Tag Archives: identity

The Human Face

December 2016 Pulse

In August 2015, injured volunteer firefighter Patrick Hardison received a face transplant in a 26-hour surgery performed by plastic surgeon Dr Eduardo Roderiguez and his team, a procedure which cost US$1 million (S$1.36 million). The donor was David Rodenbaugh, who had died in a cycling accident.

The first person to receive a full face transplant was a French woman called Isabelle Dinoire, who sustained multiple severe facial injuries after being mauled by a dog in 2005. Since then, more than 20 patients across the globe have received partial or full face transplants.

Although serious ethical and social issues surround face transplants, they will not be the focus of this article. Instead, the question that will occupy us has to do with the significance and meaning of the human face.

This question is of special currency and relevance in our ‘pornified’ culture in which different parts of the body – often divorced from the face – are de-personalised and perceived hedonistically as mere instruments of pleasure.

Yet, as the authors of the 2004 Royal College of Surgeons report rightly saw, “The face is central to our understanding of our identity. Faces help us understand who we are and where we come from.”

Drawing from the rich theological anthropology of the Old Testament, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas could say that the human face is “in and of itself visitation and transcendence”.

By this Levinas means that the face comes into our shared world from beyond it while at the same time always remaining beyond it. It is a presence that cannot be contained, a revelation that is also always shrouded in mystery.

Unlike humans, animals have no concept of the face and are therefore said to be face-blind, that is, they are unable to recognise faces as faces. Some scientists and philosophers tell us that only sophisticated language users (i.e., humans) have this ability.

For humans, then, to see a human face is to see more than just the physical features of another human – nose, eyes, lips, mouth, etc. It is to see something of the whole person. It is to encounter the other as “visitation and transcendence”, to recall Levinas’ extraordinary expression.

My face is the part of my body to which others direct their attention when they wish to engage me because they somehow intuitively know that I am behind my face, so to speak.

As the inimitable British philosopher Roger Scruton has put so memorably: “My face is a boundary, a threshold, the place I appear as the monarch appears on the balcony of the palace.”

Furthermore, although I am present in my face and I speak and look through it at the world (and at other faces), I do not see my own face unless I deliberately choose to by looking in a mirror. In looking at my face in the mirror – and in seeing my self in it – I get the sense of who I am in relation to others, and who they are as others.

Thus, as a symbol of individuality, my face identifies me – Roland Chia – as this particular person, and distinguishes me from others who are not me.

In our fallen world, however, the human face is shrouded with an inherent ambiguity in that it not only reveals, but it also conceals and sometimes even deceives. The face can become a mask that deliberately misdirects by hiding or disguising the true self.

Yet, despite the fact that sin has disfigured the human face, it still has the potential to reflect and reveal the Face of faces, that is, the Face of God, about which the Bible speaks about so frequently and eloquently (see Psalm 13:1; Psalm 17:15; 1 Corinthians 13:12).

Hence, the great medieval theologian Nicholas of Cusa could write: “In all faces is seen the Face of faces, veiled and in a riddle.”

Such is the mystery of man, created as he is in the image and likeness of God, with the capacity to ‘mirror’ his Creator, however faintly and imperfectly.

But most importantly, the Bible tells us that the invisible God has revealed himself supremely and perfectly in a particular human face, that of Jesus of Nazareth. “Whoever has seen me,” declares the incarnate Son, “has seen the Father.” (John 14:9, ESV)


Dr Roland ChiaDr 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.

 

The Importance of Tradition

December 2016 CREDO

One of the most important contributions of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation is its clear reminder to the Church concerning the primary authority of Scripture. Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – was the battle cry of the great Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the wake of a Church that is so laden with human traditions that the essence of the Gospel was so severely obfuscated that it was no longer in view.

Modern evangelism has in the main sought to be true to the emphasis of the Reformers by stressing the authority of Scripture as the infallible Word of God. However, in doing so some evangelical Christians and churches have consequently adopted a pejorative and dismissive view of tradition, a view which the Reformers neither held nor encouraged.

In his book, The Fabric of Theology Richard Lints argues that in adopting this approach – enunciated in slogans such as ‘No creed but the Bible’ – evangelical Christians have deprived themselves of the rich theological and spiritual heritage and wisdom of the Church. As a result, their understanding of Christian existence is impoverished and, without the tutelage of the Church the Bible is often read, interpreted and applied in subjective and idiosyncratic ways.

This in turn has led to the proliferation of interpretations of the faith, some of which are in conflict with others. When tradition is not taken seriously, writes D.N. Williams, ‘the “centre” that the Reformers were hoping to restore splintered into a multitude of conflicting versions of the faith’.

Evangelical Christians therefore need to rediscover the wisdom of the Reformers.

In stressing the primary authority of the Holy Scriptures, the Reformers were not urging the Church to ignore – much less dismiss – the secondary authority of tradition. If Scripture is the authoritative text for the Church, tradition must serve as its authoritative interpreter.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes thus about the Apostles Creed: ‘Here you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in a few but comprehensive words’. In the same work, Luther asserts that ‘… the Creed brings us full mercy, sanctified us and make us acceptable to God’.

In similar vein, while John Calvin was highly critical of the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his day he acknowledged the authority and value of tradition as the interpreter of Scripture. Thus, he could say that the ancient traditions of the Church seek to expound ‘the real meaning of Scripture’ and he acknowledged that the ecumenical creeds contain ‘the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture’.

The Roman Catholic theologian of the last century, Yves Congar, maintains that the nature of the Christian faith itself makes tradition important. The Christian faith, Congar argues, ‘is an inheritance that is both transmitted and received’. As authoritative interpretation, tradition enables the Christian properly understand the authoritative text, the Bible.

To say that the universal Church, whose life and ministry are shaped by Scripture is its authoritative interpreter is to acknowledge that she alone is able to discern the counsel of God it contains, by the help of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is the place where true Christian teaching and true faith can be found. And as Tertullian puts it in his treatise against the Gnostics, ‘ only where the true Christian teaching and faith are evident, will be the true Scriptures, the true interpretations, and all the true Christian traditions be found’.

Perhaps one of the reasons why some evangelicals have difficulties with recognising the role of tradition in Christian theology is because the relationship between the Holy Spirit, the Church and Scripture is not explored in sufficient depth.

The theological significance of the fact that the Spirit who inspires the authors and the texts of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16) is the same Spirit who will guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13) must be carefully teased out if we are to have a robust understanding of the nature and role of tradition.

It was J. I. Packer, one of evangelicalism most important theologians, who made this point in his book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God. ‘The Spirit’, writes Packer, ‘has been active in the Church from the first, doing the work he was sent to do –guiding God’s people into an understanding of revealed truth’. ‘The history of the Church’s labour to understand the Bible’, he continues, ‘forms a commentary on the Bible which we cannot despise or ignore without dishonouring the Holy Spirit’.

The Church of today ministers in a world where great cultural upheavals are evident. Described by some enigmatically as the postmodern condition, our society witnesses an ever-deepening suspicion of received social conventions and traditions.

As the Belgian theologian Lieven Boeve observes, in the culture we call postmodern ‘emancipation from bonds that were once taken for granted and left unquestioned has resulted in a situation in which every human being is given the structurally-subjective task of constructing his or her own personal identity’.

In this postmodern world, the church that takes no interest in being shaped by her rich theological and spiritual traditions will be vulnerable to the seductive lure of the new and the novel. And in preferring discontinuities instead of continuities, such a Church runs the great risk of losing her identity, her uniqueness as God’s people and become indistinguishable from the rest of society.


Dr Roland Chia


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

 

 

Religion and Violence

May 2016 Feature Article

We have recently witnessed tragic events of violence in many parts of the world.  The massacres in Belgium, Paris, and Pakistan, the shooting in California, the tension in Jerusalem, and the terrorist attacks in Turkey, Egypt, Ivory Coast, and Tunisia are but a few examples.  While many of these assaults are attributed to fanatics of Islamic extremism, there is an unspoken thesis that their religious conviction is the seed of such violence.  People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would like to brand all religious beliefs under the same banner of intolerance and hate.

For instance, after 9-11, this slogan was posted on some billboards: “Science will fly you to the moon…  Religion will fly you into a building.”  Occasionally, the media would reinforce the idea that religion is outdated and the enemy of modernity.

While these accusations are mostly unfair, the challenge remains.  What is the relationship between religious beliefs and violence?  Are monotheistic religions more prone to violence than polytheistic or Asian ones?  Does belief in a One True God translate into proselytization and the intolerant suppression all other “false” gods?  How do we explain the different passages in the Bible or the Koran that advocate violence towards unbelievers?

It is important to address these assertions, as religions in general and monotheistic belief in particular is increasingly under the scrutiny of the secular world.

Monotheism and violence

The claim is that polytheistic religions, which already allow for the coexistence of different deities, are therefore more tolerant to different, ‘foreign’ conceptions of God, and hence less likely to militantly enforce their view on others.  Because of this oriental religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism are also more tolerant than monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—which are historically marred with much fighting internally and externally.

At a first glance, there seems to be some veracity in this.  There are many conflicts described in the Old Testament between the Jews and other peoples, and then one can add the wars between Muslims and Christians in the Crusades, between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation and the Thirty Years War, and the current situation in Israel and the Middle East.  Christians persecuting Jews, Muslims fighting against Jews, Shiites against Sunnis, and the al-Qaeda and ISIS jihad against the West seem to validate this claim.

However, upon closer examinations, history has shown that states with polytheistic religions are not at all benign.  The Roman Empire was very violent against minorities and intolerant towards Christianity in the first three centuries.  In the past century, we witnessed how several atheistic regimes have perpetrated the worst massacres and genocides in human history.

We need to look for the causes elsewhere. Samuel Huntington, who wrote The Clash of Civilizations in the early 1990s, claims that geopolitical conflicts will occur along the lines of cultures.  Thus, these conflicts are often equated as religious ones because most civilizations define themselves along religious lines.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ recent book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence provides further insight as to why it seems religions could be a source of division.  He believes that people commit atrocities because of an identity crisis.  Human beings are social by nature, and as a result of the herd mentality tend to define their world in terms of “us” and “them.” Religious identity is often the strongest social bond that distinguishes one group from another.  He states,

“Violence has nothing to do with religion as such. It has to do with identity and life in groups. Religion sustains groups more effectively than any other force. It suppresses violence within. It rises to the threat of violence from without. Most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion whatsoever. They are about power, territory and glory, things that are secular, even profane.  But if religion can be enlisted, it will be.”

This is confirmed by the fact that many of the suicide bombers and terrorists are not really religious. Their upbringings were not ultra-religious when they were recruited.  They are often radicalized through a process of socialization when given a new mission and meaning in life.

It is interesting to note that the current wave of terrorism is related to the secularization which began in the West and now spreading across the globe. Secularization was a process that began in the 18th century with the Enlightenment, where reason was seen as the alternative to religion as the unifying force of peoples.  By depriving society of the central role that religion plays in it, it was thought that people would unite under the standard of science and reason. The secular state becomes the norm of modern societies where individual freedoms are guaranteed.  After all, wasn’t “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’) the motto of the French Revolution and the cornerstone of modern democracy?

With secularization, however, relativism and individualism have become prevalent.  And once cultures and religions become relative, modern man is forced to live an individual existence unmoored from his cultural roots and traditions and isolated from community, church and extended families. Autonomy, individual rights and “spirituality” have replaced virtues, duties and religious practices.

Yet, the modern man is restless, constantly in search of meaning and identity before an array of possibilities. Many people find comfort in religious fundamentalisms and sects which offer a sense of meaning and spirituality in the West and in Islam.  This turn towards fundamentalism can at times result in violence.

Faith and Reason

One way to resolve this tension is to emphasize the possible harmony between reason and faith. On the one hand, the secularists need to learn that while human reasoning is the common basis and starting point of knowledge, it is not the only font.  On the other hand, religionists must also shun fideism which only blindly accepts revealed sources without being open to dialogue with different interpretations in a reasoned manner.

One area where this is applicable is in the field of theology and biblical exegesis, especially the difficult passages where violence seemed to be condoned in the Old Testament. Between the two extremes of literal interpretation and historicizing away the difficulties, a mature approach that balances faith and reason can help us to better understand the biblical message.  One such example is the International Theological Commission publication God the Trinity and the unity of humanity: Christian monotheism and its opposition to violence which concludes that, “The Christian faith, in fact, sees the incitement of violence in the name of God as the greatest corruption of religion.”

Faith and reason needs one another, to purify one another from potential pathologies.  For Christians, Christ being the Logos Incarnate means that faith itself cannot be illogical. Human reason finds its fulfillment in the new commandment of charity of Christ impels believers to enter into dialogue with others. A healthy tension of faith and reason that avoids the extremes of fideism and rationalism can therefore allow peaceful dialogue to take place among cultures, religions and the secular world.


Father Joseph Tham
Fr Joseph Tham (LC, STL, MD, PhD) is Dean of the School of Bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome and Fellow of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights.

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.


Notes:

[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 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.