Tag Archives: freedom

Designer Disability?

February 2017 Pulse

In 2002, the Washington Post Magazine published a story of an American lesbian couple, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough – both of whom are deaf – who had deliberately chosen to have a deaf baby. A friend of theirs, with five generations of deafness in his family, donated his sperm.

The couple succeeded: their child Gauvin McCullough has only a very slight amount of hearing in one ear.

Duchesneau and McCullough are not the only couple that has chosen to have a child with a disability. In 2008, BBC News reported that Tomato Lichy and his partner Paula Garfield also tried to have a disabled baby through IVF.

A survey conducted by Baruch, Kaufman and Hudson in 2006 showed that couples who deliberately choose to have children with conditions commonly seen as disabilities are not as uncommon as one would imagine.

The highly-publicised case of the American lesbian couple cited above has ignited a fierce debate in the popular press as well as in academic journals on medical ethics across the globe.

The responses have been extremely polarised. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who strongly condemn the couple for deliberately bringing a disabled child into the world. On the other end are those who applaud them for exercising their right and autonomy.

Should people with inherited disabilities be allowed to select children with the genetic disposition to have similar disabilities?

The answer to this question is made more complex by recent discourse on disability.

There are some who argue that a distinction must be made between disability and impairment. Disability, they insist, is a social construct that has resulted in discrimination against people with physical impairments.

For example, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) maintains that “it is society which disables physically impaired people”. It asserts: “Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

According to those who espouse such a view, deafness is merely a physical impairment, not a disability.

This approach to the issue is, in my view, misguided. While concern about discrimination against disabled people in our society is justified, the theory that all disabilities are social constructs that have served as the basis for discrimination must be called into question.

Once this theory is set aside, the sharp distinction that UPIAS makes between disability and impairment would appear contrived and even absurd. Certain forms of physical impairment are in fact serious disabilities.

Physical disability may be defined as a condition that limits and incapacitates a person in such a way that it potentially, if not in actuality, reduces his ability to flourish. Seen in this way, blindness and deafness are disabilities.

While it is true that discrimination and social insensitivity (for example, the failure to alter the built environment for people with disabilities) would considerably further compromise the quality of life of disabled people, it does not change the fact that their disability itself is an impediment to their flourishing.

Thus, if we were to place a blind person on deserted island where there is no discrimination, his blindness would still be an impediment to his wellbeing.

In the Gospels we find Jesus healing the blind, the deaf and the mute (Mark 8:22-25; Mark 7:31-37). This shows that disabilities are not part of God’s plan when he created human beings, but the result of sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve. The healing ministry of Jesus shows that salvation has to do with restoration of the wholeness that was compromised in the original Fall.

Whatever may be the philosophical rationale or emotional motivations, to deliberately bring a deaf child into the world is therefore surely at odds with God’s will and purpose for creation.

But what about those who wish to defend the autonomy of the couple – their freedom to choose?

In Christian ethics, freedom should always be exercised responsibly. The couple that exercises their right to deliberately bring a child with a disability into the world must ask themselves if they have acted responsibly. They must ask if they have acted in the best interest of their child, who will have to cope with this disability for the rest of his life.



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. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

Bloody Witness

August 2016 Pulse

In November 2010, Fr. Christian Mbusa Bakulene and a parish worker were walking to St. John the Baptist Church in Kanyabayonga in the province of North Kivu of the Democratic Republic of Congo, when two armed men in combat fatigue stopped them and asked: “Which one of you is the priest?” They shot Fr. Bakulene and walked away, leaving his companion unharmed.

This is just one of the many random cases of persecution that Christians are facing all over the world today. They are the tip of the tip of a very large iceberg.

Most Christians in the West and in countries like Singapore are not even aware of the extent of the problem and the plight of our brothers and sisters in many countries across the globe.

Here are the facts.

More Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than all the previous centuries combined. According to the world’s leading demographers of religion David B. Barrett and Todd Johnson, out of the 70 million martyrs since the time of Christ, about 45 million died for their faith in the 20th century.

About 80 per cent of all acts of discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Martin Lessenthin, the chairman of the International Society for Human Rights who made this report in 2009, pointed out that other human rights observatories have confirmed this estimate.

In its September 2012 report, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a highly-respected secular think- tank based in Washington D.C., stated that in the period between 2006 and 2010, Christians were harassed in 139 nations – three-quarters of the nations in the world.

One of the most prominent organisations that tracks anti-Christian persecution is Open Doors, an evangelical advocacy and relief organisation. According to its report, about 100 million Christians today suffer violent persecution for their faith, making Christians the most high-risk group for religious freedom violations.

The annual ‘Status of Global Mission’ report published by the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that about 100,000 to 150,000 Christians are killed each year for their faith.

In 2012, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was established in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, names the following countries with the worst records for the violation of religious freedom: Burma, China, North Korea, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. And the people that suffered the most violations in all these countries are Christians.

It would be a mistake to think that Christians are persecuted only when they are in the demographic minority. Just think of Russia, the Ukraine, and parts of Latin America where persecution is rife even though the majority of the population is Christian.

In his book, The Global War on Christians, John Allen Jr. explains why such a myth is toxic: “It obscures large swaths of the planet from view in thinking about the threats that Christians face, and suggests a false sense of invulnerability for Christians in societies where they represent the majority.”

There are Christian human rights organisations like Open Doors and Christian Freedom International that are helping persecuted Christians in different parts of the world. But religious persecution in the modern world is so complex that there is a limit to what NGOs and non-profit organisations can do to address the problem.

The Church must pray for her persecuted and suffering members. She must pray not only for them to be delivered, but also for them to be faithful.

In his moving account of Catholic martyrs in the 20th century, Robert Royal writes poignantly: “Martyrdom is in a deep sense the paradigm for the Christian life. Any person who starts to follow the Master seriously cannot help but find himself or herself attacked by the same forces that attacked him. Happy is the age that does not produce a large crop of martyrs. But even happier is the age whose people are willing to remain with Christ whether it means martyrdom or not, for from that willingness to die springs everything that makes it worthwhile to live.”


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 the March 2016 issue of the Methodist Message.

 

 

The Limits of Freedom

October 2015 Pulse

On a chilly January morning this year, two heavily-armed Islamic terrorists barged into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and fired 50 shots, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) in an attack that was a violent retaliation to the weekly’s denigrating cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Charlie Hebdo incident has sparked one of the most ferocious debates in recent memory on the most sacrosanct of all human rights in Western societies, namely, the freedom of speech – and its corollary, the freedom of the press.

In response to the horrific massacre, French President François Hollande reportedly said: “An act of exceptional barbarism has just been committed here in Paris against a newspaper – a newspaper, i.e. the expression of freedom – and against journalists who had always wanted to show that in France they could always work to uphold their ideas and to enjoy the very freedom the Republic protects.”

While it is inconceivable that anyone would endorse the unconscionable and murderous brutality of the terrorists, Hollande’s defence of an unbridled exercise of freedom must be subjected to interrogation and criticism.

At the heart of the debate on freedom, especially freedom of speech, is whether there are or should be limits. Are there certain things that cannot be said, or circumstances in which things cannot be said?

Without doubt, the clearest articulation of freedom of expression as a basic human right is found in Article 19 of the 1947 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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.”

In Western societies, freedom of expression and that of the press are deemed indispensable for the ‘three Ds’: Development, Democracy and Dialogue. Once freedom is constrained, these ‘three Ds’ – so important to progress and human flourishing – would also be greatly hampered.

However, to champion the freedom of expression is surely not to suggest that its exercise is unlimited. There is something incredibly naïve – even vulgar – about the insistence on the right to exercise unbridled freedom that has reverberated in the heated rhetoric surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The fundamental issue in the Charlie Hebdo incident concerning freedom of speech, then, is that a distortion has been inadvertently created because the importance of this basic right has been exaggerated.

Such exaggerations are not just the predilection of the French. It is given voice by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who in his Declaration of Independence wrote that “the freedom of speech is the greatest good in a free democratic society and prevails over the other constitutional rights”.

But freedom can never be the only or the greatest virtue, and its protection cannot mean that other equally important virtues without which society cannot hold – like truth, justice and respect – must be set aside.

Respecting the right of individuals to express their views does not mean that society should no longer be concerned for the truth, for what is right and wrong. Without a moral compass, the diversity of opinions and viewpoints expressed in freedom will become nothing but ‘noise’. And the very truth that the freedom of speech is supposed to help society arrive at will be obfuscated by such ‘noise’.

Similarly, the emphasis on the basic human right to free speech must be placed alongside the equally important imperative that we respect the beliefs of others. Respect for freedom of expression and respect for the religious beliefs and symbols of others are not in conflict but work together for the common good.

Thus, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states that
“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

Put differently, there are limits to the exercise of freedom. And it is only in recognising that boundaries are intrinsic elements to freedom, and that human relationships must also be shaped by other virtues, that society can truly flourish.

Charlie Hebdo has clearly transgressed those limits.

Perhaps our understanding of the meaning of freedom would deepen and mature when we appeal to not just the language of rights but also the language of responsibility. When this happens, freedom is not seen only as our basic right to do as we please or say what we want.

When the language of responsibility is commandeered, our understanding of freedom becomes other-oriented instead of self-centred: we are freed from our own self- absorption, and we begin to learn to love, respect and serve our neighbour with our freedom.

This basic Christian understanding of freedom – as freedom from sin and freedom for service – will surely add depth to the sometimes superficial secular accounts of liberty inspired by an atomised individualism.


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 originally published in the May 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

The Two Kingdoms: A Christian Perspective on Church and State in Singapore

October 2015 Feature Article

From the “culture wars” and heated debates over casinos, abortion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, to evangelistic efforts and charitable works, many wonder what the proper relationship between religion and state should be.

Aggressive secularists argue that Christians should not “impose” our religion on others in a multi-religious society like Singapore and “keep religion separate from politics”. Some Christians think that we should not be concerned about “politics”, but should focus on “preaching the Gospel”. Others think that we should be deeply concerned about laws like Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sodomy.

How should Christians understand the relationship between Church and State?

It is well-known that Jesus did not come as a political Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom. As then-Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan once said, “one of the reasons why Jesus Christ disillusioned the Jews of His time was… that He refused to become a political leader to help the Jews throw off the Roman yoke. And He was interested in changing individuals, not the society directly, but change society by changing individuals.”[1]

Nevertheless, we can learn much about the roles of Church and State in Jesus’ response when the Pharisees asked whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. Referring to the image of Caesar on a denarius, Jesus replied them, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)

During the Protestant Reformation, German reformer Martin Luther saw in Jesus’ profound statement a distinction between Two Kingdoms which God has ordained: first, the Kingdom of God (the Church) which He rules through His Gospel and, second, the Kingdom of the World (the State) which He rules through His Law.

This became known as the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the basis for much of our modern understanding of the Separation of Church and State.

The Doctrine emphasises that the Church should focus on preaching the Gospel for the salvation of all. As a result, it is not the role of the Church to govern matters of life and property, which are matters for the State.

On the other hand, the State should devote its full time to governing temporal matters, as servants sent by God “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14ff). Just as the Church should respect the political independence of the State, the State should also respect the autonomy of the Church in its religious affairs. For example, the State has no right to dictate how the Church should preach the Gospel, choose its clergy, or conduct itself in worship.

The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith led to a third principle – freedom of religion – which is now recognised as a fundamental human right. Since faith is the work of the Holy Spirit and “a free work, to which no man can or should be forced”, human authority should not try to coerce religious belief.

Because human authority is delegated by God, there are limits to human government. Hence, if any human authority commands things that are contrary to God’s Laws, we should “obey God rather than men”, as the apostles did when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:29ff). In a modern context, Christians should exercise conscientious objection by refusing to participate in abortions or same-sex marriages, even when threatened with punishment.

The final principle is that of vocation (i.e. God’s calling). Implicit in Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God” is a call to discipleship; if the denarius belonged to Caesar because it bore his image, then we ought to render ourselves to God because we bear His image (cf. Genesis 1:27)! It is a call to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29).

Thus, each of us is called to live out the Gospel in full wherever God has called us, whether as pastors, politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or any other vocation. Given that disciples of Jesus Christ are ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world (John 17:6-19), we cannot ignore political developments around us. Instead, a faithful preaching of the Gospel will always minister holistically to people at all levels of their being, i.e. heart, soul, mind and strength (emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically).

Taken holistically, the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms has several important implications for the Church in Singapore.

Firstly, the Church and pastors should always focus on preaching the full counsel of the Gospel both in season and out of season, including on “controversial issues” such as the sanctity of human life from conception and the sanctity of marriage, and to equip believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). We should never compromise our calling to speak the truth in love, however politically-incorrect certain parts of the Gospel may be for the season.

Secondly, while it is not the vocation of pastors to advocate for political causes, it falls to individual Christians to minister the Gospel at our workplaces, schools or in the public square where God has placed us. Furthermore, in a democratic society like Singapore, each individual Christian can and should exercise his or her rights to freedom of speech and religion to speak truth to power.

Thirdly, in the midst of an increasingly complicated world, we should remember that politics is not salvation. While a godless world has to rely on human politics to build its Tower of Babel – its own idea of utopia here on earth – we look to Christ our true salvation, whose kingdom “is not of this world” but “from another place” (John 18:36).

Ultimately, as citizens of Two Kingdoms and “aliens” in this world, we know that God’s kingdom is both here and not yet. Meanwhile, we are each called to remain faithful with all that God has entrusted to us as we look to the day that Jesus will return as King to manifest His kingdom in full.


Darius-Lee-202x300

Darius Lee is a lawyer in private practice and a member of the Global Young Reformers Network Steering Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. Darius holds religious freedom, marriage and the sanctity of human life in high regard, and has defended these important values and rights on various platforms. He has written about his journey of discipleship and passion for matters of justice and righteousness in his book, ‘Like a Fire in My Bones: A Journey of Discipleship’.

 


Notes:

[1] Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, Singapore Parliament Reports (23 February 1990) at col. 1170

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.

 

Religion and Violence

June 2015 Pulse

The beheadings of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the British aid worker David Haines by the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 have not only shocked and outraged the world, but they have also revived the debate about religious violence.

Both President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were determined to stress the distinction between the IS and Islam as a religion. In an address in Parliament, Cameron categorically asserted that the “IS is not Islamic” and that “they are not Muslims; they are monsters”.

In the past 15 years, numerous books have been written on the contentious issue of religion and violence. For example, in When Religion Becomes Evil, published just one year after the horrific events of 9/11 (Sept 11, 2001), Charles Kimball argues that “it is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil, perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”

Apart from the fact that Kimball does not identify these rival institutions or provide evidence for his claim (perhaps he thought it too trite to require evidence), scholars have also criticised him for naively bracketing religion away from political ideologies. Such separation is artificial and contrived. As Jonathan Smith has rightly put it, “religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study … Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy”.

Be that as it may, are there religions that promote violence by their doctrines or attitude towards unbelievers? Many would argue that all religious traditions have at their centre the commitment to peace and non-violence. Konrad Raiser writes that from the religious perspective, violence “is a manifestation of evil and all religions are struggling with the question where this evil comes from and how it can be overcome”.

From the Christian theological perspective, however, because of human sin it is difficult to think of any form of organised human activity or institution that could not be corrupted or perverted.

Take democracy for example. A broad and popular way of describing democracy is a ‘government by the people for the people’. Many people would no doubt maintain that democracy is a good form of government, with its commitment to human dignity and freedom.

Yet democracy not only can go terribly wrong, it can also be dangerous. Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. And even though democracy is said to prevent oppressive governments, in Germany and South Africa it produced, for a period, extremely racist societies.

For many Muslims, jihad (a term that is often brandished unexplained by the media) refers fundamentally to striving for moral goodness and justice for society. And although this concept has four meanings, one of which is associated with just war, it does not in principle encourage acquiescence to violence.

However, since the 1970s under the influence of the Egyptian Umar Abd ar-Rahman and the Palestinian Abdallah Azzam, the ideologist for the Hamas movement, this concept has been radicalised by extremist groups, including those associated with Wahhabism. Al Qaeda and IS have commandeered the radical meaning of jihad in promoting their violent campaigns against the West and fellow Muslims who do not embrace their political convictions.

That Islam itself does not promote violence is evidenced by the fact that the Quran does not describe Allah as the ‘lord of war’ but rather as compassionate and merciful, and as the loving one and the forgiver.

Etymologically, islam, which refers to the surrender or submission that human beings must show to Allah, is derived from salam, which means peace – hence the Muslim greeting, “Peace be with you” (Salàm Ualaikum). In fact, in Surah 41:33-35 we read the injunction: “Requisite evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend.”

Although religious beliefs in themselves are not causes of violence, it is important to note that religion – like ethnicity and language – is a significant marker of identity. And as a marker of identity, religion can be subtly used to fan the flames of social and political conflicts. When religious sentiments are combined with political ideologies in a certain way, even a peaceful religion can be conscripted in the exercise of violence.


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 originally published in the January 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Ending The Scourge

Feb 2015 Pulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dr Roland Chia


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