Of Christ and Caesar
CHRISTIANS often lack a clear understanding of how the State is viewed in Scripture. As Christian citizens, we find ourselves increasingly affected by the policies and decisions of the government, affecting more areas of our lives. Sometimes these policies incorporate the beliefs of other faiths. With the increasing politicisation of the nation and political involvement of Christians, several political and biblical questions need to be grappled with.
Do Christians have any responsibility for how governments govern? Should Christians in democracies try to use the many avenues to influence government and its policies? Do opportunities for political involvement constitute an opportunity for doing good or a temptation to get embroiled with evil? In what situations, if any, do Christian citizens share any responsibility for political outcomes? To what extent should the Church, as a formal institution, get involved in political affairs? Which option is more Christian political activism or political withdrawal?
Historically, of course, matters of State and politics have been extremely important for the Christian church. Especially lamentable is the fact that in many instances, like Ireland and Rwanda, Christians have fought one another because of political divisions. What is our response to these realities?
Down through the ages, Christians have had difficulty knowing how to relate to the state and the government of the day. Some have fled political engagement, some have tried to remain aloof, and some have attempted to link the cause of Christ to the cause of the State. To introduce some of the key issues of contemporary political challenges for our reflection, we need to examine the following questions from a biblical perspective.
What does the Bible teach us about government and the state: Gods relationship to political structures and authorities, the proper role of government, the duties of Christian citizens and the relationship of the Church to the political realm?
What arguments can be made for a strong Christian presence in the public square? To what extent should church and state co-operate? What should government expect from Christian citizens and from the Church? What should Christian citizens expect from the government? Which ethical guidelines should shape Christian responses to government?
As the line between those who govern and those who are governed becomes increasingly blurred, especially in the stable democracies, the obedient exercising of Christian citizenship will require much knowledge about, and substantial participation in, the kingdom of this world.
For Christians the political realm should always lie
within a larger Christian framework. Politics is only one component within the larger
Christian value system. But it is a very important one.
Therefore, as we vote in the general election, we need to
pray and to constantly abide by our godly convictions and not the persuasive words of
men. There is no perfect party, even Israel was not perfect and yet God blessed
In a more positive vein, Dr Ng said there was a need for the Malaysian Church to make a systematic, sustained effort to raise issues like justice, accountability and religious liberty. This and being witnesses of integrity and love in communities and not just at election time is the way Christians must impact the politics of this nation.
Let us learn to bear our crosses daily before we place our crosses on the ballot paper. This is how we earn our credibility to be heard, said Dr Ng , the research director of Kairos Research Centre which organised the forum that was held at the Petaling Jaya Evangelical Free Church on Aug 5th.
He said Christians need to be aware of the issues affecting them.
For example, the fact that moral education in schools is now under the Bahagian Dakwah Jabatan Pendidikan Islam (Missions Section of the Islamic Education Department) and not the Curriculum Development Centre, and the fact that the High Court seems hesitant in taking up cases where there is overlapping of concerns between Muslims and non-Muslims. Also of concern, said Dr Ng, is the proposed guidelines for worship site allocations for non-Muslims.
These guidelines include the need for applications for approval to be referred to the State Islamic Council to obtain its views and that public buildings such as schools, community halls and clubs shall not be used as places of worship for non-Muslims.
A watershed in Malaysian politics is how Dr Lee Kam Hing describes the coming elections. Although he says any elections is not the be all and end all in the affairs of the nation, the social changes apparently taking place, particularly among the younger generation of Malays, is significant.
Questions on the leadership of Dr Mahathir, whether the reformasi movement has broad-based support and the criticism of the police, for example, will have a bearing on voting behaviour among the Malays, but it is difficult to predict how they will cast their ballots, said Dr Lee, research editor with The Star newspaper and former professor of history at Universiti Malaya.
He said traditionally among the Chinese, the business and rural classes vote for the establishment, professionals and intellectuals vote for the opposition and the remaining voting population cast floating votes that is to say, they are more open to changes in their political leanings.
He said the Internet and the global media is also a new force in this election as contrasted with the monopoly of the local media by the ruling government in past elections.
In assessing party manifestoes, Dr Ng said checks and balances between the legislation, judiciary and the executive should be considered as a criterion, as well as a philosophy of welfare for the poor. He said the track records of the parties and candidates need to be reviewed to test the genuiness of the programmes being proffered.
While believing that a diversity of political views should be allowed among church members, the Church itself should be non-partisan. However Dr Ng made an exception with PAS if its stated goal of establishing an Islamic State is still its agenda.
Dr Ng said should parties change their stance in the course of the election campaign, one should discern whether the change is a fundamental shift in their philosophy or a temporary alteration to gain access to power.
Replying to a question from the audience, Dr Ng discussed the pros and cons of stability and change. While stability is to be desired, it should not translate into business as usual where business is corrupt and inept. Change is to be desired if it addresses and rectifies problems, but not if it degenerates into chaos. At this juncture, the two-thirds majority debate was posed.
We should pray for a stable government without arrogance, concluded Dr Ng.
Dr Lee said stable governments tend to be more liberal, but when threatened with division from within or attacks from without, tend to turn into a form of soft authoritarianism or semi-democracy.
If PAS wins more seats, the BN will be under greater pressure to accelerate the Islamization process, added Dr Lee.
Lim Heng Seng said Malaysia is a secular state as provided for under Article 3 of the Constitution. This means the state should not favour any one faith, exercising neutrality over religion. However in Malaysia, this is not entirely the case as special provisions for Islam have been made like government funding to set up Islamic educational institutions.
Over-zealous officials in government administration take advantage of this by implementing. departmental policies to make further encroachments into the religious neutrality of the Constitution, said Lim, the chairman of the Industrial Court.
The Constitution, in other words, is no safeguard against the move towards an Islamic or semi-Islamic State.
UMNO, Lim said, can never outdo PAS in its Islam-ness and is trapped into playing fire with fire. While UMNO has traditionally tried to counter PASs Islam-ness with its image of Malay-ness and protector of the race to fight PASs encroachment into Malay votes.
But there is now a rethinking. Moderate elements (groups like Sisters In Islam, for example) are now recognize the excessess and are putting on the brakes in Islamization as the more radical, militant and fanatical face of Islam is seen as not appropriate for a pluralistic society like Malaysia, said Lim.
The Keadilan Factor was also raised at the forum with several possible scenarios.
If it is merely a platform for someone down the line to re-enter politics, then it is to be dismissed. Its manifesto is great: doing away with communal politics towards the creation of a truly just, egalitarian, multi-racial society. If genuine, it would indicate a maturing of the political process in Malaysia, commented Dr Ng.
However Dr Ng feels a non-communal platform is not a winnable recipe in Malaysian politics which is still ethnic-based.
All agreed that at the end of day, the Christian voter needs to pray for discernment as he marks his cross come election day.
A Necessary Critical Voice
Politics and my political party merely serves as a platform for me to achieve these ends. Its my ministry for this season of my life, Dr Ongkili, of Kadazandusun origins, explains.
Being in the Opposition, his job description includes highlighting weaknesses in government, taking active part in debating public policies and the formulation of laws in Parliament, and voicing the concerns of his people. This requires him spending time with his constituency in order to listen to their problems.
Dr Ongkili, MP for Bandau and State Assemblyman for Tandek, has slept in longhouses and gone camping in the jungles of Sabahs interior to do this. Of course being a native himself, he is quite at home when doing his rounds.
Going through government channels and Parliament is standard procedure to seek out resolutions, but often giving public voice to problems (that is, via the media) has to be resorted to.
But more than addressing ad hoc problems is the duty of educating people on issues of the day and helping them find long-term answers to their difficult circumstances, says Dr Ongkili.
To this end, this Harvard graduate of agricultural science and economics, conducts several seminars and workshops on agriculture, land issues, economics, and leadership and management at his private farm in Sabah.
Opposition politics is an uphill task, says Dr Ongkili. Its harder for us, but somebody has got to do it. The Constitution makes provision for it, and a healthy democracy cries out for it, he says.
The constraints facing the Opposition are well-known: namely poor tolerance by government and a muzzled media. This translates to limited resources, including finances and staff to get things done.
Dr Ongkili manages by raising his own funds, and getting the support of friends who believe in what he is doing. In this job (as an MP), one has to be professional. We need to get our facts right, do our research and lobby for answers.
He cites a controlled Press, government insincerity, wastage of funds in mega projects, unequal wealth distribution and poverty, unprincipled political behaviour (like disloyalty to the electorate by frog-jumping party politics) and material development to the exclusion of the nations morals, are some of the critical issues facing the country.
Nonetheless, Dr Ongkili is quick to give praise where praise is due: he supports the Multi-Media Super Corridor, for instance, and is thankful for our culture of muhibbah and goodwill among the races. These are pluses which will keep the country in good stead.
Dr Ongkili, an elder of Sidang Injil Borneo, Likas, laments the fact that Christians are not getting involved in the political arena. In the name of wisdom, many are not coming forward to speak up against wrongs and to speak up for what is right. This is not a call for civil disobedience for for going through valid channels like writing to the Press, MPs and PM.
While agreeing there is a need for wisdom and discretion, to be bold and lion-hearted, he says, are biblical mandates too. Of even more concern is the indifference of Christians to politics because of comfortable lifestyles.
Christians can still participate in politics however by another powerful option prayer. As Christian politicians, we really need the fervent prayer of our fellow brethren, says Dr Ongkili.
The 45-year-old father of two was formerly a UPM lecturer
and a senior researcher at ISIS, a Malaysian think-tank in Kuala Lumpur. His last post
before going into politics was as the executive director of the Institute of Development
Studies in Sabah.
But after much prayer and counsel, he accepted the offer of a political post, much to the delight of his father (the late Mr Opposition Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon).
I believe God has called me to work within the system, said this MP for Segambut. Having been divinely drafted to serve, Dr Tan now believes his duty is to push for a more aggressive programme of low-cost housing, community projects that marshall support for youth and family-orientated projects via vehicles such as Rakan Muda, PTAs and Rukun Tetangga, and through community celebration of festivals and sports events.
A medical doctor by training, Dr Tan, 52, started out serving the poor and underprivileged a passion inculcated in him by his father, he said. Eleven years ago, for example, he started the Pusat Bantuan Sentul to provide free legal and medical aid for the poor in the neighbourhood, with the help of his lawyer sister and some professional friends. He had earlier worked at the Hospital Orang Asli and did a two-year stint as a volunteer rural health officer in Sudan.
These early experiences enriched him, he said, preparing him for his future vocation in politics. On the national parliamentary level, I will strive to ensure that the process of consultation, dialogue and tolerance at the grassroots and other levels is enhanced. These are important ingredients for the politically stable government we now enjoy, said Dr Tan who runs a medical clinic in Kuala Lumpur.
Dr Tan also feels that Malaysian Christians are a passive lot. Politics decide everything in national life. At the very least, Christians should be politically conscious of the issues of the day, even if they dont run for public office, said Dr Tan who worships at Grace Methodist Church in Sentul.
And as if in anticipation of the unstated assumption, he
added: Politics is not corrupt, but a necessity. It is some politicians who make it
After all, as members of the nations sole national legislative body, MPs are involved in raising and debating issues that may eventually become laws of the land.
However, reality dictate otherwise.
MPs need to know the people they represent before they can be a voice for them. They need to do their homework, consult the experts and read widely to understand and keep abreast of issues. In other words, we need well-educated MPs. Such is sometimes not the case.
Dialogue sessions and meet-the-people sessions via residents associations are just not enough.
Our MPs are often hampered with limited resources to back their case with facts ( like not enough staff and access to expert opinion. In some countries, MPs are provided with staff and facilities). Instead they tend to rely on emotive issues to drive their case, says MP for Petaling Jaya North Vincent Lim.
Also, instead of bringing up in Parliament pressing, endemic concerns affecting thousands, some MPs content themselves resolving ground issues: enforcing already legislated laws. They are bogged down by local, isolated and personal grouses of individuals duties that should be under the purview of local councilors and should be resolved at this level first.
What MPs need, says Lim rightly, is vision. They need to know their role: being active in the law-making process of the nation and to give it direction.
Lim, who has degrees in both engineering and in law, has given his fair share of proposals to Parliament. Among others: amending the law to get litterbugs to do community service, levying on prisoners a charge towards a criminal compensation fund to compensate victims families and codifying the law of contempt in court.
He has also proposed a law reform commission to be set up to look into the overhauling of present laws, some of which are extremely outdated and not in tune with present times.
Of course, above everything else MPs need to care
passionately about politics to better peoples lot, rather than for the perks and
business contacts. Needless to say, this cannot be assumed in our fallen world.
Evangelical political engagement in the Philippines came
a bit late. Remnants of erroneous teaching still prevail: politics is dirty. One will
eventually have to compromise with evil. Public service to ones country is just not
possible without losing ones integrity. Thus, Evangelicals have neglected this area
of ministry in favour of spiritual ones such as evangelism and missions. In recent years,
a socio-political awakening took place and the new-found zeal has found the public square
as their worship.
The Church is tasked to model the Kingdom of God and to
establish it through the preaching of the Gospel in every human sphere and institution.
She provides the moral conscience of a nation so that peace and justice may reign. Every
Christian must be interested in the well-being of the body politics where he belongs.
Being in the minority only underscores for a better evangelical strategy to leaven
society. Our churches and schools should inculcate in the young the need for Christians in
public office. Ignorance is not a virtue. Christian leaders must be informed of the
current issues affecting the nation.
We have to avoid the extremes of indifference based on realism and romantic fanaticism based on illusion. It seems that our model should be what I call prophetic pessimism, the realistic pessimism of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which did not prevent them from passionate social engagement. It was not their illusion that people might perchance listen to them but their sense of duty which compelled them to proclaim judgment regardless of the cost to themselves.
Preaching the Gospel
The truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe, because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace...for which we all long...There is little hope of democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves. Political structures, state institutions, collective ideals are not enough. We parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You the Church can teach the life of faith.
We need to live out the principles of the Kingdom of God in our lives, homes, businesses and churches before we can earn the right to be heard by society. The States court of justice were pagan and should not be called upon to administer justice and to settle disputes among Christians (1 Cor 6:1-5) because they are to live above the standards of society (Rom. 12:2ff).
Evangelicals tend to be more theological, therefore confrontational and self-righteous of their positions. There is more love in the non-Christian world at times. Christianity includes modeling citizenship as part of the Christian witness to society. The Christian is the prototype of what citizenship should be in a country. In modeling the Kingdom life, we must not impose on the value system of others in our pluralistic society. God dignifies man with a moral choice. We cannot do otherwise. On the other hand, we cannot follow the Essenes and find our modern Qumran caves in isolation from society.
Separation of Church and State
I am in favour of the separation of the Church and State. The only instance when this union of Church and State will be consummated in its perfect balance will be when our Lord Jesus returns and rules de jure and de facto all of creation. He will be King of kings and Lord of lords.
But the Church and State are not independent of each other. They have co-ordinate functions as divine institutions interdependently acting to realize Gods redemptive will for humanity in their respective spheres. The State is Gods servant to do you good and an agent of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:4). It can regulate church activities to protect the non-impairment of the rights of others and to enforce the non-impartiality clause against any religion. The Church is to declare the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:27). It deals with the question of morality and the spiritual well-being of man. For this reason, it must counsel and warn government of the will of God in their legislations and acts. The Church coexists in a perpetual state of tension with the political order. Its responsibility is not to identify with the State but to remind it of the divine demand for justice.
No State Religion
The Bible does not prescribe a particular form of government. No political system has the monopoly of truth. Christians are committed to diverse political ideologies. Capitalism is attractive because it encourages individual human enterprise but repels because in the passion of competition it seems to care less for weak and poor. Socialism, on the other hand, has compassion for the weak and poor but tends to stifle individual human initiative. The best ideology is one that encourages the positive traits of both these systems. One of the strengths of Christianity is its ability to function and flourish under any political system, but I believe in democracy because it respects the free will of man and gives him the opportunity to actualize his full potential. The desire of people for justice makes democracy a possibility and the reality of injustice makes democracy necessary.
Government Duties To Citizens
A good governor need not necessarily be a Christian. The Bible says there are those who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law...they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or defending them (Rom. 2:14,15). A vestige of this goodness remains and discerned by natural reason which become the ground for social ethics in different societies in the world.
The primary duty of government is to promote peace, and peace exists when justice prevails where every man is given his due as an image bearer of God. Among others, it includes, the right to life itself and to worship God freely. For religious liberty is the foundation of all other freedoms. Justice includes just laws and equal access to the remedial processes.
The laws of the land must, whenever possible, reflect
Kingdom principles of justice and equity. The legal remedies must be available and
affordable. The law itself maybe of general application but if only the rich and those
that have connections to the powers that be can avail of it, then injustice results.
Justice is inseparable from righteousness, the inner prompting to do right. It is made possible through the inculturation of Biblical values but best carried out by the transforming power of the Gospel.
In my country 23 of 24 senators are millionaires and over 100 more millionaires are in Congress. A senator said that only about 85 families in the Philippines control the wealth of the nation. Then we have the power brokers in the military and in government service. All these will directly or indirectly legislate and administer justice to the over 70% of our 57 million people who live in poverty. Perhaps it is because of the governments propensity to define justice on the side of those in power that God reveals Himself as the God on the side of the poor.
The Bible exhorts: Dont take advantage of the poor just because you can. Dont take advantage of those who stand helpless in court. The Lord will argue their case for them and threaten the life of anyone who threatens theirs (Prov. 22:22-23). Also: Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. Protect the rights of all who are helpless. Speak for them and be a righteous judge. Protect the rights of the poor and needy (Prov. 31:8-9).
The Church must take the side of the poor, not necessarily against the rich per se but against oppressors. The bias of God for the poor stems from the fundamental assumption that their poverty is due to the exploitation of the rich. However, the Bible also points to us that poverty can be due to laziness and that all wealth is not the result of oppression.
Law alone is not enough. There must be mercy. Justice with compassion is the best antidote to legalism and abuse in public office. It overcomes sentiments of revenge or vengeance for wrongs suffered.
Christian Duties to Government
Christians are to give honour and respect to government officials. This exhortation to respect is enforced by the religious title minister (diakonos) for these officials. The same Greek word is used for the deacons in the church. Public officers are, in the sphere of government, servants of God. Moses wrote, You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people (Ex. 22:28). The text does not distinguish whether the subject of respect is a good or bad person in authority. The honour for persons in authority is vested in their office. For Christians, our respect is compounded by the fact that public officials are also created in the image of God and for whom Christ also died for.
Paul, in his letter to Timothy asks Christians to pray for all who are in authority (1 Tim. 2:1,2). He does not distinguish the subject of the prayer, whether they be good or bad public officials. This is not surprising when Jesus calls for an even more radical Christian duty to pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44).
Christian citizens, may in this way, influence the course of national affairs, a fact often forgotten except in times of special crisis. The optimism of praying for those in authority is grounded on the sovereignty of God who instituted government. Christians must bring their concern to God for their leaders to administer justice speedily and impartially, to discharge their duties with faithfulness to the public trust and to serve in office only for the common good. We are to pray that they will be spared from corruptions, immorality and vested interests Prayer is not just a sign of dependence upon God but also a willingness to act as God requires.
On Civil Disobedience
Civil disobedience is a public, non-violent and conscientious act contrary to law, usually done with the intent to bring about a change in the policies or laws of the government. It is a last resort after constitutional remedies have been exhausted, for the establishment must be given a valid opportunity to right the wrong being raised.
It must be done openly not only for the sake of principle but also for the strategy of appeal to public opinion. There should be likelihood of success, particularly when the intent is to produce changes in laws and institutions. Possible social effects must be considered such as social disruption, promotion of lawlessness, loss of personal freedom, responsibility to ones family and other ministry commitments.
There should be acceptance of the penalty for breaking the law. This, in turn, is an act of respect for rule of law and distinguishes civil disobedience from anarchy and insurrection. It is this element that make civil disobedience also an act of civil obedience.
It can be done in collaboration with other citizens or groups. However evangelicals should consider certain issues before any commitment is made for joint rallies or activities. Are the issues clear? Are the objectives the same? If there are differences, will people know the difference? If there is a reasonable belief that violence will develop or that the demonstration will provoke violence, should evangelicals be part of that? Christians are to be faithful unto death (Rev.2:10). Yet Christians were not to resist the State, even the evil State or to seek its overthrow. We are to be submissive but critical to the State Are there other alternatives where solidarity with the larger body politic can be demonstrated such as expressing concern in dialogue with the proper authorities, lobby, written endorsements, media campaign or prayer rallies?
The critical question is, What are the cases that would involve permissible civil disobedience? This is where we need to examine every act of Government, whether it is morally right or wrong, otherwise we may find ourselves patriotically defending the cause which is morally wrong. This is an edited extract from Dr Vencers 58-page article.