A Christian Social Vision for Nation-Building

Christian social engagement aims at building a covenant nation based on justice and religious liberty for all. It may include the following agenda:
1) Educating Christians on the rights and responsibility of citizenship.
2) Promoting civil society through NGOs and voluntary societies.
3) Supporting particular political candidates.
4) Sustaining the prophetic witness of the Church against the arrogance of power by embodying submission to the kingdom of God.
5) Affirming the moral right to civil disobedience as loyal citizens.


A Christian Philosophy for the Common Good
“The Church must exercise prophetic witness towards wider society and to government,” exclaimed the young man as he urged his friends to join a candlelight vigil in front of the High Court to express their concerns over a recent High Court judgment that was seen to be in conflict with fundamental liberties.

I can sense the earnestness of this young man and other young people like him who are willing to fight for social justice. They challenge the older generation not to remain indifferent out of cynicism towards authorities who enforce unjust policies that make life difficult for the common people. These two groups demonstrate two opposing tendencies among Christians on how to relate to wider society. Some Christians retreat into their spiritual ghetto so that authorities will leave them in peace. In effect, these Christians compromise their ideals of justice and end up supporting the status quo.

Other Christians exploit the gospel as a tool for social activism, if not as an ideological weapon, to condemn anyone who does not share their views for being de facto, on the side of the oppressors. It was not too long ago when some radical theologians reduced the saving work of Christ to mean nothing more than political liberation. In this case, anger and self-righteousness led to a distortion of the gospel. Given these competing approaches, the urgent question that Christians need to be answer is: in what way is the church to present a prophetic witness to authorities?

Sober realism should alert Christians to the tendency of the state to become an embodiment of the collective egoism of dominant tribes in a nation. Such states will not take kindly to any criticism from minority groups and idealistic social activists, especially when political contestation becomes intense. The state will certainly hit hard at social activists, agitating for political equality and social-economic justice, with its arsenal of police power that ranges from intimidation to arrests and imprisonment.

If Christian social engagement were merely one of following cues from wider society, albeit cues from recognised experts, it may be wondered why the church needs to get involved in the name of Christ. Furthermore, without sustenance from a deep Christian spirituality, it is doubtful if Christians can sustain a long-term witness in the face of threats and intimidation. As such, Christian social engagement needs a biblically-informed and well-thought out social vision that includes concrete benchmarks of social justice and democracy. Christian engagement that is based on informed moral convictions will persevere in the face of adversity.

One fundamental category that has helped Christians devise a comprehensive framework for political engagement is the concept of ‘Covenant’. 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” (Michael Walzer, The Revolution of The Saints, pp. 56-57).

Covenant balances freedom and community solidarity
Covenant emphasizes that freedom is not exercised in a vacuum, but within a definite social order. To live in a community is to be open to being influenced by others and to influence others. Furthermore, social order is not seen as inhibiting freedom. It merely establishes the conditions upon which freedom can be exercised positively without undermining social order itself.

Covenant allows for diversity in unity
Social conflicts arise when different communities fail to practice tolerance and mutual acceptance that recognizes differences. All too often, social integration is based on terms set by the dominant community because it is assumed that unity requires homogeneity. On the contrary, covenant politics instead, accepts plurality within unity as a given reality in the contemporary world even though plurality is set within a wider framework of transcendent values.

Covenant politics fosters moral realism
A sense of moral realism is necessary to forestall any attempt by the ruling authorities to gain unchecked power. Here, Christianity has the obvious advantage of having a profound sense of human fallenness. Reinhold Niebuhr declares that “Man made in God’s image makes democracy possible. Man as fallen 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. The corollary is the necessity that the power of government be limited and kept in place.

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 (John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square (Eerdmans, 1984), p. 90).

The state must respect the pluralistic nature of modern society with its mingling of diverse cultures and religions. Any attempt to impose a uniform public morality can only result in injustice to minority groups. Government is limited in the enforcement of public morality, even though some common good may thereby be served. The violation of minority rights is likely to occur if the state goes beyond moral influence and applies force to coerce citizens to conform to a homogeneous culture.

The state works through external structures, laws and institutions. It may demand conformity to its rules and policies; it may command respect but it cannot enforce love. An ethicist, Charles West puts it simply yet profoundly, “The state can provide the structure of the loom but it cannot weave the cloth. Faithfulness in marriage, family responsibility, personal community across ethnic lines, integrity in business, a spirit of public service, a sense of justice above interest, concern for the poor and disadvantage can all be encouraged by laws and public policy, but they cannot be enforced.”

The State must be reminded that its duty is to promote a social condition conducive to the common good. It is the duty of the state to restrain evil, combat violence, theft and fraud. In this regard, the rampant spread of crime in Malaysian society in recent times testifies to the dismal failure of the government in discharging its duty. If we may dare say, the Malaysian state appears guilty when measured against Augustine’s pronouncement that a state without justice is just a big band of robbers. “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? But what are robberies themselves but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by a pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on it.”

The state must see itself as only one institution among many institutions of wider society that also includes schools, the market, the church and NGOs of civil society. The state may sometimes adjudicate conflicts of interest when authorities from one institution transgress into another, such as when a local government denies parents the right to educate their children at home and insists that children be educated only in state-sponsored schools. Still, in the end, the state’s intervention must be minimal and the state must respect the legitimate authority of other institutions of society. We should not ask the state to do more than it ought to. It is important that we learn from history which provides many examples of the disastrous consequences of state intervention into other social institutions, whether it is economic collapse in the case of Marxism or religious persecution in the case of many authoritarian religions a few centuries ago.

When the state respects the integrity of different social institutions of society, the most fundamental outcome will be a government that accepts limits in the regulation of religious life. That is to say, government must limit its power to the secular sphere and not assume a religious mantle. Is it not the case that a faith that is coerced is a false faith? In the event that a state demands religious allegiance does it not turn itself into an idol since it has demanded an ultimate loyalty that is due to God alone? Indeed, the state must go further than tolerate diversity of political opinion and religious belief among its citizens. It should find ways to institutionalise diversity and even dissent against itself that includes the possibility of transfer of political power through peaceful democratic means.

We affirm the clarion call from Bonhoeffer when he insisted that the individual’s duty to obey the state is presumed until the state directly compels him to offend against the divine commandment, that is to say, until the state openly denies its divine commission to enforce social justice and protect the freedom and dignity of the individual, and forcefully suppresses the gospel. At this point, Christians must choose to disobey for conscience sake and in obedience to the Great Commission.

Responsible Action: Going beyond Good Intentions
Christian social engagement aims at building a covenant nation based on justice and religious liberty for all. It may include the following agenda:
1) Educating Christians on the rights and responsibility of citizenship.
2) Promoting civil society through NGOs and voluntary societies.
3) Supporting particular political candidates.
4) Sustaining the prophetic witness of the Church against the arrogance of power by embodying submission to the kingdom of God.
5) Affirming the moral right to civil disobedience as loyal citizens.

Christian social-political engagement must be propelled by a holistic vision of society. In arriving at such a vision, I offer some of the affirmations formulated at the Consultation on Church and State and Nation Building (Hong Kong, 1988) that offer invaluable help:
1) The preservation, promotion and defence by the state of the right to life for every person.
2) A political constitution which sets limits to the scope of political action so that the basic rights of the people—such as freedom of speech, religion, thought and assembly—are not infringed and are upheld by an independent judiciary.
3) Equal protection for all under the law.
4) Access to enjoy the benefits of one’s own labour.
5) The right of people to decide who shall govern them, and to be able to hold such a government accountable with regard to its competency and honesty.
6) The biblical testimony clearly expresses the spirit of democracy. Israel as a people is regarded as a covenantal partner with God, not just as his subjects. God ceded to Israel the choice of its own forms of government (1 Samuel 8). It was even given freedom to renew or not to renew the covenant with God (Joshua 24).

It should be stressed that Christian social engagement aims at promoting ideals and evaluating social policies both theologically and morally, rather than pushing particular party ideologies. For example, Christians do not reject PAS just to support UMNO; instead, Christians reject the imposition of shariah law on common society that is essentially pluralistic. In other words, Christian social engagement is constructive in seeking to defend the national constitution and democratic institutions.

On the one hand, it should be stressed that the primary social responsibility of the church is to be itself, that is, to be a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the dangers of this earthly existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption. Calvin wrote that the task of the church is to nurture peaceable behaviour characterised by a willingness to avoid retaliation. However, Calvin added, “This equity and moderation, however, will not prevent them, with entire friendship for their enemies, from using the aid of the magistrate for the preservation of their goods, or, from zeal for the public interest” (Institutes of Christian Religion, IV: 20).

Again, Charles West gives us a pertinent challenge, “The church must project Christ’s Lordship into the search for a proper structure of justice and peace in society, which is also the business of political authorities. It must do so holistically, not taking refuge in the false purity either of non-political projects or a romanticised oppressed people. It must do so in a secular way, recognising the involvement of every religious project in the mixed motives and misused powers of human life, the need of correction, and the limits of political coercion in the establishment of true humanity. The life of the community of faith with Christ himself should keep things in proper perspective.”