Beyond Praying: Christian Witness in the Public Square
by Mable Leong
From left, Christian Federation of Malaysia Executive Secretary Tan Kong Beng, NECF Acting Secretary-General Eugene Yapp and Rev Dr Lim Kar Yong of PJEFC conducting a seminar on 'Christians in the Public Square' at the Petaling Jaya Evangelical Free Church on 2 Feb 2013.
THE cornerstone for any theology of engagement in the public square is Christ's command that we be "salt and light" to the world (Matthew 5:12-16). But our present-day evangelicalism may be at risk of confining the salt and light metaphor to mean that Christians should just bear good personal witness as individuals. However, this dual task to preserve good and dispel darkness is also a call to promote righteousness and justice, to bless our communities and bring beneficial transformation to society.
British parliamentarian and Christian, Edmund Burke once said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". This is a call not to indifference but involvement in our communities as the manifestation of the grace and love of God. Although our earthly sojourn is temporary and the Christian is not called to build an earthly utopia to recapture paradise, Psalm 84 notes that those "who set their hearts on pilgrimage" nevertheless make the Valley of Baca1 a "place of springs".
It is part of our Christian destiny to engage with the public square, to influence law, public policy and culture in our roles as watchmen and stewards of the communities God has placed us in. We learn to be in the world but not of it. Christians are not merely to be distinct from the world but to positively impact it. The stories of Daniel and Joshua are instructive for our contemporary context on how Christians can effectively engage in wider public life beyond the walls of the church. This is a biblical mandate that is part of God's broader plan for the Redemption of all humanity, which beyond personal salvation, also covers our social and political communities. The goal is not to establish a theocratic state, for His Kingdom is one that ultimately belongs to the coming age.
Common Grace, Common Values
When believers seek to do justice in the public square, they often find it both necessary and desirable to work with others who may not share their faith. Christians working for social justice in particular neighbourhoods, or for some social reform such as the betterment of public schools, or for the end of ethnic cleansing in another part of the world, will find many allies willing to work with them.
The Apostle Paul taught that human beings who have never read or known the Bible nevertheless intuitively know that the requirement of God's laws are written in their hearts as their consciences also bear witness
"They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them." Romans 2:15 (NIV)
(Romans 2:15). Theologians have called this a "general revelation", apart from the written revelation of God through the Bible. As a result of this general revelation, there is much "common grace" in every culture. The implication of James 1: 17 is that God scatters gifts of wisdom, goodness, justice and beauty across the human race regardless of people's beliefs. A holistic Christian view of all skills in science, scholarship, crafts, politics, government, art and jurisprudence would be to see all these as being from God. This grace is called common because it is given to all, not just those who have found salvation in Jesus Christ. And this grace allows and teaches Christians to cooperate and learn from non-believers in the shared goal of bettering society. As author Ken Myers says: "When Christians articulate cultural values, they should be values that non-Christians can embrace as well, not because we have some prior commitment to 'pluralism', and thereby seek to be inoffensive, but because we have expressed values which because of common grace are in fact common values".
A Philosophy on Engagement
Christians need to go beyond merely quoting scripture to a post-modern world. Instead, we need to cultivate a public engagement philosophy through which to speak Truth and Wisdom to people. There are Christians who counsel others to not seek social justice at all, predicting that such efforts only make them more like the world, or in their words, "political". Instead, they say, Christians should concentrate only on bringing individuals to salvation and growing the church. Why should they be pessimistic about the possibilities of cultural change and social reform?
"The pursuit of justice in society is never morally neutral, but is always based on understandings of reality that are essentially religious in nature."
The pursuit of justice in society is never morally neutral, but is always based on understandings of reality that are essentially religious in nature. Christians should not be strident and condemning in their language or attitude, but neither should they be silent about the Biblical roots of their passion for justice nor should they compromise on God's standards on sin and holiness.
God is concerned with all aspects of human life, whether it be government, economics, education, science, art, communication, business or social morality. Christians should not fall prey to the dualist bifurcation of the "sacred" and the "secular" sphere, while recognizing the legitimate role of government as an institution ordained by God (Romans 13: 1). Government and the laws it upholds are expressions of God's common grace, a grace which makes rain fall on both the just and unjust.
Christians and citizens of goodwill must not neglect their civic duty to maintain the moral tone of society and freedom under law to positively influence popular culture and public policy. It is thus necessary to engage with, rather than to be detached from, what is going on in our society. There must be initiative to educate ourselves and our churches about contemporary issues and to participate in the political process, responding to debates in the media and making our views known to the authorities. We should not be silent on issues of common concern, even if they do not appear to affect the Christian community on the outset, for what affects the rights of one community may one day affect the rights of another.
"We should not be silent on issues of common concern, even if they do not appear to affect the Christian community on the outset..."
What does all this mean for the church in practical terms? Many of us may find the answers daunting. But if we are to take the theology of public square engagement to the fullest extent of its logic, it could mean, amongst others, the following scenarios: Equipping, encouraging and then releasing our youths to less financially rewarding jobs in the civil service and teaching profession, releasing church members to civil society organisations that advocate for a larger common good, or even to serve in politics or in public institutions, and according the same support to these "ministers in the public square" as we do to cross-cultural missionaries.
All these may involve a paradigm shift in the way churches have viewed ministry and missions. But God has, in His Word, given us a sound model and precepts on which to order our societies and to further relational well-being at the personal, corporate, national level. Christians have a stake and inheritance in their societies, as watchmen and witnesses of Jesus Christ. When He returns, the important thing is that we will be found at our posts, doing what He has confided to our care.
- Timothy Keller. (2010). Generous Justice
- Ng Kam Weng. (19 July 2012). The Social Impact of Christian Salvation, www.krisispraxis.com/archives/2012/07/the-social-impact-of-christian-salvation/
- Thio Li Ann. (2009). Issues of Law and Justice in Singapore
1Various interpretations of this include "lack of streams", "valley of sorrow" or "valley of weeping".