Tag Archives: dignity

An Anatomy of Sexual Harassment

December 2017 Pulse 

There have been a slew of scandalous revelations of sexual harassment perpetrated by the who’s who in Hollywood and American TV that is truly disconcerting. From the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to the actor Kevin Spacey to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News’ popular O’Reilly Show, disclosures of these scandals have appeared steadily and unabated almost every day.

Women in Singapore are not immune from this scourge. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), over half of the 500 people interviewed said that they have experienced sexual harassment in some form at work. The spectrum of abuses ranges from getting sexually explicit text messages to being inappropriately touched to rape.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of the United States defines sexual harassment as ‘unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature’.

In a 2006 study conducted in the United States, Berdahl and Moore conclude that ‘women experienced more sexual harassment than men, minorities experienced more ethnic harassment than Whites, and minority women experienced more harassment overall than majority men, minority men and majority women’.

One of the myths surrounding sexual harassment is the view that it is all about the sexual needs and desires of the offender. Research has shown, however, that in most cases it is really about power and discrimination.

Sexual harassment is a sordid act that exploits an unequal power relationship, for example, between an employer and an employee. As the EEOC points out, in some cases the submission of the employee to sexually inappropriate conduct on the part of the employer is either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition for employment.

Sexual harassment is the abuse of power and a display of dominance over people whom the offender disrespects and consequently mistreats as mere sex objects. Violence against women is therefore the ultimate form of sexism and sexual discrimination.

The problem of sexual harassment, however, must not be analysed in isolation from the broader cultural milieu. In an interesting study entitled, ‘The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape’ (1981), Peggy Reeves Sanday argues quite persuasively that there are sociological and cultural impetuses behind violence against women in modern society.

Sanday identifies at least three characteristics of our modern cultural ethos that nurture such violence. The first is the violence that we find generally in war and aggression. The second is male dominance in our culture and society and the relegation women to subordinate roles. And, related to this, there is, thirdly, the institutionalisation of male activities and the exclusion of women from certain spheres of public life, like politics.

Even if one disagrees with Sanday on certain aspects of her argument, her general thesis is surely sound. The phenomenon of sexual harassment is undergirded by certain social and cultural factors.

Sexual harassment is an assault on the dignity of the victim. The Bible clearly teaches that human beings – male and female – are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This means that regardless of their unique individualities, all human beings possess an inalienable dignity and must therefore be equally valued.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus showed uncommon respect to women against the social conventions of the patriarchal society of his day. From the Samaritan woman at the well to the woman caught in adultery, Jesus showed love, compassion, understanding, sensitivity and forgiveness.

Christian writers such as Judith Balswick and Jack Balswick discuss the problem of sexual harassment in light of what the Bible has to say about justice. They conclude that ‘Biblical justice is oriented toward recreating communities so that each gender participates fully and equally in society’.

This is one aspect of the biblical concept of shalom. ‘When women are not free to live in their full femininity because they fear being sexually harassed’, Balswick and Balswick write, ‘there is no shalom’.

In Ephesians 5:11, we read: ‘Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them’. In the case of sexual harassment, not only must Christians have no part in it, they also have the moral duty to report such offences.

This is important because there is a tendency in our society to respond to allegations of sexual harassment with what some have described as ‘automatic defensiveness’. There is also a tendency to give the accused the benefit of the doubt or to simply dismiss the allegation. Such approaches give the impression that the victims of sexual aggression and abuse are not valuable, that they simply won’t be believed.

Large organisations are known to cover up sexual offences, especially if the perpetrators are significant or key figures. While this is true in secular organisations, it is unfortunately also true in the Church – the scandalous cover-up of the offences of predatory paedophile priests in the Roman Catholic Church is a case in point.

A biblical response to sexual harassment, however, must not only focus on the harassed. It should include the harasser and the community in which the harassment took place.

Failing to show genuine concern for the harasser is in some ways to ignore his (or her) humanity. And failing to take into consideration the responsibility of the community where the harassment occurred is to fail to create a social space where such offences are taken seriously and prohibited.

As Balswick and Balswick put it, ‘A biblical response to sexual harassment involves redress and restoration at both the interpersonal and community level. A concerned response is incomplete if it focuses only on the victim and offender; it must also seek the restoration and peace at all structural levels’.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Modern Slavery

November 2017 Pulse

Despite the incredible leaps that our species have made in the last couple of centuries, one of the oldest scourges that has accompanied us throughout our history still remains alive and well today: slavery.

In the modern world, slavery is the primary human rights issue that has attracted international attention and aroused global concern. Yet, despite universal condemnation and numerous international efforts, slavery continues to flourish in many parts of the world.

Modern slavery is a complex phenomenon that covers a variety of practices. This includes traditional slavery and slave trades, child prostitution, child labour, human trafficking (for sexual exploitation), children in armed conflict, debt bondage, etc.

A United Nations document entitled, ‘Contemporary Forms of Slavery’ presents the enormity of the problem of modern slavery thus: ‘Slave-like practices may be clandestine. This makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the scale of contemporary slavery, let alone to uncover, punish or eliminate it’.

It adds that ‘[t]he problem is compounded by the fact that the victims of slavery-like abuses are generally from the poorest and most vulnerable social groups. Fear and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out’.

A quick glance at slavery across the world would help us to appreciate just how grim the current situation is.

In Albania, 90 percent of girls in rural areas do not attend school because they are afraid of being abducted and sold as sex-slaves. One study estimated that about 80 percent of women traded as prostitutes in Western Europe may be from the Republic of Moldova, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe.

Muslim tribesmen from northern Sudan conduct slave raids on non-Muslim Dinka people in the south, taking with them thousands of women and children. And the United Arab Emirates (UAE) receives a constant supply of women trafficked from the former Soviet Union.

In India, debt slavery is prevalent in certain sectors of society. For example, Dalits are forced to accept loans from their landlords to perform social duties associated with death or marriage.

But as Justin Campbell explains: ‘These loans are designed to be impossible to pay back, and because Dalits are traditionally denied education, they are left with little recourse but to accept the loans and become indebted to their landlords. So just as one’s position in the caste social hierarchy is inherited, so debts are passed from one generation to another’.

Christianity has been woefully slow to condemn slavery. Many Christians have found justification for keeping the practice alive in the way in which certain passages in the Bible are interpreted.

Far from condemning slavery and urging its abolition, the Bible appears to take the practice – so prevalent in the Ancient Near East – for granted as an acceptable social norm. A number of passages from the OT even seem to sanction the buying and selling of slaves, both male and female, by the Israelites.

For example, in Leviticus 25, we read: ‘As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. And you may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property’.

In the NT, we find instructions on how slaves should behave towards their masters and how the latter should treat the former (E.g., 1 Timothy 6:5-6; Ephesians 6:5-6; 1 Peter 2:18-29). But there is no specific injunction for Christians to free their slaves or to oppose this dehumanising practice.

The great theologians of the Church appear to hold the view that slavery is in some sense necessary in the sinful world in which we inhabit. While both Augustine in the fifth century and Aquinas in the thirteenth insisted that slavery should never be understood as part of natural law – that is, as part of God’s intention for human beings – they maintain that it is an appropriate concession in a world crippled by original sin.

It must be stressed, however, that although Christians are slow in condemning slavery, the Gospel that they embrace has forced them to look at slaves very differently. For example, if all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore enjoy equal dignity and value, the Christian cannot look upon slaves as mere property for their masters to do as they wish.

And if in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:27-28), the Christian must no longer treat his believing slave as merely a slave, but as a brother or sister in Christ. Thus, we find in the canon of the NT the remarkable letter that Paul wrote to Philemon, which exhorts him to treat his runaway slave Onesimus ‘no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother’ (Philemon 16).

It was on the basis of the Christian understanding of the dignity and value of the human being that the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th century conducted their campaign to end the transatlantic slave trade and to abolish the chattel slavery in the United States.

Although slavery today is vastly different from previous centuries, modern abolitionists must receive inspiration from their predecessors – Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce, the Grimke sisters, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Candy – and follow in their footsteps in the fight against this ancient crime and in doing so restore the dignity and humanity that slavery has stolen from its victims.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

Organs and Chimeras

January 2017 Pulse

The shortage of transplantable organs is a public health crisis globally. In the United States, for example, 120,000 people are on the waiting list. It is estimated that 35 percent of all deaths in the U.S. can be prevented by organ transplantation.

In Singapore, the average waiting time for a kidney transplant is still 9 to 10 years, despite changes in the law to enlarge the donor pool.

In an effort to solve this global shortage of transplantable organs U.S. research centres are conducting studies on chimeras, trying to grow human tissues in animal hosts, with the aim of creating kidneys, livers and hearts for transplant.

Scientists are proceeding with such studies despite the fact that the National Institute of Health has clearly stated that it will not support chimera research until greater clarity is achieved concerning its ethical, legal and social implications.

Chimeras are currently used in many different studies. For example, the potential of human pluripotent cells in vivo is analysed by microinjecting these cells in a mouse embryo. The aetiologies of metabolic diseases in the ageing population are studied by creating ‘humanised’ mice to which cells from the liver and pancreas of human donors have been introduced.

In Singapore, human and bovine genes are combined to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos that are purportedly 99% human. These hybrid embryos are used in embryonic stem cell research.

The National Council of Churches in Singapore has made a robust response to this initiative (See http://nccs.org.sg/2010/12/04/human-animal-combinations-for-biomedical-research/).

There are serious ethical issues associated with research involving human-animal chimeras. They include the violation of human dignity, the question of the moral status of the chimeric creature, the risk of creating humanised animals, the violation of the order of nature, and the many uncertainties accompanying such research.

These concerns notwithstanding, the advances in cutting-edge technologies such as stem-cell biology and gene-edition have made the incredible advances in chimera research possible.

For example, scientists can change the DNA of a mammal through genetic engineering, making it incapable to forming a specific tissue. Human stem cells are then added to the animal in the hope that a particular tissue, for example a human kidney, can form in the host animal.

However, for a number of technical reasons scientists are still unable to create a viable human organ in an animal host at this point.

One of the most challenging obstacles to their success is what has been described as the xenogenic barrier. The host animal – for example, a pig – and the human organ that it is supposed to incubate are two different species, making the viability of the chimeric creature itself problematic.

Scientists working on human-animal chimeras have long theorised that the closer the species are to each other, the higher the chance the chimera has of surviving. So, if the human-bovine chimera is not viable, perhaps a primate can be used to host the human organ.

We must ask how far we are willing to go to create transplantable human organs to save lives. If primates prove to be equally unsuitable hosts, what’s next?

Taking the discussion to the extreme, will we consider using people in permanent vegetative state but who are otherwise in relatively stable condition as possible hosts? What about people who are suffering from senile dementia? Can they also be used to incubate organs for transplantation?

Many bioethicists see the importance of imagining a fictional dystopia to address the possible future scenarios presented by the trajectories of current medical and technological capabilities that would enable them to anticipate ethical and social issues that might arise.

This brings us to a fundamental question in bioethics, one that is sometimes unfortunately muted if not silenced by the thick rhetoric in support of the technological imperative and biomedical triumphalism.

The question is: Without in any way trivialising the suffering of people with organ failure, is it society’s duty to save their lives at all cost? Or are there larger moral considerations that should govern our actions?

Bioethicists – both Christian and secular alike – have argued that although saving the lives of people with organ failure is important, it should not be achieved at all cost. They believe that there are other more important moral and social considerations. That is why killing a healthy individual to procure his or her organs and the trading of human organs are both unethical and illegal and should never be countenanced.

With the unprecedented advancements in stem-cell research and gene-editing technology, we must carefully reflect on where the line should be drawn as we work towards enlarging the organ pool.

In the midst of the bio-tech hype we must remind ourselves that in our noblest attempts to ameliorate suffering and cure diseases, we must never allow ourselves to pursue strategies that would in the long run distort our moral sensibilities and dehumanise our society.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Thinking about Disability

In recent years, a number of fine monographs have been published on disability from the Christian perspective. Many of these publications have encouraged deeper and more nuanced reflection on the complex issues associated with our understanding of people with disabilities. They have also helpfully brought to light some prejudices that have subtly shaped certain societal attitudes, norms and conventions. Embedded deeply in our collective consciousness and in our culture is the proclivity to view disability in generally negative terms. Disability is often seen as a ‘tragedy’ or a ‘problem’. Consequently, the disabled person is often looked upon as an object of charity. This medical model of disability (about which I have more to say later in this article) is very influential and pervasive in modern society.

Our attitude towards people with disabilities is sometimes tellingly betrayed by language that habitually if unconsciously makes the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We should never dismiss this as just a question of language. Such distinctions reveal the psychological and relational distance between ‘normal’ people (an expression that must be subjected to careful theological analysis and critique) and disabled people, a distance mostly due to the former’s perception of the alien-ness and strangeness of the latter’s condition. Very often our response to a person with disability is not dependant on our understanding of his or her experience. Rather it is based on what psychologists call sympathetic imagination, that is, the uneasy feelings aroused within us as we put ourselves in the place of such people. Again, it is imperative that we should never take this sentiment lightly. Sympathetic imagination arguably may well be that powerful visceral impulsion behind the support for euthanasia, eugenics and abortion.

It is this amorphous and often unarticulated dread of disability that leads certain members of society to stigmatise people with disability. In his classic treatment of the subject entitled, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Erving Goffman explains that a person possesses a stigma if he or she is marked by ‘an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated’. A stigma is something that we project onto the person who does not conform to our ideas of normalcy. As Goffman points out: ‘One can therefore suspect that the role of normal and the role of stigmatized are parts of the same complex, cuts from the same standard cloth’. Once stigmatised, people with disabilities are treated as taboos. Like the stigma, the taboo is also a social construct based on how the dominant group defines nature or the natural. That which does not fit into our concept of the normal is deemed deformed and dysfunctional. And this includes people who are crippled, maimed and diseased. The intellectually challenged – the idiot, retarded and imbecile – must also join their ranks.

One of the reasons why disabled people are perceived so negatively is the prevalence of the medical model of disability. In criticising this model, I am not disparaging the marvellous advances in medicine and biotechnology that have alleviated human suffering, including that of disabled persons. But in reducing disability only to a problem of diagnosis and treatment, the medical model has fostered a narrow and even jaundiced understanding of disabled people. Because of the medical model, disability is often seen as a liability from the standpoint of society. Needless to say, this perspective is so powerful in modern society that many disabled persons see themselves as victims of personal tragedy and as a burden to society. ‘The medical model and its stress on cure and rehabilitation’, writes theologian Thomas Reynolds perceptively, ‘not only fails to address this broader issue, it inadvertently perpetuates processes of disempowerment, exclusion, and isolation, concealing deeper attitudinal, employment-related, educational, and architectural obstacles to genuine inclusion’.

In order for society to reflect more deeply on disability, a more profound vision of what it means to be human and of human sociality is needed. I believe that Scripture and the great theological traditions of the Church can inspire such a vision. The most profound teaching of both Scripture and tradition is that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and therefore must be valued, respected and loved. This includes the disabled person, who even in his or her disabilities, mysteriously and beautifully reflects the Creator. On the basis of this theological premise, it follows that the person with disabilities, like every human being, possesses innate, sacred and inviolable rights that must be respected and honoured. At the heart of this Christian teaching is the conviction that no disability, handicap or impairment, however severe and crippling, can rob the disabled person of his or her dignity as a creature made in God’s image.

The disabled, according to the Christian understanding, should never be stigmatised or regarded as taboo. They must never be seen as a liability or as a burden to society. Rather, in a profound sense their presence enables us to discover the deepest meaning of our shared humanity. The disabled opens up to us new vistas of human existence, and avail to us fresh insights into personhood. They point us to the true nobility and dignity of a human being as the privileged bearer of the divine image and thus enable us to get in touch with the essence of our own being. The disabled in some ways also ‘force’ us to acknowledge our own vulnerability and neediness (perhaps that is precisely why we shun them!). They remind us that we too are part of this fallen reality, and thus in need of the promised healing, restoration and salvation in Christ. And they teach us how to wait patiently for God’s salvation. Put simply, in their limitations and suffering, the disabled quietly teach us how to be.

As the community of believers who has experienced the saving and transforming grace of God, the Church should openly and lovingly welcome people of disabilities. She should do so not condescendingly out of pity, but generously, recognising the disabled other as a person whom God loves. Christian hospitality is motivated by the unconditional and generous love of God that Christians have received in abundance in Christ: ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Such hospitality creates a relationship of reciprocity where mutual giving and receiving takes place in the spontaneity of agape love. In welcoming people of disabilities the Church must not only ask what she can do for them. She must also empower the disabled to find their own place in the community and to creatively use their gifts to build up the Body of Christ. And it is in this relationship of mutual love and respect, what the Bible calls koinonia, that both the one who welcomes and the one who is welcomed are transformed by the power of the Spirit.


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 published in Word@Work (March 2014).

What’s Wrong with Human Rights

One of the great achievements of the previous century is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Declaration was composed soon after the end of the Second World War when experiences of the horrific carnage are still fresh in the collective memories of its crafters.

Translated into at least 375 languages and dialects, the UDHR is established on the philosophical premise that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). It emphasises that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2). As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties accepting the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR because they enjoy broad scriptural warrant and endorsement.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the language of rights alone is not sufficient to encourage civility in modern society. The right to freedom of expression is a case in point. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

That the insistence on such rights alone is unable to foster social cohesion and ensure civility in our multicultural societies is brought to our attention by the furore over the publication in 2006 of the notorious cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Amidst protests and criticisms by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the paper staunchly defends his decision with this terse statement: ‘We do not apologise for printing the cartoons. It was our right to do so’.

A very different and more recent incident brings to the fore the same problem concerning the inadequacies of the exclusive use of the language of rights in society. It concerns the proposal to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. Critics of the project argue that building an Islamic Centre just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, the site of the 9/11 attacks is a blatant insult to the victims of the terror attacks that were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama defended the project by appealing to the rights of Muslims to practise their religion: ‘But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.’ Obama’s statement is supported by Article 18 of the UDHR that deals with the question of religious freedom.

Both these examples illustrate the fact that rights alone are insufficient for civilising societies. This is especially true in modern liberal societies where the language of rights is often embedded in a cultural ethos shaped by secularism and individualism. If human rights are to be properly understood, other values must also be brought into the picture. Put differently, human rights discourse must be located within a broader and more robust ethical matrix. It is my view that an account of human rights must be anchored by an ethics of obligation. Any human right, it must be pointed out, has as its counterpart some obligation. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the history of moral philosophy, theories of obligations antedate theories of rights.

It is therefore useful to think of the priority of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil has put it so perceptively in her book, The Need for Roots: ‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinated and relative to the former.’  It is perhaps beneficial for society to provide a counter-balance to its excessive appeal to the language and rhetoric of human rights by giving more attention to moral obligations.

Moral obligation is in fact stressed in Article 10 of the UDHR which states that the exercise of freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities. The sense of moral obligation introduces sanity to the modern emphasis on rights. In the case of the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the emphasis on moral obligation would mean that the rights of free speech and expression must be limited and constrained by other important considerations, not least the obligation to respect other rights and the rights of others. The sense of moral obligation would keep the emphasis on the freedom of speech sane and civil by insisting that freedom does not confer an unconditional licence to intimidate, insult or incite hatred.

The ethics of obligation also brings with it an important corrective to the stark individualism that frames modern human rights discourse. The concept of obligation implies relationality and community – the relationship between the ‘obligation bearers’ and their ‘beneficiaries’, so to speak. And it is precisely on this critical issue that Obama’s White House speech disappoints.

Although Obama did allude to the sensitive nature of the proposed Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, the emphasis of his speech was mainly on the rights of Muslims. Even when he made a swift but clumsy about-turn later (which his office roundly denies) due to mounting criticisms of his endorsement of the project, his emphasis is still misplaced: ‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.’  The weight is still placed on rights when it should be placed on moral obligations.

The Christian ethic of love requires that concern for one’s moral obligations towards others (i.e., their interests and the rights) be given priority over one’s own interests and rights. It is on the basis of the Christian ethic of love that we should understand Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: ‘Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil 2:4). For it is only in serving one another in this way that the interests, rights and welfare of everyone are taken seriously and respected.


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 Trumpet (TTC).

Secularism and its Discontents

August 2015 Pulse

The American sociologist Peter Berger is perhaps one of the most interesting scholars of secularism and religion. In his book The Sacred Canopy published in 1967, Berger presented the famous secularisation thesis which postulates that as modernity advances, the influence of religion will diminish and eventually disappear altogether.

Thirty years later, however, Berger changed his mind. In The De- secularisation of the World published in 1999, Berger and his colleagues abandoned their earlier hypothesis because “the theory seemed less and less capable of making sense of the empirical evidence from different parts of the world”. Berger, who now could speak of the “myth of secularisation”, argues that modernisation and secularisation are not synonymous.

Secular philosophers and scholars are also beginning to acknowledge the limits of secularism. For example, the eminent atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues emphatically that secularists must take religion seriously because of the enormous contributions it has made to civilisation. He adds that the philosophy and values that the Judeo- Christian tradition has inspired are still important in modern moral and scientific life.

This is not surprising. Theologians have long maintained that it is secularism – not religion – that is an anomaly and must offer compelling justifications for its own outlook.

Can secularism do this? Can it present a substantial and comprehensive rationale and ethic for the moral and social life?

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

Let us begin with the myth of secular neutrality. Far from being philosophically and ideologically neutral, secularism is a way of understanding and constructing reality. It is a worldview.

To be a secular humanist, one needs to embrace certain commitments like “God does not exist” (atheism) and “the physical world is all that there is” (scientific materialism), none of which can be established on scientific grounds. It takes a lot of faith to be a secularist.

On its own secularism is unable to offer a moral vision that is indispensable for human societies to flourish. Irving Kristol writes perceptively that “The philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver such a code itself.”

That Western secular humanists can speak eloquently of values like dignity, freedom and rights is largely because secularism is parasitic on the Judeo-Christian tradition it denounces. But it is precisely because it has rejected the tradition that provides the philosophical and theological foundations for these values, that secular ethics will willy-nilly drown in the sea of relativism.

Secularism often appeals to the Enlightenment myth of the triumph of reason. But experience has repeatedly shown that reason alone is unable to forge a universal consensus, especially when the issue in question is complex and contentious.

Nietzsche is exactly right when he says that no man of reason would rejoice in the death of God. For if God is truly dead, reason’s demise will soon follow.

For if God is really dead, truth itself would dissipate. What is left is an ocean of conflicting and clashing opinions, preferences, and assertions. As the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has pointed out: “If all is chance, random and inherently meaningless, reason has no North Star and its needle spins mindlessly”.

Because secularism fails to offer a substantial vision for the moral and social life, it is also unable to articulate the meaning of human existence. And in a meaningless world, the purpose of human action becomes frustratingly murky.

On its own, secularism must remain silent in the face of suffering because it simply does not have the resources to respond to human tragedy. What has secularism to say to the weak and the vulnerable, asks Novak, “that it does not borrow directly from Judaism and Christianity?”

The great 20th century theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg perceptively notes that “Secular culture itself produces a deep need for meaning in life and therefore also for religion”. Secularism raises a bitter protest, but offers no answers.

And it is perhaps the very impotence of secularism that has led to what G.K. Chesterton has memorably described as the “revolt into orthodoxy”. It has caused atheists like Francis Collins and many others to put their faith in God.


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 March 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

 

Whose Body? Whose Life? Whose Rights?

May 2015 Pulse

Ms Emily Letts, an abortion counsellor, did a video on her first-trimester abortion that was undertaken at the clinic where she works. “I feel super good about the abortion,” the 25-year-old Emily told Philadephia Magazine. “Women and men have been thirsting for something like this. You don’t have to be guilty.”

The video went viral.

Emily’s jubilant account of her experience exudes Promethean pride. “I could have taken a pill,” she says, “but I wanted to do the one that women were most afraid of. I wanted to show it wasn’t scary – and that there is such a thing as a positive abortion story. It’s my story.” The exhilarated Emily exclaimed that she was in awe of the fact that she could make a baby, and that she could make a life.

Of course, what Emily can make, she can also destroy. And she had no qualms about aborting her child simply because it felt right to her. “I knew what I was going to do was right, ‘cause it was right for me and no one else.”

Emily’s story gives flesh to what pro-choice advocates have been arguing all along! In fact, the convoluted arguments of feminist scholars like Beverely Wildung boil down to two simple axioms. The first has to do with the woman’s right to her own body, and the second is autonomy, which is upheld as sacrosanct.

This central dogma, which says that the woman has the right to choose abortion, is often accompanied by what Allan Bevere calls emotivism. This refers to the idea that all moral decisions are nothing more than expressions of preference or feeling. Furthermore, for pro- choice advocates, what is important is having the choice, not what choice is being made.

The ability to choose is liberating because it signals the control that a woman has over her life and her body. She has the right to decide on what commitments she wants to make and what lifestyle she wants to pursue. Again, Emily exemplifies this. “Once I caught my breath,” she says in the video, “I knew immediately I was going to have an abortion. I knew I wasn’t ready to take care of a child.”

Closely connected to reproductive autonomy is a person’s right to privacy. The woman’s body is her private property, it is argued. Therefore, just as no one has the right to intrude into a person’s private property, so no one can interfere with what a woman does with her own body. The woman must be left to decide on her own. A Christian ethicist has helpfully summarised the assumptions of the modern libertarian view thus: “A right to abortion is integral to a woman’s adult, mature responsibility and autonomy.”

Such arguments, however, gravely and quite tragically miss a most important consideration: Can the foetus be seen as something whose death can be lawfully and morally chosen by anyone, even its mother? The rhetoric of procreative choice cannot dismiss as arbitrary the questions raised by Christians and others concerning the moral status of the foetus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church poignantly states that “Human Life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.” The Christian who believes that life begins at conception must also insist that the foetus is a human being worthy of value, respect and protection.

In focusing on the rights of the woman, pro-choice advocates have dismissed as irrelevant that of the unborn child. They have consequently violated the rights of an innocent human being who is unable to voice its protests and who is powerless in protecting itself. They have failed to accord dignity to the unborn child, whose life is as precious as its mother’s, and therefore must be valued and protected.

For the Christian, the intentional killing of an innocent human person made in God’s image is always an intrinsically evil act. But the Christian must surely regard abortion – the intentional killing of innocent and defenceless unborn human children – as having a unique kind of moral gravity.


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.

A Good Death?

May 2015 Feature Article

Many reasons are being offered to support making euthanasia (meaning “good death”) and assisted suicide legal. Some arise from sensitivity to the suffering of terminally ill patients, who desire to end their sufferings by speeding up their death through medical intervention. On the surface, it seems the most compassionate action that society can take to allow this. However, there are serious problems that require careful consideration.

Firstly, there is the question of suicide. In assisted suicide, the patient voluntarily takes his life. Hence the term “suicide” is used, as it was by Singapore’s Minister of Health in 2008. In many societies, including Singapore, suicide is an offence. While social values may be changing, suicide is still prohibited by the law, and for good reasons. The underlying logic, whether legally, socially or religiously expressed, is that the right to life cannot be extrapolated to the right to die. Life is sacred and one does not have the freedom to take one’s own life, no matter what the extenuating circumstances might be. This was echoed in 2002 by the European Court of Human Rights in its interpretation of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Proponents of euthanasia argue that patients have the absolute right to exercise autonomy. Even so, can a patient make a free and voluntary decision? In the first place, he depends on information regarding diagnosis and prognosis given to him by doctors whose knowledge is not perfect. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in his lecture to the Singapore Medical Association in 2013, rightly cited the case of Singapore lawyer Suzanne Chin who was diagnosed with brain stem death. Her husband was advised by doctors to “pull the plug” but against all odds she recovered completely and is well.

When doctors are involved in the decision making, there is potential conflict of interest. Patients may also depend on information from the internet which may be misleading. In addition, patients may make their decisions in a state of depression, and if treated, studies show that they may think differently. There is also potential pressure on the patient from family and care-givers, and society at large.

Secondly, there is the problem of murder. Physicians are asked to be involved in euthanasia and assisted suicide, an involvement that would contravene the nature, identity and ethics of the medical profession. For more than 2000 years, physicians have held to the principles of the Hippocratic Oath: the goal of medicine is to heal, care, and bring relief. Harming patients or killing them is strongly prohibited. The World Medical Association has, over the years, repeatedly stated that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are unethical and contrary to the practice of medicine. In its most recent statement in 2013, it reiterates the call for “physicians to refrain from participating in euthanasia, even if national law allows it or decriminalizes it under certain conditions.” The doctor-patient relationship which is based on trust would be adversely affected if physician-assisted suicide is allowed.

The medical profession will be under pressure to attend to patients who want assisted suicide. Though the involvement of doctors is voluntary, there is no guarantee that it will be strictly so, especially if there is pressure from superiors or from one’s institution. Dr Christoph Hufeland, Goethe’s doctor, articulated it well in 1806: “The physician should and may do nothing else but preserve life. Whether it is valuable or not, that is none of his business. If he once permits such considerations to influence his actions, the doctor will become the most dangerous man in the state.”

Some argue that the practice of euthanasia can be well-regulated to prevent abuse. But actual experience proves otherwise. Sundaresh Menon notes: “These concerns are not to be dismissed as patently fanciful. One study shows that whereas legal restrictions and safeguards have been enacted wherever euthanasia or assisted suicide has been legalised, these have been ‘regularly ignored and transgressed’ often without prosecution…”

Thirdly, allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide would have negative social consequences. There would be a widening of its application.

In Belgium, legislation was passed in early 2014 to extend euthanasia to children who can request for it if they are “in great pain” and no treatment is available. Not only is this open to abuse (for studies show that many doctors have been practising euthanasia without following the rules), but it will be a door to many more applications. In the Netherlands, one need not be terminally ill to be euthanized. That one cannot have a “livable life” is ground enough, as the Groningen Protocol (which allows infant euthanasia) shows.

Recently, a court in Belgium granted the request by a prisoner for assisted suicide. He is imprisoned for murder and rape and has pleaded to be put to death because of mental anguish caused by his violent impulses. It is significant that he is not suffering from terminal illness or physical pain but from mental anguish. Will this open the flood gates to those who are in a similar situation?

Terminally ill patients would not be able to escape pressure, either imposed by others or by themselves, to seek death and not trouble their loved ones and care givers or incur significant medical costs. In the longer term, legalising euthanasia would shape our society and affect the way we look at ourselves, and how we care for the vulnerable. It has been noted, for example, that hospices are not as well developed in the Netherlands (where euthanasia is legal) as in other European nations. A social mindset that has a “cure or kill” solution would have inadequate space to explore the responsibility to care for the dying and to help them die with dignity. It would affect private and public conscience and alter our society where utilitarianism will dominate and social responsibilities will diminish.

Some use pragmatic economic reasons to argue for euthanasia. However, economic concerns should not be used to support euthanasia. Patients’ lives should not be shortened simply because they occupy hospital beds or it costs money to care for them. We cannot reduce the value of human life to dollars and cents. If we do, we reduce human dignity and value and will think likewise about those who are considered a “burden” to society.

How, then, can we care for the dying? How can we help people dying painfully and feeling that their continuing suffering is pointless and meaningless? The solution of offering euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide has many serious moral and practical problems, a situation where the medicine offered is worse than the malady. A study in Holland showed that in 10% of euthanasia and 30% of assisted suicide, untoward complications arose. They included patients who recovered from an induced coma, vomiting and fits, and technical problems with administering the lethal substance.

Our response to such patients should be one of compassion. There are two points that will help us enable people in such situations to receive compassion and care and die with dignity, without resorting to solutions that will end up with patients taking their own lives or physicians being asked to terminate their lives. It is humane to want to do something to help someone who is suffering. However, euthanasia and assisted suicide are not as humane as they may seem. Pope John Paul II observed that in reality, “what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely seem to be senseless and inhumane”.

We should not seek to eliminate the sufferings of a person by eliminating him. There are better and more humane and ethical ways.

Firstly, we have the Advanced Medical Directive. This allows people to express their wish that should they be terminally ill, that “heroic” but futile medicine be excluded in their treatment so that their lives are not artificially and needlessly prolonged. This is different from speeding up death through suicide or homicide. It is a decision that can be rationally and carefully taken before the storm of pain and suffering that may mark terminal illness and cloud judgement.

Secondly, palliative medicine is being significantly improved and offers dying patients relief of pain and compassionate care that enables them to travel the last stage of their lives with dignity and in the company of caregivers. As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.

Palliative medicine must be mainlined to become part of the normal course of health care. As a medical science and art it must be further developed and offered to all who are dying, so that they can die comfortably and in dignity as recipients of compassionate care.

As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.


GWY_8581

Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. Dr Solomon has degrees in medicine, theology, intercultural studies, and a PhD in pastoral theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has contributed many articles to books, theological dictionaries and journals and authored 20 books, including ‘The Race’, ‘The Conscience’, ‘The Enduring Word’, ‘The Virtuous Life’, ‘The Sermon of Jesus’ and ‘Apprenticed to Jesus’. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.