4th June, 2013
To rally or not to rally: Young Christians question their pastors
NECF addresses the issue of attending "illegal" rallies as raised by some young Christians
Dear NECF Malaysia,
I'm a young adult in my early 20s attending a pretty large and well-known church in the Klang Valley. Of late, I'm getting confusing signals and messages from my church pastors. Before the general election, they were all gung-ho with their prayers and sermons on justice and righteousness, and spoke a lot about God's favour on Malaysia in her Jubilee Year. We prayed a lot for the election and prayed for God's will to be done through this election. Personally, I have to admit being disappointed with the results, but that would not be so bad if I didn't also believe that the results were due to cheating and fraud in some places. My friends, also in their mid to late 20s, feel the same. When we heard and read from social media that rallies were being held to protest the cheating and fraud in the election, we went to the first one that was held in Stadium Kelana Jaya a few days after the election, and we also made plans to go for the subsequent rallies. Then, the pastors in my church started dropping hints through their sermons and in prayer meetings that we shouldn't be going for rallies like this because, according to them, it was a) a waste of time, b) it could turn violent, and c) it was illegal. I am thoroughly confused. I thought as Christians we had to take a stand against corruption and participate in building this nation. Making our voice heard is the least we can do. How is this "wasting time"? As for rallies turning violent, didn't people say the same thing about Bersih; yet the Bersih rallies showed that Malaysians could gather peacefully, and the violence was due to excessive force by the authorities? And as for these rallies being illegal, it is only because the rally organizers did not inform the police in time, but isn't the right to the freedom of assembly which is protected under Article 10 of our Federal Constitution, the ultimate law? In the end, my friends and I still went for these rallies anyway, although I felt very guilty after that when I heard my pastor speak against it in church. I am confused and disillusioned. How are Christians supposed to be salt and light?
Dear Doubting Thomas,
Thank you for your very honest and refreshing letter. We are always heartened to hear from young people, whom many mistakenly think are only interested in the latest gadgets, Korean movies or planning for their next holiday.
You have raised pertinent questions and should not feel bad about being confused, nor think that you are a 'lesser' Christian because your questions appear to challenge the views held by your church leaders.
Let us try to address your concerns one by one.
Firstly, we won't go too much into feelings over the election results as that can be pretty subjective, suffice to say that we believe God is always calling His people to faithful prayer and action, regardless the physical circumstances or outcome around us. Instead of brooding over the results, we urge everyone to find ways to get involved in society through concrete actions like build bridges of friendship and understanding with those who are different from us, by joining civil society groups that take up a worthy cause, or starting a new initiative in your own church that forces you to interact with the policies and issues that govern our larger society. All these are concrete ways towards the "national reconciliation" our country's leaders have so far talked about but seem to have no idea how to implement.
Secondly, as to the allegations of cheating and fraud in this election, let those be proven in the courts and go through the due process. There are many ways to continue the fight for clean and fair elections and it is timely now to start educating ourselves about the redelineation of electoral boundaries that is due to be conducted later this year, and about gerrymandering and the malapportionment of votes. Strategically, wouldn't that be the bigger battle to fight, rather than trying to undo the results of the recent election?
Thirdly, try to understand where your pastors and church leaders are coming from. As you have said, many of them were "gung-ho" with their prayers and sermons before the elections. We know of this, too. If they seem a little muted now compared to before the elections, remember that they, too, could be feeling the same disappointment, confusion and caution that you are also feeling. If you yourself had questioned, "Why?" then don't be surprised if some pastors feel the same, too. As ministers of God's word, they have a heavy and difficult responsibility to preach, teach and apply the Scriptures in a manner and context that is relevant to our world today. Pastors have the burden of living up to very high expectations - people think their prayers are extra powerful but what if they don't get answered in the way everyone expects? Ultimately, the journey to learning and applying what the Bible says to our political, social and present-day context is a long one that we must all make together, both clergy and laity.
Fourthly, to rally or not to rally, that is your ultimate question. Perhaps you are enticed by the notion of civil disobedience that many famous Christians who were pastors and activists have employed throughout history. Indeed, many of them, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rev Martin Luther King Jr, even Martin Luther who gave us the Protestant Reformation, were all dissidents for a higher cause. As long as there is no call to violence, citizens have a legitimate right to peaceful assembly to express dissent or dissatisfaction. Voicing our disapproval on social injustices is a fundamental to being a democracy. Yes, the law may sometimes deem such activities illegal, so whether one decides to participate in such activities will depend on the circumstances. In this case, we think this matter of joining the rallies should best be left to individual conscience, after you have informed yourself of all the facts. As for what your pastors have said, it is only right that the Church as an institution not take any partisan stance. Nor should the Church be seen or misunderstood as being partisan, even as she speaks up on issues that are political in nature. There is a difference between being partisan and political, and we are sure you would know of that.
Fifth and lastly, perhaps a solution to the conflicting feelings you have lies within yourself and how you have been as a disciple of Christ. Jesus' early ministry met both physical and spiritual needs; the Kingdom he came to establish was a spiritual one yet his actions against the status quo of the Pharisees were political actions.
The question for you, dear Doubting Thomas, is how well are you balancing the earthly and the spiritual? For every rally or demonstration you attend, are you also keeping your quiet time with God, serving in church and joining in corporate prayer? For every event you join in the physical and political realm, are you also faithful in the body life of your spiritual community? It could be that your church pastors, like most pastors who love and care deeply about the young people in their congregations, are just concerned that young adults like you might gradually, unknowingly begin to find your sense of belonging away from the spiritual community of God's people. It's always great to be part of a cause, and the sense of being part of changing the nation's destiny is undeniably powerful. And yet, to affect change in society, we need inner spiritual nourishment and a deep intimacy with God to sustain us. How else was Jesus able to perform the most radical act in the history of social activism - giving himself up to death on a cross?
This then, is your challenge. Meanwhile, the challenge for your pastors is to empower young people like you to be effective citizens who are involved in the nation, while guiding you to be effective disciples of Christ and members of the spiritual community.
What we have tried to do here is to help you to see both sides and a larger picture. We understand you and support your passion and desire for a better Malaysia. We also know where your pastors are coming from (some of us at NECF are pastors ourselves!). We hope you think and pray over this, discuss it with your friends, and with your church pastors, even. May God bless and guide your journey with Him and our collective journey as we each, all with our roles to play, build this nation together.