Tag Archives: justice

Divine Genocide?

January 2018 Credo

At a recent Ethos Institute conference on ‘Justice and the Common Good’, a participant asked how Christians should interpret the so-called violent passages of the Old Testament that record Yahweh’s command to the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites. One example of these haram (Hebrew for ‘destroy’) passages is Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

But as for the towns of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.

Atheists have used this and similar passages in the OT to mock Christians and the God they worship. For example, in his book The God Delusion the atheist scientist at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins asserts that ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’.

Some scholars, like Raymond Bradley, Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, even go so far as to extrapolate that the Bible commands Christians to kill innocent human beings. In making this assertion, Bradley is merely echoing the view of the late Christopher Hitchens, who maintained that the barbarism of the Bible is because it was written by ‘crude, uncultured human animals’.

Christians should roundly reject these uninformed and unsophisticated readings of these passages. How, then, should Christians read and interpret passages like Deuteronomy 20?

An Occasional Command

Firstly, we must recognise that there are different types of commands in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. There are commands in the OT that are meant for every human being, not just for the ancient people of Israel. Examples of such universal commands include the prohibition of murder and theft in the Decalogue (Exodus 20: 13, 15). These commands are meant for every person, at all times and in all places. Obeying such commandments would result in the flourishing of human societies.

But there are other commands in the Bible – which scholars describe as occasional commands – that are meant specifically for certain individuals or for the ancient people of Israel. For example, in Genesis 12, we read about the call of Abram: ‘Now the Lord said to Abram: Go from the country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’. This is an occasional divine command in the sense that it was given to Abram alone. No one reading this passage today would conclude that God is calling him or her to leave the Ur of the Chaldeans.

There are also commands that were meant specifically for the ancient people of Israel. A good example is the dietary laws in the Torah. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, we find a series of laws concerning clean and unclean food. Deuteronomy 14 sets the context for these laws in this way: ‘For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all peoples who are on the face of the earth. You shall not eat any abominations’ (vv 2-3). It then provides a list of clean and unclean food.

These dietary laws were given in order to set God’s covenant people apart from the other nations in the Ancient Near East. They are not universal in the sense that they do not apply to all peoples at all times. This is made clear by the fact that Israel was allowed to sell these prohibited foods to the sojourner and foreigner (Deuteronomy 14:21).

The command to ‘destroy’ the Canaanites found in the haram passages of the OT is also an occasional command. This command was given to the ancient people of God, as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. It was confined only to the seven nations that were occupying Canaan, and did not apply to the nations beyond it. In fact, Moses explicitly prohibited Israel from conquering other neighbouring nations (See Deuteronomy 2:4, 9, 19; 23:7).

As Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan have rightly pointed out:

The command to Israel to destroy the Canaanite nations, according to the biblical text, is tied to Israel’s special status as a nation chosen by God to be a treasured possession – a status rooted in his covenant with Abraham and the patriarchs. On the face of it, this is not a general command to all people, Israelite and gentile.

This command therefore cannot be understood as a general command for Israel to exterminate people who belong to other nations. It certainly cannot be interpreted in the way Bradley and Hitchens have suggested, namely, as a divine sanction for Christians to kill innocent people.

Whose Land?

Atheists have routinely accused Israel – and therefore Israel’s God – of injustice because of the divinely sanctioned programme to exterminate or drive out the Canaanites from the land that rightfully belonged to them. However, it should be pointed out that the land of Canaan belonged to Israel, and not to the nations that were occupying it at the time. The title to the land belonged to Israel, and the peoples who have made their home there were illegal occupants.

In Genesis 12, Yahweh called Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go to an unknown land. But in Genesis 17:8 we read: ‘And I will give to you and your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God’. Gordon Wenham notes that ‘this is the first time its title “Canaan” has been used by God, and the description of it as “the land to which you have migrated”’. He adds that the ‘tenure of the land is dependent upon the overarching goal of the covenant: “I shall be their God”’.

Thus, the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, belonged to Israel because it was given to Abraham and to his offspring for ‘an everlasting possession’ as part of God’s covenant. Israel did not steal the land from the seven nations in Canaan. Israel took back the land that was rightfully theirs from its illegal occupants.

The Sins of the Canaanites

It is quite fashionable for atheists like Christopher Hitchens to describe the texts that we have been discussing as accounts of the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites in fulfilment of the divine command. The United Nations Commission of Experts defines ethnic cleansing as ‘rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of a given group from the area’. The expulsion of the Canaanites by the people of Israel cannot be strictly described as ethnic cleansing because time and again the relevant texts stress that it was on spiritual and moral grounds – not ethnic ones – that the command was given.

Consider the following passages:

  1. ‘They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you’ (Exodus 23:33).
  2. ‘You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods’ (Exodus 34:15-16).
  3. ‘You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 20:18).

OT scholars generally agree that it was because God wanted to protect his people from the corrupting influence of the pagan nations with their idolatrous and immoral practices that he sought their displacement.

The abominations practiced in Canaanite idolatry do not only include occult practises like witchcraft and sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) but also cult prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17). But the most reprehensible practice of the Canaanites is child sacrifice. Here are the descriptions of this Canaanite practice:

Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bull-headed idol with human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death … And it was not just infants; children as old as four were sacrificed.

A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as it laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.

Commenting on Exodus 23:33, John Durham notes that in this passage, ‘the singularity of the devotion expected by Yahweh is stressed. Israel is not to covenant with the people of the land’. The Canaanites must be displaced in order to ‘prevent their influencing Israel against Yahweh primarily by the advocacy of their gods: service of these gods, in any manner whatever, would constitute an entrapment of Israel’, he adds. On Deuteronomy 20:18 Duane Christensen writes: ‘The aim of the harsh policy in destroying the Canaanites is to prevent the people of Israel from doing “according to all their abominations”’.

Extermination or Expulsion?

 While there are indeed a number of passages in the OT that describe God commanding the Israelites to ‘kill’ or ‘destroy’ every inhabitant that resided in the land of Canaan, a closer look at the relevant passages (in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Joshua, Judges and Numbers) will lead one to discern a more complex picture. Alongside the commands to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan are the commands to expel them. In fact, many OT scholars maintain that the command to expel the Canaanites is more dominant than the injunction to utterly annihilate them.

In Deuteronomy 7:2 we read: ‘… and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them’. It seems quite clear from this passage that Yahweh has given an explicit command to the Israelites to completely destroy the inhabitants of Canaan.

But in an earlier passage in Deuteronomy, the language of expulsion – not extermination – is used. Thus, In Deuteronomy 4:37-38 we read: ‘And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after then and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you the land for a possession’ (Deuteronomy 4:37-38).

In chapter 6, the language of expulsion is used again: ‘Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord promised’ (vv 18-19).

This is repeated in a number of other passages in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 9:1, the Israelites were told that they were about to ‘cross the Jordan today, to going in and dispossess nations that are mightier than you …’ The text goes on to say that because of the wickedness of the occupants of Canaan, God will ‘thrust them out before you’ (9:4-5).

Again in 18:12, we read that ‘… it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you’. This idea is repeated yet again in 18:14, which says: ‘Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so’.

The juxtaposition of the texts that speak of extermination with those that command expulsion warrants a more nuanced reading of the so-called haram passages.

After carefully examining these passages, Copan and Flannagan came to the conclusion that the ‘text … continually and repeatedly states that the Canaanites will not be exterminated in the sense that the Israelites are to kill every single man, woman, and child in Canaan. Rather, it states they are to be driven out’. ‘[T]he language of “destroy” or “annihilate”’, they added, ‘is typically in the context of gradually driving out the nations – or of nations fleeing from before the battle is joined’.

Rhetorical Hyperbole

Joshua 10 and 11 record the victory of Joshua and his army over the inhabitants of Canaan. On the surface of it, it appears that Joshua took the command to exterminate the Canaanites literally.

Joshua 10:40 records the victory thus: ‘So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel has commanded’. We get the same picture from Joshua 11:21: ‘At that time Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns’.

However, when we turn to Judges, which gives an account of the same conquest, we get a different picture. In Judges 1:21, we are told that the Jebusites were not entirely driven out, not to mention exterminated or destroyed, and that they have even assimilated with the Benjaminites in Jerusalem. But it is Judges 2 that gives us with the clearest contrast to the Joshua passages above:

… I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died … the Lord left those nations, not driving them out at once, and had not handed them over to Joshua (vv 21, 23).

The passages in Judges not only show that Joshua had not ‘utterly destroyed all that breathed’, but that he and his army did not even drive all the inhabitants of Canaan out. Furthermore, Judges 2 has Yahweh declare that he ‘will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died’ (v 21).

Just as the commands to exterminate the Canaanites are juxtaposed with the instructions to expel them, so the accounts of total annihilation are juxtaposed with passages that indicate that huge numbers remained even after Joshua’s death. Scholars like Brevard Childs have long noted the tension between the two accounts.

How, then, should we read the haram passages?

Scholars like Copan and Flannagan argue that these passages should be understood as hyperbolic. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘hyperbole’ is ‘an exaggerated statement, not meant to be taken literally’. When we carefully consider all the passages that describe the divine command and the conquest, we are inexorably led to conclude that the language of extermination or annihilation is hyperbolic, and should not be taken literally.

As Copan and Flannagan put it:

Taken together, these points give persuasive reasons for thinking that one should interpret the extermination language in Joshua 1-12 as offering a highly figurative and hyperbolic account of what occurred. It seems sensible to conclude that the language of ‘leaving alive nothing that breathes’, ‘leaving no survivors’, and ‘putting all inhabitants to the sword’ is not meant to be taken literally.

The historian of the Ancient Near East, Lawson Younger, Jr. and Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen have shown that there are profound similarities between the war accounts of other Ancient Near Eastern nations and that of Israel as recorded in Joshua. As was the convention of the day, these texts liberally employed rhetorical hyperbole in their respective conquest accounts.

To say that the haram passages are written in hyperbolic language is not to suggest that the divine command and the conquest of Joshua are fictitious. Rather, it is simply to acknowledge the fact that they are described in extravagant language. To recognise that the haram passages are written in hyperbolic language is to acknowledge the specific genre of these passages. Sound biblical exegesis and hermeneutics require that the different literary genres in the Bible be judiciously identified and interpreted accordingly.

Conclusion

The New Atheists and other authors have used the haram passages in the OT to argue that the Christian God commanded his people to commit genocide and other atrocities. This is a serious misreading of these passages. It has led to scathing misrepresentations of the Christian Faith and the Bible.

I hope that this brief article will help Christians (and anyone who is genuinely interested) achieve a clearer and more nuanced interpretation of the passages in the Old Testament.



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

An Anatomy of Sexual Harassment

December 2017 Pulse 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

The Foreigner as Neighbour

October 2017 Pulse

Over the last few years, tension between locals and foreigners in Singapore has been mounting, with occasional high profile flare-ups being reported by the local newspapers.

This situation has gotten the attention of politicians, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has weighed in on the issue. Urging those who live and work here to do their part to maintain the cohesiveness of our society, PM Lee also noted that anti-foreign sentiments might in the long run hurt the global reputation of Singapore.

The inflow of foreigners, which has caused much anxiety and angst in some Singaporeans, was one of the hot topics in the 2011 General Election. A sociologist from the National University of Singapore analyses the situation thus: ‘Since the 2011 GE, we have dangerously walked very close to the safety boundary … using economic setbacks as an excuse, many Singaporeans blamed foreigners for taking their jobs so they drew the line between foreigners and Singaporeans’.

The point of contention, however, is not the admission of foreigners and new immigrants into Singapore, but the scale of it. According to the figures realised by the Manpower Ministry, the number of foreigners admitted to Singapore has risen significantly from 1,053,500 in December 2009 to 1,336,700 in June 2014. Singapore has a population of about 5.6 million with an unemployment rate of just under 3 per cent.

The influx of foreigners has heightened competition for jobs and education in the wake of a lingering economic slowdown due to global factors. Although the government has introduced a new policy, called Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), to ensure that Singaporeans do not miss out on job opportunities, some locals are unconvinced of its effectiveness.

The Population White Paper, published in 2013, also exacerbated the problem as it only reinforces the anxieties and fears that many Singaporeans harbour. The White Paper projected that by 2030 the population of Singapore will stand at 6.9 million and nearly 50 per cent will be foreigners or new immigrants.

Singaporeans are generally uncomfortable with the idea of having new immigrants making up the majority of the population. They take issue with the state’s economic rationale for bringing so many foreigners into the country. According to an IPS report, Singaporeans are also ‘upset about having to change their way of life, their use of language and settled social norms to accommodate the presence of foreigners’.

Several global events, like Brexit, may also have fanned the flame of such sentiments. US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric might have provoked some to feel that the government should give Singaporeans priority when it comes to benefiting from the nation’s success.

The internet is the space where some of the most virulent, venomous and toxic reactions are expressed, often in the safety of anonymity. These sentiments are so prominent in online chatter that ‘foreign trash Singapore’ has become a Google auto-fill option.

Such behaviour, however, makes no positive contribution to the discussion of this important issue and brings no solution to the table.

It is of course the responsibility of concerned citizens to articulate their anxieties to the government using the many available channels of dialogue and feedback. It is also the responsibility of citizens to suggest possible and realistic ways to calibrate the inflow of foreigners.

However, citizens must also appreciate the fact that achieving the right balance is no easy feat for any government.

It is one thing to engage the government in a robust discussion on this issue, and quite another to treat foreigners and new immigrants who are already with us badly. There can be no excuse for racial intolerance and xenophobia.

It is not difficult to find injunctions in the Bible on how aliens and foreigners in the land should be treated.

In Leviticus 19:33, we read: ‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien’. Aliens must be subjected to the same laws, and therefore by extension, the same treatment as the natives (Numbers 15:16). And those who deprive aliens and foreigners of justice will come under the judgement of God (Deuteronomy 27:19).

In the Gospels, Jesus commanded his disciples to love their neighbours (Mark 12:31). This surely includes the foreigner and the alien, and we demonstrate this love by living generously towards them (Leviticus 19:9-10).

In addition, the Bible again and again urges Christians to show hospitality to the alien and the foreigner. In Romans 12:13, Paul specifically commanded the recipients of his letter to ‘extend hospitality to strangers’. And in 1 Peter 3:9, Christians are instructed to ‘Be hospitable to one another without complaining’ (NIV: ‘grumbling’).

Part and parcel of showing hospitality is the willingness to allow disruptions in our way of life. As one writer has arrestingly put it, when hospitality is extended, ‘the familiar is defamiliarised’.

Hospitality respectfully treats the other as other – acknowledging his or her dignity – without attempting to create the other in our own images. Put differently, hospitality carves out the space and the time that would afford the stranger the freedom to be who he or she is, and thus to freely and unselfconsciously be a part of the community.

And it is precisely this kind of self-forgetting and generous hospitality that Christians are called to extend to the neighbour, especially the stranger and the foreigner.

 


 

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

 

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.

Mind the Gap

November 2015 Pulse

In his speech during the 2011 Presidential Address Debate, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong alluded to the rising income inequality in Singapore when he said: ‘the most successful Singaporeans will continue to do very well. The average Singaporeans will be able to make improvements in their lives and are much better off than people in most other countries. But at the lower end, incomes have risen slowly, especially in real terms.’

Scholars have been tracking the rising income inequality in Singapore for more than ten years, taking their cue from the Gini co-efficient and other income inequality metrics like the Palma or Hoover indices. Although this trend is a matter of concern for some, what is perhaps even more worrying is that it is accompanied by wage stagnations and slowing social mobility.

This phenomenon is, of course, not unique to Singapore. The United States and many countries in the European Union are experiencing rise in inequality, as are developed Asian countries like Japan and South Korea.

But as some scholars have pointed out, ‘What makes Singapore’s inequality picture stand out is the speed at which it has increased as well as the level which it has increased to.’

In responding to this issue, it is crucial to see that not all forms of inequality are unnatural or unjust. While all human beings created in the image and likeness of God are equally loved and valued by their Creator, each is given unique talents and abilities. And in this life, these talents and abilities carry unequal rewards, one of which is income.

Income inequality is therefore a fact of economic life. It should be pointed out that far from being unjust, some income inequality is actually the sign of fair distribution of income based on factors such as abilities, experience, productivity and work ethic. Thus, a society that ignores these factors and pays everyone equally may be said to be unjust.

This means that income inequality per se is not the problem. Neither can it be regarded as an indication of the economic health of a country.

The Gini co-efficient, which is often used to measure income inequality, does not present a reliable picture of the economic flourishing of a country. For instance, it tells us nothing about its living standards.

Take, for example, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, two very different countries that had the same Gini index of 0.31 in 2010. While these two countries had the same level of income inequality, their per capita incomes were vastly different: US$1,693 in Bangladesh and US$42,183 in the Netherlands.

If inequality is not the problem, what is? The simple answer is poverty.

Armatya Sen defines poverty as a condition of having less than what is required to function. Notice that poverty is not defined as a condition of having less than others. Sen’s definition underscores the important distinction between income inequality and poverty: there can be income inequality without poverty.

Is there poverty in Singapore?

Singapore does not have an official poverty line. But in a 2011 study, which used household income of S$1,250 to S$1,500 per month as the poverty line, it was estimated that 10 to 12 per cent or 110,000 to 140,000 Singapore resident households fall below the mark. A 2008 study, which set the poverty line at S$1,500 per month, arrived at the same ballpark figure of 130,000 to 150,000 Singapore resident households.

Although income inequality alone is not an issue, extreme inequality mixed with poverty makes for a lethal cocktail for any country.

This is precisely the challenge that Singapore is currently facing.

As the report on domestic poverty published by The Lien Centre for Social Innovation and SMU School of Social Sciences states: ‘Rising inequality does not necessarily denote the existence of poverty. However, rising inequality combined with evidence of poverty indicates that the poor are left behind, and this appears to be what is happening in Singapore.’

In addition, extreme inequality plus poverty can arouse an amorphous but real sense of antipathy towards prevailing economic and political policies, which in turn can threaten social stability.

Singapore must therefore focus on helping the poor.

The Bible has much to say about God’s preferential option for the poor. The people of God are enjoined to take care of the poor, the vulnerable and the unprotected (Deut 16:11-12; Exodus 22:21-27, Isa 1:16-17). There is a profound sense in which the justice of a society is tested by the way it treats the disadvantaged.

Justice to the poor is not about eradicating income inequality (even if that were possible) but about ensuring that they are not forgotten, that their conditions are improved.

The Singapore Government has always understood this. Its fiscal policies are designed in such a way that lower income citizens receive most of the benefits while higher income earners pay most of the tax revenues.

But helping the poor does not only have to do with the distribution of resources. The question that must also be asked is: Do the people at the bottom of the economic ladder have opportunities to move up that ladder? Or are they hopelessly trapped, no matter what they do?

The Government is well aware of the importance of social mobility. It has put numerous measures in place, such as education, home ownership and skills upgrading, to ensure that mobility is not thwarted.

As a result, in Singapore 14 per cent of young adults from families in the poorest one-fifth of income earners have moved into the top one-fifth of income earners compared to 7.5 per cent in the US and 9 per cent in the UK. The Government understands that meritocracy requires a society in which fair equality of opportunity is satisfied.

However, due to a confluence of factors sustaining such fluidity in the future would be more and more challenging.

Singapore is well placed to meet these challenges. Thanks to the leadership of its late founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his exceptional colleagues, Singapore has established a social compact that has served the country well.

And although this compact needs to be tweaked and enhanced, the principles upon which it was established – individual responsibility, self-reliance, economic growth, jobs for all and a security system based on savings and home ownership – continue to be sound.

But helping the poor and addressing the discrimination and stratification that inequality can engender is the responsibility of every member of society.

As Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has put it, ‘we must preserve a sense of compact among Singaporeans, a sense of obligation on the part of those who are doing well to help others in their own society. We cannot build an inclusive society without the spirit of inclusiveness. It is not just a matter of getting the right policies.’

SG50 should not only be an occasion for celebrating past and present successes. It should also be an occasion for Singaporeans from all walks of life to renew their resolve to stand in solidarity and to work together for the common good and build a better future for all.


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 August 2015 issue of the Trumpet.

The Limits of Freedom

October 2015 Pulse

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

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

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

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

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

Without doubt, the clearest articulation of freedom of expression as a basic human right is found in Article 19 of the 1947 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Hebdo has clearly transgressed those limits.

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

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

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


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

The State

What should be the Christian perspective on the secular State?

Perhaps the best place to begin one’s reflection on what might be called a Christian theology of the state is Romans 13:1-7. Paul begins with a categorical injunction that ‘everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities’. The reason offered for this bold injunction is equally startling: ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Rom 13:1). The first thing to be said, therefore, about the Christian conception of the state is that the secular state is established by God. This implies that God is sovereign over the state, however powerful the latter may be. Commenting on this passage, C.E.B. Cranfield writes: ‘it is God that sets up (and overthrows) rulers, and … no one actually exercises ruling authority unless God has, at least for the time being, set him up’.

Romans 13 tell us further that God has set up the state for a purpose. The ruler is God’s servant, and the primary purpose of the state is to punish the wrongdoer and to commend those who do the right thing (Rom 13:3-4). Put differently, the state is responsible for creating a legal system that would enable, and indeed encourage human flourishing. Without the state and the justice it is tasked to implement, all forms of creative cultural activities would not be possible. The state is given the right to wield the sword in order to bring about law, order and peace to human society (Rom 13:4). As long as the state carries out its duty in ensuring that justice and peace prevail in human society, it is God’s servant because it is fulfilling the divine will. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way: ‘The mission of government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of the worldly power of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God’. Romans 13 urge everyone to submit to such a servant state, because in doing so they are submitting to God himself.

Christians have the duty to pray for those in government so that they will fulfil the task that God has given to them. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul writes: ‘I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that they may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness’. The Swiss German theologian, Karl Barth is surely right when he said that prayer is the Church’s most important service to the state. In praying for the state, the Church hopes that it will always be faithful to the task that God has entrusted to it. In addition, Christians are commanded to submit themselves to the authority of the state that seeks to do the will of God by promoting justice and peace: ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are set by him to punish those who do right’ (1 Peter 2:13-14).  Civil obedience is part of Christian discipleship.

It is, however, absolutely crucial to point out that the Christian’s submission to the state is never unconditional or unqualified. The state, it must be remembered, is a creature that belongs to this world. As such it is a fallen creature. The reading of Romans 13:1-7 must therefore always be accompanied by a ‘nevertheless’. The state that is obedient to the will of God can become the idolatrous state that tries to usurp the place of God. The servant state of Romans 13 can become the totalitarian and demonic state of Revelation13. The injunction for the Church to pray for the state and for rulers serves as a clear warning of this possibility. It is precisely because the state is a fallen creature that can easily lose its way that the Church is asked to pray for it.

How then should Christians respond to the idolatrous and totalitarian state that is no longer concerned for justice and human welfare? Are Christians still required to submit to such a state? The concept of civil disobedience has a long history in the Christian Church dating back to the early martyrs of the early centuries. Civil disobedience is implied by the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who taught that ‘if the emperor order one thing and God another, it is God who is to be obeyed’. The implicit allusion to civil disobedience in this statement is made explicit in a later section in his dogmatic work, Summa Theologiae in which he wrote: ‘when a regime holds its power not by right but by usurpation, or commands what is wrong, subjects have no duty to obey’. When confronted with the demonic state, civil disobedience becomes part of Christian discipleship.

This means that while Christians can indeed be patriotic, their patriotism can never be undiscerning or unqualified. Christians can never chant the mantra, ‘My Country, Right or Wrong!’, which expresses a naïve but dangerous sentimentalism regarding the state. Such idealism is not confined to totalitarian or Marxist accounts, but is found even in modern democracy. The proper attitude of the Christian to the secular state can be best expressed by the concept critical patriotism. As the term suggests critical patriotism implies that while the patriotism of the Christian is authentic and sincere, it is never undiscerning and triumphalistic. It implies that what is right or wrong is not determined by the state, but by a higher power. It further implies that the state is not infallible and thus never above criticism. Critical patriotism is in fact the truest and most earnest form of patriotism because it wishes and hopes that the state would be what it is meant to be, what God intends it to be: the servant state which stands on the side of justice and peace.


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 Bible Speaks Today (August 2013).

The Role of Government

In Paul’s epistle to the Church in Rome, we find the most profound statement in the New Testament on the role of the state or government. The Apostle teaches that governing authorities have been instituted by God to establish social order and justice (Romans 13:4-15). This understanding of the role of the governing authorities is undergirded by Paul’s concept of the state as an institution that is established by God. ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’, he writes, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God’ (13:1).

What is truly remarkable is that Paul could write in this way about the governing authorities despite the fact that he was a subject of a totalitarian state ruled with an iron fist by Caesar, who regarded himself as a demigod. Be that as it may, Romans 13 has become the locus classicus of the Church’s theology of the state. It has led the great Reformers of the sixteenth century to teach that despite its obvious imperfections and even perversions, the state is a manifestation of divine grace, used by God as an instrument to maintain earthly justice and restrain evil.

Of course, the concept of the state and government has evolved radically since the time of the Apostle Paul. In modern democracies the concept of the government and its role is extremely complex and nuanced. This subject was the focus of the Perspective 2013 Conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Shangri-la Hotel on 28 January. This flagship conference attracted more than 800 participants, many of whom were academics, civil servants, business people, and civil society advocates. The theme of the conference – Governance – and the fact that it was held only two days after the Workers’ Party won a decisive victory in the Punggol East by-election made it all the more poignant.

Among the distinguished speakers were Professor Chan Heng Chee, the former Ambassador to the United States, Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information, and Sylvia Lim, Chairperson of the Workers’ Party. Security was tight as the Guest-of-Honour at the conference was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

That the political culture of Singapore is undergoing a transition is made quite evident in the 2011 General Election as well as in the more recent, but no less telling, results of the by-election in Punggol East. Not only are the younger electorate more political aware and vocal, they are also eager to play a more active role in shaping the future of the nation. This, together with the sweeping political and social changes that are taking place in many parts of the world, have resuscitated the old question of the role of the government.

Since independence, the government of Singapore has played a significant role in almost every aspect of the development of the city-state: economics, education, infrastructure, social cohesion, etc. It is through the fore-sight of our founding leaders and the interventionist approach to governance they espoused that a country like Singapore, with zero natural resources and profound constraints, is transformed into what it is today. Put differently, we may say that it is the ‘soft-authoritarianism’ of the government, as Professor Chan puts it in her talk, with its principled pragmatism that were largely responsible for the Republic’s success, against what appeared to be almost insurmountable odds.

But with the emergence of a younger electorate and the changing political and social scenarios, a tectonic shift appears to be taking place and big government may no longer be prized as highly or even deemed as effective as before. Democracy, as Professor Chan has perceptively pointed out, is after all, elastic. This emergent political sensibility is accompanied by the desire for greater citizen involvement, a shift from big government to a participatory form of democracy. This is surely to be welcomed because it would create the requisite  political ambiance for civil society in Singapore to truly flourish. PM Lee himself explicitly encourages this in his 90-minute session that concludes the IPS conference.

But, interestingly, while Singaporeans now want a greater say in national issues, they still think that the government must continue to play a prominent role. This came across quite clearly in the results of the Prisms project conducted by IPS, which sought ‘to engage the people of Singapore to reflect on the different dimensions of governance and to work towards a future they desire’. Whatever one’s concept of the government might be, the latter still has an important role to play in the life of the nation. But the role of the government has to do not only with the economy and the general wellbeing of the citizens, important though they undoubtedly are. It has to do essentially with the establishment and development of a social order that would ensure that justice and equity prevails.

This brings us back to the Apostle’s teaching in his epistle to the Christians in Rome. One of the ways in which the government maintains social order is of course through the Rule of Law. But to speak of social order is surely to presuppose a certain moral standard, no matter how vague and broad that standard may be. Therefore to say that the role and responsibility of the government is to maintain social order based on justice and equity is to suggest that the government should also take a keen interest in the moral integrity of society.

Of course morality cannot be legislated and there are certainly profound differences between law and morality. But there are also significant overlaps in the relationship that should never be hastily dismissed. Although morality is irreducible to law, there is a profound sense in which sound laws are not possible without morality. To some extent as least, the law is based on the moral values that society affirms and which are then translated into rules for the ordering of the common life. Having been so shaped by moral norms, the law in turn provides the ground and possibility for morality. As theologian Helmut Thielicke has put it, ‘For the state, as the majestic organ of the law, makes ordered existence possible, and this means that it makes ethical existence possible by creating its physical presuppositions’.

In this regard, the representative democracy according to which Singapore has elected to fashion its politics is perhaps the best model of governance to achieve the right balance of a strong government and energetic citizen participation. It is also the model which enables the government to resist the slide to a crude ‘majoritarianism’ or a crass moral populism, and exercise significant leadership that will not only ensure the establishment of social order, but also the preservation of the moral integrity of society. And it is precisely in the exercise of such governance that the state becomes by divine providence a faithful servant of God, even if it does not know his name or acknowledge his sovereignty.


Dr Roland Chia


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

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).

Celebrating Easter With J. S. Bach

For more than a decade I have made it a point during the holy week to listen to all of the extant Passions of the brilliant Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, and also his magnificent Easter Oratorio on Resurrection Sunday. Not only was Bach a musical genius who brought Baroque music to its zenith, he was also an astute theologian, with a profound grasp of the Lutheran tradition to which he belonged. As the composer and musician in the great Church of St Thomas in Leipzig, Bach was not only steeped in the great musical tradition of the Reformation, he also possessed profound knowledge of the writings of the Reformer Martin Luther and the tenets of the Lutheran orthodoxy of his day. His commitment to the Lutheran tradition is further evidenced by his long friendship with his librettist, Erdmann Neumeister, Leipzig’s most eminent defender of orthodoxy and author of 400 books.

Bach’s familiarity with and creative appropriation of Scripture, Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms and the Book of Concord is evident everywhere in the sacred cantatas of the composer. The characteristic JJ (Jesu Juva, ‘Jesus Help’) at the beginning of his scores and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, ‘To God be the Glory’) at the end indicate the profound piety of the composer. Schönberg is surely right in asserting that J. S. Bach is tied with religion in a way that no other composer was.

Bach wrote at a time when the rationalism of the Enlightenment in Europe was tightening its grip on both university and church in Germany, with the goal of expunging from religion all claims and dogmas that fail the test of reason. For instance, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a brilliant contemporary of Bach, challenged the traditional interpretation of Christ’s death on the cross by arguing that ‘it was clearly not the intention or the object of Jesus to suffer and to die’. Rather, Jesus’ intention, according to Reimarus, was to build an earthly kingdom and to free his people from the bondage of Roman rule.

When he realized that his bold preaching had offended the authorities and put his life in jeopardy, Jesus began ‘to quiver and to quake’, and tried to hide from sight. When Judas betrayed his hiding place, Jesus, believing that he was a messenger from God, expected God to deliver him from the hands of the authorities. But when deliverance did not occur, the crucified Jesus uttered the bitter and desperate cry recorded in the Gospels, ‘Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Remairus concluded that ‘It was in this that God had forsaken him, it was in this that his hopes had been frustrated’.

It is therefore not surprising that Reimarus would propose a bizarre theory that challenges the traditional understanding of the resurrection of Christ. The disciples, who had attained fame through the ministry of their rabbi, stole the body of the dead Jesus, hid it and then fabricated a tale of the resurrection and the return of Christ.

Against this sinister distortion of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ, Bach boldly declares that the death of Christ, the Son of God incarnate, is the greatest expression of the love of God. Thus, in the soprano aria in his Matthew’s Passion, ‘In love my Saviour now is dying’, Bach could declare: ‘It is out of love that my Saviour intends to die, / Although of sin and guilt He knows nothing, / So that my soul should not have to bear / Everlasting damnation / And the penalty of divine justice’. Jesus did not recoil when he realised that his ministry had offended the authorities; he did not fear for his life, and tried to escape arrest. Rather Jesus presented himself willingly in obedience to the Father’s will, setting his face towards Jerusalem and Golgotha.

Furthermore, the death of Jesus was not the tragic death of a deluded revolutionary, as Reimarus had argued. Jesus died as one who bore the sins of the world, so that we should not have to bear the ‘everlasting damnation’ and ‘the penalty of divine justice’ that we rightly deserve. Against the revisionist approach of his contemporaries like Reimarus, Bach unwaveringly presented the atonement as satisfaction, thereby aligning himself with the Reformers and the eleventh century theologian, Anselm. As Jaroslav Pelikan has rightly observed, ‘the Anselmian doctrine of redemption as satisfaction rendered through the blood of Christ is a crimson thread that runs through Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew from beginning to end’.

Just as Bach would reach back to the Reformers (especially Luther) and to the medieval theologian, Anselm in his Passion According to Saint Matthew, so he would appeal to the Greek Fathers, chiefly Gregory of Nyssa in his Saint John Passion, which celebrates the great theme of Christus Victor. Bach’s Saint John Passion is infused with this theme, from the choral shouts proclaiming Jesus as ‘Herr’ (‘Lord’) to the transformation of the sixteenth-note figures of the strings to a crescendo, a grand, rising sequence. In the ‘deepest lowliness’ of the incarnation and the cross the lordship, power and glory of the Son of God is made manifest.

Through the cross and resurrection, the incarnate God confronts and defeats his enemies. Musically, Bach uses the turba choruses (i.e., choral pieces that contain the words spoken by the characters in the story) to emphasise the role of Christ’s enemies. These choruses, to use the description of Karl Geiringer, were used with good effect because of their ‘strongly wild, passionate, and disturbing character’. The cross and resurrection signals God’s triumph over the forces of evil, the defeat of the ‘prince of this world’ (John 16:11) and the ‘god of this world’ (2 Cor 4:4). Like Luther, Bach took the devil very seriously, and would not acquiesce to the demythologized and abstract accounts of evil that is often presented by the rationalists of the Enlightenment.

The definitive victory of God over the forces of evil is emphasized in the words of Jesus, ‘It is finished’, which Bach skilfully sets to a descending line to depict the expiration of the dying Jesus. Even in the midst of presenting the final and definitive victory of God, Bach would not casually and hurriedly bypass the death of Christ. Thus Bach invites us to take time to contemplate fully the ‘bad’ on this Friday that we call ‘good’. The death of Christ is real, and the sorrowful, meditative aria follows appropriately his last words. But this aria is not simply the celebration of the death of a hero. If it were only that, then Reimarus could surely also sing its words with conviction. For Bach, this is the death of the Hero, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Thus, the significance of Jesus’ declaration ‘It is finished’ could only be properly understood in the way Luther explicates it: ‘God’s Lamb has been slaughtered and offered for the world’s sin. The real High Priest has completed the sacrifice. God’s Son has given and sacrificed His body and life as the ransom for sin. Sin is cancelled, God’s wrath assuaged, death conquered, the kingdom of heaven purchased, and heaven is unbarred’. That is why in the second part of the aria, a shout of triumph bursts forth as the B minor adagio turns to a D major allegro and the full orchestra now accompanies the alto soloist as she sings: ‘The hero of Judah triumphs with power / and closes the battle’. The death of Christ has conquered death itself, and the resurrection marks the victory of God, the dawn of a new age.

But it is Bach’s magnificent Easter Oratorio that best captures the victory and joy of the resurrection of Christ. Bach composed music to the lyrics of the famous librettist, Picander, whose poetic paraphrasing follows closely the account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8. Beginning with the instrumental overture which can be divided into two parts – the joy of the resurrection and its melancholy aftermath – Bach masterfully shapes the attitude with which the believer must embrace this glorious truth. After the sinfonia and duet, Bach has Mary Magdalene utter these words in the alto recitative, ‘O cold mind of men! / Where has the love gone, / Which you owe to the Saviour?’ as if directing them to the sceptical rationalists of his day.

It is in the bass recitative towards the end of the Oratorio that Bach unequivocally declares the orthodox faith in the resurrection of Christ through the lips of the evangelist John: ‘We are glad, / That our Jesus lives again, / And our heart, / Just now melted and wavering in sadness, / Forgets its pain / And thinks about songs of joy; / For our Saviour lives again’. The theme of Christus Victor is once again emphasized in the tutti final chorus, which declares that ‘Hell and the devil are overcome; / Their gates are destroyed. / Rejoice, ye redeemed tongues, / So that it is heard in heaven.’

Bach’s Easter Oratorio depicts two responses to the great truth of the resurrection of Christ. There is the exuberant burst of rhythmic energy and the glorious sounds of trumpets which shout ‘hallelujahs’. But Bach knows that there is more than one way to say ‘hallelujah’, and so the Oratorio also invites a more contemplative response as the believer steps back as it were and reflects in overwhelmed amazement at this miracle of miracles. Bach shows that both the flourishes of trumpets and tympani and the somber sinfonia in E minor are appropriate responses to the glorious resurrection of Christ!

  1. S. Bach has through the years taught me many things about what it means to be a Christian and a theologian. He has taught me to be courageous in the face of the shifting sands of culture and the pervasiveness of secularism and scepticism. The truth of the Gospel does not require our defence; it is well capable of standing on its own, and the chief responsibility of the Christian is to bear witness to it with integrity – to tell it as it is. Beneath the architectonic brilliance and complexity of Bach’s music is the unflagging desire of the composer to simply tell it as it is. Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality.

Bach, more than any other composer, has taught me the relationship between worship and theology, between what the Orthodox theologians have termed as the lex orandi (the law of prayer) and the lex credendi (the law of belief). Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality. For the Thomaskantor, liturgy and theology are of a piece. And nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly and powerfully than in his Passions and sacred cantatas which resist the tendency found in Reimarus and others to distinguish the ‘historical Jesus’ from the ‘Christ of Faith’. These lessons are still pertinent for the church today, four centuries removed from that in which the Baroque composer lived and wrote.

May we in this postmodern climate of relativism and despair learn from Bach to tell it as it is – to proclaim humbly and courageously the Gospel of the resurrected Christ, in all its profundity, mystery and wonder!


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 Trumpet (TTC).