Christian to Christian: Collective Repentance

Gwee Li Sui

My fellow Christians in Singapore:

In less than a year, we have found our faith at the centre of more than a handful of national controversies. It began with events tied to the AWARE saga, followed quickly by Christian allegations of “militant atheism” made even in parliament. Then, a Christian couple was convicted for having circulated anti-Islamic tracts, and an archbishop caused outrage with his strong remarks on non-traditional families and relationships. Most recently, a megachurch’s senior pastor took centre stage for ridiculing Buddhists, Taoists, and gay people.

This is an astounding concentration of events that have cast the Christian faith in a negative light. They have almost all involved leaders in church and society representing Christianity’s place in the world in a defensive and varyingly anti-social way. We may stress that these events are, by and large, unconnected and do not speak of the general state of our faith in Singapore. We can even choose to dissociate ourselves and see these as more about other Christians than about us or our own communities.

But when the social climate has become so toxic that murmurs of Christians being “at it again” recur, we should be vigilant and have an answer. What we cannot ignore is the damage the controversies are already doing to our collective identity as Christians. We must thus be prepared to examine ourselves thoroughly and go beyond just hoping that the spotlight on us will go away. We must learn to draw a clear line between what we believe and the insensitivity of our words and actions, often made without provocation. We must be able to show real commitment to preventing the latter even while we are affirming the former.

But our attempts will not be serious enough unless we first admit that shame has already been brought upon the Christian message here. We should consider how we have failed, directly or indirectly, to follow Jesus’s most basic commandment: we have not loved our neighbour. Who is a believer’s neighbour? When a Jewish lawyer posed this question to Jesus, Jesus answered with a story not of the Good Jew but of the Good Samaritan, someone whose faith was radically different from the Jews’. He concluded his story by challenging his followers to conduct themselves in the same way as his Samaritan had.

What Jesus affirmed was the possibility — and even necessity — of learning real compassion and love from others and not just from fellow Christians. He implicitly required his followers not to value their own righteousness but to embrace a sense of common decency and kindness that is shared with others. In other words, we should never consider our words and actions kind or even Christianly unless those at whom we direct them recognise them as such. This is how God is to be glorified through us.

Given this principle, we ought to take note of our following failings. They have nothing to do with the question of homosexuality that a few Christians have consistently forced us to see:

[1] We should feel shame for being slow to admit wrong and doing so only in a grudging manner. We have already failed when we need the authorities to warn us to be nice or when we are selective in our apology to those we have hurt. We are guilty when we choose to blame others for highlighting our mistakes, even sharpening our knives against Christians who point them out to us. We err when we brush aside every God-given chance to reflect on our own wrongdoings.

[2] We should feel shame for all the times we could have helped to stop others promote hate and fear but did nothing. You and I know that the current trend of narrow-mindedness has been in the making for a long time. Yet, we choose to encourage intolerance through the way we talk, share, and joke among ourselves and how we do not seek peace but converse only in terms of spiritual war. We sin when we treat dialogue with non-Christians as either pointless or contaminating or when we share a gospel of love while harbouring thoughts of hate, saying one thing in public and another in private.

[3] We should feel shame for having no interest in deepening our religious knowledge while being ready always to act on our ignorance. We mis-educate ourselves by listening and reading in a narrow fashion. We look at religious and social differences without an intention of forming mature responses to them and care for no other theological position beside our own. We condone the words and actions of those who teach us to hate and fear in Christ’s name and yet attack those who remind us to glorify Christ through love.

[4] We should feel shame for caring little about enlarging Jesus’s message of unconditional love. We diminish this message when we take the way Christians see things differently for granted, treating it as an end rather than as a personal challenge to reconcile it with Jesus’s command to love. We sin mentally and emotionally when we do not allow our deep-seated idea of difference to change or the message of love to be made relevant in both our lives and our society.

Shame recognises that our wrongdoings hurt our relationship not just with others but also with God. It has no right to insist that others accept our apology just because we have made it; this is not a bargain. If people do not forgive us, the way forward remains the same as if they do: to strive not to commit the same thoughtlessness again and to show our sincerity through our own transformation. Shame recognises that we owe others and ourselves to be better human beings than we have been before.

We Christians must repent for our self-pride, our self-exclusion, our fear of others who Jesus called us precisely to love, and the way we use our minds, our resources, our time, and our friendships to justify and grow that fear. We must repent for our lack of faith that has led us to close our hearts and guard them with great jealousy rather than to surrender them in love. We must repent for having followed the words and deeds of others without thinking, having thought about serving God and others without feeling, and having felt a form of spirituality without understanding its responsibility. Today must be the day we begin to recognise the sins we normalise in our communities and to answer anew God’s call to His people to share in His sacrifice for others.

Yours Truly,

Gwee Li Sui

This essay first appeared as a Facebook note on 21 February 2010.