3 October 2022
This essay originally appeared in Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow’s Singapore, edited by Michael Poon (Singapore: Trinity Theological College, 2013). It is re-published here with permission.
The editors of this volume have invited me to reflect on my work with the National Council of Churches over the past twelve years in this essay. Constituted on 24th July, 1974, the National Council of Churches aims ‘through mutual consultation and action to form Christian public opinion and to bring it to bear on the moral, social, national and international issues of the day, particularly those which affect the life and welfare of the people of Singapore’. The Council also seeks ‘to provide an agency through which the Government of the Republic of Singapore may consult on matters of common concern to its members’ (NCCS 2008, Art. 4). Under the energetic leadership of men like Bishops Robert Solomon (Methodist) and John Chew (Anglican), among others, the work of the Council has been greatly invigorated in the past decade. Membership has grown significantly during this period, and many independent churches and denominations like the Evangelical Free Church (EFC) are now members. More importantly, during this period, the Council was also able to substantially and effectively carry out its mission as enshrined in Article 4 of its constitution.
The Council’s engagement with the government and the general public is diverse. It includes commenting on international issues like the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza in 2009 to attending to more domestic concerns like negotiating with the government on the religious use of commercial and industrial buildings. The Council has also made arrangements with Singapore Customs to allow churches here easier custom clearance of goods and equipment coming in and going out of the country. Currently, the Council is addressing copyright issues pertaining to the use of published materials in the church, including religious songs. My contributions pertained to only some aspects of the Council’s work. They can be grouped into two broad areas: interfaith relations and biomedical ethics. In this essay, I discuss some of the issues that I have encountered in my work with the Council. In the area of inter-faith relations, I will discuss in particular the paper that I wrote commissioned by the Council that serves as the theological resource for other documents and initiatives. In the area of bioethics, I will discuss the Council’s response to the Bioethics Advisory Committee’s consultations on human stem cell research and chimera research.
Following the horrific events of September 11, 2001, the Singapore government launched aggressive operations to counter terrorist activities in the country. In December 2001, the Singapore Internal Security Department (ISD) arrested 15 people of whom 13 were believed to be members of the terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Investigations uncovered their plans to conduct a series of bomb attacks on numerous ‘soft targets’ in Singapore, including a shuttle-bus that transported US military personnel and their families, the US and Israeli embassies, the Australian High Commission, commercial buildings housing US firms, and US naval vessels (MHA 2003, 11-13). In August 2002, ISD arrested another 21 people, 19 of whom were JI members. On the presence of JI in Singapore, Dr Rohan Gunaratna, an international terrorist expert and head of terrorism research at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, wrote:
JI is a group set up by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network specifically to attack Western targets in Asia and advance its objectives in the region. Many of the terrorists trained in Afghanistan have moved to theatres of conflict in the region and are in the neighbourhood (Quoted in MHA 2003, 3).
Terrorism is therefore a clear and present threat in Singapore, and without getting into the argument of habeas corpus, ISA does have a role to play in the nation’s fight against terrorism.
‘On Being a Neighbour’
These events have forcefully brought home the fact that interfaith relations in multi-religious Singapore should never be taken for granted. In 2002, Lim Khay Tham, the General Secretary of the Council invited me to write a paper on interfaith relations that would serve as the basis for further discussions on this important issue. Written mainly for pastors and church leaders, the paper entitled, ‘On Being a Neighbour: The Christian and Interfaith Relations’ provided a broad theological and ethical framework within which more specific issues could be explored. It was divided into three sections. The first section, ‘A Theology of Religion’, explored religion from the perspective of a Christian theological anthropology. Because human beings are created for eternal fellowship with their Creator, human religiosity ‘reflects that which is intrinsic to human nature and humankind’s true destiny as God’s image and God’s own’ (Chia 2002, 1). This remains the case despite human sin and rebellion. Thus, although the paper affirmed the uniqueness of Christ and the ‘exclusivity of salvation in Jesus’ Name’ (Chia 2002, 2), it also insisted that ‘there is much in the religions that is good and true and holy that should be affirmed by the Church’ (Chia 2002,1).
Cognizant of the possibility that not all member churches would readily embrace the idea of interfaith dialogue, the paper nonetheless insisted that ‘Christians should not be afraid to dialogue with members of other religions’ (Chia 2002, 2). It presented interfaith dialogue as ‘an aspect of the larger matrix of social intercourse between persons.’ In dialogue, ‘we seek to discover one another, understand each other, appreciate our differences, and develop respect for each other even as we cherish our common aspirations and commitments’. Such sincere and open dialogue could expunge the ‘prejudices that stem from false perceptions’ (Chia 2002, 3). The paper maintained that conversations between people of different faiths should be an ongoing activity, and that it is only on the strength of the friendships forged as a result that conflicts – should they occur – could be quickly and peacefully resolved.
The paper argued that love (agape) should be the ethic that shapes the Christian’s attitude towards people of other faiths. Drawing from the commandment of Christ to love the neighbour (Matthew 22:39), Paul’s great poem of love (1 Corinthians 13), and the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), it briefly discussed the unconditional and indiscriminate nature of Christian love. Although the concept of tolerance, so fashionable in modern discourse on interfaith relations, is useful, love is a far more superior attitude. The paper then discussed the question of evangelism. In a ‘multi-religious society, especially one in which there are other proselytising religions, like Islam, Christian evangelism will be met with competition, distrust and conflict’ (Chia 2002, 5). Although Christians must not for this reason refrain from sharing the Gospel, they must be self-critical of the methods they employ, especially those that are coercive, insensitive and disrespectful.
The final section of the paper dealt with the question of the collaboration between Christians and members of other faith communities for the common good of society. Anticipating that some readers might object to such endeavours, the paper presented at the outset the premises and goals of such collaborations: ‘The Christian ethic of love must compel Christians to welcome such collaborations with members of other faiths, as long as the objectives of such co-operations are in keeping with the will and purposes of God for the world’ (Chia 2002, 6). Four possible areas of collaboration were highlighted and discussed briefly. The first is nation building: the church can work with other faith communities to contribute to the wellbeing of the nation and the flourishing of its citizens. Christians can also work with people of other faiths to ‘bring about civic renewal to Singapore society’ and ‘multiply the arenas of meaningful and effective civic action’ (Chia 2002, 7-8). Related to this is the promotion of public welfare: ‘The Christian Church can therefore work with other faith-based institutions and communities which affirm the value of human beings and the need for society to care for those who are suffering or disadvantaged’ (Chia 2002, 8). And finally, different faith communities can work together to achieve inter-racial peace and peace among the different religious groups.
The paper ended with an excursus that dealt directly with Christian-Muslim relations. It noted that recent events have brought ‘home the urgency for Singapore citizens to develop strong interfaith and interracial relations, social cohesion and integration, without which the peace of the nation will be threatened’ (Chia 2002, 9). While government policies have in some ways prevented the establishment of racial and religious enclaves, interracial and interfaith relations in Singapore still have a long way to go. The paper made three recommendations on how Christian-Muslim relations in Singapore can be strengthened. The first, of course, is dialogue. The second is education because ‘very often prejudice is formed because of distorted perceptions of the other’ (Chia 2002, 10). And finally, relationship between the two faith communities can be strengthened through intentional but selective collaboration. It is heartening to note that in the years that followed the writing of this paper these recommendations, especially dialogue and collaboration, have begun to develop between the two communities, although much more could still be done.
Dialogue and Collaboration
Among the different religious groups in Singapore, the Council was able to engage the Muslim community in creative and sustained dialogue and collaboration. This relationship was aided by the fact that Bishop Robert Solomon and Haji Mohammad Alami Musa, the President of Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) were friends and alumni of Raffles Institution. The first collaborative project that I was involved in on behalf of the Council was with the Association for Muslim Professionals (AMP). In 2004, we organised a seminar on the theme, ‘Secular State, Moral Society’ and invited both Muslims and Christians to reflect together and discuss the various permutations of this topic that affects both our communities. The speaker from the Muslim community was Syed Farid Alatas, the Head of the Department of Malay Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. The Council invited Rev Dr Daniel Koh, who is an ordained Elder of the Methodist Church and who teaches ethics at Trinity Theological College to present the Christian perspective. The theme was chosen because of the ongoing debates on homosexuality and the introduction of integrated resorts housing casinos in Singapore at the time.
A series of meetings with the MUIS ensued to discuss different initiatives and concerns, and I had the privilege of representing the Council at many of them. On July 8, 2005, I was invited to give a lecture on ‘Biomedical Ethics: A Christian Perspective’ at MUIS. The former Mufti, Syed Isa Semait, Alami Musa and about thirty Muslim scientists, medical doctors and lawyers were present at the talk. The most recent collaboration between the Council and MUIS is the Building Bridges Seminar on the theme, ‘Postmodernism, Religion and Authority’. Lim Khay Tham, Dr Mark Chan, Elder Richard Chong and I met the representatives from MUIS several times to discuss the goals and format of the seminars. It was decided that there would be three seminars where discussants from both the Council and MUIS will present papers on topics related to the main theme. At this writing, two of the three seminars have already been conducted and the third is scheduled on April 2013. The seminars have generally been well received. It is hoped that the MUIS-NCCS would invite members of other faith communities to participate in future Building Bridges seminars.
BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH AND SOCIETY
In December 2000, the Singapore Government formed the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC) ‘to examine and make recommendations for potential ethical, legal and social issues arising from research in the biomedical sciences in Singapore’ (BAC ‘Organisation’). The Singapore government regards biomedicine and related fields – pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and healthcare services – as an important investment and is determined to develop a strong public sector infrastructure to support the biomedical sciences. But just as important are the legal, social and ethical implications of the bio- medical and technological advances.
The rational and responsible management of bioethical issues is integral and critical to the national effort to develop biomedical sciences, and decisions regarding the biomedical sciences and research need to be solidly based on good science and high ethical and legal standards. To this end, the BAC actively gathers information and views from the international and local community, and after careful deliberation, makes recommendations to the Singapore Government (BAC ‘Organisation’).
In the past twelve years, the BAC has conducted a number of consultations on a wide range of biomedical issues, and has invited religious organisations including the Council to participate. I’ve had the privilege of preparing the responses for all these consultations on behalf of the Council. Some of the responses were distributed to readers for comments, and I would like to especially acknowledge the insightful contributions of Professor Kon Oi Lian and Bishop Solomon. But in most cases, it was not possible for more people to be involved in the process mainly because the BAC gave the Council very little time (usually only a week or two) to submit a written response. Apart from writing these responses, I also represented the Council at every dialogue session conducted by the BAC.
Stem Cell Research
On 8 November 2001, the BAC sent its first consultation paper on ‘Human Stem Cell Research’ to the Council (BAC 2001). If my memory serves me correctly, Bishop Robert Solomon, who was then the President of the Council invited me to pen the response on behalf of the Council. Human stem cell research was advancing at an incredible pace, especially in the West. But such research, especially those involving human embryos, have raised significant ethical issues for which there is no consensus among members of the scientific community and ethicists. Recognising the therapeutic (and economic) potential of such research, the BAC stated that ‘[t]here is a need to find a proper public policy balance between the opportunities that biomedical science offers to improve human welfare and the limits set by important ethical obligations’ (BAC 2001, 5).
Following the standard classifications found in the literature on stem cell research, the BAC made the distinction between human reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. Reproductive cloning refers to cloning a human being and allowing the clone to develop to adulthood. Recognising that with reproductive cloning, ‘a human being may be brought into existence for a utilitarian purpose’ (BAC 2001, 5) the BAC maintained that such cloning should not be permitted. The BAC, however, allowed therapeutic cloning which involves the creation of human embryos by nuclear transfer for research. Following the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFEA) of 1990, which allows the creation of human embryos up to 14 days for the purpose of research, the BAC argued that such research should not be prohibited because of its therapeutic promise. Thus, the BAC stated that while it recognised ‘the special status of an embryo as a potential human being, it accepts that it is justified to use early embryos, not more than 14 days old, for serious research, which may benefit others’ (BAC 2001, 5).
The Council’s response to the BAC consultation paper began by applauding the BAC’s view that reproductive cloning should be prohibited because no human being must be treated merely as a means to an end (BAC 2002a, G-3-65). The Council also made it clear that it encouraged human stem cell research as long as it does not harm or destroy a human being. It therefore encouraged and supported research using adult stem cells and stem cells procured from cord blood. The Council then proceeded to address the main issue surrounding human embryonic stem cell research, namely, the moral status of the human embryo. It maintained that both the Bible and Christian tradition teach that the human embryo is a human person worthy of the respect and protection that is accorded to every human being. The Council’s understanding of the status of the embryo was premised on the Christian doctrine of divine providence – that ‘every human beginning is part of the divine plan and the result of divine agency’ – and from a theological anthropology – that the human embryo is a bearer of the image and likeness of God. In addition, it also argued from the doctrine of the Incarnation, which maintains that at ‘conception, the zygote is already the incarnation of the Eternal Son of God’. The Council then supplemented its theological arguments with scientific and philosophical ones. ‘From the standpoint of science’, it argued, ‘the zygote is already endowed with its own genetic code, and its human nature’. From the standpoint of philosophy, ‘it must be argued that the zygote of human parentage cannot articulate itself into another animal. This is because the zygote of human parentage is already a human being sharing in the nature of its parents’ (BAC 2001, 2). Thus, the moral ideal proposed by the BAC – that a human being should never be used merely as a means to an end – should be applied to the human embryo as well.
The Council ended with a cautionary note, stating that scientific progress should never be allowed to eclipse the larger concerns about the value of human life:
The refusal to allow scientific progress to overshadow concerns for human life is found not only in the Christian community, but also in the collective wisdom of humankind as a whole, a wisdom born out of immense struggles in history. In the shadow of Nazism, The Nuremberg Code declared that ‘no experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur’. In 1975, the Helsinki Declaration of the World Medical Association maintains that ‘concerns for the interest of the subject must always prevail over the interest of science and society (BAC 2002a, G-3-66).
Due to the practical difficulties in getting healthy women to donate their eggs of research, the BAC was tasked to look into other ways of creating more human embryos from which to harvest stem cells. One way is to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos by combining human and bovine genetic material. Thus, on 8 January 2008, the BAC issued arguably its most controversial consultation paper to date entitled, ‘Human-Animal Combinations for Biomedical Research’. The first paragraph of the paper made the impetus behind embarking on this consultation quite clear:
In 2002, the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC) published a Report on the ethical, legal and social issues in human cloning and stem cell research (the Stem Cell Report). Since then, significant advances have been made in stem cell science and technology and ethical issues have arisen as a result of the shortage of human eggs and the need to create human-animal combinations to further stem cell research (BAC 2008b, 6).
According to the paper, cytoplasmic hybrid human embryos (or cybrids) are created by SCNT (Somatic Cell Nuclear Transplant), ‘in which the nucleus of a human cell is transferred into an animal egg from which the nucleus has been removed’. An embryo created in this way is a hybrid because even though it is 99% human, its genetic material originated from two species, in this case, human and bovine. The paper then discussed the many ethical issues surrounding such research and the objections that have been raised by various quarters.
In its response, the Council clarified that it was not against ‘all forms of induced chimeras or biomedical research involving human-animal mixtures’ (BAC 2010, C9-2). But the Council categorically opposed the creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos to supply stem cells for research because these embryos are human beings and their destruction should never be countenanced. The Council also noted that although the BAC paper was ‘well-written and lucid, it suffers from being too sweeping and in some sense abstract’ (BAC 2010, C9-3). For instance, there are many different ways in which human and animal materials can be combined, which the consultation paper did not discuss. This gave the impression that once the objections for a certain type of human-animal mixture are defeated, other forms of chimera research should not pose any ethical problems. Another example was the suggestion that chimeras are not uncommon since the recipient of xenotransplantation and even blood transfusion can be considered a chimera. The Council, however, warned that such arguments can be dangerously misleading because they failed to show that different chimeric creations would raise different ethical concerns: ‘… using a pig’s valve to replace the diseased heart valve of a human patient is different from injecting undifferentiated human stem cells into a nonhuman zygote’ (BAC 2010, C9-3).
In its lengthy response, the Council presented the theological and ethical framework within which to reflect on the implications of chimera research by discussing (1) the idea of human uniqueness (noting that some philosophers who promote such research based their argument on a version of the evolutionary theory that blurs species distinctions); (2) Human dignity (noting that philosophers and ethicists often premise their concepts of human dignity on certain attributes like sentience or rationality instead on mere humanity); (3) the moral status of the human embryo (since the main concern of the BAC document is the creation of human-bovine cytoplasmic embryos); (4) the moral status of the human-animal chimera (since it is theoretically possible to create humanised chimeric creatures); and (5) playing God (a concept that some love while others loathe, but one that is helpful for ethical reflection on the extent to which we should use our scientific and technological prowess). The final section of the Council’s response discussed the ethics of the many different forms of research involving human-animal mixtures (a discussion that was totally absent in the BAC paper). The Council subsequently commissioned me to write a book on this topic to help Christians understand the profound ethical and social issues surrounding inter-species research (Chia 2012a). At the invitation of the Council, I also wrote a more general and introductory book on Bioethics and the Church (Chia 2010).
THE FUTURE OF ENGAGEMENT
In the past twelve years, the Council has been actively responding to numerous significant issues that have arisen in Singapore. These issues are not only relevant to the church and other religious communities. They directly or indirectly affect every member of our society – people of faith as well as those who do not profess any. The Council’s calm and rational approach has not only won the appreciation of the Singapore government, but also its trust. And in a religious milieu like ours, where Christians are a significant and visible minority, it is imperative that an organisation like the Council, which represents a significant segment of Protestant and Orthodox churches here, continue to deepen that trust. As I have already pointed out at the beginning of this essay, the Council’s achievements were very much dependent on the leaders who have guided its work in the past decade. These leaders not only knew the churches (and Christianity) in Singapore well, they also had a keen understanding of our multi-religious context and the way in which the government here operates. These are the nonnegotiable requisites for meaningful and constructive Christian engagement in a country like Singapore, with its unique confluence of religious diversity, a vocal and sometimes virulent minority of secularists, and a government that is at once secular and pragmatic, but never totally dismissive of religious views and sentiments.
As I write this essay, the Council is undergoing some significant changes in leadership. Bishop John Chew has retired as Bishop of the Diocese of Singapore, and Bishop Robert Solomon has stepped down after serving three terms as the head of the Methodist Church. The new leaders – Bishop Rennis Ponniah (Anglican) and Bishop Wee Boon Hup (Methodist) – will have to decide on how to navigate the future work of the Council and build upon the accomplishments of their predecessors. As leaders of the two largest Protestant denominations in Singapore, the responsibility of taking Christian engagement here further will invariably fall on their shoulders even if they would no doubt continue to have the support of the leaders of the other denominations. It is quite clear that a strong and vibrant Council will be of benefit to both the Christian community and society. The cultural and political situation in Singapore is changing so rapidly that the church can no longer exist in cloistered seclusion from what is happening around it. Neither should the church succumb to the secularist rhetoric that religious views must be confined to the private sphere and that they have no place in public debates. The church must resist the temptation of self-ghettoization and self-censorship by allowing secularism to determine the rules of engagement. The church must be confident that she can make a meaningful contribution to questions and issues that affect everyone in society, given the immense wealth of her own theological, liturgical and spiritual heritage. And the church must see this form of engagement as part of her witness, and as part of her mission in society.
In the past decade, the Council has worked very closely with Trinity Theological College (TTC), and this relationship should be strengthened and perhaps even formalised in some ways. That Council and College were able to work so closely and effectively bears wonderful testimony to the unity and collegiality that exist between the two institutions. This synergy would not have been possible without the vision of the principal of TTC, the Rev Dr Ngoei Foong Nghian, who has not only taken a keen interesting in developments in society but has also generously made available the College’s resources, especially teaching faculty members, to the Council and the church at large. The effectiveness of the work of the Council was due to the collegial bond between the heads of churches and the principal and the collective vision they shared concerning the church’s witness in society. This bond must not be broken if the Council is to continue to be faithful to its mission (as articulated in Article 4 of its Constitution) and effectively address societal issues in the future. But the Council must also look to its member churches for the relevant resources, as Christian engagement in the public arena invariably requires an inter-disciplinary grasp of issues. Theologians must therefore work with physicians, scientists, artists, journalists, economists, policy makers, politicians, educationists, and lawyers to provide credible and responsible input to the larger conversation. All these resources can be found in our churches, but the Council must be able to creatively harness them for its important work.
There is a sense in which both church and society (perhaps even the Government) in Singapore are new to such public debates. The Council is well aware of the fact that as Christians participate more visibly in these discussions, they will come under public scrutiny not only in the things they say, but also in the way in which they embody their theological and moral commitments. Christians involved in the public arena must be cognizant of what I have called elsewhere the ‘politics of engagement’. This means that Christians must be sensitive to the fact that there are many disparate voices in the public square that yearn to be heard and acknowledged. The public square is therefore teeming with ideologically diverse players, each with their own agendas and goals. Christians must never concede to the rhetoric (which is often employed not just by militant secularists but sometimes also by the State) that the public square must be ‘naked’, that is, that it must be denuded of all religious concepts and ideas. If public discourse is to genuinely reflect Singapore society, the public square must be pluralistic, not secular, where religious voices and opinions are not only allowed but are also taken seriously. But in this pluralistic context, Christians must learn to communicate their vision of society calmly and clearly, confident in the wisdom of her great theological and moral traditions that received their inspiration from the Gospel of Christ.
This brings us to another important if controversial aspect of the politics of engagement: compromise. Some Christians have a natural aversion to the idea of compromise because for them it cannot mean anything other than selling out on what Christians hold to be true. What is needed, however, is a more nuanced understanding of compromise. In his book, The New Left and Christian Radicalism Arthur Gish explains that there are two kinds of compromise:
It is one thing to talk of compromise in the sense of flexibility and cooperation, a willingness to live with the ambiguities of life, to be aware of our questionable motives and imperfect actions, to reject dogmatism; and it is quite another thing to talk of selling out, retreating, being less than faithful, basing decisions on expediency rather than on faithfulness to one’s commitment (Gish 1970, 95).
As Richard Mouw has wisely put it, ‘Christians must often commit themselves to policies that from the biblical point of view will bring about only fragmentary justice and peace’ (Mouw 1973, 97). In public engagement Christians must recognise the wisdom in the adage that we should not let the good become the victim of the perfect. Compromise does not mean that Christians should always be content with the fragmentary appropriations of the ideal. But it does mean that Christians must learn to accept modest gains in the political and social arena in order that they may assert greater influence in the future. Christians must therefore see this step as the beginning and not the end of their witness.
But Christian discourse in the public square must also take seriously the ‘spirituality of engagement’. Because Christian participation in public debate is inextricably bound up with the church’s witness in society, it must be governed by two attitudes: humility and civility. Christians must be humble because Christian engagement in public discourse is always riddled with great difficulties and challenges. Much wisdom is required if such engagements are to be fruitful. This is because engagement in the public discourse requires that Christians apply the theological insights gleaned from Scripture and tradition to very concrete and specific issues about which there are many differing opinions. Christians engaged in public discourse must be aware of the fact that ours is a religiously, ideologically and philosophically pluralistic society. Furthermore, there are those who believe that religion is unable to make any positive contribution to issues confronting society, and are determined to keep the public square secular. Because of these complex socio-political and ideological currents, Christians must always proceed with caution. History is littered with examples of how certain approaches taken by well-meaning Christians to apply biblical principles to today’s swirling, confusing political world have not always been wise. Past mistakes, however, should not deter Christians from being involved. We should not be so overwhelmed by the need to be cautious that we become immobilised. But past mistakes should teach Christians to move into social and political engagement only after careful reflection and much prayer.
Christians who wish to be involved in social and political engagement must be realistic. The realism to which I refer is not just practical, but theological. Theological realism informs us that the social and political world to which we are called to bear witness is fallen and sinful. It is a world where something has gone terribly wrong. It is a world that is prone to human greed, attempts at self-aggrandizement, hypocrisy, and unethical means to achieve goals. This is a world that does not always welcome the truth. It is a world that is not always concerned for the common good, regardless how often and eloquently it deploys this rhetoric. But Christians engaged in the public square must also acknowledge their own inadequacies. The Lutheran doctrine that believers are justified sinners (simul justus et peccator) helps to bring out this point. Even when Christians participate in public discourse prayerfully and with an unwavering passion to follow their risen Lord, they nonetheless bring with them ‘a burden of biased perspectives, incomplete knowledge and their own sinfulness’ (Monsma and Rodger 2005, 327) One implication of this is that we may very easily confuse God’s will with our own desires. Furthermore, some of the issues in the public square are very complex, and the Bible and Christian tradition may not have directly addressed them. Christians must therefore formulate their views by appropriating the relevant aspects of the tradition and by constructing a theological framework within which these issues can be reflected responsibly. For this reason, Christians engaged in policy development or advocacy sometimes differ on specific proposals. Finally, Christian engagement must be civil. In 1 Peter 3:15 and 16, we read: ‘But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for your hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander’. Christians in the public square must always take care to always be civil, especially with those with whom we disagree.
In his book, Community, Church and State (Barth 1960), the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth – one of the composers of the Barmen Declaration – maintains that one of the most important forms of Christian social engagements is prayer, the intercessions of the saints for the earthly city. Prayer is never passive, because true prayer always translates into service of God and man. Prayer, in fact, is itself an expression of that service. The activity of prayer is always also a political activity. The Church is called to pray for those in authority, for the state, the nation and society precisely because none of these things is divine, and therefore none of them is infallible. By praying for these ‘powers’ Christians de-divinise them, and place them under the lordship of Christ, which is their proper place. But prayer is also an activity that critiques the Church’s naive triumphalism. It reminds Christians that their social programmes and political activities – however sincere, effective and wholesome – cannot transfigure this fallen world into the ‘new heavens and the new earth’. The renewal of the social and political order is beyond us. We are simply called to faithfully point to the truth and justice of God in what we say and do. Ultimately only God can cause his truth and justice to prevail. Thus, as Christians continue to bear witness – as light to this dark world, and as salt to a society that has lost its flavour – we must also pray (for the world and for ourselves). And the most profound prayer that we must utter with every fibre of our being is: ‘Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done! On earth as it is in heaven!’
AWARE Association of Women for Action and Research
BAC Bioethics Advisory Committee
MHA Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs
NCCS National Council of Churches
AWARE. 2012. ‘Proceed with Caution on Social Egg Freezing’, November 21. http://www.straitstimes.com/premium/forum-letters/story/proceed-caution-social-egg-freezing-20121121.
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BAC. 2001. ‘Human Stem Cell Research Consultation Paper’, 8 November 2001.
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BAC. 2002b. ‘Human Tissue Research’, http://www.bioethics-singapore.org/uploadfile/123915%20PMHuman%20Tissue%20Research%20Consultation.pdf
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BAC. 2005a. ‘Ethical, Legal and Social Issues in Genetic Testing and Genetics Research’, http://www.bioethics-singapore.org/uploadfile/123714%20PMGT%20CP%20Final.pdf.
BAC. 2005b. ‘Feedback on the BAC Consultation Paper Entitled, “Ethical, Legal and Social Issues in Genetic Testing and Genetic Research”’, http://www.bioethics-singapore.org/uploadfile/22140%20PMAnnex%20F%2013-14.pdf, F-111 to F-116, G-3-64 – G-3-67.
BAC. 2007. ‘Donation of Human Eggs for Research’, http://www.bioethics-singapore.org/uploadfile/52533%20PMEgg%20Donation%20Consultation%20Paper.pdf.
BAC. 2008a. ‘Response to the BAC’s Consultation Paper entitled, “Donation of Human Eggs for Research”’, http://www.bioethics-singapore.org/uploadfile/14457%20PMAnnex%20C%20-%20Written%20Responses.pdf, C-29 to C-32.
BAC. 2008b. ‘Human-Animal Combinations for Biomedical Research’, 8 January 2008, http://www.bioethics-singapore.org/uploadfile/55655%20PMHuman-Animal%20Combination.pdf.
BAC. 2010. ‘Response to the BAC’s Consultation Paper Entitled, “Human-Animal Combinations for Biomedical Research”’, http://www.bioethics-singapore.org/uploadfile/54229%20PMAnnex%20C%20-%20Written%20Responses.pdf.
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