It is time to stop asking the question “Was Jesus political?”

A piece I posted in The Micah Mandate:

It is time to stop asking the question “Was Jesus political?”

Posted on 12 May 2010 by Christopher Chong | TinyUrl TM

Let me start by putting a disclaimer first. I’m not a bible scholar but rather a lay Christian whose education lies in the discipline of political science. Having been a Christian for quite some time now, I notice that whenever the question of Christian involvement in politics crops up, it would inevitably lead to the question “Was Jesus political?” It is not my intention here to give a detailed answer to this question as many heads more knowledgeable and wiser than mine have attempted to answer it.1 But I personally find this question unhelpful.

Let me elaborate what I mean. To ask this question means that we accept the assumption that our world has a public/private dichotomy. This assumption is a modern invention which traces its origins back to the period of European enlightenment during the 18th and 19th centuries. More specifically, this assumption gave birth to the modern political doctrine of the separation of church and state and its corollary political doctrine which places religion in the private sphere. This political doctrine became the norm of political practice in modern Europe and has spread to the rest of the world in recent times. Such an assumption would have been unintelligible in the biblical world.

Therefore, when we ask whether Jesus was political or not, we have inadvertently refracted this assumption in our understanding of the relationship between God and politics. Looking at scriptures as a whole, it cannot be denied that the Bible does contain God’s claim towards the political world of man. For example, in the Old Testament, we observe the events leading to the exodus and the founding of the nation of Israel. These events do not only reflect God’s saving grace towards humanity (with Israel being the first of many steps that would eventually culminate in the passion of Christ) but also what God has to say about the politics of man. This is just one of many incidences which show God’s claim towards the political sphere in the Old Testament.

Of course, when we turn to Jesus in the New Testament, i.e. the Gospels, we tend to read Jesus as being apolitical, standing aloof from the political machinations of the Jewish elites and the Roman Empire. Such a reading is basically a misreading of the Gospels. It is grounded in accepting the idea that religion can make no claim in the political sphere. In fact, Jesus did not shy away from making political claims, e.g. his reply to Pilate, among others, which led to his eventual death at the hands of the Romans. In short, the life, death and resurrection of Christ did not only lead to the salvation of humanity but also lay hold God’s sovereignty towards the political.

For me, the questions that need to be answered are (i) what are God’s political norms and (ii) how are we to be faithful witnesses in the body politic of the nation. These questions are the more needful in our times rather than “Was Jesus political?” Otherwise, how can we address the major issues of our day as faithful witness to the one who called us?

1 The classic work on this subject is John H. Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”. I also recommend Alan Storkey’s “Jesus and Politics” as a more contemporary reading of the same subject.


Re-imagining the nation

Posted in The Micah Mandate:

Re-imagining The Nation

Posted on 18 January 2010 by Christopher Chong

The spate of recent attacks on churches in the country reveals, once more, the fault lines that have plagued our nation since its founding. The deep cleavages of ethnicity and religion still haunt us today.1 Although the government has made efforts towards nation-building, particularly after the May 13 incident, nonetheless the efforts have been largely wasted as we are still as divided along the racial and religious lines.

The reasons for this failure are legion and it is not my intention here to delve into them. Suffice to say that when the foundation of our nation was being laid, it was based on a communal vision of society. The various ethnic groups that collectively make up this nation was seen as engaging in a zero-sum game over political and economic resources that was mitigated by the social contract. And upon this foundation, our current political system was built upon.

Looking back in hindsight, the events of recent years, e.g. the UMNO Penang protest over the new PR Chief Minister’s statement on the abolishment of the NEP in the state, the cow head protest and the recent protests on the court’s judgement on the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims, have demonstrated that the whole political and social structure is collapsing. Hindsight, as they say, is perfect vision. It is not my intention to criticize what our founding fathers might or could have done.

The urgent question that needs to be answered in our time is simply this: What alternative vision of society can we articulate and build upon to create a nation that will simply see past the barriers of ethnicity and religion that divides us? The answer is not simple but one that requires everyone (and not just the politicians) who have a stake in this country to come together to share each other’s fears and hope for the nation and to understand one another away from the biases and prejudice that have kept us divided.

Christians, as part of the larger community, have an obligation to participate in this great project of re-imagining an alternative and better vision of who we are as a nation and how we could achieve this vision, if not for ourselves then at least for our children and grandchildren. For a long time, Christians tend to congregate among themselves in the church minding their own business rather than participating in the public life of the nation. In so doing, have we then contributed to the status quo?

Again, I’m not interested to find faults but rather to make a plea that Christians must collectively begin to take steps in participating in this project and not hide behind the comfort zone behind the walls of the church. In so doing, the royal law of loving your neighbour would have been fulfilled (Mk. 12:31; Rom. 13:8).

P.S. J’accuse – I accuse the author, who as a Christian, have been too comfortable in hiding behind the walls of the church. Mea culpa (I am guilty).

Christians and Democracy

A piece which I written in The Micah Mandate:

Christians And Democracy

Posted on 26 October 2009 by Christopher Chong | TinyUrl TM

March 8th, 2008 is now regarded as the date in where Malaysians awoke from their political apathy and delivered a stunning electoral result which has no parallel in the history of Malaysian politics. It was also a date which saw Christians, for the first time, being more politically aware of the politics of the nation. Stories abound of churches hosting dialogues between rival electoral candidates and Christians which were well attended. Of pastors using the pulpit to encourage their congregations to register as voters and to vote on polling day. Of individual Christians who campaigned for their chosen candidates and volunteering as polling and counting agents.

However, it would seem that such anecdotes only tell part of the story. In my own research on Christian political engagement, I have come across Christians telling me that the last General Election was a non-event either for themselves or for their churches. Consider the case of Ms. C, who told me that she had been trying to get her church to organize a voter registration campaign among church members but was met with indifference by the leadership and members alike. And then, there is the case of Ms. P, who said that her church (and by extension, her denomination) considers politics as strictly outside the province of the church. And that politics held no interest for her.

It is undeniable that some Christians have become politically aware but the vast majority shy away from politics. Most Christians seem to have the attitude of separating politics from the life of the church and the both shall never meet … amen to that!

Such an attitude signifies that Christians have fundamentally misunderstood the workings of democratic politics. Democracy requires people to be active participant in the democratic political process to ensure the well-being of the nation. Political power belongs to the people and not governments. Governments are only loaned its power to rule in order to ensure the well-being of the people. Where it is given, it can be taken back. People have the right to take back political power if they judged that what the government is doing is detrimental to their welfare. For this to happen, it requires people to become aware of the political issues of the day and become active participant in the political life of the nation.

In Matt. 22:21, we read “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Consider then … are we neglecting this commandment of Christ by putting a wall between church and politics? It is ironic that Christians claim that God is sovereign in all spheres of our lives … except perhaps politics which politely remains outside of the life of a Christian.

In refusing to take an interest and participating in the political life of the nation, have we been derelict of our political responsibility as citizens? More importantly, are we being obedient to the teaching of Christ as described in Matt. 22:21?

Our nation has reached a critical juncture in our political history which can well determine the path which our beloved country will take. What is required now is for Christians to become active citizens and not passive spectators. We cannot afford to run away from our responsibility in determining the future direction which our country will take.

The good, the bad and the ugly in the Hulu Selangor by-election

A piece which I written for The Micah Mandate:

The good, the bad and the ugly in the Hulu Selangor by-election

Posted on 28 April 2010 by Christopher Chong | TinyUrl TM

I’m writing this piece just hours after the results of the Hulu Selangor by-election had just been announced. In the coming days, we will be seeing more commentaries in the blogosphere and the mainstream media on why BN won and its implications on Malaysian politics. I’ll leave this part to more knowledgeable heads than mine to sort it out. What I want to do here is to offer some observations on the run-up to and on the day of the by-election in terms of the trends which I believe is a precursor to the next general elections.

Let’s start with the good first. The high voter turnout in the Hulu Selangor by-election indicates that Malaysians are conscientious of their civic duty as citizens of a democratic country. More importantly, the participation of younger people in the run up to the by-election canvassing for votes is an encouraging sign. Also, the access to news on the Hulu Selangor by-election was not restricted to mainstream media where one can go to the web to find alternative sources of news demonstrated that the ruling party’s stranglehold on access to news have been broken. All these developments point toward the gains made in the last General Elections towards a more democratic political system are here to stay.

As for the bad, we are still mired within a communal political outlook. For example, race features prominently in the choice of the candidate that will contest in the by-elections. This was clearly seen on the BN side with the MIC-UMNO squabble on whose candidate should be the one contesting for the Hulu Selangor Parliamentary seat and there were the usual racial rhetoric in the run up to the by-election. We still observed the usual pork-barrel politics in action (and this time by both coalitions, i.e. BN and PR). And then, there were stories of irregularities during the voting process … all familiar stories in any election in the country.

Finally, the ugly. The amount of venom spewed by both sides on the perceived failings of both candidates could have poisoned the entire population of Hulu Selangor. What I find disturbing is the move away (and again by both parties) during the campaign from principles and issues to attack the candidates personally in all (mainstream and otherwise) the media. I fear that this will become the norm in the next General Elections.

In looking at the bad and the ugly, there is no denying that our electoral system requires urgent reforms in order to make the system work for us rather than for the benefit of a select few. In the next coming General Elections, we – the voters – must send out a strong message that we will only support the coalition that will overhaul the electoral system to make it more accountable to the people together with a level playing field for all parties involved.

We need to reject racial cat calling and personal attacks in favour of principles and issues as the pre-condition for giving even the time of day for party workers and candidates canvassing for votes. Let alone for giving them our votes.

I want to end here by saying that we should not be disheartened by the negative developments that have taken place in this by-election. The last General Elections have proven that citizens can make a difference and the old rules of politics can no longer be taken for granted. The emergence of the alternative media, the growing political awareness and participation of the previously apolitical younger generation, to name but a few, are surely signs that the nation is heading towards a working democracy that we can all be proud of. However, for that to happen, we need to play our part in supporting the call for electoral reforms and insisting that parties staked out their political principles and issues rather than just dishing our more electoral goodies and personal attacks as the means to capture electoral support.