May 2021 Feature
Racism assumes that a group of people shares a set of negative physical or behavioural characteristics based on their physiology or ethnic background. This reduction of individuals contravenes our ability to affirm the doctrine of imago Dei as expressed in Genesis 1:27: “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them”. When presumption clouds our ability to affirm the image of God in another person, it paves the way for insensitive, demeaning, and spiteful behaviour. This can manifest in groundless prejudices, such as the characterisation of Bangladeshi labourers as prone to criminality, Indian expatriates as arrogant, or the Malay community as backward. Prejudice can in turn be reflected in governmental policies, business practices and social structures. Chinese Singaporeans rarely have to contend with such patronising treatment; this has been attributed to “Chinese privilege” in contemporary discourse.
Christ modelled the radical love that dismantles ethnic barriers in his parsing of the divide between Jews and Gentiles during His ministry on earth. In understanding that racism is antithetical to the all-embracing redemption of Christ, how can the church respond? The church’s primary role is to bear faithful witness to the gospel through proper handling of Scripture and discipleship. The church’s attention is drawn to divine justice and the Christian life, and we reflect Christ as the church in how we collectively mobilise to impact our communities and love one another. As individuals and congregations, how can we practice belonging to one united church community?
Bishop Dr Robert Solomon suggests one way: celebrating our multi-ethnicity by taking care of our minorities. Cross-cultural relationship building demands an awareness that certain identities define the matrices of belonging to a certain group, so that “dominant” groups are intentional about including groups that are “subordinated”. As missionary Dr Mark Syn notes, this requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. Perhaps the church would be nourished by sharing resources and facilities, as well as through intentional, cross-congregational exchanges. This radical hospitality should look the same whether the other party is a Singaporean, work permit holder, or professional expatriate. Hospitality operates at a collective level too: for instance, if a Tamil-speaking congregation and a largely Chinese Anglophone congregation hold a joint event, church leaders should be intentional about presenting the event as a collaboration, rather than one church “reaching out” to another, and make the necessary adjustments for multilingual ministry.
Christian leadership should also be unequivocal in preaching against prejudice, particularly in its subconscious form. In the spirit of theologian Karl Barth’s counsel, pastors should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other; we cannot afford to attend Sunday services in order to forget about our country and our world. Rather, we are nourished by God’s word so we can return to our neighbourhoods, families and workplaces, and manifest biblical justice even more boldly. When xenophobic rhetoric wracks televised debates, news headlines, and Facebook comment threads, it is crucial for our pastors to speak against it. When a racist joke or racialised comment is made offhand in church settings, all of us have a responsibility to gently rebuke our brother or sister in love.
It is through an embedded awareness of the church’s status as a multinational and multi-ethnic body that we are empowered to be empathetic members of Singapore’s pluralistic society. Beyond the confines of the institutional church, Scripture instructs us not only to “seek the welfare of the city” where God has sent us into exile (Jeremiah 29:7), but also to be ‘peacemakers’ (Matthew 5:9). These injunctions encourage us to live at peace with everyone we share our nation with, regardless of whether they believe in the Christian faith. This ethos is underpinned by the necessity of respecting the dignity of every person, especially those of other faiths and ethnicities, which are so often entwined in the Singaporean context.
John 1:4 states that in the Word “was life, and that life was the light of all mankind”. Rev Dr Malcolm Tan explains that this underscores the fact that the light of Christ shines in the hearts of everybody and that even in non-Christian cultures, elements of the light of God exist therein. We should be humbled by this prospect of reciprocity with everyone we meet—of sharing something of Christ and learning something of Christ in return. As theologian Emil Brunner describes, truth is not just propositional, but personal, and is captured in an encounter. The impetus for Christians in a diverse society, therefore, is to seek to introduce people to the Holy Spirit while also maintaining a mutual respect. It is in this spirit where we as a church can listen empathically, seek justice, and oppose racism, while also actively pursuing a deeper knowledge of the religious faiths and practices of those we live with.
As a church, we should not be afraid to address questions of racial and religious difference, not least when Christianity’s histories are punctuated by discomfiting associations with colonialism, racism, and systemic injustice. In seeking peace and the welfare of the nation we reside in, we may find ourselves reckoning with the illicit elements of the church’s past, as well as instances where the church has not represented Christ well to the broader populace. This is crucial at a time when people are beginning to regard Chinese Anglophone Christians in Singapore with a particular scrutiny, not least when so many of this milieu are in positions of authority in government, education, or healthcare. An increasing sensitivity to the needs of our neighbours, as well as a greater willingness to listen to those who have experienced marginality and discrimination, will only strengthen our sense of active compassion as we bear witness to Christ. Even if we rigorously guard against racial prejudice within our congregations, it is imperative that we show our faith by our works in the public domain, actively pursuing a love of our neighbours while recognising that we live in a rich, complex, and pluralistic society.