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7 August 2023

For more than a decade now, the momentum and pressure regarding gender identity and sexual preferences have weighed heavily on Christians. On one hand, to have a law that criminalises a private act, and one that will not be enforced, seems a tad tenuous. On the other hand, we know that groups are not monolithic and there is evidence that a political agenda is embedded in activism.

The emotionally charged and intellectually demanding challenge of the issue often feels overwhelming to busy Singaporean Christians who are not used to public discourse and political engagement. The internet era also introduced unhelpful habits that often worsen and complicate human dynamics, which for an Asian society like ours, where respect and give-and-take are the norm, is highly discombobulating.

A sadness and a pall hung over many of us. Most of cherish our familial ties deeply and the polarising effect we felt was painful and grievous. The stream of anecdotal and documented stories of what happens to countries that bend to gender redefinitions and the many attendant politically motivated demands, which led to changes in education and workplace ethics, worry many of us within and outside the church that Singapore was in for a sea change.

Many huddled to watch the National Day Rally speech and even though church leaders were told to anticipate what was to come, we felt a lump of disbelief caught in our throats to hear our Prime Minister inform us that a repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code was indeed coming.

In our arguments to retain the law, we have appealed to how it serves as a wall and bulwark against the deterioration of morals and the disintegration of the heteronormative family unit.

Yet, this same wall is seen by others to divide, isolate and discriminate.

Standing on different sides, it may be that, if we are not careful, we end up with shouting matches conducted across the wall.

The Bible contains many references to walls, both physical and metaphorical. One of them is the story of an exiled Jew who finds himself summoned to action, to rebuild the wall that is needed for the safety of the city. Could there be helpful insights there for us today?

Nehemiah lived as an exile serving in the court of the Persian King. His fellow countrymen had started to trickle back to Jerusalem and its environs. One day he received the devastating news that the Jews were living with great vulnerability as the city walls, destroyed by invaders, lie in ruins. The thought of how his fellow Jews live in trepidation of attacks, unable to defend themselves, grieved Nehemiah so much that he fasted and prayed about what he could do. For Nehemiah, the need for a wall was non-negotiable.

Many of us think of Section 377A as a bulwark of sorts to protect Singapore from the marauding dangers of the politicisation of gender with its attendant ills of making faith commitments vulnerable to attack, as we witness in some countries where gay sex and marriage have been legalised.

While it is our citizen duty to work and even fight for what we believe is best for our national stability and flourishing, it is important to recognise too that Scripture has warned us not to wage battle against humans, for the realm of ideas and the spiritual forces behind them are the real enemies. So, while we can question and require an accounting from our government, it is important that we do not demonise anyone in the process.

Additionally, even as critical thought may lead us to question if the law needs to be repealed, the reality is that legal systems reflect what a society deems acceptable. We must not confuse the laws of the land with the immutable laws of God, which he has woven into nature and codified in Scripture.

Nonetheless, in a world full of harsh realities, who does not need a wall of protection?

Taking a leaf from Nehemiah, we see that a commitment to define and set boundaries to create safe conditions for thriving is a necessity. However, this wall may not take the form of one codified in a nation’s law. It could be a moral and spiritual law that God wants to write upon our hearts:

I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.” (Heb 8:10-11)

Referencing the prophet Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews calls the church to recognise the revolutionary nature of the new covenant wrought by Christ’s sacrifice and to persevere, as this reality will be brought to pass.

This would mean that the wall is built by cultivating a tenderness of heart and a familiarity with Scripture and tradition. Furthermore, should we begin to vilify others and stew in suspicion or fear, we would build the wrong walls, and the darkness we fear would succeed in darkening our minds and hearts and shut out the light of God that we need to truly live.

Secondly, Nehemiah worked hard in the face of opposition, ridicule, intimidation and subterfuge. This is not the typical experience for most Christians in Singapore, and we will have to learn that this is the growing reality as post-modernism and populism take further root in the cultural matrix of our time.

To persevere through these harsh conditions, Nehemiah placed families strategically to work on the building of the wall. While our faith is a personal matter, it is not a private matter. We must unlearn and detect radical individualism for the illusion it is and build our communities as safe places and strategic forces for good.

Jesus has broadened the definition of the family to be relationships bound by faith and a vision of life, shaped by the Cross. The family, bearing both spear and shade, work and defend, welcome and edify.

We will have to navigate a new social compact and know that our daily lives need to be lived humbly and joyfully, whether in friendly or hostile contexts, with friends and collaborators alongside. We should remember that, as Christians, we are called to co-create a cultural environment and even cultural goods that serve society. Here, Paul’s injunctions for emotional wholeness and relational health will be very instrumental. These words, though context-specific, belie a way of life that defies what the world defines and even defends:

Rejoice always (1 Thess 5:16)

Give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:18)

…present your requests to God (Phil 4:6)

… pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Eph 6:18)

Do everything without grumbling or arguing (Phil 2:14)

Imagine every one of us seeking, through the gracious empowerment of the Holy Spirit, to live this way. How might it shape the new social compact and create a more just and gracious society for everyone? The five stars in our national flag refer to democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality: All meta-ideals that can become weaponised today. In fact, it takes a firm commitment to truth and postural attitudes like those Paul admonished us to which make these ideals possible.

Finally, Nehemiah could have played the blame game, but he did not. We ought not to either. Our government must manage and mediate competing expectations and harsh realities, and we are to pray for them even as we hold them accountable to do the best for all of us who share this island home.

Among ourselves, there will be issues that can become divisive as we struggle to make sense of them and come to varying convictions. We have to learn that unity is not uniformity and that the journey of faith and maturation is exactly that: A journey, which takes time, intentionality and commitment. We ought to encourage each other to give the time, develop the intention and prioritise our commitment, while giving each other space to be formed by God in the process. Our unity goes deep into the subterranean stream of God’s love and is not easily broken by changing ideas and vacillating loyalties.

Nehemiah reminds us that walls are necessary, but the right ones, built the right way, with the right heart attitude can be done in fifty-two days.

There are many Scriptural passages that we can meditate on and consider for living out our faith when we confront major shifts. And it is important that we read the whole counsel of God and nourish the roots of our faith with a commitment to Scriptural revelation.

Right now, Nehemiah and these five admonitions seem particularly apt, as we turn a page as a nation.

Rev Jenni Ho-Huan was raised and ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Her desire is to live with authenticity and help others develop a vibrant faith-life in their particular circumstances and personalities through developing a strong inner life. An avid writer, Jenni was columnist for Impact magazine; and has authored books and blogs. Jenni holds a Bachelor of Arts (NUS), Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Theology (Trinity Theological College).