Covenant Politics and Pluralist Democracy for a New Asia

“The Asian way: Regional Thinkers Put Homegrown Ideas before the World.�? This was the provocative title for a leading article published in the March 2 1994 issue of Asiaweek. The article described how Asian thinkers are asserting that global issues should not be discussed on terms set by the West alone. The time has come for respectable Asian intellectuals to make contributions from Asian traditions which defend “strong family values, respect for authority, consensus in decision-making, and supremacy of the community over the individual.�? Additional note was taken of policies that worked in Asia such as “a social contract between people and state which guarantees basic needs and law and order in exchange for respect for authority and self-reliance without welfarism, a morally clean environment, a free but responsible press,�? and the rejection of “the extreme form of individualism practiced in the West.�?

Covenant Politics and Pluralist Democracy for a New Asia
An Asian Christian Social Vision
By Ng Kam Weng

Asian Politics at the Crossroads
“The Asian way: Regional Thinkers Put Homegrown Ideas before the World.” This was the provocative title for a leading article published in the March 2 1994 issue of Asiaweek. The article described how Asian thinkers are asserting that global issues should not be discussed on terms set by the West alone. The time has come for respectable Asian intellectuals to make contributions from Asian traditions which defend “strong family values, respect for authority, consensus in decision-making, and supremacy of the community over the individual.” Additional note was taken of policies that worked in Asia such as “a social contract between people and state which guarantees basic needs and law and order in exchange for respect for authority and self-reliance without welfarism, a morally clean environment, a free but responsible press,” and the rejection of “the extreme form of individualism practiced in the West.”

Asian intellectuals stress that they are not hankering with nostalgic longings for idealized past Asian societies uncontaminated by modern development. This is made clear in the balanced sentiments expressed in the Report of the Commission for a New Asia. “A new Asia cannot get from where we are to where we want to be unless there is a cultural renaissance, a new confidence and faith in ourselves, a new discovery of our own worth.” The Report continues,
We must move forward over a broad front of societal reforms. . . Throughout this Report, we will stress the need for change, for reform and for comprehensive transformation. . . we believe that through the ebb and flow of fads and fashions, as we open ourselves fully to the world and to universalistic values, and as we proceed apace with our full modernization, it is essential that our finest traditions serve as our compass and our anchor – both ensuring the final emergence of a changed people, but a people distinguished by their own uniqueness and their own unique soul (p.9).
Such boldness and idealism should be lauded. The question, however, is whether Asian intellectuals have succeeded in translating their sentiments into constructive public policies. Unfortunately, recent events have not given us much assurance of their success. Take the case of to the currency crisis in 1997. To be sure, there was adoption of new laws for corporate and public governance. But the enforcement of new laws in some countries remains selective and piecemeal because of economic protectionism and business cronyism.
The trauma of the disruptive forces of globalization and Modernity also trigger negative reactions. The MacDonaldization of the fast food industry is regarded as a threat to the livelihood of small families that run local food stalls. Hollywood films are blamed for the decline of morality among youths. Local reaction to Modernity takes the following approaches. First, there is a piecemeal adaptation of local culture so that the local populace may have alternatives which will forestall the negative consequences of Modernity. However, this strategy fails to prevent the continued adoption of the penetrating culture with all its alluring promises and great expectations. This failure triggers a defensive return to the roots of one’s culture with a view towards inventing historical myths and traditions to critique and reject Modernity.
Contemporary Islamic cultural reassertion illustrates the complex dynamic arising from the ambivalent reception of Modernity. Islamic resurgence today is both technologically modern and culturally anti-modern. Bassan Tibi helpfully unpacks the Islamic experience of Modernity into two forms: institutional and cultural Modernity. By cultural Modernity Tibi means the “principle of subjectivity” according to which a person is defined as an individual of free will, capable of determining his/her own destiny and changing the social and natural environment. Institutional Modernity takes science and technology as its instrumental achievements [CF24]. It will become evident that Muslims aspire to appropriate institutional Modernity while vigorously resisting cultural Modernity. This ambivalence explains what seems to be contradictory behavior of Islamists[1] towards Modernity.

Islamists are confronted by a sense of crisis because Islam claims to be a superior revelation to a complete way of life. Islam is thus the blue print of a perfect society for perfectible humanity. As such, the veracity of Islam is appropriately measured by the social conditions of Islamic societies. But it is precisely the case that the majority of Islamic nations today are economically backward and ridden with political conflicts. In true confirmation of the theory of cognitive dissonance (Leon Festinger) Islamists respond to the severity of political shortcomings by calling for a total solution which will reorient society to the laws of God. This calls for a repoliticization of Islam. Hence the slogan Din wa dawla (Total way of life and the Islamic State). However, Islamists cannot ignore the reality of contemporary nation states. But the state is relegated to a theoretical construct. That is to say, if the state is merely a social construct, it can be deconstructed and reconstructed on Islamic terms.

Islamists are also compelled to address the problem of differentiation of social institutions and spheres of life that characterize modern societies. This situation is obviously intolerable when life is supposed to be a unified whole under Islam, a tawhidic society. The process of differentiation is to be reversed by direct legal restructuring of society around the shariah law. As S. H. Nasr insisted, the shariah not be changed to suit the changing circumstances of society; rather, society that should be organized around the unchanging law of the shariah rather than

While it is tempting to focus on the militants because of their destructive and headline grabbing violence, it is perhaps more important to focus on fundamentalists who have opted for a strategy of gradualism. For example, Islamists in South East Asia have deployed a variety of strategic responses to the threat of Modernity to their own societies. At the macro level, Islamists first seek to gain control of legal institutions to project reforms that can counter trends of social differentiation and thus ensure unity of society based on Tawhid. Second, Islamic intellectuals mount a challenge to the grand story of Modernity with a cyclical view of the rise and decline of civilization. Finally, they seek to consolidate their gain and sustain their social engineering through a process of educational reforms.

We are offered a monistic state, albeit one, which accords privacy to family life. Otherwise all public space must be regulated. The outcome is a society where hypocrisy and alienation prevail since citizens meekly comply with public regulations while carrying on with private vices. Judging from the Islamic TV programs one may justifiably conclude that ultimately there can be no Islamic leisure. The family becomes the final avenue for exercising personal choice, indeed often a choice of consumerism in the modern world. It is therefore natural that citizens turn the family into an institution for the consumption of the goods of Modernity, including new forms of entertainment. It is apparent that Modernity generates new dilemmas for the Islamic authorities. The state may control the TV programs. But in the privacy of their homes, families are free to choose to view programs of their choice, through satellite television or Internet videos.

To be sure, Islamists outwardly support democracy in their rhetoric. But for them, democracy is only a means to an end, which is the struggle to gain political supremacy for the Ummah [which is surely a theoretical construct, albeit a glorified one]. The Ummah will eventually constitute a repristined and idealized form of Islamic polity. For the time being, Islamists participate vigorously in the processes of Western style democracy inherited from their colonial experience if only as a strategic maneuver to gain power and eventually discard the proffered goods of Western democracy.

The unfortunate result of the sectarian agenda of the Islamists is a polarization of the Muslim community from other racial/religious communities of the country. Given the supremacy assigned to the Ummah, other communities can only be subordinated and assimilated. Instead of a democracy that seeks unity among diverse equals, we have an ideology that unapologetically insists on Islamic hegemony. This phenomenon reminds us of the insights of Eric Fromm and Roger Griffin who had earlier argued that Fascism had its origins in the anxieties of a people who found it easier to entrust power into the hands of an authoritarian government to manage the future, that is, Modernity.

One may also discern a similar pattern in the resurgence of Hindu Nationalism (Hindutva). Christophe Jaffrelot demonstrates how the Hindu Nationalists deployed a strategy of stigmatization of perceived external threats and cultural violations that exploits the feelings of vulnerability of the masses in ethno-religious mobilization.[2] The violent clashes that breeds on historical animosity between Muslims and Hindus, and between competing castes aspirations are sadly unexpected. This violence which threatens the world’s largest democracy in India highlights the fragility of the democratic institutions in Asia that can be swept away in the passion of communalism and ethnic nationalism.

Democratic institutions that emerged from the common struggle for independence may help to foster a common social vision for the diverse groups of a nation. But even in Indonesia, where democracy is cherished in the collective memory of the people, the democratic institutions foundered under the military dictatorships of Sukarno and Suharto. It is imperative to infuse into local cultures sentiments that will support democratic institutions which in turn must be constantly reinforced by democratic practices in civil society. In other words, democracy requires cultural underpinnings if it is to survive, if not prosper. It should be noted that the Report of the Commission for a New Asia indicates awareness that cultural underpinnings are vital to progress and development of a society.[3]

The question is how can the cultural underpinnings of democracy be nurtured? It should be noted that the effectiveness of resurgent Hindu Nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism will remain short term unless they are able to go beyond a negative strategy of stigmatization of external enemies. The ascendancy of one’s community is legitimized by appealing to its pristine authenticity, rooted in the revered past. Hence, one notices new attempts to rewrite history so as to legitimize the ascendancy of one’s communal politics, whether it is the superiority of the Aryan race or the glory of a past Islamic Shariah-based society. There is a noticeable ongoing ‘invention of tradition’ and the creation of new historical myths is actively promoted by elites consolidating their hegemony in a pluralistic society.[4] Still, one should not miss the fact that the invention of traditions and contestation of historical myths are merely scaffoldings for a prior and more fundamental cultural and social vision that serves as the ideological agenda of socio-political movements.

At the moment, democracy remains the universally accepted political ideal for Asians today. By the same token every political movement, including those of the Islamists and the Hindu Nationalists, seeks to hijack the term even though its ideology may not be compatible with a democracy that is based on plurality and consensus. Given that the word ‘democracy’ has been abused it is necessary to spell it out more precisely. For my present purpose we shall define it as “a political system in which not only are the people entitled to make the basic determining decisions, but that they also actually do make such decisions because of their entitlement.”[5]

Obviously, Christians will have to offer a distinctive social vision that supports democracy or lose the public arena by default. It would be naïve to assume that there is one Christian social vision applicable to a continent as diverse as Asia. Still, a comprehensive framework for social engagement is vital. Otherwise, Christians will only end up merely reacting to an agenda set by a dominant and domineering majority. Undoubtedly, different cultural priorities and political strategies are required for different social situations. There is no harm in appropriating insights from Western writers so long as we remain focused on concrete Asian contexts. For example, Christian minorities under hostile authorities may find useful lessons from the writings of John Yoder who represents the Anabaptist tradition, or the sectarian hermeneutics of Stanley Hauerwas[6] to sustain their witness and cultural identity. On the other hand, Christians should be prepared for the occasion where they can move from a situation of ‘resistance’ to constructive cultural formation.

Covenant Politics and Pluralist Democracy

I shall draw resources from the Calvinistic/Reformed tradition in a modest attempt to construct a Christian social vision based on the Christian covenant that is adequate to support pluralist[7] democracy for Asia. In contrast to many Asian religions which are preoccupied with meditative flights from the world into spiritual realms, covenant theology encourages a world-formative faith.[8] The contrast is also evident between the Calvinistic and some medieval monastic traditions. Calvin stressed that the world is a theatre for God’s glory and represents his endowment for men’s welfare: “The whole order of this world is arranged and established for the purpose of conducing to the comfort and happiness of man” (Commentary, Psalm 8:6). These creation orders serve as a clear and constant reminder of God’s goodness. Given the utter reliability of God and his creation orders, man can count upon the orders for his welfare.

For Calvin, the pre-eminent creation order is the civic order itself: “Political order is called the assembly of God for although the divine glory shone forth in every part of the world, yet when lawful government flourishes among men it is reflected therefrom with preeminent luster” (Commentary, Psalm 82:1).

It may be noted that Calvin’s concern remained within the framework of the orders that God has ordained for human community. Unlike much of contemporary Protestant individuality, Calvin constantly stressed that reconciliation to God is inconceivable apart from the closest bonds of fellowship with the other members of Christ’s body: “For if we are split into different bodies, we also break away from Him. To glory in His name in the midst of disagreements and parties is to tear Him in pieces…For He reigns in our midst only when He is the means of binding us together in an inviolable union” (Commentary, I Corinthians 1:13).

The central theological concept that best encapsulates the mutual obligations of Christians to one another is the concept of the covenant community. Michael Walzer correctly captures the social character of the covenant: “The covenant, then, represented a social commitment to obey God’s law, based upon a presumed internal receptivity and consent. It was a self-imposed law, but the self-imposition was a social act and subject to social enforcement in God’s name.”[9]

Covenant faith emphasizes that freedom is not exercised in a vacuum, but in a given order. To live in a community is to be open to being influenced by and to influence others. Furthermore, a social order is not seen as inhibiting freedom. It merely establishes the conditions upon which freedom is directed towards good ends if the order is respected, or towards negative ends if the order is disregarded. Christians reject the ideas of self-autonomy that are propounded by European Enlightenment as it undermines corporate solidarity and mutual obligations incumbent upon all members of society and ultimately working against community. In contrast, the Christian idea of the covenant highlights mutual responsibility is foundational for any social renewal, and which is a vital pre-requisite for building consensus in the pluralistic societies of Asia.

Covenant politics allows for diversity in unity

Social conflicts arise when different communities fail to practice tolerance and mutual acceptance that recognizes differences. All too often integration is on terms set by the dominant community because it is assumed that unity requires homogeneity. Should we not instead accept plurality within unity as a given reality in the contemporary world even though we want to place plurality within a wider framework of transcendent values? Speaking on behalf of Christianity (and I shall assume that the same defence could be employed by other religions) I want to suggest that social pluralism is a practical consequence of the Christian covenant.

Covenant politics fosters moral realism

A sense of moral realism is necessary to forestall any attempt by the ruling authorities to gain unchecked power. Christianity here has the obvious advantage of having a profound sense of human fallenness. Fidelity to the Gospel is held in tension with humility as the Church enters into the ethical project of making common life possible.

Covenant relationships encourage democratic compromise which implies humility and political realism. I may even venture to say that Christian humility springs from its unparalleled realism embodied in its doctrine of fallen humanity. This is expressed in the classical words of Reinhold Niebuhr, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” That is to say, because human beings are created in the image of God, he possesses the capacity to practice democracy. Conversely, because of his fallenness and capacity to do evil democracy becomes a necessity.

Richard Neuhaus echoes similar concerns in his argument for a limited government.

Democratic government is limited government. It is limited in the claims it makes and in the power it seeks to exercise. Democratic government understands itself to be accountable to values and truth which transcend any regime or party. . . . In addition, limited government means a clear distinction between the state and society. The state is not the whole of society, but is one important actor of society. Other institutions – notably the family, the Church, educational, economic and cultural enterprises – are at least equally important actors in the society. They do not exist or act by sufferance of the state. Rather, these spheres have their own peculiar sovereignty which must be respected by the state.[10]

Sphere-Sovereignty and Principled Pluralism

Christian activists have found further resources for framing their social vision from the school of sphere-sovereignty/sphere stewardship pioneered by Abraham Kuyper who drew insights from John Calvin.[11] This social principle considers all aspects of life such as the state, family, church, the marketplace and the academy as independent yet interrelated spheres of human activity within the overarching framework of the sovereign rule of Christ. Calvin wrote, “Society consists of groups, which are like yokes, in which there is mutual obligation of parties; …so in society there are six different classes, for each of which Paul lays down its peculiar duties” (Commentary, Ephesians 5: 21; 6:9). A cluster of similar concepts such as ‘callings,’ ‘God-given bounds,’ ‘operations’ and ‘ordinances’ is also found in his other New Testament commentaries. This reinforces the view that Calvin saw society as ordered along pluralistic principles.

The idea is that God has built into each sphere of society its own integral laws of operations. The corollary is the distribution of authority over various centres of life. The outcome is a safeguard against any one sphere usurping other spheres of operations.[12] It is important though to stress that a theistic view of life is necessary to avoid either the elevation of any one sphere into idolatrous significance or to prevent a fragmentation of life and polarisation of society. The unity of social life and the diversity of community is ensured. The term principled pluralism appropriately describes this distinctive Christian social vision. The attempt to preserve a balance between the various spheres of operations has been given sophisticated underpinnings by Herman Dooyeweerd who wrote:

Since the process of cultural differentiation leads to increasing diversity of cultural spheres, there is a constant danger that one of these spheres may try to expand its formative power in an excessive manner at the expense of the others…In the progressive unfolding process of history, therefore, the preservation of a harmonious relationship between the differentiated cultural spheres becomes a vital interest of the entire human culture, as soon as the bounds of the different spheres are ignored through an excessive expansion of one of them, disastrous tensions and conflicts arise in human society. This may evoke convulsive reactions on the part of those cultural spheres which are threatened, or it may lead to the complete ruin of a civilization, unless counter dependencies in the process of development manifest themselves before it is too late and acquire sufficient cultural power to check the excessive expansion of power of a particular cultural factor.[13]

Structural and Confessional Pluralism

Principled pluralism emphasizes that the state must ensure both structural and confessional pluralism. Structural pluralism for society highlights the Christian’s concern that the state should not be seen as an autonomous entity but as a sphere of human activity that is accountable to the Creator. It insists that the state is not a human creation after the manner described by the European thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Locke or Rousseau. It provides the rationale for the rejection of the dominance of a totalitarian state, be it Marxist or Fascist. It demands that power, authority and accountability be rightfully distributed in various authority-centres of social life. Contrary to the pretensions of any totalitarian regime which regards itself as absolute and as a law unto itself, the Calvinist doctrine of sphere stewardship reminds the state to be judged according to the divine principle of justice and peace.

What then are the duties of the State? To begin with it must recognize and respect the integrity of the different spheres such as education, family and markets. As Kuyper elaborates, “the State-government cannot impose its own laws, but must reverence the innate law of life. God rules in these spheres, just as supremely and sovereignly through his chosen virtuosi, as he exercises dominion in the sphere of the State itself, through his chosen magistrates.”[14]

Kuyper added,

The state possesses the threefold right and duty: 1. Whenever different spheres clash, to compel mutual regard for the boundary-lines of each; 2. To defend individuals and the weak ones, in those spheres, against the abuse of power of the rest; and 3. To coerce all together to bear personal and financial burdens for the maintenance of the natural unity of the State. The decision cannot, however, in these cases, unilaterally rest with the magistrate. The Law here has to indicate the rights of each, and the rights of the citizens over their own purses must remain the invincible bulwark against the abuse of power on the part of the government.[15]

In short, structural pluralism envisages a constitutional government with separation of powers into the judicial, legislative and executive branches.

Structural pluralism assumes particular relevance given the steady erosion of human rights and democratic participation in the political processes within Asian countries in recent years. The ability of the state to encroach into all manners of social life with minimum protest from society is testimony to a vacuum in the central city-square in modern times. It testifies to the impotence of the Western liberal and individualistic ideals of the middle class to resist the rise of authoritarian governments which operates with a veneer of democratic legitimacy. It testifies to the absence of a social philosophy that is able to maintain social unity without undermining the integrity of the various racial and religious communities that constitute the nation. Furthermore, politics has infiltrated into and taken over pluralistic structures such as education, religion, business and local community which are arguably better off as non-politicized institutions or ‘mediating structures’.

Concomitant with structural pluralism is the requirement of confessional pluralism in politics. The requirement reflects God’s patience in withholding immediate judgment and instead, blesses both the righteous and the wicked with common grace (Matthew 6:45). While government adjudicates conflicts and upholds justice, it cannot be partial towards any single religious or racial community. Governments should recognize the same civil and political rights for all citizens precisely because all humans alike are accountable to the sovereign Lord. The logical outcome is the separation of state and religious institutions in their operations. The neutrality of the state in religious matters is commonly discussed under the rubric of the secular state.[16] By a secular state is meant a state that adopts religious neutrality in a pluralistic society. Notice that neutrality is far from hostility towards religion. Indeed, a secular state should maintain a benevolent neutrality that respects the integrity and equality of the diverse religions practised within the nation.

Two consequences emerge if we demarcate a clear boundary between state and religious institutions. First, the state is judged as lacking competence in matters religious. The Latin term saeculum (from which the word ‘secular’ comes) means pertaining to temporal matters. The call for a secular state is to remind state authorities in a democratic society that the electoral mandate given to them in elections only pertains to temporal matters in society. The state should respect the autonomy of religious institutions even though both institutions work together in promoting a moral society.

The act to remove religious institutions from state sovereignty should not be seen as an act to undermine religion. On the contrary, the act elevates the status of religion since its institutions become independent public institutions capable of censuring state authorities if the latter should arrogate for themselves the power to exercise final authority over all human affairs. If anything, state authorities are morally held accountable to a higher transcendent authority.

Second, the separation between state and religious institutions is necessary to avoid possible conflicts in the event that some politicians exploit religious sentiments and incite disgruntled citizens to resort to violence. The situation in Nigeria and the Indian sub-continent should serve as a salutary warning against the temptation to mix religion and politics. Maintaining the precarious harmony between the various racial communities is already a difficult task for any government. Confusing the boundaries between religious and political institutions will make matters worse given the conflictive nature of politics.

The goal of strengthening pluralist democracy is a positive agenda. Acceptance of plurality is a vital prerequisite for building overlapping consensus among citizens with different ideologies and religious beliefs. In this respect, the goal of a pluralist democracy is to provide manageable platforms for the resolution of differences among citizens. That being the case, there should be a separation between religious and state institutions to ensure that national consensus is one that emerges from grass root interaction rather than one that is imposed from above.

Fundamental to pluralist democracy is the recognition of the equal rights of persons regardless of their religious affiliation, and their right to unrestricted participation in civil society. This is based on three democratic principles. First, the libertarian principle or principle of toleration. The state simply recognizes the inalienable right of citizens to practise – or even not to practise – religion. It is therefore inappropriate for state institutions to interfere with this religious freedom.

Second, the equalitarian principle requires the state to be impartial, in not favouring a particular religion to the extent that it discriminates against other religions. This principle also demands that public offices should not be restricted exclusively to citizens professing a certain religious affiliation. This principle accepts that there can be different degrees of establishment of religion. Still, it deems the establishment of religion in general, as an obstacle towards the maturing of democracy.

Third, the neutrality principle says that the state should not favour citizens simply because they are religious. The state must maintain impartiality towards both religious and the non-religious, and also towards citizens of different religions. A pluralist democracy promotes a citizenry that is capable of transcending partisan politics, exercising sound judgment and weighing ambiguous alternatives with discernment.

Hopefully, the above discussion will dispel the common and unfair stereotyping of pluralist democracy – or even the secular state – as an institution that is inherently against religion. More importantly, the call for a pluralist democracy springs from a recognition of the fundamental concrete realities of pluralist societies in Asia. Furthermore, only a pluralist democracy is able to mobilize the resources from all citizens to ensure that nations are able to cope with the unrelenting onslaught of globalization.

The Church’s First Fruits of Covenant Politics

Even if it is granted that Christianity offers resources for social renewal it must be recognized that Asians have no incentive to adopt a Christian social vision. Social vision becomes reality through the gaining of political power to translate them into public policies. Political power in turn is a remote possibility for Christians existing as a minority community in many Asian countries. Nevertheless, it has been the assumption of this paper that Christians can still exert influence far beyond their small numbers, provided that their ideals are founded on compelling truth that are embodied in the life of a renewed community. As such, the covenant way of life – characterized by justice and integrity, emphasis on mutual accountability in the presence of a transcendental authority and peaceableness and hope in a world rent by tragic conflicts – must be exemplified in the life of the local and national church in various Asian countries. The covenant community may be small, but it can act as a catalyst for social renewal. Some theological reflection on the Church as a covenant community is therefore in order.

It is clear in the Bible that the origin of the community of faith did come from a concept of a cosmos or timeless social order. Its origin lay in the collective experience of deliverance by a God who is both relational and dynamic in his action. In particular, the Covenant community through her collective memory offers a constructive approach to society that stresses freedom and responsibility in the practice of law and ordering of society. The definitive event of the Exodus amounted to a rejection of the dominating and oppressive system in Pharaoh’s Egypt as unjust and therefore illegitimate. Paul Hanson explains how the experience of deliverance profoundly gave rise to a unique worldview.

Whereas the heavenly realm functioned within the dominant societies of that time to rationalize and stabilize the status quo, the fact that the Hebrew community was born out of a decisive break with the “eternal” social order of the pharaohs directed attention to the God who interacted with the human family within the stuff of history so as to replace oppressive structures with forms conducive to the well being of all creatures.[17]

The Covenant community is special not because it was numerous and powerful but because it was a community of law and order. For example in Deut. 4: 5-8 and 7: 6-8, the Covenant community was reminded that her special position rested in the wisdom of the law which proved her God to be a unique and living God. Much of Biblical law was concerned with the just ordering of society so that it reflected the righteous character of God. This law ensured that unity was grounded in mutual accountability before the one true God. Consequently, any misunderstanding of who God is leads to abuse of power and deformation of just social life

Walter Bruggemann observes that the Covenant community depends on a clear vision and a sharp memory of who God is.

To forget God’s radical character is to engage in idolatry, to imagine a God who is not so free, dangerous, powerful, or subversive as is the God of the exodus. . . Within this community, every individual was equally precious to God, regardless of social standing and thus to be protected from exploitation and oppression by the structures intrinsic to the covenant between God and people.[18]

Neighborly Justice

The theme of solidarity recurs constantly in the Old Testament as the basic motive in building a caring and supportive community. Nevertheless, solidarity must not be confused with collectivism where the individual is sacrificed on the altar of social engineering. Sociality does not absorb individuality. Every person is held to be responsible both for his individual acts and for the acts of his community. Specifically, each member is expected to fulfill his obligation to maintain the covenantal social order. A religious vision leads to a struggle to secure a social arrangement congruent with that vision. On the other hand, the vision takes practical effect only in the context of a concrete social order.

Imitation of God required the implementation of a legal system that protected the powerless and showed compassion towards the vulnerable (Deuteronomy 16:20). Kindness was to be extended even to the resident alien who must be treated with justice (Exodus 22:21-24). In sum, “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:17). Other laws that reinforced the covenant justice can be seen in the law of inheritance which was primarily aimed at preventing monopoly and exploitation which resulted in a poverty trap and the social and economic displacement of the people. Proverbs 22:28-29 and 23:10-11 both prohibited the removal of landmarks indicating original owners of the land. Christopher Wright elaborates,

The law requires the restoration of land to their original status and ownership and the release of those who were forced to sell themselves into slave labor due to poverty would be restored in the sabbatical year (seventh year) and jubilee year (fiftieth year. See Exodus 21:1-2; Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15:1-18. The Jubilee attempts to reverse the downward spiral of debt and poverty and protects the economic sufficiency of the household in a family-oriented economy.[19]

Nevertheless, such laws require a sense of social responsibility and compassion for the welfare of the needy and weak rather than a set of demands enforced legalistically. That is to say, the Covenant assumes a social order held together by habits of neighborliness.


What happens if the Covenant community becomes a minority within larger secular society? Under such circumstances, implementation of the ideals within wider society is not given up. Submission to superior ruling powers must not lead to abandonment of the self-identity of the community. Interestingly, the secular authorities are seen as limited but relatively legitimate. Some specific responses include the following.

1. God’s people are urged to pray for the rulers and even seek their welfare (Jeremiah 29).

2. God’s people should be ready to offer service with integrity under secular governments for the common good so long as religious integrity is not compromised (Book of Daniel).

3. The religious identity of believers is to be nurtured by renewed dedication to the laws of the Covenant.

4. Religious devotion must seek to sustain hope in God’s final deliverance and vindication of the believing community.

In this regard, both Daniel and Joseph served as exemplars on how to serve fruitfully under an unbelieving authority. Believers should try to influence and shape public policy for the welfare of the economically deprived and socially marginalized. Ezra and Nehemiah suggest the remarkable possibility and indeed the responsibility, of believing officials to avail the resources of their public office for the betterment of the community of faith.

Old Testament eschatology relativizes the present ruling powers, granting them only provisional validity. Nevertheless, since the powers are ultimately subject to God’s divine rule, it indirectly promotes the work of God in sustaining life in a broken and fallen world. Therefore, the Covenant community cannot retreat into a ghetto given her responsibility to contribute her share in the promotion of relative peace and justice.

The vision of Isaiah 60 emphatically prophesied the eventual reclamation of the riches of the nations. This engenders a positive assessment and reception of the gifts of God which bring enrichment to society and culture. Richard Mouw writes about how this vision emphasizes the final inclusion of all races into the Covenant community. The universalism of Isaiah renders unacceptable any narrow ethnocentrism that is so prevalent today. It must be stressed too that the vision of the restored Covenant community rejects any suggestion of dominance or imperialism in any form. Rather, the Covenant community must seek to embody the liberating laws of God. By its just laws others will know that her God is the only true God. Good news was to be shared with the afflicted captives and broken hearted (Isaiah 61:11-4).

Reconciled Community in Christ

The prophetic expectation was fulfilled through the work of Christ. Specifically, the work of Christ was seen as having broken the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:16) and establishing a new community. Paul’s relational concern is aptly captured by Robert Bank who wrote that,

. . . based on the common experience of reconciliation between the individual and God and the individual and his fellow-men this means “that the focal point of reference was neither a book or a rite but a set of relationships, and that God communicated himself to them not primarily through the written word and tradition, or mystical experience and cultic activity but through one another.”[20]

Because of the inclusive reconciling work of Christ, relationships in the community should transcend all social and ethnic barriers (Galatians 3:28). This injunction does not imply the abolition of legal and social structures. Instead, their functions were redirected towards the building of a Covenant (agape) community. That is to say, Paul, in contrast to the enthusiasts did not advocate a revolutionary overthrow of existing social institutions. Allen Verhey explains, “In the “not yet” character of our existence, equality of slave and free does not create a whole new set of social standards and role assignments. Neither Paul nor the enthusiasts can snap their fingers and produce a whole new social system. But the new age. . .requires new relationships in the midst of old roles.”[21]

Commitment towards the Covenant community does not entail the rejection of the believers’ social status, whatever station they are in. The Christian will conscientiously explore new and creative ways to serve Christ and the neighbor. Cultural forms and social roles are relative. The Christian is free to accept them as provisionally valid provided they are subject to the law of the love and freedom in Christ. The Covenant community allows diversity of cultural roles and celebrates pluralism.

It should be stressed that the Covenant community exists not only to cater for the needs of the well-off and socially adjusted. The remarkable role of the Covenant community lies precisely in its ability to attract and integrate socially marginalized groups and the underprivileged of society. The message of hope in the Gospel motivates them to release suppressed energy and redirect them constructively towards building a common community. Marginalization should not generate social apathy. Believers are to strengthen their communal identity and through their caring relationships testify to an alternative and more attractive society. In a sense, we may view the Covenant community as a special social experiment to practice a set of values different from those of society at large.

In summary, the Christian accepts the relative validity of contemporary earth institutions as the arena where he discharges faithfully the divine vocation to be a responsible and caring citizen. The community of faith exists to nurture such responsible faith and promote those ideals that declare God’s agenda of transformation of social and cultural life. We end with the fitting advice from Richard Mouw:

We are called to await the coming transformation. But we should await actively, not passively. We must seek the City which is to come. Many activities are proper to this “seeking” life. We can call human institutions to obedience to the Creator. . . . And in a special and profound way, we prepare for life in the City when we work actively to bring about healing and obedience within the community of the people of God.[22]


[1] The terms Islamists in this paper refers to Muslim activists or fundamentalists who project Islam as a religion and political ideology with a view towards establishing a state based on Shariah as the supreme law.
[2] Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s (Penguin Books India), 1999. See also C. V. Matthew, The Saffron Mission (Delhi: ISPCK, 1999).
[3] See also David Landes – The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (W.W. Norton, 1999).
[4] See Eric Hobsbawn and Terrence Ranger, The Invention of Traditions (Cambridge UP, 1983) and Benedict Anderson, Imagine Communities 2nd ed. (Verso, 1993).
[5] Barry Holden, The Nature of Democracy, p. 10. More concrete criteria for an ideal democratic process are suggested by Robert Dahl, viz.: 1) Control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials. 2) Elected officials are chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections in which coercion is comparatively uncommon. 3) Practically all adults have the right to vote in the election of officials. 4) Practically all adults have the right to run for elective offices in the government, though age limits may be higher for holding office than for suffrage. 5) Citizens have a right to express themselves without the danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined, including criticism of officials, the government, the regime, the socio-economic order, and the prevailing ideology. 6) Citizens have a right to seek out alternative sources of information. Moreover, alternative sources of information exist and are protected by law. 7) To achieve their various rights, including those listed above, citizens also have a right to form relatively independent associations or organizations, including independent political parties and interest groups. See Dahl, Dilemmas of Pluralistic Democracy (Yale UP, 1982), pp. 10-11.
[6] John Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom. Christians who seek to promote a democratic vision may feel handicapped by the perception that Christians appeared on the Asian scene only in the recent past and that their faith is stigmatized by complicity with Western colonialists. They may try to contest such a perception by highlighting the heritage of welfare and education left behind by mission agencies, by maintaining that it must not be forgotten that missionaries have, on enough occasions, clashed with the colonial authorities when they sought to protect the welfare of the natives (cf. Brian Stanley, The Bible and the Flag (Apollos 1990). Christian historians need to stress that contrary to perception, Christians had a widespread presence on the Asian continent for 2000 years. See Samuel Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia (Orbis 1998) and T. V. Philip, East of Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia (Delhi: CSS & ISPCK, 1998).
[7] Alvin Rabushka’s description of a plural society: “. . . if it is culturally diverse and if its cultural sections are organized into cohesive political sections. . . . Politically organized cultural sections, communally based political parties, the partitioning of major social groups (e.g., labor unions) into culturally homogeneous subgroups, and political appeals emphasizing primordial sentiments serve as unambiguous indicators of a plural society.” See Politics in a Plural Society: A Theory of Democratic Instability (Charles Merrill, 1972), p. 21. For three types of ‘pluralism’ see Raymond Plant’s entry, “Pluralism” in Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. James Childress and John Macquarrie (Westminster, 1986), and David Nicholls, Three Varieties of Pluralism (Macmillan, 1974) and Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (Yale UP, 1989).
[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Eerdmans, 1983).
[9] Michael Walzer, The Revolution of The Saints (Harvard Uni. Press, 1965), pp.56-57.
[10] John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square (Eerdmans, 1984), p. 90.
[11] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism:The Stones Lectures at Princeton in 1898 (Eerdmans 1975).
[12] See Gordon Spykman, “Sphere-Sovereignty in Calvin and the Calvinist Tradition” in Exploring the heritage of John Calvin, ed. David Holwerda, (Baker, 1976), pp. 163-208 and “The Principled Pluralist Position” in God and Politics, ed. Gary Scott Smith, (Presb. & Reformed, 1989), H. Dooyerweerd, The Roots of Western Culture (Wedge Pub. Foundation, 1979).
[13] H. Dooyeweerd, In The Twilight Western Thought (Presb. & Reformed, 1960), pp. 108-110
[14] Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, p. 98.
[15] Kuyper, Lectures in Calvinism, p. 97.
[16] It is unfortunate that Muslims interpret the secular state to be inherently antagonistic towards religions. To avoid misunderstanding I have substitute the term secular state with pluralist democracy. The two terms are used interchangeably in this paper.
[17] Paul Hanson, The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (Harper and Row, 1986), p. 470.
[18] Walter Bruggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Fortress, 1991), pp. 148, 151.
[19] Christopher Wright, An Eye For an Eye (IVP, 1983), p. 101.
[20] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Eerdmans, 1980), p. 111.
[21] Allen Verhey, The Great Reversal (Eerdmans, 1984), p. 114.
[22] Richard Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In (Eerdmans, 1983), p. 75.