You Surpass Them All, Mother

My mother was born four years after the First World War and has since lived through many more wars and rumours of war. Her few precious possessions act as time markers for her long life. These can be little things like her silver chain-link belt. She bought that shortly after she was married at nineteen. Her eyes light up whenever she tells a tale or two about her belt.

Some of the markers are bigger objects like trains. When she reminisces about the various places the family had stayed previously, the good old keretapi or the Federated Malay States Railways comes to mind. For some inexplicable reasons she had always lived next to the railway line or near enough for her to hear the train’s whistle – in Nibong Tebal, Jawi, Sungai Bakap, Taiping, Ipoh in the north, and finally much farther south in Kuala Lumpur.

Her daily routine was calibrated with the times when the trains would pass by. “Oh, time to prepare lunch,” she would say typically when the southbound train whistled and hissed to a halt near our old government quarters in Nibong Tebal. We lived there sometime in the early fifties. By the time we moved two decades later to KL, the federal capital, there were more trains. Apart from the morning and night runs, the faster intercity ones had also been added on. So there were more whistles to guide her day by, from breakfast to the occasional midnight cuppa.

Even her school timetable was tied to the sooty Puffing Billy’s chug-along between her town and Bukit Mertajam where the Anglo Chinese School was. She studied there from standard one to form three, the highest level then. Thereafter, she had to go to Penang or the Prince of Wales island as it was known in her days. But that was too far away. It was on this shuttle that she first met Father. He had just started work at the District Office in her town.

Father passed away 16 years ago. Mother moved into a nursing home four years ago. Her few precious possessions became even fewer. The less significant time markers had to be given or thrown away. This was heart rending. The odd pieces of Sheffield cutlery had to go. So too her collection of “By appointment to His Imperial Majesty” jam bottles and biscuit tins.

There are two particular time markers that I would not get rid off because she keeps asking about them. Her foot-peddle Made-in-U.S.A. Singer sewing machine and her meat safe. But they can’t fit into her room at her new home.

She repeatedly reminds me not to give the 50-year old sewing machine away. So it stays with us until further notice. Mother has not said anything about the meat safe for over six months now. But that stays too as it has gathered too many memories to be moved.

She still talks about her Singer as if it is part of the family. Her machine is special as she had paid an extra ten Straits dollars for a reversible feed oscillating shuttle model. In other words, it can sew backward and forward. The neighbours were envious, I suppose. But that was a lot for an optional feature considering a bowl of noodles would cost perhaps five cents then.

With four young mouths to feed, Father’s salary as a Division Three clerk could not stretch far enough for us to get the local tailor to sew our school uniforms. Off-the-shelf ones were not invented yet. So after the last train whistle, Mother would start sewing our shirts and pants and pajamas and bed sheets and whatever.

Then there’s her meat safe, which had travelled from town to town as Father was promoted through rank and file to become a Division One officer in the Auditor General’s Office. Mother designed it herself as a food cabinet and got it specially crafted by a carpenter in Hutton Lane in Georgetown, Penang. Mother had also cleverly thought of putting the ventilation netting at the rear so it won’t look like one of those cheap meat safes.

I marvel at those times when Father’s salary was almost eaten away by inflation yet she managed keep her food cabinet quite well stocked. At least it was never empty. They say there are nine ways to skin a cat. Mother knows just as many to cook a chicken. The bones go into the soup, the entrails pan-fried with vegetables, the wings and drum sticks deep fried and the breast meat and larger pieces steamed with Chinese wine.

They decided to become Christians in 1987. Their pastor presented them with a large print Bible. Like her Singer sewing machine and food cabinet, the new found Bible has also become another of Mother’s time markers. She reminds me of the woman of noble character described in two verses in Proverb 31 in the Bible:

She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat from the bread of idleness.

Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her

“Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”

Indeed you surpass them all. Happy Mothers Day.

The Word Became Flesh

It was 1988. I was doing my chambering when the Malaysian Bar called for an emergency general meeting in response to the dire judicial crisis facing our nation. In its protests against the then Prime Minister’s atrocious interference and violation of the Judiciary’s independence, among others, members of the Bar were asked to wear a black band around their arms indicating that the independence of our judiciary is dead! Appearing before one of the High Court judges, the following week, I was asked, “Miss Ting, have you come to launch war against me?” I had not come to war against him but we knew that it was a very sad period for the nation. One of the three pillars of democracy had been yanked out!

It was a crucial time for me, as a member of the Bar and a citizen of Malaysia; failure to protest or to speak up amounted to my failure in being responsible to the role I was to discharge in looking after God’s creation, about which He declared, “It is good!” The absence of an independent Judiciary that could dispense justice without fear or favour implies the tearing down of the check and balance mechanism that secures and protects the people’s dignity and right to life and property, leave alone the flourishing thereof for the common good. A grievous evil had been done but I do not remember any attempt to discuss such matters in the church — not in our Bible Study sessions, not in the Sunday sermons. The nation has since been reaping and continues to suffer the grave social, economic and political consequences that are a result of the paralysis of the independence of our Judiciary.

I wondered whether Jesus would have had a discourse with the disciples on the matter. I wondered what our perception and/or understanding of God would be, had the Word not become flesh. And when the Word became flesh, what have we made of it? The Word, Jesus, became flesh. Jesus came into the messy world ruled by a super power of the day — the Romans. Jesus lived in the context of the socio-political-economic system of the time. Logically, that informs me that He is God, who was not disconnected from the day-to-day socio-political-economic issues of the day. The power structure during Jesus’ time controlled not just the politics, legal matters, education and so forth, but it very importantly controlled the economic system (“The Ancient Economy” by Douglas E. Oakman in The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation, ed. Richard Rohrbaugh. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996, 126-143). The power structure built upon “patron-client” relations was wrought with cronyism and corruption, yet maintained for the mutual benefit of those within the power structure — at the expense of those outside the power structure, the poor masses. Our observation of the powerful and manipulative wrangling to preserve the power structure would have been His as well. Our observation of the powerless and commoners on the street struggling for their daily bread such as clean water, food, transport, education and healthcare would have been His experience, most likely.

Ruthless dealings with those who could not settle their debts were implied in the sayings and teachings of Jesus Christ. People and peasants were burdened with debts. In His words to the crowds, (it may be inferred) He exhorted them to negotiate to settle their debts with their creditors before the latter presented the matter before the judge, which would have resulted in the debtor suffering greater loss (Matthew 5:25). Careful reading of Matthew 5:24, which dealt with bringing an offering to the temple altar, would suggest that the religious practices of the time would not have saved the debtor from the hard realities of the matter of loans, interests and debts in Palestine. Gerard D Heuver wrote about the failure of the religious authorities of Jesus’ time in addressing the harsh economic issues/realities faced by the poor peasants (Gerard D. Heuver. The Teachings of Jesus Concerning Wealth. Chicago: Flemming H. Revel Company: 1905, 57-73). Jesus was not uninvolved in and had not remained detached from the socio-economic-political issues of his day. Thus, we read in Luke 4:16ff: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” In other words, Jesus was saying that injustices should not be left unaddressed, mercies should not be withheld and oppressors (the arrogant ones) should not be left undealt with.

Justice, mercy and humility pave the way to the flourishing of life and the upholding of human dignity. It is good news! It speaks to me that God cares for justice and mercy for the people. The Word need not become flesh but when God chose to be one of the poor, I understand a little more about humility. I understand that God cares not only about things above but also things here below and the processes pertaining thereto, including political process, political activity and public process that lead to good governance and just and merciful laws and public policies for the common good. Good governance was merely an empty promise made by the national front. Disrespect and even violation of the people’s constitutional rights, especially those of the powerless, became almost routine in the nation’s day-to-day events; rule of law was given lip service. Arrogance was a mark of Umno leadership. It seemed that there was no stopping of the perpetuation of injustice, ruthlessness and arrogance in the Umno regime. Even though Malaysians were perplexed and almost crushed, they were not in total despair!

March 9, 2008 is historical for Malaysia and I pray that it be accurately archived. The Easter celebration of newness and hope was exceptionally meaningful. Hope and light dawned after a long, long dark passage of hopelessness and helplessness. I voted for a Malaysia with hope, hope not just for myself, but for Malaysians and generations of Malaysians to come. I voted for the restoration of the independence of our Judiciary, even though I am not a member of the Malaysian Bar (for the moment!). I voted for the restoration of justice, mercy, integrity and humility and I encouraged others to do likewise. Change has come and it is as if the year of the Lord’s favour has dawned. Yet, it is just the beginning of the change that has come — and where will the change take Malaysia, take us? We are unsure. There is one thing I am sure of, and that is the importance of our continual participation in the national political process, political activity and public processes as followers of Christ. It is our responsibility to pray for the leaders of our nation. We need to continue to respect and befriend others regardless of race and religion, because God cares for them too. We need to continue to stand up for and advocate the protection of the Constitutional rights of every Malaysian, that the change voted for on March 8 may be given opportunity to bear fruit for a better Malaysia.

Getting Involved

When I left university and joined the teaching profession, I was immediately faced with the issue of teachers’ pay. My colleagues in the staff room were engaged in animated debate between classes. The NUT (now NUTP- National Union of Teaching Profession) man was signing up members. Another new Christian teacher had strong views that Christians should not associate with a union which was advocating for higher pay and in favour of picketing to achieve that objective. I was too green and raw and eventually went along with her stand. Several months down the road, NUT won the battle for higher pay and eventually the new pay cheques arrived.

I distinctly remember how I felt when I was handed my pay cheque with the increased amount. Rotten and hypocritical. As others celebrated, I was bent over a pile of exercise books pretending to be occupied with marking my students’ essays.

I had taken no part in bringing on this cause for rejoicing for my colleagues throughout the land. Unlike me, many of them had cast in their lot with NUT and organised and campaigned hard. They took the risk. They won. It was their hard-earned, long-awaited victory. Yet, it was I, a new teacher, who gained the most from their efforts.

This experience went deep into my psyche. It taught me many things. I learned about myself. I learned about my colleagues. I learned about the trade union movement. I learned about the needs of others far far greater than my own. I learned from those who were committed about fighting causes which have ramifications for others.

I learned about myself and others of us who said we were committed to our religious faith but as it turned out have not learned our responsibilities for others who have just causes and just needs. I relearned my civic responsibilities. I relearned my faith, that faith without action, according to the bible, was futile and impotent.

I recalled all the Christian books I had read, all those biographies of Christians who waged long and hard battles against slavery, against poverty, against social injustice. Going further back, I recalled buying my first copy of the bible and the hours upon hours of reading from my own copy of the bible. About the prophets who went against the establishment and spoke up for truth and justice. About John the Baptist, a voice willing to cry out in the wilderness, speaking honest truth about the structural endemic sins of the powers that be and how he had spoken even to the high and mighty, which eventually cost him his life. Talk was not cheap. About Jesus Christ who went through a mistrial and was subjected to the most humiliating and agonising physical beatings and mockings before been nailed to a cross between two criminals.

I had all the necessary education. From my upper secondary school days, through university until I arrived at my first ever posting as a teacher, I had read about apartheid in South Africa, the Tibetan issue, the international arms trade, trade in illicit drugs, the gross discrepancies between east and west in the international trade agreements, etc.

I had all the necessary education. But as it turned out I did not have the necessary resolve, courage, integrity and concern to join a just cause. The day I received my upgraded pay cheque, on hind sight, I realised that I could at least have joined the union. Then as a member, I would have been placed in the position to make further choices within the union as they become necessary. I could have first become a card-carrying member, and even if I had felt (rightly or wrongly) that I could not on points of conscience participate in every one of its activities, I could have at least contributed in other ways to the cause.

Instead, I let down the Christ I professed to follow and just sat and sat on the fence. I chose in effect to be merely an arm-chair critic but nevertheless profitted from the labour of others.

Is that what it means to be a follower of Christ? Stay away. Stay clear. Stay safe. Serve yourself and let others and their problems be. Make your claims of your non-eligibility, non-involvement and non-participation on “religious” grounds. Keep your hands clean. But ever willing receive your upgraded pay cheque! Is that what it means to be a follower of Christ?

Fast-forward two decades from that moment of truth I had faced in my school staff room to that momentous time in the nation’s history when the deputy prime minister was summarily sacked. Still haltingly and hesitantly, I nevertheless cast my lot with the victim and with those who sensed that the opportune time for change for the nation had come. Enough was enough.

I got off the fence and made my own adult decision. I met up with the victim. I started to write, to speak, to act. I joined another senior Christian to start a series of prayer vigils. I started to write according to my conscience and posted my reflections online (at a time when I didn’t yet know about the term “blog”). I met up with an ever-increasing group of reform-minded Malaysians. I was involved.

I became a card-carrying opposition party member. I served in the supreme council of an opposition party.

There were consequences in taking such a step. I was obliged to resign from positions in which I was serving in several Christian institutions. To some quarters, my getting off the fence was considered inappropriate, improper, even unclean. Disapproval came in different forms- scandalised voices and looks, giving way eventually to silence and isolation.

Somewhat overstated perhaps but I believe till this day that had I affiliated myself instead to a party of the ruling coalition, or stood with the powers that be in condemning the victim, the reaction would have been somewhat more circumscribed than what it had been. Indeed we are a feudal society with feudalistic instincts and mindset. It was okay to identify with the ruling parties but not the opposition. Somehow the ruling parties were reckoned to be more legitimate than the opposition.

Yes the establishment of the Christian community was right on principle to stand on neutral grounds. But alongside that principle, I suspect there was also an element of fear. Fear of the powers that be. Perhaps even the fear of losing some “favours” considered important to the Christian community. But neutrality is not an excuse to see, feel, think or do nothing about issues of nation-building, justice and peace. (These and other issues I hope to address in future postings.)

But a few long-term friends understood, a few others were willing at least to withold judgement. I got a card from someone important to me which said, “Do you know how special you are?” at a time when I was certainly not feeling special at all!

Having divested myself from most of the offices I held within the Christian institutions, I went deeper into the movement with my new-found friends, my new responsibilities, my newly-added mission.

The effect of this was that I was no longer just reading about the news, I was with my friends in the know of what was making the news, knowing the truth behind the headlines.

I always thank God and praise Him for the privilege of meeting so many reformists, fellow strugglers, fellow Malaysians of all races, religion and occupation from all over the land. We are friends forever.

But being green and raw and perhaps somewhat ill-advised we were humbled at the 1999 general elections followed by a membership adjustment when a whole lot of colleagues left us en masse upon the decision to merge with another party.

Then followed the 2004 general elections where we were humbled even further. By which time, the analysts and commentors and the ruling coalition were ready to scornfully proclaim us as dead and irrelevant. In fact on hindsight it was a rather useful time for our movement to rediscover, rejuvenate and reinvent itself under the radar as it were.

Fast forward again and just weeks ago, my wife and I was in some seaside kampung sitting beside the new MP of Kuantan and her husband and grandchildren, meeting with thousands of ordinary folks from all walks of life who came to greet her and receive her thanks for their support.

Malaysian democracy has advanced several rungs up the ladder. We now possibly have the beginning of a two-party parliamentary system. In the federal parliament, the government will be without the two-thirds majority which hitherto had allowed them to amend the federal constitution at will. Five state governments have been formed by the opposition.

Indeed, the terms “opposition” and “government” no longer mean the same thing in every state.

Glowing, excited and ecstatic remarks have been written and published about this new formulation and new dynamics in Malaysian politics. (Even by previous nay-sayers and detractors.) New possibilities have suddenly emerged and despite the few hiccups that have cropped up here and there, it seems certain that the reform agenda will have practical outlets in both parliament and at least the newly-captured states.

Amidst this euphoria of triumph (however limited), perhaps it is appropriate to observe that this time round, for some individual Christians, pastors and churches, this recent 2008 general elections have been a special milestone whereby they had consciously got off their armchair and their hands-off policy and got themselves involved with individual campaigns waged by candidates of parties on all sides taking various roles. Win or lose, they got involved. They stood up for their convictions. Not contented with merely receiving information (or misinformation) from the news media, they went behind the headlines as it were and saw how the actual dramas were unfolding.

Change for the better is good for all spectrum of the political divide. Change for the better must come to all political persuasions, all political parties, even the political process itself. Our parliament and state assemblies must have the interplay of government and opposition forces, the checks and balances, each pushing the other to higher and higher standards of governance and responsibility to the people.

Malaysians of all walks of life, all ethnic origins, all religious persuasions can now reflect on what their roles should be. They can sit and wait to benefit (or lose out) from the labours of others, or they can leave the spectator stands and work to achieve their aspirations and dreams.

The lesson I learned in my school staff room remains with me. The principle remains true. If I want something or believe in a cause, I must put my shoulder to the plough and join with others to make it happen. This way the outcome is more meaningful, the result is that much sweeter.

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.

Easter Sunday

Sunday’s here again
He’s risen on the third day
Indeed He’s risen
Christ won Satan lost
Still many would not believe
The victory o’er sin
First the women saw
The empty tomb and much more
Others also did
His pierced hands and feet
Showed he to whom that doubted
Yes, my Saviour lives
I too believe not
Till I felt His love within
Peace now fills my heart
O Hallelujah
Jesus now on God’s side sits
O Hallelujah.

Dari Sini Ke Sana

From a distance, the world seems brighter now.
Even though we’ve far to go.
From a distance, our land more hopeful now.
Even though our doubts may grow.

For the process of change is never immediate
And the work of reform never instant.
For the breakthroughs occur in seen and unseen ways
And the landslides come after much rain.

So the people whose lives have so clearly been changed
Need to learn what it means to be vigilant.
And the people whose hearts have so clearly been changed
Need to learn what it takes to be different.

For the makers of mischief abound in each space
Ever ready to pounce on our fragility.
And the stalwarts of change need the traits of integrity
So their strength needs support sans refrain.

For we’ve come through a tunnel, after years of much struggle
Yet the mountains ahead must be climbed.
And the troopers of thought who have worked through the night
Will have journeys ahead that will strain.

But the soul feels, the world seems, much brighter now.
Even though we’ve far to go.
And the heart sings, the land leans, more hopeful now.
Even though our doubts may show.

Let the questions emerge in a climate of discussion.
Let the doubts be allowed to find sites of expression.
Let the fears be raised in spaces of moderation.
Let the cynicism float freely to find transformation.

We may not know the way to a quick solution
We may have to give time for a gradual clarification

Something new has been born
Something new must be worn

To sustain the tides of a truthful reformation.

Seberang Malaysian

The Gospel, Romans 13 and Oppositional Politics

It’s easier to explain to non Christians than to Christians why I am in an Opposition party – but well, DAP is now the GOVERNMENT of Penang, how’s that Church?

For one, there is always the cold, “apolitical-ness” approach which the Church in Malaysia adopted.

This is probably for most bred by the culture of fear inculcated by the BN government to maintain their hegemony beginning in the late 80s with ferocious attack of the Executive on the Judiciary which led to the sacking of the then top judge Tun Salleh Abbas (and five other judges of the highest Court) and the rape of our consitutional rights when the Executive gave orders for a “cleanup” operation which saw the silencing of idealogical and political dissents and religious minorities through the gravely unjust preemptive law, ISA.

And not least because of the fact that a majority of Christian views we receive are the loud voices of urbanite churches consisting mostly of middle class folks. Their economic and social position stiffened them to take any active part in national politics. Whatever risk they may take, it is either in secrecy under the pretext of being wise or kept minimal within a “religious” context. A number of Christians would profess readiness to suffer for the gospel, but that usually means proselytizing non believers.

And of course, in view of the above, our theology either became a reason or a coverup for our non-involvement.

I have written elsewhere about being Christian and being political, but how about being Christian and being Oppositional?

One passage which I often hear quoted against participating in oppositional acts against the ruling government is Romans 13.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Roms 13:1-7)

To put things in perspective, Rome was the super power of the day, in the 1st century. She was the economic and political force which dominates that world, much like the Great Britain in the 18th century or the United States today. Rome’s imperial propaganda was the Emperor, Caesar, is Lord and Saviour and only through him the world can have peace, Pax Romania – the peace of Rome.

Within the dominion of this superpower (or any superpowers for that matter), there can be only one Lord, any contender would be considered a threat.

It was in such a context that Paul penned (or rather dictated) his seemly innocent opening to the letter to the Romans. Here’s my paraphrase:

Paul, in the service of King Jesus, called to be an emissary, given the task to proclaim the good news of god which he promised beforehand through his messangers in the holy book, concerning his Son, who is of the royal line of David according to the flesh, and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, King Jesus our Lord, through whom we have received grace and the appointment as emissaries to bring about faithful loyalty for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to King Jesus [in Rome] (Rom 1:1-6)

This was an blatant and outright challenge of Caesar, and therefore, Rome’s power. Paul was in effect saying in the heart of the Empire, there were a group of people whose loyalty was not ultimately to the Lord of Rome who claimed to be the Lord of the World, but to Jesus, another king, of the Jewish royal Davidic house who is the true Lord.

Epistle to the Romans was not the demure-obedient-to-the-government sort of letter most Christians would like it to be. That was just too convenient for the gospel (the euangelion, a term which incidently Caesar adopted to proclaim the news of his ascension or victory). Paul’s was not a dichotomize theology where the religion and politics are separated by a thick wall of indifference and where the church ought only concern herself with the thing called “religion” and leave politics to those outside.

To be sure, Paul was not a politician. And he never intended to be. But the tone of his message was clear. The gospel is confrontational in all sense of the word to the power-claims of the rulers of this world.

Two points to consider about the gospel in relation to authority, and in our context, political authority:

Firstly, the gospel is oppositional to the powers that be which make absolute claim of authority. There is always the tension of earthly (super) powers against that of Christ and the gospel made it clear that in his Resurrection, Christ was proclaimed the son of god in power, the Davidic king who will rule over all the world now in parts and one day completely. Any other claims of absolute kingship is in opposition to the claim of the gospel of “Jesus is Lord”. The imperial ambitions of earthly powers must submit to the eschatological reality of the lorship of god’s chosen Servant.

Secondly, the gospel is good news to the people, most especially good news to the downtrodden. The gospel is biased, politically not least, towards the mass. It is their gospel, given for their happiness. The target audience of the gospel is the “world” because god so loved the world he gave his only Son. Because the bad news was the mass being cut off from the love of god through one man, the good news was the reconciliation of the mass to god, also through one man, Jesus. Jesus’ ministry, Luke told us, was opened with the reading of the portion of Isaiah which hinged on the proclaimation of blessedness and emancipation of the marginalized mass. The gospel sought to restore not only the imago dei (image of god) in the human person, but also the relationship between humanity and god. And therefore, the gospel is oppositional to the powers which sought to inflict sufferings on the mass, which sought to deface and degrade the value of the glory of god in the living humanity. All political powers and structures which reduced humanity from the beautiful and glorious image of god to mere political serf are in direct conflict with the gospel.

I am no party loyalist and I do not believe in the total transformation of humanity by political ideologies alone. But I am convinced that while the power of god works in the transformation of individuals, the gospel which I believed in and proclaim compels me to be biased in the above directions. And not least because, the transforming power of god through the gospel is also at the same time a challenge to the powers that be.

When the Church today calls for an apolitical stance, it is a self-abdication of her responsibility as agents of the gospel in the civil sphere. We have forgotten Moses who challenged the despotic rule of Pharaoh, we have forgotten Elijah the troubler of Ahab, we have forgotten the prophets through whom the wrathful words of god’s displeasure often came to the rulers and kings of their times.

We have forgotten the earliest disciples who went against the good will of Rome who offered amnesty for the desert of their faith in Christ. We have forgotten Polycarp who at old age refused to bulge one step in his allegiance towards Christ, the true Lord over and against Caesar of Rome. We have forgotten Ambrose who stood against the Emperor and refused to administer the sacraments to him before the Emperor perform a penance for his cruel massacre. We have forgotten the Rt. Rev. Desmond Tutu who lived out the biased of the gospel for the marginalized mass and defied the powerful overlords of apartheid.

When today we call for a blind submission towards the government taking Romans 13 as prooftext, we reduced the gospel from a powerful force of public transformation into merely one of the private religions vying with other religions to proselytize non believers.

But what of Romans 13?

We must firstly understand that the types of government in biblical times, whether in OT or NT, are different from that of our own times. Even within our times, there are many different forms of government and political structures that we cannot afford to take Romans 13 or the Daniel account as a one-fit-for-all political stance without being awkward if not absurd.

I believe that Paul, after his subversive opening greetings in Romans and proclaiming the radical gospel of “Jesus is Lord” against “Caesar is Lord”, was making a point that there are sub-authorities (or Kam Weng’s sphere authorities) whose powers are derivative from god’s. These earthly authorities, not least political ones, are here to maintain order and facilitate daily business. In other words, Paul was asserting that the gospel is not anarchy.

There is no power which can be the ruling authority forever and likewise no power can be the oppositional force forever. March 8th has taught us this lesson in Malaysia. But the contention of the gospel remains, Jesus is Lord, and if Jesus is Lord, all other claims to lordship are challenges which the Church must reckoned with. This does not mean that only Christians can rule or that a non Christian government is necessarily to be disposed of. But the Church is always called to play the role of the prophet in the wilderness inviting the people to welcome the Lord, the true and loving King of the world and as we make way for the righteous rule of the true King, we can anticipate a world of justice, peace and reconciliation.

Visible Hope

I am invisible.
I am not. But I am.
Being, Faith, Identity.
Crushed by the pillars that should uphold me, constitutionally.
But instead, crush me….crush me.
Ground into the soil I am not allowed to be a part of,
Crush me, but not my spirit.
So real. So invisible.
Despair, hope.
Anger, hope.
Frustration, hope.
Hope….dwindling, dwindling.
Hold your breath, Shut your eyes.
Shut out the oppression, knives, slurs, arrogance,
Injustice. …Fear.
So real, So visible.
Where is the light?
The release from shackles unseen!
Condescension that grabs us by the throat.
Enough! Be silent, they said.
So real. So invisible.
We will not be.
Morphed into seething resentment,
We will do battle. Only, gently.
We have to make a difference.
The pen is mightier than the sword.
A mark, only a mark.
Is what it takes.
To mark an indelible change,
Forever inked into our Nations History.
So real. So visible.
Fluttering on the edge of dawn,
A fragile wisp of hope.
That grows and grows, and now
Starts to rip apart my mask of
I am real.
I am visible.
I am Malaysian.