, as well as those who are in the institutions which can effect change, we can engage in ways forward to not only “hear the cries” of those with no home, but also to “lift them up and take them by the hand,” towards building their families and a future of hope. During that Sunday worship, an invitation was given for English teachers for children to come forward to serve. There are always opportunities where we can transform our prayers into action.

Back to my earliest memory of “refugees”: while my Vietnamese friend took the vulgarity thrown at him at the playground, he stood firm with dignity and respect. He held me and walked away from the verbal abuse; it was not worth our time. He had more important things on his mind—getting on with the plan where there is hope and a future for him. It’s time for Malaysia to serve as hands of hope for more boys and girls like him who do not need to be stuck in a detention camp, but can walk the right path from the playground.

Submission or Subversion?

Transforming Society: How Christians Can Impact The Public Square in Malaysia (Biblical Perspectives) – Part 2

“Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand – from the outset they must give up, as in appropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?” Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: what is the will of God?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the chapter on “Christ, Reality, and Good” in Ethics

After the recent March 8th Elections, even until the month of June, the interest in politics has not waned. In fact, for some Christians there is a sudden boldness towards more involvement, or at least more voice, in matters of public concern. This is heightened by the recent petrol price hike, with economic concerns now entering the mix as well. Again opinions vary on how each of us can respond; even as Christians we may not have a unified response. The specifics we are confronted with is part of the bigger picture in which Bonhoeffer tries to bring some focus to: How shall we live as Christians? What questions can we ask to guide us?

When it comes to answers in general and political persuasions specifically, there seems to be so many options and degrees in which one can operate from as seen in the following diagram which I stumbled upon on the internet.

Many of us in all honesty would intuitively have been drawn to one option more than another. How do we as Christians find a good response?

Rather than deal with the complexities of these different approaches to political and economic systems, it is tempting for some to jump into simplistic answers by quoting a few proof texts from the Bible to justify positions (which might fall into any of the options in the diagram). Worse is when we offer what is our personal over-biased opinions and throw in a verse or two from the Bible to Christianize our views. Bringing God and prayer in at the end does not necessarily mean we speak for God. Many others, even our friends from different religions can use the same “absolutist” tactic. Some out of genuine sincerity, while others for personal gain.

And yet, in Bonhoeffer’s advice quoted above to take a step back and reframe our questions, he warns us not to be locked in a position of mere human effort and centeredness. Bonhoeffer tries to redirect us back to the starting point of faith and ultimate reality, which is God. We must walk with caution as many indeed use religion to manipulate. But to totally ignore questions surrounding the relationship of faith and politics would mean we surrender to the louder voices which often distort the “Will of God” to serve the “Will of the powerful few” or the “will of those who are unable to deal with the complexities of life in this globalized world.” So, we still need to speak honestly, reasonably and with discerning courage, from the perspective of faith.

As Christians, it is right to say we turn to the Bible, which is the norm for our life, faith and practice. At least we start with an external authority to provide the framework for our thinking and decision-making process. And while differing interpretations exist, we must start with a desire to be faithful to the “will of God” as revealed in the written “Word of God”.

In my previous piece in this Transforming Society series, “It’s No Longer Just about Me!”, I attempted to bring to our awareness a common blind spot in our reading of the scriptures caused by a “me-centred” approach, and expressed the need to replace it with a “missional” approach where the personal and public concerns are more integrated, and, in my view, more faithful to the overall theme of the Bible. So, we as enter the Bibilical texts with confidence to get guidance, we must at the same time with humility keep watch on our own prejudices and predispositions.

The most common passage we start with is Romans 13:1–5, which at first glance seems to imply an unquestioning “submission” to governing authorities. Many sincere Christians use this passage as the “handle” with which they try to make sense of their relationship with the governing authorities specifically, and involvement in the public square in general. The passage states:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

The Micah Mandate already has an excellent article with a richer interpretation and application of Apostle Paul’s words in Dr Isabelo F. Magalit’s piece “RIGHTFUL RULE: ROMANS 13 FOR TODAY (A Philippines Perspective)”. There he rightly clarifies what being entrusted with “authority” means and how “submission” relates to the understanding of “authority” as rightful rule.

The reason we submit to our rulers is our recognition that their authority comes from God Himself. We submit to Him by submitting to them. We cannot rebel against them for that is to rebel against Him. To rebel here is literally to be anti-what-God-has-established.

A subtle distinction can be made between submission and simple obedience. To obey is to do what one is told while to be submissive is literally to rank oneself under another. Perhaps the reason Paul uses submission is to show that our obedience is not blind but is qualified by God’s law. He may also be stressing the needed attitude: we are to willingly submit to our rulers in recognition of their God-given authority over us. It is for the Lord’s sake that we submit (cf. 1 Peter 2:13).

But, later Dr. Magalit clarifies that that our submission is not blind or unqualified, as our absolute loyalty lies in God alone:

Our rulers do not have absolute authority. When Jesus was asked the tricky question about paying taxes to the imperialistic Roman government, His reply was: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Some have seen here a reference to the tithe (which belongs to God), but if this is so, then some governments which get more than ten per cent in taxes are getting more than God! What Jesus meant rather is that Caesar is entitled to be supported with taxes, but only God deserves absolute loyalty! When Caesar claims allegiance that belongs only to God, the Christian has no choice but to say no.

When rulers give orders which are contrary to God’s law for example, by ordering infanticide (Exodus 1) or the worship of idols (Daniel 3), or by prohibiting evangelism (Acts 5), then Christians must say: We must obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:29).

What I wish to do in this article is to draw our attention to another important resource on this matter from the New Testament: the book of Revelation. Sad to say, the last book in the New Testament is one of the least read (unless there is an end-time fever in the air), and most misunderstood books of the Bible due to the lack of familiarity of the kind of style in which it is written. Due to the unfamiliar genre of the book, I do advice caution before we use the language of Revelation without appropriate interpretation.

A quick glance through the book will help us to hear a voice that does not sound like uncritical submission to authorities or mere passive surrender to the course of history. In fact, the language used is often downright “subversive” of the empire of that time, challenging the absolute authority of an earthy kingdom and lifting a higher, heavenly kingdom over the course of human history. One passage worth meditating on is Revelation 17:1-5:

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. 2 With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. 5 This title was written on her forehead:

MYSTERY
BABYLON THE GREAT
THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES
AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

The way the inspired author of the book of Revelation uses language like “Babylon the great”, “Mother of Prostitutes” and “the abominations of the earth” on the ruling empire of his time does not sound to me as unqualified submission. It clearly shows how a minority people of faith under persecution, with some facing martyrdom, were able to resist and even subvert ungodly and unrighteous powers through perseverance, intercession, worship, and a greater vision of who is really the one in control of the way history will play out at the end.

Such a vision painted in the book of Revelation empowers those who are marginalized in society to not give up, and make the needed changes to show one’s faithfulness to this vision and the one who gave this vision. This is clearly seen in the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor in the first three chapters. John Howard Yoder, in his landmark book The Politics of Jesus presses this point by highlighting a basic assumption in the author of the book of Revelation whom he calls a seer,

The substantial assumption which moves the seer is that God is an actor. How God acts can be expressed only in metaphors which our mechanically formed world vision can only consider fantastic or poetic. Nonetheless, the addressees of “revelation” are expected or commanded to behave differently, within the system of the real world, because of that “information” which has been “disclosed” to them about God as purposeful actor.

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994, p. 245

I resonate with Yoder’s emphasis on God as the actor, and in the light of that reality we need to change the way we act within the confines of human history.

We miss the point of the Book of Revelation if we merely see it as some wacko end time doomsday Nostradamus-like story which scares people to heaven faster. When I was a young Christian this kind of preaching may have made the Bible more relevant to current affairs and fuelled my evangelistic zeal for a moment. But it falls short in helping us to see how its vision may serve as a paradigm of “subversion” to help us reorder the place of ruling authorities (especially corrupt and evil powers) in the light of the one who sits on the throne of the universe deserving the worship of all nations. Revelation is more about faith and faithfulness in trying times than the fear of missing the boat to heaven. It ignites our imagination in how we can unmask the powers which seek to dominate and push others aside, and free the weaker minority to arise and stand up to be counted. This vision out of the future or present unseen realm of God, together with the more “submissive” model in Romans 13, gives two significant resources and guidance to us, especially in our current desire to “impact” the public square.

So for a start, in the midst of the messy convoluted scenarios we are faced with daily, as well as the pressure towards finding faithful solutions to the problems before us in the public square, I believe the 2 paradigms found in Romans and Revelations provide a faith-based framework to work out our specific responses. I see them as parallel and complementary paradigms to guide us to discern God’s will for our decisions to be involved in and thus impact directly or indirectly the public square.

While holding the two paradigms from the New Testament in paradoxical tension together:

… homemakers holding candles during a vigil for religious freedom are united with analysts sitting in academic forums and think tanks debating policies,

… representatives voicing the concerns of the people in parliament are united with intercessors praying in the church,

… bloggers writing freely in cyberspace are united with concerned citizens writing letters to the editor,

… the voice of the more empowered are united with the voice of the less powerful,

… all who are engaged at all levels operate from critical submission and discerning subversion are alerted to be on our guard against being driven by anger, and frustration, but now by reengaging the Biblical perspectives, we act with discernment and decisiveness after drawing from the wisdom of God whom we submit to wholeheartedly!

It’s No Longer Just About Me

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.

Examen 35: I’m Not Sure I’m Pure…

“So what race are you?”, a question is posed to me.

My reply, “I’m supposed to be Chinese, according to my identity card. I’m Hokkien. I can’t speak the dialect though. My mom is Chinese Cantonese I think but rumor (actually pretty reliable family history) tells me I’m not a pure Chinese. Granddad was an adopted child by great grandfather, and I eavesdropped once when the aunties were telling this to my mom saying great grandmother was a migrant worker perhaps of Indian origin. Well, the fact, is I don’t really know. What I do know is I’m not a pure Chinese.”

Of course, what I do know as well is I am Malaysian!

The morning breakfast was supposed uneventful. There I was with my RM3.50 Wantan Mee and RM1.50 Nescafe (wow! if I have a RM5 breakfast every morning that would be about RM100 a month for breakfast).

The three friendly looking strangers came and sat with me outside. The inside of the coffee shop was full so sometimes we have to sit with other friendly looking strangers like me!

After the initial introductions, the conversations drifted into little comments on the rising crime rate in the country. The little blurbs that sneaked into the sentences included the senselessness of the killings after theft, indirect racist remarks on 2 other races. What was next was the education people get which later progressed to how people who don’t study get into universities. So some structural critique added to the already bordering commentary totally with no self-critique but only assigning blame to others. Sure, this was only morning breakfast chit-chat right?

I probed. Perhaps we can do something about it. I suggested some more distant ideas like how about using the coming elections to express our disappointments and dissatisfaction. The reply gave me a feeling that the trio or at least one of them articulated what could be on most people’s minds. In short, something along these lines, “We may be unhappy (and we are unhappy) but there’s no freedom to say what we feel. At the ballot box, we will still vote those in power. We have no choice.” Earlier, just for some ice breaking, I mentioned perhaps we might have a version of what the Buddhist monks are doing in Mynamar (not exactly the same but some form of protest). My breakfast partners shook their heads and said this will never happen in Malaysia.

The general feeling was of resignation.

Am I the only one who seems to think otherwise? While I was never one who would give up so easily, I was one who merely saw all the socio-political stuff from a distance. This has changed. It was a slower process for me. But irreversible. As for personal feelings after conversations like the one above, words like “disturbed”, “ashamed”, “curious”, “frustrated”, at times, “angry” and “impatient” came up.

There’s much to learn. There’s much to correct. Starting with ourselves. And that requires honesty and humility.

Lord have mercy.


Editor’s note: Examen is a prayer where we try to find the movement of the Spirit in our daily lives as we reflect on our day. This prayer can be made anywhere: on the beach, in a car, at home, in the library.

Who Did Jesus Vote For?

This is about one of the most anticipated time in Malaysian history. Yet, where would Jesus stand in all of this?

8th of March 2008 was an exciting day. It was International Women’s Day. It was Datuk Sami Vellu’s birthday. It was also my daughter’s third birthday. And it was Elections Day for Malaysians. I was seriously humoured when I saw the Mak Bedah from the Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI) looking for a candidate to nominate as an educational effort to the public on women’s issues. Talking with my friend who services our photocopy machine has awakened me to the heart issues boiling in his community made public by HINDRAF. Like it or not, with all the promises made by the politicians, I constantly wonder what kind of environment will my little Elysia and her brothers grow into in the next four years or 40 years.

So, for those who are voted, who did we vote for? And what was on our minds when we cast our vote? Some Christians might say, “How you vote isn’t going to change the world, but how you live.” Good point. I used to think that way and it does sound right. Surely putting our faith in politics to sort out our world’s problems is misguided. Jesus didn’t come to start a political party. Apostle Paul wrote about submitting to the government in Romans 13. So, perhaps we should just pray. Perhaps.

But then, in Mary’s song in the opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke, the vision of the Kingdom of God moves with the heartbeat of the child in her womb, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

The birth of Jesus sowed seeds of change that not only involved changed individual lives, but also the way people relate to one another in the world. The way Apostle Paul handled the case of Onesimus in the letter to Philemon is socially and politically subversive. So, there is more than meets the eye when we try to find guidance on politics in the Bible.

Politics is one of the ways we relate to each other—it’s here to stay, at least until the final chapters of history wrap up. As long as I’m still living in this world, I realized that “how I vote” will send a message to those who are aspiring to fulfill their promises of good governance the kind of values they should be operating with. It also reminds me to keep my end of the bargain in living up to the expectations I have on them. A more informed, prayerful, discerning vote reflects the changes in me, and how I want to live—mercy, justice, and humility are good starting points to echo Prophet Micah 6:8. These are also the words resonating in my heart when I cast my vote, and the lens which I view the candidates (as well as the political parties they represent).

So, I won’t put all my eggs in the basket of political promises of political parties. Change in Malaysia involves more than politics, but change in Malaysia cannot ignore the political processes and the environment where these changes need to happen.

In exercising my right to vote, the principles in Proverbs 31 also ring true. It begs us to question what kind of government would God want, and what qualities should politicians strive for? Also, how do we live, as the rakyat?

As Proverbs 31:4 states, those in authority should uphold justice, defending the oppressed and the poor.

Verses 8 – 9 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

The rest of Proverbs 31, although most often used to describe a good wife, is relevant to how we the rakyat should live. We should work hard at our job, make sound financial decisions instead of lazing around and blaming the government for our lack (Proverbs 31:16-19).

We too, must consider others and not just ourselves. Racial harmony is not just an abstract concept for the government to drum into our heads. We must live it in our everyday lives. Open our hearts and hands to those different from ourselves, take care of the underprivileged.

Verse 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.

I was ready to drive to the polling station on that day. It’s one vote. At least to me, I wanted to make it count—for equality and the dignity of all, for the marginalized and the poor, and for the future of our children. That’s where I see the heart of Jesus lies. That was my guide to vote, as a Christ-follower. That’s where I stand and can do no other.

Christianity can never be a personal matter. It has public consequences and we must make public choices. Many people think Christians should be neutral or that the church must be neutral. But in a situation of injustice and oppression such as we have in South Africa, not to choose is in fact to have chosen to side with the powerful, with the exploiter, with the oppressor.

– Desmond Tutu


This article was co-written with Selina Cheng

Do Something

“YOU CAN DO SOMETHING. You can get on a path of wisdom and walk it. … “Build your house on a rock,” as Jesus urges us. … You may ask what good all that will do in the face of a task as massive as repairing creation? … I cannot offer an answer that proves the human venture on this planet will be successful in the long run. Neither did Jesus. But he encouraged his disciples not to lose heart, to trust that God’s desire for the world will triumph in the end.”

– Robert Corin Morris, Provocative Grace: The Challenge in Jesus’ Words, (via Upper Room Daily Reflections)

There are many who are expert in giving us a picture of what’s wrong with the world – specialists in giving diagnosis. And I noticed even for common people like us, the energy generated while trying to explain what we see as off track seems more exciting than actually doing something about it.

We give ourselves excuses and rationalize our way out of the hard work of thinking through concrete plans to make some change. Of course, we still need some imagination for possibilities. Tragically, we are always tempted to give up hope and look for greener pastures. Even if we’re already on the road to so-called “a better place”, aren’t we still called to leave behind something—or have we even lost the heart to do that little bit?

I had the chance to visit the Malaysian Parliament building a couple of weeks ago. What to me for many years was distant suddenly became close. Being in that environment made me wonder about many things related to the socio-political scenario in our country. I recall how often I do not view the “somethings” I do in any relation to what’s happening there. But that kind of mindset is a defeatist mindset. We have lost the battle even before taking any first step.

Getting ready to vote in an election is one step in doing something. Reading reflectively and critically the news is another step. Intelligently engaging in conversation on matters which concern all is one more step. Informing my intercession with the struggles and sufferings of the marginalized keeps my spirituality on earth. Discussing the dangers of racist tendencies from our background while parenting adds to the list. Asking my son Gareth how his friendship with his Malay friend at school is enriches our father and son time. Attending forums and meeting fellow concerned Malaysians multiplies what may have started as mere thoughts.

The list goes on and on.

All little “do somethings” is part of the bigger puzzle and hopefully a chain reaction of hopeful change that’s so needed in a time where empty promises are in the air.

I’m meeting up with some special people tomorrow night. And then another group on Friday night. Sunday will be another important gathering. I desire to see all of us “doing something”—I know we are all trying.

it’s good to know we are not trying alone. And better still, usually after these meetings which include spiritual direction, mutual sharing, planning for action, and communal worship, I find myself connecting back to the One who writes the final chapter of the world. Thanks for including us in the story thus far.