Democracy and Human Dignity
Eugene Yapp, NECF Research Commission Executive Secretary
BERSIH 2.0's march on 9 July 2011 is now touted as a defining moment in Malaysian history when citizens realized they were truly 1Malaysia and shed their fear of speaking out. Who can forget the now-famous photo of an elderly lady holding flowers and wearing the banned yellow T-shirt? Who hasn't been moved by stories of citizens of different races helping one another cope with the effects of tear gas?
Yet, Bersih has also been demonised as an illegal movement out to create havoc and bring disruption to the lives of citizens. Critics suggest that Bersih cannot be for the good of the nation because it has deprived ordinary citizens like you and I of the right to our peaceful, comfortable lives.
The debate shows that society is more entrenched and polarized. People tend to see Bersih and its demands in either emotional or black-or-white terms.
Democracy isn't in the Bible ...or is it?
How should Christians understand democracy? Is there a biblical foundation for democracy, given that it is not even mentioned in the Bible? That being the case, should Christians be engaged in a fight for greater democratic rights?
In Malaysia, democracy is more often defined from a paternalistic standpoint. This "big brother knows best" attitude simply means that the State, while looking after your welfare, will also decide what's best for you. There is little room for people to form opinions, explore their options and together make collective choices for the common good.
In contrast, the definition by political philosophers is that democracy is a system by which people make collective decisions and then actualise them for the good of society and the nation. This includes: (1) electing officials or representatives through fairly-conducted elections; (2) giving citizens the right to express themselves, including to hold dissenting views without fear of punishment; (3) the right for citizens to obtain information; and, (4) the right of citizens to form independent associations or groups to protect their interests.
Such a definition of democracy is consistent with the Biblical mandate which calls us to be stewards of creation for the good of the cosmos. Scripture is unequivocal that man was created in the image of God (Gen.1:26-27). As persons created in the image of God, we possess dignity and are worthy of respect. Just as God is a free-willed and moral being, we who are created in his image must also have the freedom to choose and to act.
In acting out our freedom, we are bearers of God's image in the "network of life-giving relationships" between ourselves, God and others. In Christian teaching on politics, these relationships are meant to seek the enjoyment of universal goods and rights.
These goods and rights, as defined in Christian tradition, are our stewardship of creation, admiration of the aesthetic beauty of the created earth, the exclusive sexual communion in marriage and of procreation, and the rest we have from our labour in order to render worship and communion with God. These goods and rights therefore pertain to our living and our well-being before God and society.
Thus, Christian responsibility within a democratic society should be to strive for this quality of living in the context of these life-giving relationships. Such quality of life is premised upon integrity, liberty, self-rule, progress, responsibility and communal prosperity.
It follows then, that government, as elected representatives of the people, must allow space for these virtues and actively promote them so that the common good for society can be realised. Pragmatic and arbitrary politics must never be allowed to trump over the divinely ordained good of creation.
Democracy as understood within this framework is then participatory because its end goal is what is good for all. The Christian today is therefore obliged to be involved in participatory democracy, for in doing so, Christians as citizens of a nation will be exercising stewardship to determine what is good and meaningful for themselves, their children and the society to which they belong.
What good can the Church bring?
Contrary to perception that religious institutions are narrow-minded or ill-equipped to contribute to the larger good, history has demonstrated that it is such institutions which have stood as beacons of light in times of crisis. Thus, in the Bersih episode and to the encouragement of many, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) called on the government to uphold the constitutional right of Malaysians to freely assemble in peace and to engage with understanding, compassion, honesty and respect for all people.
Making this call to respect constitutional rights is what the church, as an institution, can do. This is what the late American theologian, Carl Henry, meant when he said the church was "obliged to declare the criteria by which the nation will ultimately be judged and [the] divine standards to which man and society must conform if civilization is to endure".
To do so, the church must first and foremost, seek the Lord in earnest prayer to make sense of all that is happening to the nation. In this season where the church prepares herself for the NECF 40-Day Fast and Prayer (7 Aug - 15 Sept), Christians must humble themselves and pray, and seek and turn from our wicked ways so that the Lord will hear from heaven and forgive our sins and heal our land. Prayer in this accord is a form of engagement and not merely petition.
Secondly, the church must determine the criteria and right theological and moral principles to bear on public life. These principles will then serve as parameters for Christians, working with other civil society groups, to engage the public square with the right strategies.
Is silence therefore an option?
In the run up to the march, many Christians pondered this question. Now that 9 July has come and gone, what then? Have more marches, demonstrations or even "yellow Saturdays"?
Malaysians are coming to terms with what a truthful democracy means. The quest for democratic reforms based on the dignity of individuals and communities has begun. We ought to ask ourselves, what sort of nation do we want Malaysia to be? One where peace and freedom are defined as only the right to shop and make money with no other concern? Or one that brings the best out of our common life by upholding the God-given human ideals of civility, equality, freedom, order, prosperity and welfare for all?
The current climate suggests that this national journey will likely be cast in either-or terms, given the polarisation between those who want greater freedom and those with entrenched interests. Christians need wisdom to discern the "spin" and to perceive the heart of the debates that rage around us.
Is God moving in answer to the many prayers over the years for national transformation? If, as hopeful Christians we believe that change and transformation is imminent, we must shed our complacency and begin claiming our place as God's agents of change and participate in civil society to collectively shape the ongoing destiny of this great nation.
God bless Malaysia!