Christians in a Pluralistic Society

This fifth note is my last note on the AWARE episode. In the wake of Saturday’s outcome, a few have written to me to call for calm on both sides, to challenge one party and commiserate with the other, to expound understanding, to denounce gloating, spoofs, and other inspired acts, to kiss babies, etc. Instead, I chose to promote my own line of non-existent T-shirts. It entertained many but flustered some, and I am glad.

My place in this whole affair has been unique from the start and so habitually misunderstood. Let someone else more qualified do all that civil refereeing and hand-holding and social assessment — there won’t be a lack of fair-minded individuals with good thoughts to share. I have never pretended to be an expert on AWARE, nor do I consider myself suddenly one now that I am known for a stand on specific issues.

I spoke out only because my conscience was giving me very bad nights. Unchristian acts that called for the support of Christianity bothered me to no end. The apparent willingness of unnumbered believers to forgo good sense from a misplaced idea of solidarity ate at my mind. The initial eerie silence of the churches and the decent Christian majority was distressing. Someone needed to stand in the line of fire between peaceable Christians and Christians who would bring their wars to the refuge of others. The question that took the longest to answer was: Why not me?

With events now having run their natural course, one more issue lingers unengaged and is here the subject of my fitting end to the series. To be prepared against the return of such religious panic we experienced, Christians really need to look hard at the practical basis of their existence in a pluralistic society. Churches need to instruct their members or at least get them to discuss this rather than just invite them weekly to love God and others and fight sin and the Devil in an otherworldly way.

My first note only briefly touched on the Christian belief that all individuals should be treated as possessing the right and capacity to choose for themselves. Its follow-up notementioned how, in our engagements with Christians and non-Christians alike, we ought to be bold to affirm the Christian essence of peace and goodwill at every turn. Believers shouldn’t let their own distrust for another or fear of rejection or loss of face cloud their minds from being able to locate this infinitely more humane route. If they do, their concerns may be heartfelt and even genuine, but Christ’s greater message of love will have been snuffed out by the way they proceed.

My third note was a poem on re-beginning. This note goes further to bring together a few more points Christians who visited my notes have left as comments. I like to thank these friends and take the opportunity to give a nod also to the individuals of all persuasions who have contributed to the discussions that brought life to my pages. So here are three main notes on how a Christian can navigate sensibly in Singapore’s pluralistic space:

[1] One central advice involves my own oldest question posed to self in a tricky situation: “What would Jesus do?” Some wonder whether this principle is any good since everyone’s answer might be different — but Christians are supposed to be followers of Jesus alone. This question doesn’t invite us to consider His traits in a way that extends broadly to other Biblical personalities such as Moses, Joshua, David, Daniel, even Mary, and the Apostles. All that is good and exemplary in those is already in Jesus: it is why Christians consider Him not just God but also the Perfect Human Person, one with whom God is well pleased.

So, in a deeply schismatic society, what would — or, in fact, did — Jesus do? It seems odd that Christians still need to be reminded that Jesus made friends with prostitutes, Samaritans, tax-collectors, etc. — those society frowned on and considered unclean, undesirable, or inferior. Indeed, singling out the folks who would say one thing and do another, Jesus warned that even the tax-collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of God way ahead of those. He always kept His harshest words for the Pharisees, a small group who deemed themselves divinely favoured for their strict observation of laws.

Once, the Pharisees brought before Jesus an adulteress and challenged him to judge her according to religious laws. Jesus’s famous reply was: “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.” More importantly, when the condemners backed down and left in guilt, He said to the woman: “Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.” This line succinctly captures two great Christian qualities: the freedom from judgement and the compassion of choice. Their centrality should not be ignored: it is, after all, for their sake that Jesus never entangled worldly power and religious conviction. When invited to criticise the “evils” of Rome, He used a coin to illustrate how one’s business with Caesar and with God were separate.

[2] In this AWARE incident, a scenario was posed repeatedly to the now ex-new ex-co: “If you were in my shoes, would you have trusted another religious group that took over a secular body by unethical means?” This question is actually based on a Biblical principle called The Golden Rule, which says: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” It all sounds so logical: if you want to live peaceably with others, treat them with due respect. If you want to be believed, have faith in others first. If you want others to understand you, begin by understanding others. If you want them to hear you out, don’t tell them to sit down and shut up.

An extension of this principle is the recognition that one invariably reaps what one sows. Modern corporate reality has seemed to undermine this for a while, with people reaping vast riches that they never sowed with hard work, but the current economic crisis is keeping the proud idea in check. If one is bent on sowing distrust, one will surely reap distrust. If one scatters seeds of hate, one will lose friends and lose touch with people. If I am, as some say, a sower of Satanic discord, why is the ensuing discussion reaping understanding between people and goodwill among them?

[3] Christians, from now on, be vigilant not to follow blindly the beckoning of any force or person using the name Christian! Jesus said that every tree would be known by its own fruit.In the days leading up to the EGM, a few have called on me to cite scripture to make my stand Christian and, indeed, prove myself to be Christian. This is a misleading view of what our common faith is all about. My soul lies in the hand of its Lord and Saviour alone; nothing anyone says, not even I, can take it out of where God has put it firmly.

Citing the Bible makes nobody a Christian. As if to stress this truth, the Gospels are full of instances where people used scripture for less than noble intentions and with less than perfect understanding. As Shakespeare rightly reminds us, even the Devil can cite scripture. So don’t look to the letter but to the spirit — and test it. Jesus said that peacemakers were sons and daughters of God, but we tend to ignore how peace doesn’t come naturally: it needs to be made. Yet, you cannot make peace if you keep going out looking for war all the time; there is no peace if you keep harbouring suspicion and fear!

My call for self-reflection here is meant, in some ways, to put to rest those who still doubt my intentions. I ask these people to test the spirit of my appeal and do so thoroughly. I am no schooled theologian, only a Christian well aware that, whenever he speaks, bricks will fly from particular sectors. But the cost is great, and I must speak. In our modern obsession with spiritual warfare, too many forget that this is a battle for souls, not for physical or social territory. When you therefore go out looking for false fights, the fight has already found you, and you are losing.

Jesus’s way is a different lonelier route, the route of peace and compassion. It disturbs me that such a point which I assume is self-evident seems to be drowned out by certain militant groups of Christians. When I shared it with one believer who was concerned with my all-too-public challenge to fellow believers, he replied ironically to me in a defiant tone. He cried: “But look at Jesus! He took that route, and He got crucified!” Now, tell me that the message of Christ is not already losing.

Yours Truly,

Gwee Li Sui

This essay first appeared as a Facebook note on 7 May 2009.