Tag Archives: vocation

Civil Society for the Common Good

October 2015 Pulse

In their essay ‘Developing Civil Society in Singapore’, Gillian Koh and Debbie Soon offer a brief but helpful account of the genesis and metamorphosis of civil society from pre-independent period to the present. The authors also discuss some of the forces that are expected to drive and shape civil society in the nation in the future.

In their essay, Koh and Soon have elected the broadest possible approach to achieve a working definition of civil society. For them, civil society ‘includes all forms of voluntary organisations, whether formally constituted or not, that lies between and is independent of the state and family’. Each of these groups, they add, ‘is held together by shared values, interests and purposes, and seeks to mobilise resources and people to achieve those’.

This broad and inclusive descriptor notwithstanding, it is important to note that most civil society scholars have underscored just how notoriously difficult it is to arrive at a definition of civil society that would satisfy everyone. As a result, there appears to be no consensus among scholars on what civil society actually is and what it does. There is also no agreement among scholars on whether, in certain parts of the world, civil society exists.

(Incidentally, because consensus on the nature of civil society and what it looks like is so elusive, some scholars have concluded that there’s hardly any civil society in Singapore, while others maintain that it has always existed – even before independence.)

Yet, despite the fact that the idea remains ambiguous and opaque in many ways, civil society appears to be hailed by many as a panacea for the ills and fractures of modern society.

The Advocacy Institute in the USA lauds it as ‘the single most viable alternative to the authoritarian state and the tyrannical market’. Politicians in the UK aver that civil society will hold society together against the onslaught of globalising markets, while the United Nations and the World Bank maintain that it is one of the keys to ‘good governance’. The American writer and activist Jeremy Rifkin even calls it ‘our last, best hope’.

While the Christian would be instinctively wary of such extravagant optimism invested in any form of social advocacy, the advantages of civil society as an expression of associational life must be duly recognised.

Many would no doubt agree that a good society – again, what this entails is contentious – is in some significant way dependent on the health of the associational life of different groups in society. Civil society, as part of the public sphere, is therefore in some strong sense vital to a healthy associational ecosystem of society.

Philosophers and social theorists have noted how certain instantiations and embodiments of social, economic and political systems have destroyed the bonds between different individuals, different groups and between humans and their environment. In different and sometimes significant ways, civil society can not only alert us to the problem but also reconstitute these important relationships.

By institutionalising ‘civility’, civil society may arrest alienating and destructive social habits, and open up a new and different way of living in the world.

Koh and Soon are right to stress that the goal of civil society is the common good. ‘An effective response’, they write towards the end of their essay, ‘would allow civic activism to result in a more socially inclusive and compassionate Singapore where citizens renew their commitment to the good of the collective, but not the tyranny of the majority’.

Civil society must have as its ultimate goal the common good of society, which must transcend the specific concerns and agendas of particular groups. Put differently, the special projects that drive individual civil society groups must always be inspired and energised by a larger and more expansive vision of the flourishing of society as a whole.

As Koh and Soon have alluded, this means that civil society should never be governed by a superficial and dismissive majoritarianism. This is because the majority can be blind to the very real needs of the minority – the invisible poor or the unborn – whose welfare and wellbeing must never be excluded when we think about the common good.

But in order for civil society to be committed to the ‘good of the collective’, it also must not cower to the tyranny of the minority. It must not allow minority groups to question or overturn important social institutions in the name of group rights and inclusiveness.

This means that the presence of civil society alone is not enough to guarantee that the compassion and justice that are indispensable for human flourishing will prevail, and that the common good will be served.

In our fallen world, civil society is a morally ambiguous reality. As such it can promote virtue or vice, and it can be morally progressive or regressive. As Richard Miller points out: ‘Civil society is an arena for moral formation and deformation’.

For civil society to really serve the common good, we must ask whether the attitudes and practices it embodies are truly civil and civilising. For civil society to fulfil its true vocation, its aspirations and goals must never violate or detract from God’s purpose for the human race.


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.

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

October 2015 Feature Article

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

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

How should Christians understand the relationship between Church and State?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Darius-Lee-202x300

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

 


Notes:

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

The Dignity of Daily Work

Work occupies a significant part of the daily lives of many Singaporeans. According to a recent media report, increasing workplace connectivity and higher expectations are blurring the distinction between personal life and work. The report cites a 2011 Workplace Survey that reveals that 69 per cent of employees in Singapore tune in to work on weekends, when they are out office, and even while on holiday. Technological advancements have led to hyper-connectivity just as keener competition has resulted in higher expectations and unreasonable demands on the part of employers. Thus, 77 per cent employers expect their staff to be available and contactable during emergencies, 45 per cent bring their work along when they go on holiday, and 29 per cent of employees believe that they should be available at all times because they are using a company mobile phone. The survey concluded that employees here have a high level of ‘dedication’, which may be just a polite euphemism for ‘workaholism’.

Daily work matters to the Christian faith. According to the Bible, work is not the baneful consequence of sin but the original intention of God for human beings created in his image. In Genesis, after God had created the first humans he commanded them to be fruitful, to subdue the earth and to rule over it (Genesis 1:28). God placed the first human couple in the garden and immediately put them to work! In their work Adam and Eve were to serve as images of their Creator, a reflection of the God who is incessantly at work. Unlike the gods of Greek and Roman mythologies who absolve themselves from work, preferring to dine on nectar and ambrosia in a heaven of rest and contemplation, the God of the Bible is a consummate worker. After bringing the world into being, God continues to work, sustaining, governing and providing for his creation. Human work is therefore an expression of the divine will, and in carrying out their daily labours to the best of their abilities, human beings not only enter into a unique partnership with their Creator but also glorify him.

It was the primordial fall that turned human work from a blessing into a curse. To be sure, the fall has not altered the divine intention or the status of human work. But this activity, which is originally meant to be a blessing, has turned into a toilsome and burdensome experience. As Genesis 3 indicates, the fall introduces ‘labour pains’ to both the man and the woman – man in manipulating the accursed earth, now filled with ‘thorns and thistles’, and woman in the pains of childbirth. Tainted and corrupted by sin, human work is now shot through with profound contradictions and paradoxes. Work in many ways liberates us and provides us with the many conveniences that we take for granted, from cooking stoves to airplanes. But work also enslaves us, draining our mental and physical powers by its relentlessness. Work both enriches and impoverishes the worker. By working hard, the worker earns more and so becomes richer. But his wealth is often purchased at the price of the monotony and drudgery of work, which often alienates the worker.

Human sin has also introduced aberrations to the way in which we look at daily work. It was Karl Marx more than anyone else who hailed the importance of work for human self-actualisation. According to Marx, it is through work that human beings realise themselves and transform the world. The details of Marx’s philosophy of work and human society are obviously beyond the scope of this brief article. Suffice to say that the Marxist approach presents a serious distortion because it reduces persons to their work, just as it anoints human labour with the spurious power to save. In many respects capitalist economies do not fair much better. In such economies, work has very little to do with self-expression or the common good, being often reduced merely to a means of acquisition. Furthermore, in the capitalist system, someone’s work is almost always owned by and done for the profit of another. Work is deemed valuable only if it is able to generate income. As some theologians have pointed out, in the capitalist economy, ‘work becomes slavery under a new name’. Both Marxist and capitalist approaches to work demean the worker, but in different ways.

The Christian theology of work is radically different from the way in which secular ideologies and attitudes have portrayed it. From the biblical perspective, daily work is a calling, a vocation through which we serve God and glorify him (Ephesians 6:5-8). For the Christian then, both the janitor and the geneticist serve God and neighbour through the work they do. It was the Reformers who helped us to understand this when they argued that pastors, monks, nuns, and popes are no holier than famers, shopkeepers, dairymaids or latrine diggers because they are all serving God through the work that he has called them to do. According to the Christian perspective, therefore, human work can never be secularised. In similar vein, the work that we do is never solely or even primarily for our benefit – the attainment of wealth, power or prestige – but always for the common good. This means that work is always a form of ministry to God and to society. Needless to say, according to this understanding, any human enterprise that does not glorify God and edify human society – from loansharking to human trafficking – must necessarily be excluded as legitimate forms of work.

For the Christian, then, daily work is inextricably bound to worship. Here, it is perhaps important to point out that the Sunday worship should not be seen as a pause at the end of the week. Rather, for Christians worship on Sunday begins the workweek by pervading it with the good news of God’s love and salvation. Worship at the beginning of the week not only hallows the rest of the week, but also significantly transfigures our understanding of daily work. It enables us, firstly, to understand our proper relationship to work. It shows us that although work is important, the purpose human life must not be understood as work without end, but to exist in creative relationship with each other and with God. And secondly, worship helps us to see that our daily work is always a graced activity, infused by divine grace and animated by the Holy Spirit. Finally, Christian worship helps us to understand our work in relation to the work of God. As theologian David Jenson has brilliantly put it, ‘The work that we do is made possible through the work that does not belong to us alone’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in Word@Work, June 2012.