Tag Archives: Genre: Church and Society

Secular Intolerance

October 2016 Pulse

In November last year, The Straits Times reported that, according to Attorney-General George Brandis, Australia is experiencing an “alarming emergence” of religious intolerance. “Members of the Christians faiths”, Australia’s top law officer reportedly said, “are routinely subject to mockery and insult by prominent writers and commentators” (ST, 4 Nov 2015).

To be sure, Australia is not the only country to witness the surge in public attacks on religion by atheists. This phenomenon is seen across Europe and even in America, making plain what Christian theologians have known to be true all along – that secular tolerance is a myth.

Atheists and secular humanists have for a long time demonised religion, blaming it for intolerance and violence, and held up secularism as the bastion of tolerance and freedom. As British journalist Matthew Parris has so provocatively and unabashedly put it, “Godlessness is a humanising force”.

However, it is not very difficult to show just how vacuous and deceptive such rhetoric is in reality.

For example, on 15 Sep 2001, just four days after the horrific events in New York, Richard Dawkins laid the responsibility for the unconscionable act of violence at the door of religion.

“To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind”, he said scornfully, “is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used”.

Dawkins was applauded for his courage, but this surely is a typical example of secular bigotry.

In recent years, secular intolerance has reared its head in a number of famous court cases involving the central Christian symbol, the cross.

In Lausti v Italy, the atheist applicant Mrs Soile Lausti sought to have the cross or crucifix removed from classrooms across Italy. Their presence in the public square, argued the applicant, tantamount to coercion and even indoctrination.

In Eweida and Chaplin v United Kingdom, the applicants Nadia Eweida and S. Chaplin sought the right to wear the cross visibly in the workplace. Eweida’s employer, British Airways, had insisted that the cross she wore around her neck should either be hidden or removed.

It would be a mistake to think that these examples are rare exceptions, quirky blips on an otherwise admirable record of secular tolerance.

The dark history of secular intolerance can be traced to its birth during the great cultural and intellectual movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex movement that can be variously characterised, its most venerated thinkers were fiercely anti-clerical and antagonistic to revealed religion.

For example, Voltaire, one of the Enlightenment’s most eloquent advocates of tolerance, is also well-known for his ferocious and relentless attacks against Jews, Catholics and Calvinists, and for rubbishing the most cherished tenets of Christianity. Karl Marx, arguably one of the most important heirs of Enlightenment rationalism, sought nothing less than the “abolition of religion”.

The philosopher John Gray has exposed the intolerance of secularism with brutal honesty. Tracing the roots of the violence perpetrated by atheist regimes in the 20th century, Gray, himself an atheist, observes that “the mass murders of the 20th century were not perpetrated by some latter-day version of the Spanish Inquisition. They were done by atheist regimes in the service of Enlightenment ideas of progress”.

Secular intolerance comes in many different guises in modern society.

It may be seen in the erroneous view of religion – widely advanced by secularists – as being only concerned about “spiritual” matters, thereby forcing the conclusion that religion has no place in the public square where political and social issues are debated.

Secular intolerance may appear in the argument that because religious language is incommensurable with other forms of public discourse (a fallacious view), religious actors in the public square must put aside their theological and religious commitments and adhere to a hegemonic secular rationality euphemistically referred to as “public reason”.

Secular tolerance is a myth.

This myth has been used again and again by public intellectuals, politicians and the media not only to discredit the church and Christianity, but religion in general.

It is therefore in the interest not only of Christians and people of faith but also of society as a whole that the myth of secular tolerance is exposed and challenged.

Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr 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.



Are we fully living up to our public responsibilities?

October 2016 Feature Article

This year marks the 50th anniversary of two landmark books in English by the provocative French Christian thinker Jacques Ellul. His profound analysis of the underlying social and spiritual forces shaping our age in The Technological Society and Propaganda were widely respected outside as well as inside religious circles.

            After becoming a Professor of Law and Institutions, he developed a wide-ranging critique of society and culture based on sociological and theological perspectives. Ellul’s insights into the way our preoccupation with technical solutions and new technologies would increasingly supplant other forms of problem-solving and relating, and of the extent the media and propaganda would increasingly influence all kinds of communication, were breathtakingly farsighted.

         During his life Ellul published over 50 books. These included a series of striking expositions of several biblical writings. In other works he was critical of the way churches and theology had been subverted by the forces shaping society. In The Presence of the Kingdom he outlined the way thoughtful Christians should approach their wider responsibilities in the world. He wrote:

“Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo”. As such “we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way   that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”

        The problem is that we have lost our edge. More biblically inclined Christians have largely settled for a privatised faith based on the church and family. More liberally oriented Christians tend to conform too much to the issues and ideologies of the wider society. What is really needed is for us to develop a full-scale vision of life, encompassing every aspect of what we do, that springs out of our faith in Jesus Christ as revealed through the Scriptures.

Ellul argued that it is less important to have views about, or to take up a definite economic or political position, than to create a consistent and distinctive way of life. The early Christians developed this. So did believers during the Reformation. We need a similar movement today.

“The whole of life is concerned in this search. It includes the way we think about present political questions, as well as our way of practising hospitality. It also affects the way we dress and the food we eat … as     well as the way we manage our financial affairs. It includes being faithful to one’s wife as well as being accessible to one’s neighbour. It includes the position we ought to take on current social and political questions, as well as the decisions which relate to the personal employment of our time … Absolutely everything, the smallest details which we regard as indifferent, ought to be questioned, placed in the light of faith, examined from the point of view of the glory of God.”

How can this come about? According to Ellul, we must resolve to do three inter-related things:

(1) to wake up and become more sharply aware of what is really happening around and within us.

            This means looking beyond what is given to us trough the media and hand-held devices. The news and messages we receive through the day are mainly about secondary matters, coloured by the world’s illusions and values, and permeated by political or personal ‘spin’. The deeper forces shaping both ourselves and our times remain largely hidden. Discerning what is taking place below the surface will only come if attentive prayer and mediation is also part of the search.

            (2) to listen to our own and others’ inner selves to detect the personal effects of what is shaping our world.

            This reveals more specific and profound insight into the forces at work in our society than we get from the news, reports, polls or statistics. But it requires greater self-examination and deeper interaction with others than we are used to. This enables us to work out, for example, how much our technical devices – some of which we check two or three hundred times a day – are changing the way we think, speak, relate and behave. We cannot fully achieve this, however, without drawing on the Holy Spirit’s ability to search the deepest recesses of our minds and hearts.

            (3) to act locally even though we think globally, helping to transform that part of the world closest to us.

            It is Ellul who coined this popular phrase. Only through engaging in our work and play, community and civic life, where we live that most of us can have the greatest public influence. It is precisely there that we confront decisions affecting conscience, issues others find discomforting, opportunities to make a difference. It is there that we can most challenge the illusions that tend to bind people, inventions that seek to enslave human beings, and destructive or even demonic forces in our society

            Creating such a style of life is a corporate as well as individual work.

  • It must be a part of everyday family life. – a topic of conversation with children over meals, joint decisions between husband and wife, private as well as public behaviour.
  • It should also be a central part of what local churches are about. They need to create communities within them where members can explore life’s responsibilities and changes, pray and search the scriptures about these, encourage and support each other to live out this new style of life. In doing so they will learn how to relate, manage conflict, handle money, deal with political agendas, indeed develop a style of life that provides clues for the wider society.
  • It ought be at the heart of what christian groups based on the work place, sporting activities, and social action discuss and undertake. It also requires the help of Christian institutes, centres and think-tanks which contain special expertise in envisioning a distinctive whole-of-life vision of how faith can leaven and transform the world in which we live.

            Ellul’s own life provides a model of what he wrote. Though a layman he founded a small church in his locality alongside his denominational commitments. He initiated informal vacation classes for interested students as well as regular University courses. He worked among troubled youth in his neighbourhood and served as Deputy Mayor in the city of Bordeaux. He was a member of the local resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War and was the first to bring the plight of the persecuted Kurds to the attention of the Western world.

            A distinctive style of Christian life, he argued, alone has the innovative and explosive force to make a difference in the world today, potentially affecting every part of human life, society and culture. It was also the only way that Christianity today could once again have a compelling point of contact with the world from which to proclaim the Gospel.

Dr Robert Banks.revisedRobert Banks is a biblical and practical theologian, based in Australia but with teaching experience in universities and theological colleges in Europe, North America and Asia. He has written a number of books on such biblical themes as God the Worker, Jesus and the Law and  Paul’s Idea and Community, He has also written or co-authored others on The Tyranny of Time, Private Values and Public Policy, The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity and Re-envisioning Leadership. 

The Myth of Secular Neutrality

December 2015 Pulse

Secularists have long ridiculed religion by portraying it as dangerous and divisive. Secularism, they insist, is not only objective since it is based on the natural sciences and empirical rationalism; it is also more tolerant and neutral, and therefore the best guarantor of social peace.

Secular neutrality has been brandished about as if secularism is the ultimate solution to maintaining equity and peace in a plural and diverse society where different religions, moralities and ideologies are competing for attention and assent. In the realm of politics, the secular state alone is said to be the best arbiter of conflicting commitments and visions.

According to them, the public square must be secular if the debates are to be fair and rational. Religious voices must be either excluded altogether or effectively muted if society is to achieve a ‘reasonable’ consensus on the most complex issues and challenges it faces.

But the secular neutrality championed by the most fervent evangelists of secularism is nothing but a myth. Secular neutrality does not exist because secularism is a philosophy of life, an ideology, and, as some would even argue, a religion of sorts.

That secularism is a philosophy of life, a worldview, is evident in the fact that one has to embrace a number of metaphysical ideas to be a secularist.

An orthodox secularist must believe that the material world is all that there is, and that all talk about God and the afterlife is, in the final analysis, irrational. He must believe that human beings are the source of all meaning and value. And if like most secularists he is also one who believes in physicalism, he must believe that we are hardwired (neurologically and genetically) by evolution to make sense of our world in this way.

Secularism also promotes a certain moral vision. Many secularists favour the way of understanding moral responsibility that philosophers call utilitarianism. That is why the philosopher Robert C. Solomon could describe secularist morality as a form of “naturalised spirituality”.

If worldview is defined as a set of life-regulating beliefs, secularism certainly satisfies this definition. But secularism is also a religion of sorts because its key beliefs are embraced by faith, despite its claims that they are grounded in science and reason.

Furthermore, secularism also has its rituals and its priests like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who promote its worldview. Secularism therefore has a missionary thrust; it is a proselytising ‘religion’.

If what I’ve argued thus far is sound, if secularism is a worldview or a philosophy of life, then it cannot be neutral. Thus, by privileging secularism we are in fact saying that this worldview, this way of looking at reality, is superior to other accounts.

The myth of secular neutrality therefore allows a certain metanarrative to hold sway. And this has given rise to a new hegemony, a kind of ideological and cultural imperialism.

The myth subtly but powerfully presents secularism as the default position of rational people of goodwill by portraying secularism to be what it is not. And once secularism achieves its hegemonic aspirations, it accords itself with the power to define the role of religion in politics and in the public square.

The myth of secular neutrality is therefore democracy’s worse enemy. By pretending to be a friend of democracy, the myth in fact renders modern secular societies undemocratic by shutting down alternative voices.

As Hunter Baker has perceptively argued, “Secularism acts politically against its competitors and defines them as what it is not”. The myth of secular neutrality is therefore chiefly responsible for the tyranny of secularism.

By portraying secularism to be what it is not, the myth presents religion as the problem and secularism as the impeccable solution. The refrain that many secularists often sing is “religion is dangerous and divisive, but secularism is tolerant, fair and neutral”.

This assertion is either naïve, delusional or deceptive because any belief system can be said to be dangerous if its advocates are prepared to coerce others by law or by force to practice that belief. Insofar as secularism is a philosophy of life (and I have established that it is), it also can be dangerous.

Are secularists guilty of such coercion? Secularism, asserts Robert Kraynak, “is highly intrusive in the imposition of secular liberal values”.

It is not difficult to find evidence for this, especially in the West. We see it in how schools systematically indoctrinate young people in secular humanism, free expression of religion is prohibited, and sexuality and the family are redefined.

Secular neutrality is a dangerous myth. It promotes intolerance and disrespect.

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 July 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Returning to Basics on SG50?

December 2015 Feature Article

In her inimitable style as one of Singapore’s leading writers of fiction and non-fiction, Catherine Lim [1] offers articles that might allude to the political mood of a young nation that has almost come of age. In her oft-witty and politically nuanced contributions, interspersed movingly with her own reminiscences, Catherine Lim also shares some of the aspirations and fears of what it is going to be like for the next 50 years for Singapore. One article in particular gives a foreboding scenario of Singapore’s 80th anniversary celebrations set in the alarming context of the China Co-Prosperity Sphere, hence putting to rest any remnant ‘Western’ hegemonic influence.

Nevertheless significant questions remain in my mind about Singapore’s future. What sort of nation do we wish to see, now that we have entered the post Lee Kuan Yew era? What sort of politics should we practise, in view of the nascent but increasingly credible opposition movement? How do we maintain the level of apparent sophistication that has been built up in the short time of practically one generation since the 1960s, with their concomitant high expectations and demands?

I often take heart, as an accidental emigrant who left Singapore in 1986 and having visited the island on countless occasions since, that Lee Kin Mun (otherwise affectionately known as “Mr Brown”) often captures the current political mood of Singapore. From this enduring satirist and lyricist comes the latest song in celebration of SG50, though with a slight sardonic tone about loyalty, and a characteristic refrain:

“We are an island … we’re a city … we’re a nation … just getting started …”

Is Singapore as a young nation really just getting started? Starting from what and where? Are we not deluding ourselves in thinking that we are a first-world country and truly a miracle or exception in a so-called third world context? [2] Should we, as a highly secular and deeply materialistic society, not return to some sort of basics so as to help us reflect critically on our journey? What has the Church to offer in such challenging socio-political, economic and cultural circumstances where our values are intricately shaped?

In his magisterial yet accessible style, Rowan Williams [3] challenges us about our calling as Christian disciples, having already been blessed with the restoration of our humanity through our baptism with Christ. In a real sense, he strongly encourages us to return to basics. Drawing on the important imagery from the Old Testament and more importantly, from the life and ministry of Jesus, how are we to act as Christians in today’s world and how do we engage with its messy reality? For many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to live out a three-fold identity: that of prophet, priest and king. The baptised person, the Christian, identifies with Jesus in these three ways of being human.

First, what does it mean to be a prophet? Old Testament prophets generally do not just tell about the future; they act and speak to call the people of Israel back to their own essential truth and identity. They act and they speak for the sake of a community’s integrity, its faithfulness as to who it is really meant to be. The prophets were constantly saying to Israel: “Don’t you remember who you are? Don’t you remember what God has called you to be? Here you are, sitting down comfortably with all kinds of inequality, injustice and corruption in your society. Have you completely forgotten what you’re here for?” The prophet spoke truth to power at the heart of the Establishment, and in the New Testament John the Baptist paid with his own life. They were not afraid to rock the boat!

Williams goes on to say that in reflecting the life of Jesus, we who are Christians need to exercise our minds and critical faculty, we need to question and uncomfortably, we need to be prophetic with one another. We need to be constantly reminding one another what we are here for. “What do you see? What’s your vision?” Who are you really accountable to?”

More importantly, the prophetic role of the church cannot be underestimated. We need to continue questioning the assumptions on which our society is currently based. “What’s that for?” “Why do we take that for granted?” So in the wake of the SG50 celebrations, when the euphoria has somewhat subsided, and when the reality sets in with another commuting day in over-crowded MRT trains, might we ask if there’s really no limit to efficiency and productivity in an island city-state with no natural resources? Hence the need for the Church to be extra vigilant and prophetic as it has always been throughout the ages, and dare I say that a truly prophetic church is a truly growing (I do not mean simply numerical growth) church!

Secondly, what does it mean to assume the priestly role? In the Old Testament, a priest is someone (usually a man in those ancient times) who interprets God and humanity to each other. He is someone who builds bridges between God and humanity, especially when that relationship has been wrecked. He is someone, in the very traditional understanding of priesthood, who by offering sacrifice to God (through the Eucharist) re-creates a shattered relationship. We who are baptised Christians are therefore drawn into the ‘priestliness’ of Jesus; we are called upon to mend shattered relationships between God and the world, through the power of Christ and his Spirit. It is a deeply Trinitarian task.

We are in the business of building bridges and we seek to be peacemakers, not trouble makers, living in hope to rebuild situations where there is suspicion and prejudice, lack of respect and integrity, damage and disorder. This naturally includes our environment, Mother Earth, and all our personal and social relationships, as well as our ecumenical and inter-faith encounters. Again, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has died down, when the reality sets in with construction and other projects that need to be completed let alone on time, how might we continue to accommodate the aspirations of the ‘foreign’ worker whose labour and sacrifice has much contributed to Singapore’s success? At a time when many countries have allowed immigration-related issues to ride on populist politics, how might we continue to build bridges between the ‘indigenous’ Singaporean and the ‘other’ in a confined space that appears over-populated? What has the biblical experience of the exile to offer the Church in this regard, bearing in mind the migrant foundations of Singapore society?

Thirdly, how does Christian discipleship bear the hallmark of kingship or royalty? In ancient Israel, the king was someone who spoke for others to God. Though the king also had a sort of priestly role, the king had the freedom to shape the law of the land and the justice of his society. He could make justice a reality or not a reality, though many kings had failed to follow God’s path and went on their own ways. The king, who had power and authority if used rightly and wisely, was meant to uphold the cause of the poor and lowly, and doing justice for the needy. In the process, Williams maintains, the king will know God! By directing and shaping human society in the path of God’s justice, we seek to show in our relationships and engagement with the world something of God’s own freedom, God’s desire for peoples and the nations to heal and to restore.

So, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has finally dissipated, and when the reality once again sets in with the ever urgent need to care for those who have been marginalised by the years of relentless drive towards success, how might the predominantly sleek, affluent and middle-class Singaporean Church address such an injustice? What might we do to reflect truly the justice of God in situations of hidden poverty, the problem of long-term affordability of health and social care, and the viability of old age living in the midst of ever increasing costs of living and almost non-existent welfare benefits, and a fragile nation-state in a sea of geopolitical uncertainties?

Williams aptly summarises the essential basis of our Christian discipleship for the contemporary world:

‘So the [baptised] life of a Christian is a life that gives us the resource and strength to ask awkward but necessary questions of one another and of our world. It is a life that looks towards reconciliation, building bridges, repairing broken relationships. It is a life that looks towards justice and liberty, the liberty to work together to make human life in society some kind of reflection of the wisdom and order and justice of God’.

However, Williams rightly adds a word of caution as to how we should approach this three-fold identity. If we are only prophets, then we fall into the danger of being constantly negative in our dealings with each other and the world; we could in fact fall from being critical into being too cynical. If we are only priestly, then we get too caught up with wanting to achieve reconciliation without the due process of asking the right questions; we want to hurry on to the end of the story and not bother too much with the difficult middle bit, the process of questioning. And, if we are only concerned with kingship and royal freedom and justice, we would be in danger of constantly thinking about control and problem-solving. The Christian disciple, to be whole, needs to embody all three aspects that Jesus himself had embraced in his own life and ministry. The three become integral parts of one life, not just bits of our individual and corporate calling. I much believe that these three aspects of our Christian calling must be further honed through our willing engagement with the messiness of life.

Given that Singapore has always prided itself as a meritocratic and pragmatic society, built on seemingly harmonious but rather tenuous inter-cultural and inter-ethnic relationships, the call is ever more urgent for its Church to be truly prophetic, priestly and bearing the marks of royalty to a young nation-state stepping into an unknown future.

Andy LieAndy Lie (TTC Alumnus, 1986) is of Indonesian Chinese origin but grew up in Singapore from the late 1950s onwards. A long-standing Reader in the Diocese of Newcastle, Church of England, he is currently part-time Ecumenical Officer for the Northern Synod of the United Reformed Church. He and his family have now lived in the UK for almost 30 years. He has experience in inter-faith relations, and has also worked in the health service, and university and voluntary sectors.


[1] Catherine Lim, Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore! An exuberant celebration of the nation’s 50th birthday. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2014.

[2] “The Singapore Exception: A Special Report.” The Economist, July 18th-24th 2015.

[3] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible Eucharist, Prayer. London: SPCK, 2014. Please see especially Chapter 1, and I am indebted to Williams for the summary of his thoughts in what follows.

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).

Religion, Public Policy and Human Flourishing

In recent years, academics here have been arguing that Singapore has to revise its social compact due to rapidly changing circumstances, both at home and globally.

Founded on strong fundamentals – individual responsibility and self-reliance, economic growth and jobs for all, and a social security system that is based on savings and home ownership – the current social compact has served the country well over the past forty years. It has enabled the Government to deliver high standards of healthcare, education, and housing without imposing an enormous burden of public spending.

But a number of developments such as globalisation, a more volatile economy and an aging population, have necessitated a revision of the current social compact.

However, not all the troubles of society are due to circumstances beyond our control. In fact, scholars have shown that some of the policies of the Government have in fact worsened the inequalities that already prevail in our society.

One example is the excessively liberal foreign worker and immigration policies that have resulted in inequality and wage stagnation. Another is the Government’s quest to transform Singapore into a ‘global city’ that has caused the income of those at the higher end of the labour market to be raised artificially, thereby widening the income gap.

The Government is well aware that its policies have not always been helpful in addressing the pressing concerns of society. In his keynote address at the Singapore Perspectives 2012 conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said, quite candidly, that ‘Our policies are not sacrosanct. But let’s keep a sense of perspective as we discuss how we should evolve and improve them’.

To construct a new social compact in the wake of these new challenges requires nothing less than an imaginative leap. The British philosopher Roger Scruton has quite brilliantly defined imagination as ‘a going beyond the given’.

Imagination plays an important role in almost every aspect of human life. It is needed whenever we make judgements about values. Imagination is indispensable in planning and decision-making, as alternatives are entertained and as possible ‘worlds’ that are better than the status quo are explored.

Imagination is therefore requisite for ordering society for human flourishing. In order to improve the lives of Singaporeans, the Government must ‘go beyond the given’.

How is this new compact being re-imagined by our leaders? How must social policies be recalibrated in order to promote the wellbeing of all Singaporeans?

High on the agenda is the problem of inequality, which must receive urgent attention. The Government is well aware of the fact that inequality negatively affects the wellbeing of society.

In their 2009 study, R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett noted that high inequality in society is detrimental to all its members, not just the poor. Their study also showed that inequality in society could not only cause stress, anxiety, and depression, but might even encourage behaviours such as drug use and criminality.

In his address DPM Shanmugaratnam states unequivocally that ‘we cannot resign ourselves to widening inequality … We have to try to contain inequality, and ameliorate its effects on our society’. The Government is thus determined to address this issue, not just superficially by minor tweaks in certain policies, but through a comprehensive and holistic reassessment of Singapore’s economic and social policies.

But the Government also acknowledges that for society to flourish, the poor, the sick, the disabled and elderly must never be forgotten. In his address at the opening of the new session of Parliament on 16 May, President Tony Tan Keng Yam placed special emphasis on the vulnerable and the elderly in our society.

‘We will strengthen safety nets to help the vulnerable and elderly cope with the vicissitudes of life’, he pledges. Further in the speech, he reiterates this commitment: ‘We will pay particular attention to vulnerable Singaporeans, including low-wage workers and our elderly’. The President then delineated a series of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of Singaporeans.

Christians here of every stripe can and must wholeheartedly endorse these goals because they resonate so profoundly with the teachings of Scripture and the Christian tradition. In fact, with its rich theological heritage and profound moral vision, the Christian community has much to contribute to public discourse on the wellbeing of society.

Against the many agent-oriented versions of the pursuit of wellbeing (eudaimonisms) – ancient and modern – the Bible presents a radically different vision of social flourishing, based on the second love command of Jesus (Mark 12:31). Moral responsibility towards one another, implied in Jesus’ command, is an integral aspect of the Christian concept of justice. In addition, for the Christian tradition, justice must be wedded to mercy and compassion.

It was the great fifth-century theologian, Augustine, who insisted that vulnerability and compassion must be included in our conception of human flourishing. In City of God Augustine writes: ‘But … what is compassion but a kind of fellow feeling in our hearts of the misery of another which compels us to help him if we can? This impulse is the servant of right reason when compassion is displayed in such a way as to preserve righteousness, as when alms are distributed to the needy or forgiveness extended to the penitent’.

The wellbeing of society is dependent on how its members regard and treat each other. This means that society’s flourishing requires its members to be concerned for one another’s wellbeing, not merely their own.

In his magisterial work, Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes perceptively that the history of Christianity reveals a profound tension between flourishing and renunciation. According to the Christian understanding, writes Taylor, ‘the believer … is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing … they are called on, that is, to detach themselves from their own flourishing … to that renunciation of human fulfilment to serve God in the other’.

In concluding his May address, President Tan looks to the future with optimism as he prepares the nation to celebrate its Golden Jubilee: ‘Our best years lie ahead. We have not overcome all our challenges, but we are determined to do so, and we will. Singapore remains a home that brings out the best in us … As we approach our 50th anniversary of independence, let us pledge ourselves anew to build a better, brighter Singapore’.

The wellbeing of society is the responsibility of all its members, not just that of the Government. The Christian community must work with the Government and other faith communities to build a just and compassionate society so that all may flourish. Only in this way can Singapore truly become a home that endears.

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 Trumpet (TTC).

The Postmodern Turn

May 2015 Pulse

‘Postmodern’ is a word that seems to appear very frequently in both print and conversation these days. This dreadful coinage can be traced to the 1930s, but it was probably not until the 1970s that it began to receive wide and serious attention in academia and popular culture.

Postmodernism is a complex idea because it refers not only to cultural sensibilities but also to the way we have come to look at reality itself. It points to a sentiment as well as to a philosophy. Postmodernism in fact signifies a monumental shift in outlook that has affected every aspect of contemporary culture, including science and the arts.

In addition, the prefix does not indicate a peaceful and quiet departure from modernity. Rather it is iconoclastic: it points to the radical demolition and rubbishing of everything that modernity purports to cherish. As David Harvey puts it, postmodernism represents ‘for the most part … a wilful and rather chaotic movement to overcome all the supposed ills of modernism’.

However, this view of postmodernism – as a virulent crusader against modernism – sometimes obscures the fact that despite its loud protestations the former is in some profound ways parasitic to the latter. As Ihab Hassan has so perceptively pointed out in The Dismemberment of Orpheus, ‘The postmodern spirit lies coiled within the great corpus of modernism … It is not really a matter of chronology: Sade, Jarry, Breton, Kafka acknowledge that spirit’.

Christian theologians have in some measure welcomed the postmodern critique of what may be broadly described as the ‘Enlightenment Project’. For example, theologians concur with postmodernism’s rejection of the reductive rationalism of the Enlightenment that has excluded important human experiences such as religion. In similar vein, theologians have also endorsed postmodernism’s critique of scientism, the exaggerated estimate of the competence of science that is so pervasive in western cultures.

These important agreements notwithstanding, there is also much in postmodernism that Christians must not only criticise but also roundly reject.

According to Jean-François Lyotard of the Institute Polytechnique de Philosophie of the Universite de Paris in Vicennes, France, postmodernism can be chiefly characterised as the incredulity toward metanarratives. By metanarratives, Lyotard refers to ‘any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectic of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working spirit, or the creation of wealth’.

In rejecting metanarratives, postmodern thinkers insist that no single worldview, ideology or vision of reality can claim universal assent. We find in postmodernism a kind of naïve egalitarianism, a ‘democratisation’ of worldviews that prohibits the privileging of one over the other.

According to postmodernism, Christians cannot insist on the universal significance of the Gospel because the narrative of the salvation of fallen humanity in Jesus Christ must be seen as just one religious account of reality among many others.

Closely related to the rejection of metanarratives is the postmodern aversion to the notion of objective truth. Just as there is no grand scheme within which reality must be understood, so there is also no objective truth, no truth-claim that can command universal allegiance.

Truth is relativised and inextricably tied to communities, ethnic groups, and other contingent factors. There is no such thing as Truth, only truths. There is no absolute dogma, but only a plurality of disparate, incommensurable and conflicting truth-claims.

Postmodern relativism extends beyond philosophy and epistemology to include morality as well. Walter Stace defines moral relativism thus: ‘Any ethical position which denies that there is a single moral standard which is applicable to all men at all times may be called a species of ethical relativism. There is not, the relativist asserts, merely one moral law, one code, one standard’. Underscoring the implications of this, Richard Brandt describes the moral relativist as someone for whom conflicting ethical opinions are all valid.

The postmodern rejection of objective truth also has implications in hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation. According to some postmodern philosophers, there is no inherent meaning in a text. Others would argue that even if there is one it cannot be gleaned by the reader, especially one that is historically removed from the text. Consequently, meaning is not supplied by the text but by its reader whose reading of the text is profoundly influenced by his own historical and cultural locations and existential questions from which he cannot extricate himself.

All this has profound implications for the Christian church – its gospel, Scriptures and doctrine.

Needless to say, Christians could neither affirm the postmodern rejection of objective truth nor its moral relativism. The Christian doctrine of revelation asserts that the Church’s truth-claims concerning God is objectively grounded in the divine self-disclosure. And while Christians concur that certain metanarratives like that of hegemonic secularism stemming from Enlightenment rationalism must be challenged, God’s plan for the world as disclosed in Scripture cannot be subjected to postmodern incredulity.

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.

How should Christians engage in the public square?

As society becomes increasingly secular, religion is slowly edged towards the periphery of public life and reduced to a private experience without any social implications. The Christian faith is intrinsically opposed to the privatisation of religion because of its claim that the God it worships and professes is the Creator and Lord of the world. The Gospel that Christianity preaches is public truth, which addresses all of reality and which has profound implications to both the private lives of individuals and the public arenas of society. Christians are called to be light and salt of this darkening world (Matt 5:13-14). And although Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ are not of this world, that is, although they embrace a worldview and a set of values that are truly distinct they are nonetheless in the world (John 15:19). In fact, Christians are sent into the world to be authentic and faithful witnesses of their risen Lord (Matt 28:19). Christians therefore stand in solidarity with this world, but at the same time they have been given a prophetic function as they speak and embody the truth of God’s word. Social engagement is therefore not optional for the Christian. It has to do with the very heart of Christian witness.

As Christians get involved in public discourse they must realise that the public square is at once secular and pluralistic with people holding divergent and even contradictory views on a myriad of issues. Christians engaged in public discourse cannot expect their interlocutors to be sympathetic to their views, not to mention embrace them. In a pluralistic society, people shaped by different ideologies, traditions and rationalities approach the same issue with perspectives that are often inimical or antithetical (and sometimes even hostile) to the Christian perspective. Christians who participate in public debates with unrealistically high expectations of what their robust witness can achieve will only be disappointed. This is especially true for those who expect to see results within a short time frame. It took decades for our late (or post) modern society to slide into relativism, and it will take just as long, if not longer for us to dig ourselves out of it and its consequences. Christian engagement in politics and society therefore requires much patience.

Christians engaged in public discourse must also learn the language of such discourse. The language of the pulpit would not be very effective in the secular and religiously and ideologically plural public square. Theologians writing in the area of public theology have long acknowledged the need for Christians to use ‘natural law’ arguments that are accessible and persuasive to all and that appeal to public reason. This does not mean that Christians should abandon their particularist standpoint that is informed and shaped by the Bible and by the tradition of the Church, and begin with common assumptions shared by the majority. Christian responses to social issues must always be guided by Scripture and tradition. But Christians must present their theological perspectives on these issues in a way that is accessible to the wider and often unbelieving public. Thus, although Scripture must always be our guide, we must craft and present our arguments in a way that would resonate with those who do not recognise the authority of the Bible. As Scott Rae and Paul Cox have put it, ‘In this effort at persuasion it is essential that the position taken be identifiably Christian, but the means of persuasion need not and should not be limited to theological and biblical notions’.

Christians engaged in the public square must always be humble and civil. Christians must be humble in their engagement with society because even the most sincere often bring with them their own biases and prejudices. Richard Mouw issued this timely reminder in his essay, ‘The Spirituality for Public Life’: ‘The challenge, then, is to keep reminding ourselves that, at the heart of the Christian message lies the insistence that we are all sinners who are regularly tempted to the arrogance and self-centredness that lead to pretensions beyond the scope of our true grasp of reality’. The exhortation to be humble alerts us to the fact that we sometimes enter into the conversation with a less than adequate understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand. And it also alerts us to the fact that although we may be certain of the teachings of Scripture, we are sometimes less certain of how these teachings ought to be applied in the concrete world of politics. Christian humility in this regard is based on a clear appreciation of our own finitude and sinfulness.

Christians must also engage in public discourse with civility. Christian civility is best described as convicted civility: it is a civility that is not the result of intellectual wooliness or moral laxity, but one which stems from profound and robust convictions. According to the Christian understanding, therefore, civility should never be reduced to superficial irenics or political correctness. For the Christian, civility can never mean compromising our deepest convictions. But if Christian civility demands that we must always speak the truth, it also insists that we must also do so in love, respecting those whom do not share our convictions. Civility does not come easily; it requires much work on our part. Such civility is itself demanded by the Bible, which exhorts Christians to approach everyone with gentleness and reverence, and to strive to live at peace with everyone (1 Pet 3:15-16), even with those with whom we disagree.

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 2013).

A Sense of Justice

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Since time immemorial philosophers and thinkers of every stripe have reflected on the meaning of justice. At around 380 BC, Plato wrote his magnificent treatise, The Republic in which he explores – among other things – the concept of justice. Appalled by the degenerating conditions in his native Athens, and dissatisfied with the prevailing notions of justice, Plato sets out to formulate his own theory that continues to be influential among philosophers today.

Plato develops his idea of justice in relation to both the individual and society. For the individual, justice is that human virtue that is responsible for making him or her self-consistent and good. For the society or community, justice may be described as that social consciousness that integral to its harmony and flourishing. Therefore, according to Plato, justice is the human virtue that not only binds members of a society together but also ensures that it is ordered in a way that is beneficial to all.

At about the same time, the famous Analects attributed to Confucius was compiled, about a century after the sage’s death during what is known as the Warring States period (476 BC – 221BC). Although the formal concept of justice is absent in the Analects, a sense of justice can be clearly discerned, as Confucian scholars like Erin Cline and Yang Xiao have clearly shown.

Important concepts like ‘Virtue’ (de), ‘rightness’ (yi), ‘reciprocity’ (shu) and ‘humaneness’ (Ren) among others collectively form a Confucian vision of the way in which society, in its various stratifications, should be ordered ‘under heaven’. Thus, although justice is not associated with a single concept or word in the Analects, it is found in the way in which the accountability and responsibility of the members of society are understood.

No other concept has arguably received more attention and subjected to more rigorous debate in philosophy in general and political philosophy in particular in modern times than justice.

In the last century, the American political philosopher John Rawls published what many scholars opined to be the most important book on the subject in his highly acclaimed 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. Following closely Immanuel Kant’s idea that persons are ‘free and equal’, Rawls attempted to inject life into a languishing social contract theory with his concept of ‘justice as fairness’.

It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that humankind always had what may be described as a sense of justice throughout its history.

There can be no doubt that the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – places much emphasis on justice, premised of course on the theological insight that the God who brought this world into being is just (Psalm 25:8-14; 2 Thessalonians 1:6).

In the OT, the Hebrew word for ‘just’ and ‘justice’ (mispat) occurs no less than 424 times in 406 verses and is used to refer to conformity to the law, doing the right thing and legal rights. In the NT, the Greek word for ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosune) appears 92 times in 86 verses and used to refer chiefly to moral uprightness.

The Biblical conception of justice is profoundly relational, with a special emphasis on equality and impartiality. The Scriptures also profoundly underscore that justice must never exclude the poor and the disadvantaged. Thus, In Leviticus 19:15 we find this remarkable injunction that clearly indicates that showing partiality to the poor is a perversion of justice: ‘You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour’.

However, the Biblical account of justice is characterised by a profound realism that is sometimes absent in philosophical and secular accounts. It is the truth that God alone is just, and that at the end of the age he will establish his justice in the world.

Here, the doctrine of the final judgement of Christ, which we confess in the Nicene Creed, offers an indispensable insight, a kind of ‘reality check’, to earthly justice. It emphasises the sobering fact that both our theories and practices of justice are always inadequate and wanting. Even when no effort is spared to ensure that justice and the rule of law are upheld, injustices and miscarriages of justice continue to occur.

Only God can implement a justice that is impartial and perfect. And he will indeed do this at the close of this age, when his kingdom that has been inaugurated with the incarnation of his Son will be consummated at the Son’s return. On that day of salvation and judgement, every wrong will be put right: he innocent will be vindicated and the wrongdoers will get their just deserts.

On that day, the justice of God will truly ‘roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’. And God’s Shalom – his peace, healing, restoration, order, joy, health and salvation – will fill the new heavens and the new earth.

It is the Shalom of God, which includes his justice and righteousness that ensures the harmony of human beings, in relation to each other and the rest of creation. As Walter Brueggemann explains: ‘Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. It refers to all those resources and factors that make communal harmony joyous and effective’.

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 Bible Speaks Today (July 2014).

Render To Caesar… Render To God

March 2015 Feature Article

Whenever there is a discussion on the obligations of Christians towards the state, a key saying of Jesus is invariably cited. The most well-known rendition of it is found in the King James’ Version of the Bible: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.

A common interpretation of this saying is that Christians owe different sets of obligations to God and to the state. It is depicted in the diagram below:

Render to Caesar revised

So, as this interpretation of Jesus’ saying goes, there are obligations we owe to the state alone (perhaps things like paying taxes, respecting public order). These we should “render unto Caesar”. Then there is a completely separate set of obligations we owe to God (perhaps the obligation to tithe or to pray). These we should “render unto God”. Jesus’ saying, therefore, has repeatedly been used through the ages to urge Christians to be good and law-abiding citizens; to discharge well our unique obligations to “Caesar”.

The problem with this interpretation of Jesus’ saying is quickly apparent. It invites us to divide our lives into two portions, one governed by God, and the other by the state, with no interaction between the two. God’s reign over us is therefore restricted to so-called “religious” matters, while Caesar has the final say on how we should behave with regard to our lives in the public square. This interpretation of Jesus’ saying is, in other words, totally in line with the secularising agenda of many contemporary societies. The secular ideal is that one’s public life should be free of religious considerations. There can be a carefully circumscribed role for religion in one’s private devotion and morals, but that is as far as it should go.

Could this understanding of Jesus’ saying be correct? Could Jesus have been a man before his time, advocating a secular agenda more than a millennium and a half before these ideas took root in Western societies? Might Jesus actually approve of the marginalisation of religion we see in so many contemporary societies? Surely, something is amiss. It behoves us to examine carefully the passage in which this saying is contained to see if its context sheds any light on how it should be interpreted. We will focus on the description of this episode in the Gospel of Mark (12:13-17).

This immediate context of our passage is a trap set by the Jewish religious authorities. As v.13 puts it, “they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words”. These emissaries began with flattery. They praised Jesus’ integrity and said they admired the way he taught the way of God truly without being swayed by the fear of man (v.14). Having cunningly set up an expectation for Jesus to speak the truth fearlessly, they sprung the trap:  “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (v.14-15). This question was designed to put Jesus in a deadly bind. Whether he answers “yes” or “no”, he would get into deep trouble.

If Jesus were to answer, “No, it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar”, it would have given a basis for the Jewish religious authorities to persuade the Roman rulers to arrest Jesus. The Romans were very sensitive about their system of taxation, and any potential disruption to it was likely to draw a swift and firm response. This is where the Herodians come in. They were a political faction of Jews seen as loyal to Rome. They would be best placed to report any subversive behaviour to the Romans.

If, on the other hand, Jesus were to affirm the correctness of paying taxes to Caesar, many of his followers would have abandoned him in deep disappointment. Many Jews had an intense hatred of the Roman tax. They had even started a series of riots over the payment of taxes not too long before Jesus’ time. How do you think these Jews would have felt if Jesus were to encourage meek submission to the oppressive Roman tax system? Most conveniently, the Pharisees were on hand to fan any angry responses. They were respected among the Jews for their anti-Roman sentiments, and were best placed to incite the crowd should Jesus affirm the correctness of paying taxes to Rome.

How did Jesus emerge from this bind unscathed? He did the rather unexpected thing of requesting for a denarius (v.15). He then asked, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” The denarius was a Roman coin, and had the portrait of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar on its front side, with words proclaiming his title and name. It was therefore a simple thing for the Pharisees and the Herodians to answer “Caesar’s” (v.16). Jesus then spoke the final words recorded for this episode, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. This reply totally floored the Pharisees and the Herodians. They thought they were cruising to victory in this boxing match. But Jesus’ reply was the knockout punch they did not see coming. V.17 tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at him. The account in the Gospel of Luke describes them being so astonished that they fell silent (Lk 20:26). Matthew adds that they left Jesus and went away (Matt 22:22)—probably in shame that their mission had failed.

This is where the common interpretation of Jesus’ answer does not make sense. What would be so utterly amazing about Jesus teaching that we owe different sets of obligations towards God and the state? Such a reply would also not have successfully evaded the trap, since it is in essence a “yes” answer; it suggests we ought to pay taxes because we owe obligations to the state.

The key to understanding Jesus’ last sentence lies in his earlier question, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” The original Greek word for “portrait” is εἰκών (eikon). This is the word from which the English “icon” is derived, and can also be translated as “image”. To the Jew, one of the first things which come to mind when the term “image” is mentioned is the teaching in Genesis that human beings are created in the image of God. εἰκών has also been used in other parts of the New Testament to denote this image of God present in human beings (e.g. 1 Cor 11:7). The English word “inscription” is translated from ἐπιγραφή (epigraphe). A form of this word is used in passages like Isa 44:5 of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, which reads:

“One will say, ‘I belong to the LORD’;
Another will call himself by the name of Jacob;
Still another will write (epigraphein) on his hand, ‘The LORD’s’
And will take the name Israel”

So how would Jesus’ Jewish audience have understood his reply? Just as the denarius had the image of Caesar and the inscription of Caesar’s name on it, human beings are made in the image of God and all those who belong to God have his name written on their hands. Therefore, when Jesus speaks about giving to God what is in God’s image and what has God’s inscription, he is calling for the giving of the whole of ourselves to God. He is reminding the Jews that their one loyalty is to God alone. So, if we do pay our taxes to Caesar, it should be as an aspect of our sole obligation to God; it should be as an act of worship to God. The converse is also implied: If the state should overstep her boundaries and impose obligations which conflict with our fundamental obligation to God, “we must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). The one guiding principle for all of life is our obligation towards the one who has made us in his image and inscribed his name on our hands. Thus Jesus, in his answer, does not advocate uncritical submission to the state and its laws. Yet he also does not advocate rebellion for its own sake. Everything has to be evaluated according to one’s sole duty to God. He therefore manages to avoid the unequivocal “yes” or “no” his enemies were expecting.

The pervasive influence of secularism in modern societies has caused Christians to live fragmented lives. The phenomenon of a “privatised” Christianity is evident amongst many Christians. We have carefully shepherded our Christian faith into a small and comfortable corner of our lives. When it comes to “religious” activities, like attending church, or going for small group meetings, we are happy to say and do all the right “Christian” things. Outside of these times, however, we often refuse to allow the reality of our Christian faith to guide and impact the other aspects of our lives (e.g. when we are in the office, when we discuss national politics, when we evaluate the economic direction of our society). It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, for many of us, Christianity has effectively been reduced to a kind of drug for our psychological well-being. We take it once a week on a Sunday to feel a sense of comfort and joy, but refuse to let it interfere with the business of living in the real world.

The privatised Christianity of our secular age needs to hear afresh the words of Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. This, far from being an affirmation of the secular tendency to divide our lives into different spheres which are hermetically sealed from one another, is a powerful call for us to re-assemble the fragmented pieces and live our entire life in obedience to God. If we do discharge our obligations to others (e.g. the government, our families, employers, friends), it is as an aspect of our service to God. The key obligation which holds everything together is our loyalty to God, and our key task is to learn and reflect upon what this one loyalty entails for the various facets of our lives, both “religious” and “secular”. May these words of Jesus help bring wholeness and focus to Christians today, as we live in wholehearted gratitude and service to the God who has graciously created us in his image and inscribed his name on our hands.

Dr leowthenghuat


Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.