Monthly Archives: February 2015

Ending The Scourge

Feb 2015 Pulse

Like so many around the world, I too was hoodwinked into believing Somaly Mam’s story. The world-renowned crusader against sex trafficking and slavery almost achieved iconic status with the story of her own sexual abuse when she was a 13-year-old girl in Thloc Chhroy, a typical rural Cambodian village along the banks of the Mekong River.

Her heroic efforts to free and rehabilitate young women from slavery and abuse received support from Hillary Clinton and celebrities like Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon. Mam’s inspiring story led me to write an article entitled “God and the Victim” for a publication of The Bible Society of Singapore two years ago.

Sadly, an article in the May 2014 issue of Newsweek revealed that Mam’s story about her experience as a sex slave was fabricated. While there is a sense in which this disclosure does not detract from the significant achievements of her foundation that   has saved the lives of thousands of girls in Cambodia, it does betray public trust, which is so vital to the work of any non- governmental organisation (NGO).

Next to the illegal drugs trade, human trafficking is the most lucrative form of organised crime that boasts of a complex and truly global network. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, at any one time there are 2.5 million victims of human trafficking, a crime that generates tens of billions of dollars in profit for criminals each year. The US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report (2007) states that approximately 80 per cent of the victims are women and girls, 50 per cent of which are minors.

Louise Shelley, in her excellent study entitled Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, showed that every continent in the world is somehow involved in human smuggling. In Southeast Asia, human trafficking has been a longstanding problem, with poverty and the uninhibited growth of the sex industry as the main causes. Transnational criminals have ingeniously taken advantage of realities such as globalisation, unprecedented migration, and the massive movement of people to create a flourishing business in human smuggling.

The girls and women sold or abducted are often subjected to unconscionable violence and cruelty even before they are sent to the brothels. Many are repeatedly raped and beaten by their exploiters, while others are turned into drug addicts to ensure their total dependence and submission. Even if some of these victims could eventually buy their freedom (a very unlikely prospect) or somehow manage to escape, with almost no education and professional skills, their re-entry to society is at best precarious.

Human trafficking is an offense to human dignity and freedom, and is roundly condemned by Christian leaders across the denominations. In a recent address to international police chiefs, Pope Francis emphatically asserted: “Human trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity.”

In the same vein, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, described human trafficking as “an offence against the created order of equality, an offence against the dignity of humans as called to share in some measure in God’s own creative responsibility, an offence against the interdependence that makes it impossible for any one truly to flourish at the expense of any other person”.

There are hundreds of organisations working tirelessly across the globe to address the problem of human trafficking and rescue its victims. Among them is COATNET (Christian Organisations Against Trafficking NETwork), which consists of 36 affiliates from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox organisations.

But the challenges that these organisations face are enormous, not least because trafficking syndicates constantly change their strategies and modi operandi. Their work is difficult and frustrating also because of the complicity of some governments with these criminal activities.

Be that as it may, no effort must be spared to end this scourge or at least to cripple the criminal networks responsible for perpetrating this evil. However, even as we rescue the victims of human trafficking from slavery and abuse, let us not forget to also rescue the oppressors from the spiritual bondage that has so debased and perverted their humanity.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.

The Christian Virtue of Civility

February 2015 Feature Article

As the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, I contribute op-ed articles to the Straits Times on current issues pertaining to kindness and graciousness.  Two of them provoked responses and reactions. [i]  Though most were positive responses, there were some negative reactions including a handful of very angry and rude comments, punctuated with insults, name-calling, and excoriation so typical of uncivility that permeates some quarters of our social media.  Shielded by the cloak of anonymity, the shrill voices, complete with expletives, often reaching fever pitch and polluting the cyberspshere.  These netizens are no doubt passionate and see it as their warrior duty to straighten me out without any consideration as to how to disagree without being disagreeable.

Civility is about how we go about registering our disagreements, without being disagreeable. It is about finding positive ways to converse and interact with each other in the public space.   It comprises “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (and especially) with those with whom we disagree.” [ii] Civility does not require that we compromise or abandon our particular convictions and values. It merely requires us to negotiate our disagreements with our fellow citizens in wholesome ways because we respect them as citizens and human beings, created in the image of God.

It is very tempting, I must confess, to respond in kind when you feel unjustly excoriated.  But then as a Christian, I must take seriously the admonition of Peter who writes to the early Christians, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15). Though the context is evangelistic-apologetical, civility should apply to interactions in all contexts.  Gentleness in response to anger is advocated in Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” It is driven by the respect we should have for people who may disagree with us.

Paul aligns with Peter in his letter to the Colossians, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6). To be gracious implies a deportment of pleasantness, attractiveness, winsomeness and charm. Graciousness should characterise our response to others precisely because of the grace or undeserved favour we have received from the Lord.

The function of salt includes purification and preservation.  It is also a seasoning agent.  Hence, our speech should be identified by the purity and wholesomeness of our language. At the same time it should not be insipid. On the contrary, it should be sprinkled with the salt of wit giving zest and liveliness to the conversation. C.F.D. Moule comments that we are “not to confuse loyal godliness with a dull, graceless insipidity.” [iii]

The example of civility is found in the Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).  The unnamed woman lived on the margin of Jewish society, and Jesus interacted with her respectfully and gently.  While speaking the truth, He did so with love, in a kind, compassionate, and redemptive manner. In His encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus shows us the practical application of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

Our political consciousness has been recently awakened even as the economy is becoming more challenging.  Public trust is waning as individuals feel increasing vulnerable in the wake of income-gap widening and jobs perceived to be taken by outsiders.  Social cohesion wears thin in the face of incipient xenophobia.  Stories of discontent, rage and agitation fill our newsprint, airwaves, coffee shops and especially the social media. Where are the voices of balance and moderation in these challenging times?

I am convinced that the moderates are in the majority, but for whatever reason, we remain the silent majority.  Unless we are prepared to take the lead and speak out with civility as taught by the Lord, the minority will appear to be in charge of the conversation.  The hallmark of a great civilization is when we value civility as a virtue that binds peace-loving people of different persuasions together in community. The fabric of our society is in danger of tearing when it is allowed to be stretched thin by extreme incivility of a minority.

Civility in our collective conversation is not just a matter of discourse.  It is a positive approach to social engagement. By ignoring the loud shrill voices of a minority in the social media, and allowing them to have a field day, we are abdicating our responsibility to act responsibly.  We cannot allow ourselves to be isolated and insulated by not engaging.  It is through engaging with civility that we can hope to preserve and promote civility in our national ethos.

Perhaps the life and work of Roger Williams (1603-1683), a Puritan who founded Rhode Island, could inspire us.  He posited civility as the “rules of the game” for living in a pluralistic society and considered it essential to ensure public peace, maintain social order, and create the conditions for citizens to cooperate on matters of public interest and common good. He recognized that members of a pluralistic society are unlikely to completely agree on a substantive vision for what is right and good for society, but he assumed that all would agree that basic norms of tolerance, respect, common courtesy, patience, and honesty were necessary principles for debating and discharging our responsibilities for the common good.[iv]

We need the spirit of Roger Williams today.  We need Christians who believe in civility to rise up and engage the uncivil for we have the moral responsibility “for such a time as this” (Esth 4:14).


Dr William Wan (2)
Dr William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.  He is also a winner of the Active Ager Award (Council of the Third Age) 2011. Prior to taking on this role as General Secretary, he was practising law and managing a psychometric company. He has always been active in community-based work and believes that kindness breeds kindness.

 


Notes:

[i] “Where has all our empathy gone?” (empathy: _http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/where-has-all-our-empathy-gone-20140124)

“Even Jover Chew deserves due process law.” (jover chew:_http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/even-jover-chew-deserves-due-process-law-20141122)

[ii] James Calvin Davis, In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 159.

[iii] C.F.D Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon. (Cambridge University Press, 1957), 135.

[iv] For more on Roger Williams’s conception of civility, see James Calvin Davis, The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), chapter 5.

[v] If you are interested in doing something about engaging the uncivil, please email me.

Contending with Gaia

Feb 2015 Pulse

In the past five decades, debates on the environment have seen a notable shift from anthropocentric to biocentric thinking. Theologians, philosophers and ethicists generally acknowledge that the traditional human-centric approach cannot adequately address concerns about the welfare of animals and the environment. This shift is further precipitated by the current concerns about climate change.

In his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life, James Lovelock, an independent scientist and futurist proposed a theory that provided the basis for philosophers and scientists to think about humans and their environment. ‘The Gaia Hypothesis’, Lovelock writes, ‘states that Earth’s surface conditions are regulated by the activities of life … This environmental maintenance is effected by the growth and metabolic activities of the sum of organisms, i.e., the biota’.

Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is based on a number of assumptions, not every one of which can be said to be in agreement with current scientific understanding.

The first assumption is that every living organism in the planet in some ways influences the external environment. Gaia works on a grand vision of organic harmony, where the myriads of different species that populate the earth act in concert to produce and maintain the necessary conditions for life.

In other words, according to Lovelock, the biosphere is self-regulating and is therefore capable of preserving the conditions conducive for life. The Gaian earth is a single organism that has evolved precisely in the way that it has to ensure the preservation of life.

Most scientists are critical of Lovelock’s hypothesis, and some have even called it a pseudoscience. They maintain that Lovelock’s understanding of evolution is antithetical to the Darwinian theory. While Darwin postulates the competitive model with his idea of ‘survival of the fittest’, Lovelock advocates the cooperation model.

Be that as it may, many people are attracted to the sheer elegance of Lovelock’s hypothesis because it presents a geo-physiological way of understanding our planet and the life it supports. The hypothesis urges us to look beyond the purpose or telos of individual organisms, and to consider their collective contribution to the survival of the planet.

When we evaluate the Gaia hypothesis in light of the Christian understanding of God, the creation and human beings several serious problems present themselves.

At the outset, it is important to note that Gaia is a hypothesis about the nature of living organisms and how they relate to one another. Although it is in part based on current scientific knowledge, it is by-and-large a philosophical construct. In fact, Gaia hypothesis can be even said to be a kind of myth, quite similar to the myth of evolutionism.

One fundamental problem with Gaia is that it fails to make the distinction between organisms. There appears to be no ontological difference between human beings and algae. Every living organism is blended into what proponents of ‘deep ecology’ call ‘a single life force’. The distinction between self and non-self is obliterated: human and bacteria share the same ‘consciousness’.

Although Gaia wishes to address the stubborn anthropocentrism that continues to lurk in the way we think of nature, it has swung to the other extreme. In failing to acknowledge the ontological distinction between human beings and other creatures, it has also failed to give an account of human uniqueness.

This is at odds with the Christian understanding of human beings as bearers of the divine image, that are at once continuous and discontinuous with the rest of God’s creation. And in failing to recognise human uniqueness, Gaia is unable to conceive of the proper relationship between man and the natural order.

Theologians rightly saw that the peculiar naturalism of Gaia has subjected human behaviour to its own brand of biological determinism. The atheist Richard Dawkins has famously asserted that ‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’.

Although Lovelace would not put it in quite the same way, he would have no quarrels with Dawkin’s general intuition. Such a view, if taken seriously, would spell the end of any meaningful way of thinking about human freedom and morality.

As it stands Gaia does not in principle encourage responsible human behaviour towards the natural order. For if nature has an intrinsic ability to adjust and achieve equilibrium, why is there a real need for human beings to take care of the natural environment?

In fact, Lovelock explicitly rejects the idea of ‘resource management’ because it implies that human beings have the ability to somehow ‘manage’ the earth. Lovelock believes that human beings do not have this ability, despite the great achievements of science and technology.

Stewardship, for Lovelock, bespeaks of a certain kind of arrogance. It is perhaps another instantiation of anthropocentrism.

Both Christian and secular conservationists, who stress the importance of responsible stewardship, have great difficulties with the implications of Gaian theory on environmental ethics.

Finally, Gaia postulates that nature is the fundamental reality. In fact, according to the hypothesis, the biosphere is what is ultimately real.

One on level, then, we could say that Gaia presents a new version of naturalism. But in its attempt to sacralise reality by portraying the earth as one living and conscious organism, Gaia may also be accused of promoting a form of pantheism. And with its allusions to teleology or purpose, Gaia may also be said to be implicitly reviving a version of the anima mundi, the mothering earth.

That is why Gaia is so popular among New Age enthusiasts. It inspires what has been described as eco-paganism. Modern theosophists like Alice Bailey and David Spangler have associated Gaia with the theosophical Earth Logos. And New Age leaders like Otter and Morning Glory G’Zell of the Church of All Worlds have described themselves as priest and priestess of Gaia.

How did Gaia, which started life as a unifying theory about living organisms, become a religious symbol? Gaia has inspired the imagination of a culture that is at once dissatisfied with a stifling individualism and a suffocating secularism. It has provided our postmodern culture with a sense of community and inter-connectedness as well as a re-enchanted nature.

Gaia is therefore more than simply a hypothesis about biota or organic life on this planet. It provides with an insight into the restlessness that characterises a culture that is on a quest for a more profound vision of reality than the one science and technology are able to offer.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.