June 2019 Feature
Uncertainty and disruption seem to be the order of the day. We are indeed at a historical moment in time. The world is witnessing considerable changes in modes of production taking place at the same time as changes in the distribution of political and economic power.
The advent of the techno-digital revolution is fundamentally changing production and supply chains, and wealth is moving from the West to Asia. While much benefit has been derived from this, it has also occasioned growing resentment and resistance that have in turn given rise to geopolitical and geoeconomic dislocation, competition, and rivalry.
The globalization that has governed relations and interactions among countries since the end of WW2, what some call the international rules-based order, is coming under great strain. The global trading system is primed for change because of nationalism and the trade war between the US and China.
Nor is the trade war only about trade. It is a technology war that strikes at the heart of Chinese national ambitions to become the leading technological nation in a decade’s time or less, as captured in the “Made in China 2025” mantra which reflects Chinese aspirations. It is also fast becoming a currency war as the US continues to accuse China of deliberately devaluing the RMB in order to bolster their exports.
There are other challenges that we face.
A couple of weeks ago the UN intergovernmental panel for climate change released their latest report which forecasts the urgent need to cut carbon emissions and eliminate coal-driven electricity. Whether natural or man-made, the threat of climate change is real, and the consequences potentially severe, affecting the poorest peoples of the world. Water resources are expected to diminish, and food harvest cycles are already increasingly erratic.
As Christians, we are confronted with the tension of our calling to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28) and the realization that the earth bears the consequences of the fall (Genesis 3) on one hand, and the call to be good stewards of the blessings of God (Proverbs 12:10, 27:18).
We are also living in the age of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, when AI, robotics, the internet-of-things, etc. threaten to upend what we have long understood to be the foundations of our society and economy.
So as Christians, how do we comprehend and respond these changes and disruptions that best us?
We must begin with a realization that these are indeed real problems we have to confront because we have been called to be in this world, even if we are not to be of this world. This calling means that as Christians, we have to engage the affairs of the world even if we are not to be ultimately defined by them. Even when the nation of Israel was taken captive in Babylon, Jeremiah wrote to them, exhorting them to not only build their lives in Babylon and to live in that state, but indeed, to seek its welfare:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
As if to drive home the point, in His high priestly prayer recorded in John 17, Christ prayed not for God to take his people out of the world, but indeed, to keep them from the evil one in a hostile world. We are still meant to be here, and there is a purpose for us being here. We are called not to be isolated but to be engaged, sent out as sheep among wolves, so that we can be the salt and light of the world.
With this in mind, let me make three broad points that serve as a frame of reference for us, and a way of thinking about geopolitical and geoeconomic problems and challenges from a Christian perspective.
First, we must realize that disruption is not a concept foreign to Christianity.
Consider Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or His Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6). These sermons flew in the face of what was prevailing wisdom of the day. By talking about being peacemakers in a social context where warfare was the ultimate expression of power, giving to the needy when society was stratified according to class, and building up treasures in heaven not on earth when worldly materialism prevailed, Jesus was establishing the norms of a counter-culture that greatly disrupted what was at the time accepted as social order. Indeed, little of that order appears to have changed today.
As Christ was a disruption, so too was Christianity. When it was formed, the New Testament Church was an institution that also posed a threat to the prevailing social order. It did so not only because it sought to institutionalize and normalize the teachings of Christ, but in so doing, it went against the norms of the day.
Consider, for instance, the gospel in the context of the customary practice of the time to honour the deities of the day. The church thence, was a subversive institution. And it was not only during the era of the early church. The Protestant Reformation, from which our numerous creedal allegiances and denominations spring, was also a great disruption, as was the introduction of Christianity to our part of the world, Asia.
The proposition that there was a One True God who unilaterally made a covenant with His chosen people (Genesis 15), was not only foreign to the local religions in Asia, it fundamentally challenged long-established beliefs of many Asian societies.
Second, because Christianity is so closely associated with disruption, disruption itself should not be anything new to the Christian.
We need to remember that while all these latest developments have prompted anxiety and concern, and created a sense that this is all new; in reality, it isn’t new. Whether the challenge is technological advancements of the fourth industrial revolution or the rivalry among great powers, perhaps even verging on war, all this has been seen before.
The second half of the book of Daniel for instance, provided a vivid discussion of the rise and fall of great powers long before Paul Kennedy published his tome of the same title in 1987. In fact, Ecclesiastes 1 reminds us precisely of the theme of continuity in our lives on earth.
Third, while Christianity was born out of disruption, God is a God of a godly order; of peace and not confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). There was order and structure from the very beginning of creation. Even the angelic hosts were organized on hierarchy and function.
There is not necessarily a disconnect here (i.e. Christianity being disruptive but God being orderly), although it may seem so at first glance. Christianity was a disruption by virtue of it subverting the order of the fallen world. And it is also because we live in a fallen world that God sees the need to restrain the most evil impulses of man by empowering the state.
As it is stated in Article 36 of the Belgic Confession:
“We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings. For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.”
Therefore, although the world is confronted with much uncertainty and disruption, Christians should take comfort in the fact that in the larger scheme of things of God’s divine plan, there is nothing that perturbs or distresses Him about this uncertainty and disruption. Indeed, it is unfolding exactly according to His will, upon which the divine order is predicated.
Prof Joseph Chinyong Liow is Dean of College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and concurrently, Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he is also Professor of Comparative and International Politics. He held the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, where he was also a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program.