Covenant Politics and Pluralist Democracy for a New Asia (Partially Restored Copy)

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 … Continue reading “Covenant Politics and Pluralist Democracy for a New Asia (Partially Restored Copy)”

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 changing the shariah to suit changing society.

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.



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.