Being Salt & Light in Malaysia
by Dr. Leong Tien Fock
Our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). In the Bible the word "kingdom" does not refer to a physical location. [I am aware that the Alkitab translates "kingdom" as "kerajaan", which clearly does not refer to a physical location. So the Malay translation is not likely to be misunderstood, but writing in English I have to correct the common misconception.] God's kingdom ["Kerajaan Allah"] refers to God's kingship or reign [pemerintahan Allah?], and wherever His reign is manifested or recognised.
So when God's kingdom comes to the earth, it means people submit to His reign, and His will is done on earth, as it is in heaven.
And we are to pray for God's kingdom to come to the earth, not just our family or the Church. This means Jesus wants us to pray for God's will to be done in our nation as well.
But we cannot pray in spirit and in truth for something that we do not care about. This means Jesus wants us to care about God's will to be done in our nation.
And after teaching us to pray for God's kingdom to come, Jesus commanded us to also "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33a). This means He wants us to care about God's kingdom to the extent that we will not only pray for its coming, but will also do something about it.
In recent years more and more Christians in Malaysia have been praying for God's will to be done in Malaysia.
We will now talk about how we can go beyond praying, to seeking God's will to be done in our nation.
To do this we must first know what is God's will for a nation. And since the government is in charge of the nation, we will focus on God's will for human government.
We can learn about God's will for a nation and for its government by looking at what Israel in the Old Testament was supposed to be.
A. Gleaning from The Historical Israel
Israel was commanded to observe the Ten Commandments in every cultural sphere of the nation, from the sphere of the family to the sphere of the government.
Hence the Ten Commandments were the supreme law of Israel; the other laws of the nation applied the Ten Commandments to specific situations.
Today, such a supreme law, to which even the government must submit, is called the constitution of the nation.
The Ten Commandments are applicable to all nations, ancient or modern. But as for the specific laws of Israel, they were appropriate for an ancient nation occupying the Holy Land; these laws may or may not be appropriate for a modern nation.
But by looking at how the Ten Commandments were applied in Israel we can learn how to apply them today.
2. Israel and Government
Since our focus is on the sphere of the government, we will look at the fifth commandment: "Honor your father and your mother" (Deuteronomy 5:16).
This commandment is not just about honoring the parents but also the other authorities in the nation. The parents are the authorities in their respective families. In a nation, there is a need for authorities beyond the family.
According to Deuteronomy chapters 16 to 18, there are four more categories of authorities: the judges, the king, the priests and the prophets.
All five categories are needed for a nation to function properly.
Each of the categories has its own jurisdiction, and each jurisdiction answers directly to God. They do this by submitting to God's will, which is expressed in the Ten Commandments, the constitution of Israel.
This means, even though the king is in charge of the nation, he himself must submit to the constitution, and under normal circumstances, he cannot interfere in the jurisdictions of the other authorities. But since he is overall in charge he intervenes when a crime is committed in any jurisdiction. When this happens, a judge would try the case. And he would do so based on laws given by God, not laws made by the king or the judge; and the king cannot interfere with how the judge decides the case. Hence the king, the laws, and the judges are independent of each other. In this way, the king holds the people accountable to God, and not to himself.
Each of the categories of authorities also represents a cultural sphere.
Just as the parents represent the sphere of the family, the priests represent the sphere of religion. As for the sphere of the government, it was represented by the king, the judges and the laws given by God through Moses.
Hence the government had three branches. We have just seen that all three branches were independent of each other.
B. Looking at Malaysia Today
1. The Government Sphere
In a modern nation like Malaysia, the sphere of the government also has three independent branches.
1. Corresponding to the king is the branch that governs the nation. It is called the Executive. At the federal level, the Executive branch consists of the Prime Minister and his cabinet; at the state level, it is the Chief Minister and his cabinet.
2. Corresponding to the laws of Moses is the Legislature. At the federal level the Legislature consists of the Parliament; at the state level it is the State Assembly. This branch of the government makes the laws of the nation, and the laws must be consistent with the constitution.
3. Corresponding to the judges is the Judiciary, which interprets and applies the constitution and the laws of the nation.
2. The Accountability Issue
As in the case of Israel, God's will for a modern nation like Malaysia is that the government holds the people accountable to God, and not to the Prime Minister.
In practice, for this to happen it is important to ensure that the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister does not have influence over the Judiciary or the Legislature. Otherwise he can manipulate the Judiciary to act in favor of himself even when he is clearly corrupt.
And since the Legislature makes the laws that the Judiciary interprets and implements, it is important that we vote for the right people to be in the Parliament and the State Assembly.
How then can a government today hold the nation accountable to God? As the Ten Commandments expresses God's will, when the government holds the people accountable to a constitution that is consistent with the Ten Commandments, it is already holding the nation accountable to God.
i. The Nature of the Constitution
What kind of a constitution would this be, besides requiring the three branches of the government to be independent? Since the family and religion answer directly to God and not to the government, the people must be free to choose and practice the religion of their choice. If they choose or practice a religion that fails to worship the God who created them, the problem is between them and the Creator God. The government cannot interfere unless the people practice a religion that promotes criminal activities.
Hence a constitution that is consistent with the Ten Commandments must guarantee religious freedom. It has to be what is called a "secular constitution". This means the constitution is neutral in terms of religion; it is neither for nor against any religion. And certainly it is not based on any religion. But how can a constitution that is consistent with the Ten Commandments be secular when the Ten Commandments are taught in the Christian Scripture?
All religions teach what is called the Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what we do want others do to us". Even people who say they have no religion would accept this teaching. Jesus taught the positive version: "Do to others what we want others do to us". Islam also teaches this version.
According to the Lord Jesus the Golden Rule summarises the Ten Commandments (Matthew 7:12). And according to the Apostle Paul, people of all religions, or no religion, are aware of the Golden Rule because God has put the Ten Commandments into their conscience (Romans 2:14-16).
So a constitution that is based on the Golden Rule is already consistent with the Ten Commandments. Such a constitution would treat every citizen equally in the eyes of the law. And it would take into consideration the welfare of all citizens. It does not matter whether the citizen is male or female, young or old, rich or poor, educated or not. And it certainly does not matter what the race or religion of the citizen is.
So God's will for a nation is that the government holds the people accountable to a constitution that is based on the Golden Rule.
Today, the constitution of most nations is based, at least to some extent, on the Golden Rule. A good example is the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, which seeks to protect the interests of Malaysians of all races and religions in a unique way. When the government holds the people accountable to such a constitution, it is holding the nation accountable to God.
ii. The Prophetic Role of Media
But the people in government are also imperfect human beings.
Though they have sworn to uphold and protect the constitution, they themselves often fall into the temptation of violating the constitution for selfish gains.
Sometimes they violate the constitution not directly, but indirectly. They do this by interpreting the constitution wrongly.
It is important for the government and the citizens to recognize that a constitution based on the Golden Rule will not do much good unless it is also interpreted and implemented according to the Golden Rule.
So what happens when the government violates the constitution, whether directly or indirectly? Who then holds the government accountable to God?
In Israel this is the role of the prophets. A true prophet was personally called and commissioned by God and hence he answered to no one except God. He would confront the king with God's message when the king violated the Ten Commandments.
The prophets represent the cultural sphere that holds the government accountable to the constitution, and hence to God. What is the equivalent of the prophets in a modern nation?
In a democratic nation like Malaysia this prophetic role is usually played by the media together with informed citizens.
The sphere of the media, like the other cultural spheres, is answerable to the constitution, and not to the government.
Like in the case of the family and religion, the government cannot interfere with the functioning of the media.
The government can intervene only when the media does what is against the constitution, such as spreading malicious lies or stirring up hatred between races or religions.
The media holds the government accountable to the constitution by informing the citizens concerning the truth about the nation and the government. And citizens who are thus informed can then further hold the government accountable to the constitution through democratic means.
One means that is most powerful, and one that every informed citizen can use, is to vote in elections according to his conscience. The purpose of elections is to allow the citizens to choose the right people to be in government. And the right people to be in government are those who truly uphold and protect the constitution. Through elections informed citizens have the power to remove people in government who violate the constitution.
Hence a media that is independent is feared by the government. This is good for the government and the nation, as it helps the government to do what is right, and not do what is wrong. Only then can the nation prosper.
But very often the government, especially a corrupt government, does not allow the media to be independent.
When the control of the media becomes significant, especially because the government is corrupt, an alternative media needs to be initiated and supported by concerned citizens. Otherwise the citizens of the nation will only know what the corrupt government wants them to know.
So the success of the alternative media is crucial in enabling the citizens to hold a corrupt government accountable to the constitution.
C. How Shall God's Church Respond?
1. Our Response Generally
Having considered God's will for a nation and its government, we now come back to the question of how Christians can seek God's will to be done in their respective nations.
Actually the command to seek first God's kingdom and His righteousness is a command to live out the Church's calling to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).
Christians shine their light when they seek God's will done in every sphere of their lives.
When this happens, just as light exposes darkness, their good deeds make the evil deeds of the world obvious. And just as light helps people find the right path, the good deeds of the Christians help people see the truth of the Gospel, and point them to Christ.
Since there are Christians in every cultural sphere, God's kingdom has thus come to every cultural sphere. The Christians in each of the spheres then become the base from which God's kingdom spreads within the respective spheres.
God's kingdom spreads in each of the spheres when the Christians in the respective spheres act as salt by seeking God's will done through their life.
They do this by influencing the non-Christians to do God's will.
The most effective way to influence them is of course to first lead them to accept Christ. But it is still possible to influence them to do God's will even if they do not accept Christ. For God has put the Golden Rule into their conscience. By being light we arouse their conscience to recognise what is right, and by being salt we move their conscience to do what is right.
Since our focus is on the sphere of the government, we will now focus on how Christians can seek God's kingdom to come to their nation by holding the government accountable to God.
2. Our Response to Politics
i. Our Prophetic Role
We have seen how the media plays this prophetic role.
But since the Church is called to be salt and light, the Church has also been called to play the prophetic role of holding the government accountable to God.
Christians can of course work with, and work in, the media to fulfill this prophetic task.
But we must realize that the Church itself is called to play the prophetic role.
ii. The Christian Root
In the pre-modern world there was virtually no nation that had a constitution that was consistent with the Ten Commandments, and to which even the king must submit. The king was above the law and could do virtually anything he wanted to do. The prophetic task of holding the government accountable to God was then very difficult and dangerous.
At the very beginning of the Church, the Apostles and the early Christians resisted their government when they were required to do what was against God's will. They were persecuted and even martyred for this. In this way they held their government accountable to God.
Since then, Christians throughout the centuries have also resisted governments that violated God's will. And based on the political teachings of the Bible, they have also written about what the government can or cannot do.
The outcome of all this is that today, even non Christians would defend the Biblical principles of human government that we have discussed above. They do not realise that they are defending Biblical teaching.
We have seen that what the government of a modern nation like Malaysia is supposed to be is so similar to what the government of ancient Israel was supposed to be. This is not a coincidence. The practice of having a constitution, and one that requires the government to have three independent branches, is the result of the Bible's influence in Western nations, and the Western nations' influence on the rest of the world. So it is not surprising that today even nations governed by people who reject the Bible are following the basic political teachings of the Bible.
iii. Our Task
In other words, because of the salt-and-light efforts of Christians in the past, God's kingdom has already taken root in most of the governments of the world in the form of constitutions that are consistent with the Ten Commandments.
In these nations, the Church today does not need to start from scratch. What needs to be done is to ensure that the governments correctly interpret and implement their constitutions.
With a good constitution in place, the prophetic task of holding the government accountable to God has become easier.
It is now a matter of holding the government accountable to the constitution.
Malaysia is one such nation.
And in our case, most of the activists involved in holding the government accountable to the Federal Constitution are non-Christians. Of course they do not realise and will not agree that they are actually doing God's will. But they are, even though that is not their intention. And because of them, the Church's prophetic task of holding the government accountable to God has become even easier for Christians in Malaysia.
D. The Challenge
We recognise that not every Christian is called to be a political activist. But the least that a Christian can do is to be adequately informed concerning the truth about his nation and his government and then vote with his conscience.
If the mainstream media is biased towards the government he needs to seek out alternative sources of information that are free from government control.
Jesus desires so much that we seek God's kingdom in and through our life that He has promised to add to us all the things that we need in order to live (Matthew 6:33b).
He knows we need to make a living. Often this becomes a hindrance to seeking God kingdom. But Jesus has set us free to seek God's will done in our family and in our nation by promising to meet our needs. In fact, He says, "seek FIRST the kingdom of God ... and all these things will be added to you". Hence seeking God's will done on earth has higher priority than even making a living.
But this is not a problem as Jesus has promised to add to us all that we need.
So even the need to make a living is no excuse for not seeking God's will done in and through our life.
Dr. Leong Tien Fock an Old Testament scholar and a researcher/ observer of societal issues at the Campus Crusade For Christ in West Malaysia. This paper is condensed from his presentation at the seminar, entitled 'Biblical Perspective of Political Engagement', conducted on 7 November 2010 in Kuching, jointly organised by the National Evangelical Fellowship Malaysia and the Kuching Ministers Fellowship.