How ‘political’ should the Church be?
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FEBRUARY 5 — Thanks to Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor’s “mispresented” statement (that churches are spreading lies about the government through their sermons), the Malaysian Church is (once again) in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The irony is how some Christians will be pissed at what Ku Nan said but will still refuse to attend church. Yeah. I love all those Christians who stand up and fight for the Church they will not attend.
Still, GE14 clouds are looming. It’s that time of the half-decade again. Since 2008, it’s been to hard to find Malaysian Christians still declaring (out loud) that the Church should have nothing to do with politics. The tide has shifted way too much for that.
Having said that, Christians remain generally confused about the “level of involvement” they should jump into when it comes to the socio-politicl arena.
One common remark, thrown out every once in a while, is that the Church cannot be apolitical yet it must remain non-partisan. But how do we understand this? What does it mean to say that the Church is a political institution yet should not be “partisan”? Does that even make sense?
Here are four perspectives on the Christian community’s involvement with national politics, presented in a spectrum ranging from “Let’s not bother with politics” to “Politics and us are so connected it’s messed up.” Check it out:
View 1: The Church is apolitical and non-partisan (‘Don’t worry about politics’)
Woe to the preacher who even mentions the word “politics” in his sermons. Woe to any Christian who dares to spend even a moment free from contemplating the sweetness of Jesus and the pleasure of heaven.
Be wary of those dubious Facebook links and WhatsApp messages from corrupted Christian friends who insidiously talk about concepts like “justice”, “oppression”, “democracy”, etc.
It is the duty of all Christians, on the contrary, to get back on their knees and pray for the coming of Jesus and, whilst they’re at it, keep donating to the church building fund.
Bible study, feeding the poor, Christmas carolling, money-making? Yes. Picketing, sharing politically charged articles, joining political parties? No, no, no.
Leave it all to the will and sovereignty of God. Your priority is winning souls for heaven.
Obviously, this is the perspective Ku Nan hopes all churches will take. It’s also the most consistent one for churches who regularly tell their members that monetary gain is a primary sign of God’s blessing.
Because if wealth is the #1 proof that God loves you, why bother so much about things like income equality, ethnic harmony, political corruption, etc.?
View 2: The Church must be political without being partisan (‘Show you care but don’t get too involved’)
Christians must care about the world, about inequality, about financial scandals and oppressed people. By all means, share Facebook links and discuss about political justice during Bible studies.
But, hey, draw the line: The Church does not belong to DAP or MCA or whatever. Hence, it’s not right to talk and act as if Christians “belong” to a political party.
The most churches can do is show up at candlelight vigils, attend political seminars and, well, talk about the state of the nation. Never say publicly who should or should not be in power. Never endorse any political candidate (at least not explicitly).
In other words, behave like a localised spiritual United Nations, having an overall concern for the welfare of the community wedded to a lingering “neutrality.” This keeps the Church from being corrupted and straying from its kingdom course.
My opinion is that this perspective is the most “officially” held at present. This is the fortress of safety every church leader will fall back to should the going get too tough.
View 3: The Church is (eternally) political and (contingently) partisan (‘It’s our duty to save the country’)
The Church is Christ’s vicar on earth; we’re charged to change the world, not just serve it Easter lunch. The pulpit, like it or not, is the place to speak up against specific people in power or to push for a vote for certain parties.
In fact, many Malaysian preachers are already telling their congregation “who to vote for”, without being so specific. Yet we expect preachers to be “neutral” ─ since when is the pulpit a mini-Geneva?
Partisanship is a necessary add-on role the Church has to play as part of and subordinated to its role as ambassadors for Christ.
In this sense, the Church would never claim that its rules and manifesto are those of a political party but given the urgency of socio-political justice, it has to “throw its lot in” with appropriate parties.
A close analogy would be like being “Christian” yet also “Malaysian” ─ a Christian in Malaysia simply cannot “take off” her Malaysian-ness and it likely wouldn’t help anyone if she did.
Then again, she can combine her Malaysian qualities with the kingdom of God without equating the two AND without entirely approving everything that Malaysia stands for.
Put simply, a Christian who is also an Arsenal fan would dedicate his energy and weekend nights to cheering on the Gunners, he’d buy Arsenal T-shirts and paraphernalia, and conduct heated arguments with Tottenham fans... without for a second believing that Arsenal has even one iota to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Likewise, church members may be 200 per cent out to work and fight for a better Malaysia without in any way suggesting that who they vote for is God’s “chosen one.”
View 4: The Church is ‘ex-timate’ to political parties (‘We’re fully in the mess, but not of it’)
This final option inscribes the Church into and as the tension of politics itself. This is to say that the Church remains the external “alien” for all political parties yet also a deep(est) part of them, both supporting and also questioning them, sticking in them from within.
Like a bone in the throat, this view seeks to install the people of God right at the heart of the world’s political systems in order to transform them from the inside, absorbing and deflecting the wickedness and selfishness characteristic of worldly governance whilst seeking to ensure that these parties and states continue to perform their God-given duties somehow i.e. this view embodies the paradox of how the authorities both defy yet are established by God.
Yet, given the ex-timacy (“external” + “intimacy”) of the Church’s position in politics, it then becomes the prerogative of the Church to facilitate the downfall of governments which have lost their legitimacy, both in the eyes of God and the people.
If Christians want a new understanding of being in yet not of the world? This is it. We are the parasitic itch sucking at evil that evil can’t help scratching.
This is the kind of teaching that the authorities would be most concerned about. Ironically, though, it has nothing to do with telling lies and spreading fake news.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.
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