Between Romans 13 and Revelations 13
(NOTE: This is an extract. The full paper 'Human Dignity and Religious Liberty' is available in the book titled Religious Liberty after 50 years of Independence)
Christians often look to Romans 13 to answer questions on the relationship between Church and State. Some appeal to the passage to argue for unqualified submission to the authorities. I find this rather troubling since such a recommendation ignores the dynamic nature of the State that can swing from being God’s servant (Romans 13) to being a demonic State demanding ultimate allegiance and worship from its subjects (Revelation 13).
But what is stated clearly in Romans 13 – that the State is merely a servant of God and thereby possesses only limited authority – is correct. Likewise, the State – being merely one created institution amongst other divinely-installed institutions (family, school, market and church) – must respect and refrain from infringing other spheres of human authority.
Primary Social Task
The primary social task of the Church is to be itself – that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the dangers of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption.1
The Church must resist two temptations:
- Subjecting the gospel to ‘righteous’ anger, lending itself as the instrument of political/ideological struggle. Charles West has given us a pertinent challenge,“The church must project Christ’s Lordship into the search for a proper structure of justice and peace in society, which is also the business of political authorities. It must do so holistically, not taking refuge in the false purity either of nonpolitical projects or a romanticised oppressed people. It must do so in a secular way, recognising the involvement of every religious project in the mixed motives and misused powers of human life, the need of correction, and the limits of political coercion in the establishment of true humanity. The life of the community of faith with Christ Himself should keep things in proper perspective.”2
- Accepting the terms on which the State allows them an undisturbed existence so long as it (the Church) remains isolated from the concerns of society. The end result would be that the Church legitimises the status quo. To quote West again, “the Church of Jesus Christ is called to be the Church for the world, not the servant of one of the world’s powers.”3
We affirm the clarion call from Bonhoeffer when he insisted that the individual’s duty to obey the State is presumed until the State directly compels him to offend against the divine commandment, that is to say, until the State openly denies its divine commission to enforce social justice and protect the freedom and dignity of the individual and forcefully suppresses the gospel. At this point, Christians must choose to disobey the State for conscience sake and in obedience to the Great Commission.
Realistic Social Engagement
Christians must avoid a naïve political outlook and must not pretend that they are pure and immune from the temptations of power. Still, the Church cannot avoid being in the world even though it may not be of the world. The Church must engage politics in a ‘secular’ manner, that is rooted in concrete historical realities and yet, while recognising that notwithstanding its mixed motives, it will seek to project Christ’s lordship into the search for a proper structure of justice and peace in society.
The Church should acknowledge that no human form of government is perfect, and all are necessarily under constant scrutiny in terms of the processes which they have promoted and do promote, and the processes which they counter and negate.
As human rights are inter-related, and are also subject to ongoing historical processes, their fulfilment, negation or violation by any group or agencies or even churches, have to be judged in a similar manner. Structures created by human beings are in constant danger of becoming self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling, and hence of becoming idols – in a truly biblical sense.
The right balance
A Christian approach to civic responsibility balances both Kingdom Justice and the Gospel of Peace in order to distinguish responsible from irresponsible political action. Pursuing justice without peace only perpetuates social conflict. Accepting peace without justice amounts to capitulation to a hegemonic power. Politics is judged on moral terms derived from a transcendent authority (God).
Christian political analysis must be rooted in local history and social context. This requires sensitivity to the ever-changing dynamic equilibrium between the competing power groups in society. Demands for both individual rights and community rights must take into account the enduring principles that were foundational when the founding fathers of the nation agreed in a social-legal contract at Independence (1957) and formation of Malaysia (1963).
We must deal with the full reality of politics and government in the contemporary world. Public policies must be supported by public arguments that go beyond simplistic quoting of scriptures (Biblical or Quranic), naïve moralism or mindless ethnic nationalism. We cannot work for anything less than a cosmopolitan, pluralist democracy.
This calls for a hermeneutical retrieval of Christian political theory that was vigorously developed in church history. I have in mind the Christian understanding of Statecraft which is defined as the “art of careful reasoning, judging, and acting in the process of making, executing, and adjudicating public laws.” Good statecraft depends on insight into God’s creation (including human nature), which is an order unfolding through the history of countless human generations.
If the Christian community fails to pool together its intellectual resources to inform its social engagement, it will by default remain divided and confused by the conflicting political dogmas and buffeted by social currents. It will easily be intimidated by hostile political groups and passively accept a political agenda that is imposed on it and remain ineffective with its ad hoc and piecemeal participation in national politics.
The challenge to develop a Christian political perspective that is coherent, integral, and comprehensive is indeed urgent. The fruitfulness of such a project is promising. Christian witness demands nothing less than the fulfillment of a contextualised Christian political theology that can assist citizens in their defence of freedom and justice.