Thursday, April 09, 2015

Michael Barr twisting Lee Kuan Yew's words?


After the passing of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), the media around the world was featuring various people to talk about him. One of them is Michael Barr, Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University who wrote  Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man (USA: Georgetown University Press, 2000). Barr was interviewed by BBC and Telegraph. His 2011's article is widely shared on Facebook timeline.

Barr has also published an interview on New Mandala. In the article Barr wishes "that those of [LKY] devotees who know better could find the honesty to recognize his failings so that more casual followers of public affairs would have a chance of reaching a more balanced perspective" (emphasis added). Many have considered Barr a fair scholar on LKY.

My friend recently recommended me a book co-edited by Barr: Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2009). I was surprised when I came to the following passage:
"Yet the words of the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew make clear that he never believed in a Marxist conspiracy. In a private meeting in the midst of the crisis [LKY] dismissed the supposed Marxist conspirators as 'do-gooders who wanted to help the poor and dispossessed'. [LKY] even declared that he was not interested in 'Vincent Cheng and his group', but he was more concerned about the 'involvement' of 'several priests'. Yet 20 people, none of them priests, were detained for several months, and two more for several years."
(229, emphasis added)
Barr' statement asserts that LKY knew that he was not actually countering Marxists through the infamous Operation Spectrum. The footnote to LKY's statement states:
"Report of Lee Kuan Yew's words in ISD notes of a meeting between the PM and Catholic Church leaders on 2 June 1987 at 3pm at the Istana. This document is marked 'SECRET' but was released to the court as Exhibit 85(d) during the government's legal action against the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1989." (244)
I am surprised that Barr made this assertion because that is not what LKY said in the Far Eastern Economic Review. Here is the original sentence:
"Lee commented that the Singapore Government was 'dealing with a new phenomenon---do-gooders who wanted to help the poor and dispossessed, getting perverted along the way to Marxism,' as in the Philippines."
(From Far Eastern Economic Review, October 1989, vol. 146, p.16. Emphasis added)
It is clear from the original passage, LKY indeed saw his government as countering Marxists, who started out as "do-gooders". This coheres with LKY's memoir where he stated that the 1987 operation was counter-Marxism:
"The [Internal Security Department] considered these pro-Marxist English-educated activists an incipient security problem, and in 1987 recommended that they be detained. I accepted the recommendation. I did not want a couple of pro-communist cadres including Tan [Wah Piow], on whom we had hard evidence of links with the [Communist Party of Malaya], to rebuild their influence using innocent but disaffected activists. Their new united front included a Roman Catholic who had given up becoming a priest to dabble in liberation theology."
(Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to the First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 [Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2000], 137)
Whether the detainees were involved in Marxist conspiracy is besides the point. The fact is that Barr's assertion that LKY has never believed in a Marxist conspiracy is a distortion of LKY's words to mean the opposite.

Barr shrewdly quoted only the portion from the source that can be manipulated to support his false claim. 

In his post on New Mandala, Barr asked LKY devotees to be honest in recognizing the former Prime Minister's failings. I do not know why Barr did not do the same in his article. He twisted LKY's words and presented to us a statement that is completely opposite from the original source. Only Barr knows why he did that.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

On hate speech law and governance—A reply to Carlton Tan

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The Amos Yee case has roused netizens to revisit the issue of hate speech law (Section 298) in Singapore. Over at Asian Correspondent, Carlton Tan alleges three problems surrounding this law: it is unnecessary and redundant, cannot be consistently applied, and liable to be abused.

The hate speech law may be problematic but I cannot agree with Carlton that those purported three are the problems.

While I do not know if Carlton is legally trained, I have to say that I am not. So my opinion is opened for correction by those who are.

Unnecessary and Redundant?
Carlton states that the purpose of Section 298 is “meant to protect individuals from feeling offended,” and this was “never Parliament’s intention” as its purpose is to “safeguard racial and religious harmony” and “preserve the social fabric of the country”.

He sees the upholding of this law as “mollycoddling” citizens and an “insult to the forbearance of religious groups” as it implies these groups will cause social unrest when offended, which will not happen.

Carlton also points out that Section 298A is meant for the same purpose, so “Section 298 is redundant.”

In short, Carlton is saying that since Section 298 and 298A share the same objective, then the former has to go as it underestimates citizens’ integrity.

I see three problems with Carlton’s view. First, as I understand them, Section 298 and 298A do not have the same objective. There are five laws (Section 295, 296, 297, 298, and 298A) under Penal Code Chapter XV that address “Offences Relating to Religion or Race.” 

Section 298 is against “Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person.” I will be charged under this law if I intentionally mock someone’s religion or race. For instance, the statement: “Joshua’s religion makes people stupid, and the fact that he is Chinese explains it.”

Section 298A is specifically against “Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” I will be charged by this law if I provoke hostility between factions of the society based on religious or racial reason, which I may or may not offend either group. Perhaps an example is someone saying, “Group X and group Y killed each other in the past; they are sworn rivals, so they should continue killing each other here in Singapore,” without him being in either group.

Section 298 prevents individual from hurting others’ religious and racial sentiment, while Section 298A attempts to avert (what Samuel Huntington calls) “clash of civilizations” which the instigator may or may not offend any individual’s religious or racial sentiment. Carlton could not see their difference and so think that Section 298 is redundant.

Again, I have to emphasize that I am not legally trained, so my interpretation is opened for correction.

The other reason why Carlton thinks that Section 298 is unnecessary is because it underestimates citizens’ and religious groups’ integrity. I think this is a misperception of the rule of law.

It is not the concern of law whether it underestimates anyone’s integrity. If it is, then the very existence of the legal system is as guilty because all laws assume the possibility of violation. For instances, law against rape assumes the possibility that people could rape, law against murder assumes the possibility that people could murder, etc.

If as Carlton argues, that law is insulting to people because it implies that people could commit crime, then should we abolish laws against rape and murder because they imply that people could rape and be homicidal? I am sure no one in their right mind would want this. Therefore it is erroneous to argue that a law is unnecessary because it underestimates citizen’s integrity.

Thirdly, Carlton’s optimism on religious groups’ forbearance ignores the potency of religious violence. As much as religion is a source for personal wellbeing and peace, it is also a powerful ideological basis that fuels much violence affecting the world today.

Many major religions have an inherent logic that can be interpreted to justify violence. As the renowned sociologist of religious violence Mark Juergensmeyer remarks, 
“Although it may seem paradoxical that images of destruction often accompany a commitment to realizing a harmonious form of existence, there is a certain logic at work that makes this conjunction natural.”
(Mark Juergensmeyer, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda [USA: University of California Press, 2008], 213.)
The religious potency for violence is one thing that no government or citizen of every country can afford to treat lightly. It requires insurmountable dose of optimism on Carlton’s part to be able to dismiss this at a time when Islamic militants are beheading people in Syria, violent monks are inciting hostility in Sri Lanka, Christian militia are rampaging Central African Republic, Hindus are persecuting religious minorities in India, and Muslim separatists are orchestrating mass-stabbing in China.

Cannot be consistently applied and liable to be abused?
Carlton alleges that Section 298 is problematic because it cannot be consistently applied. He writes, 
“It’s impossible to legislate and police against every single instance when they are. Instead, only those who come under the national spotlight and become the subject of multiple police reports get prosecuted — people like Yee who posted his video in the middle of the mourning period for the late Lee Kuan Yew and became the subject of over 20 police reports… because this law cannot be equally enforced against every violator, it is also liable to be abused. Prosecutors have a certain degree of freedom to choose who to prosecute and who not to, but it cannot make its decision on political grounds, because the prosecutor is there to serve the public interest, not the Prime Minister’s interest (when they come into conflict).”
I think the inconsistency is not so much in the application of the law, but in the public’s reaction towards contemptuous act that is based on religious and racial ground.

In other words, it is not that the authority does not consistently apply Section 298 on cases of similar nature. Rather, the public does not react consistently to cases of similar nature, such as making more than 20 police reports on all known cases and not only on Amos Yee.

If the public has responded consistently to all known cases of similar nature by making more than 20 police reports on each, then the authority would probably have attended to every case consistently. This is rightly so because the authority exists for the interest of the public (as Carlton also recognizes), and so they act based on the public responses.

Hence this is not a case where the law is inconsistently applied for political interest, as Carlton alleges. Rather, it is the inconsistency of public response to every case of similar nature that led to the authority’s variegated response to each. If the public has responded consistently, then the authority will respond accordingly.

On Government’s security measure
Lastly, Carlton accuses the government for “systematically inculcated a sense of vulnerability in Singaporeans and sought to establish its right to rule on that basis—as a protector of racial and religious harmony.”

As I have commented on the Asian Correspondent site, I admire Carlton for his optimism in society’s social resilience. Such optimism is scarce in view of what is happening around the world, not to mention with Singapore’s neighbours in the present. However, turning such optimism into a critique of governance is perhaps overstretching it.

I worked on a cruise ship previously. All crews are required to go through safety training lessons from time to time. During one lesson I learned that there was a Surveillance Department on board the ship. Its purpose was to monitor every public areas of the ship through hundreds of surveillance cameras. Working closely with the department was the Security Department, consisted of 50 to 100 security officers, of which many of them were former Ghurkha soldiers. I remember one officer said during briefing, “The Surveillance and Security Departments are very important in this ship. All it needs to sink the ship is only one person tries something crazy.”

The officer was telling us about the safety measures of our ship which was the size of about 3 football fields, with an average of 2,600 passengers and 1,600 crews.

I wonder what kind of safety measure is needed for a country the size of Singapore with 5,000,000 occupants?

If there is little space for optimism in trusting the 4000 plus people on board will not try something crazy, what more for a country?

It is therefore a mistake to think that we can lower our gut when society seems to be more civil now. That was the mistake Norway has paid with 77 lives in 2011. Regardless of the degree of peace a society is currently enjoying, all it needs is one Anders Behring Breivik to try something crazy.

One could dismiss the Norway’s case as an exception. Yet it is precisely for such exception that the law is there to safeguard against. If it is the norm, then it will be a state of emergency already.

Therefore Carlton’s point that the government has been cultivating a sense of vulnerability to establish its rule needs to be rethought. After all it is the job of all governments to constantly be aware of possible and actual vulnerability of their own country and take the necessary pre-emptive measures.

No doubt these measures can be interpreted (as Carlton has) to establish the government’s rule. Yet to ask the government not to administer them is to ask them not to do their job. Even one life is too much for the government to risk.

Carlton writes well. He should continue writing. What he should not do is to apply for a job in the Surveillance or Security Department of a ship. In this case, accusing the government for its “rule by anxiety”.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Joshua Berman's essay on the historicity of the exodus

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The movie Exodus: Gods and Kings has sparked some discussions over whether was there an actual exodus. Liberal scholars readily came out and repeated their mantra that there is little, if any, historical value in the Book of Exodus.
 
There is a recent insightful essay written by Rabbi Joshua Berman (Senior Lecturer at the Zalman Shamir Bible Deparment of Bar-Ilan University) that challenges the liberal view (H/T: Gerald McDermott). Berman points out several phrases in the Book of Exodus that parallel Egyptian Pharaohs' imperial propaganda contained in the Kadesh poem. For instance:
In the Kadesh poem we read: Then when my troops and chariotry saw me, that I was like Montu , my arm strong, . . . then they presented themselves one by one, to approach the camp at evening time. They found all the foreign lands, among which I had gone, lying overthrown in their blood . . . . I had made white [with their corpses] the countryside of the land of Kadesh. Then my army came to praise me, their faces [amazed/averted] at seeing what I had done.

Exodus 14:30-31 is remarkably similar, and in two cases identical: “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the great hand which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord.” As I noted earlier, “great hand” here and “great arm” in 15:16 are used exclusively in the Hebrew Bible with regard to the exodus, a trope found elsewhere only within Egyptian propaganda, especially during the late-second-millennium New Kingdom.
Evidence such as this suggests a relation between the Egyptian and Hebrew sources:
I’m fully aware that similarities between two ancient texts do not automatically imply that one was inspired by the other, and also that common terms and images were the intellectual property of many cultures simultaneously. [...] Thus, although few if any ancient battle accounts record an army on the march that is suddenly attacked by a massive chariot force and breaks ranks as a result, it could still be that Exodus and the Kadesh poem employ this motif independently.
What really suggests a relation between the two texts, however, is the totality of the parallels, plus the large number of highly distinctive motifs that appear in these two works alone. No other battle account known to us either from the Hebrew Bible or from the epigraphic remains of the ancient Near East provide even half the number of shared narrative motifs exhibited here. [...]

To be plain about it, the parallels I have drawn here do not “prove” the historical accuracy of the Exodus account, certainly not in its entirety. [...]

But my own conclusion is [...]: the evidence adduced here can be reasonably taken as indicating that the poem was transmitted during the period of its greatest diffusion, which is the only period when anyone in Egypt seems to have paid much attention to it: namely, during the reign of Ramesses II himself. In my view, the evidence suggests that the Exodus text preserves the memory of a moment when the earliest Israelites reached for language with which to extol the mighty virtues of God, and found the raw material in the terms and tropes of an Egyptian text well-known to them. In appropriating and “transvaluing” that material, they put forward the claim that the God of Israel had far outdone the greatest achievement of the greatest earthly potentate. 
There are three responses to Berman's essay. Richard Hess and Benjamin Sommer agree with him, while Ronald Hendel remains unconvinced.

Here is a short video that summarizes Berman's argument:


Monday, March 02, 2015

A response to Islamic Information & Services Foundation's distribution of translated Quran

The Islamic Information and Services Foundation (IIS) in Malaysia has launched “One Soul One Quran” programme, with the former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad serving as its patron. The programme will translate and distribute 1 million copies of the Quran to non-Muslims and Muslims through Islamic institutions. 

The purpose of the programme is said to dispel misunderstanding of Islam as a “cruel religion”. IIS’s official has also stated that, “It’s up to non-Muslims to take them or not. We are also not taking down their personal information.” The project aims to deal with “Islamophobia as we want to spread awareness about Islam’s teachings. We do not want what is going on in the West to happen here.” 

The Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has since produced a statement to reprove the programme. The council states that the actual intention of the programme is “to propagate the Islamic faith to the Non-Muslims under the guise of removing misconceptions of Islam.” The statement also condemns the programme as “obnoxious as a similar right is not given to Non-Muslims.” Therefore, the council advises non-Muslims not to accept the translated Quran. 

 I am inclined to ask if there is another way for non-Muslims to respond to the “One Soul One Quran” programme? I think there is. What I am suggesting here is meant for Malaysian Christians, though it may also be applicable to believers of other religions. 

Another Way 
As someone who is tasked to lead a religious community, it is my responsibility to constantly ask what kind of religious people we are developing. Are we developing people (in my case, Christians) who are suspicious of the “religious others”, alienating them, and further fragmenting the fragile social cohesion of Malaysia’s pluralistic society? 

How we respond to initiatives such as IIS’s programme will shape the kind of people in our respective religious communities. The present world cannot afford to have more religiously motivated people who are cynical and hostile towards religious others. Neither should there be further escalation of religious ghettoisation that leads to the rise of Christian (or any other religions) version of Perkasa and Pekida

What our society needs but seriously lack of are religious communities that are able to relate to other religions in an appreciative, open, and discerning disposition as how we should relate to our own faith. 

Regardless of IIS’s intention, its “One Soul One Quran” programme will distribute translated Quran to non-Muslims. My take is that, instead of rejecting when given, Christians should be glad to receive them. There are three important reasons for doing so. 

First, by reading the actual (though translated) Quran, Christians get to learn about Islam from its original source mindful of the fact that reading the Quran does not guarantee right understanding and that we can also learn about Islam from other sources as well. If so, there is no reason not to include the Quran as part of our learning as it is the text that all Muslims deem authoritative, something that cannot be said of other books on Islam. 

Our knowledge of Islam and our relationship with Muslims should be cultivated by reading the Quran, various Islamic books and websites, attending lectures by Islamic scholars, and having conversations with Muslim friends. I learn about Islam in the same way as I learn about Christianity: through reading the sacred text alongside works by respected exegetes, attend courses, and talk to other ardent believers. This is not the best way but it has so far been the least unreliable way for me to gain certain degree of reliable understanding of complex phenomena such as religions. 

The second reason Christians should accept and read the translated Quran is for evangelical (or ‘evangelisation’ for Roman Catholics) purpose. There is no need for Christians to feel sorry or embarrassed for our evangelical intent as Christianity since its beginning is as much a missionary faith as Islam (the same can be said to all religions seeking followers). Reading other religious texts help us to understand how best to communicate with the religious others when we share our perspective of Christianity. Besides facilitating mutual understanding, it also enables us to introduce our faith to them with illustrations and analogies that are relevant to them. 

A good example of this is what Paul did at Aeropagus when he quoted from Aratus’ Phaenomena and Epimenides’ Cretica about Zeus to point his hearers to the gospel (Acts 17:28). The apostle has no hesitation to draw from the Greeks’ idea of their deity for evangelical purpose. Paul’s quoting of these works shows that he has read them and saw the missiological value in them. And he used them as illustrations when he shared the gospel to the Greeks. 

The third reason is simply that those translated Quran are free. I had to purchase the two different translations of the Quran for my own reading. So a complimentary copy is welcomed. I suppose non-Muslims who are keen to learn about Islam for the above mentioned reasons should not mind accepting a Quran as a gift. I would be glad to be given another translation of the Quran. So far I have only received a free copy of the Book of Mormon, a gift from Mormon Elders. 

Nonetheless, many Christians in Malaysia are not willing to accept the Quran because they are forbidden to distribute the Bible to Muslims: If non-Muslims are not allowed to distribute their religious texts to Muslims then Muslims should likewise be prohibited. The case of Al-Kitab further aggravated this sentiment among non-Muslims. We are not being treated fairly by the ruling Muslim party and its various interest groups and Islamic authorities. 

However I think there are several reasons why such unfair treatment on non-Muslims should not prevent Christians from receiving the Quran. First, Christians should not imitate the intolerant behaviour and siege-mentality exemplified by others (regardless of religion). Second, Christians should be open to learn from others even though others do not want to learn from us. Third, Christians can and should cultivate the ability to appreciate religious others without compromising our own faith and mission. Fourth, Christians can turn this unfair treatment around by making the best of the situation by appropriating it for our own learning and missiological purpose, as mentioned above. 

Concerns 
I understand there are concerns among Christians with such suggestion. For one, there is fear among Christians that believers will be led away from Christianity when they read the Quran. I think this fear is not only invalid but also hypocritical and unfair. 

It is invalid because if Christianity is true, then Christians should be able to engage other religions’ text with discernment. Of course, not every Christians may be able to do that, yet this means that all the more there is a need to disciple church members and equip church leaders with solid theological education so that they are able to discern. 

Secondly, such fear is hypocritical and unfair because if Christians welcome non-Christians to read the Bible, then we should likewise be open to be welcomed to read the text of other religions. If we are not willing to read others’ scripture, then on what grounds do we have to ask and expect others to read ours willingly? 

Another concern comes in the form of a question: many Christians do not even read the Bible and/or as often as they should have, then why should they read the Quran? I think this question can be used on everything: Christians do not even read the Bible as often as they should have, then why should they read newspapers, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, websites, blogs, novels, magazines, textbooks, journals, infographs, pamphlets, watch movies, dramas, and YouTube videos, and play golf? So, how consistent do we want to apply this in all other areas? At least, as I have outlined above, reading the Quran can help in evangelisation. 

Conclusion 
As the journey to improve the governing structures of Malaysia is still going on, there is much we can do in response to challenges we face as a minor religious community. For one, Christians should not shy away from making use of the state’s designated funds for Islamic proselytisation for our own Christian evangelisation and peace-building work. If they distribute free Quran, we take and learn it. If they give out Islamic theological books, we include them in our seminaries’ library for research. If they have funds for further education in Islamic Studies, we take it and gain expertise in the field. 

The responsibility of Christian leaders to our community is twofold when it comes to interfaith matters in a pluralistic society. On one hand, we must not foster Christians who are resentful and alienating to the religious others, and further contribute to social hostility among different religious groups in the society. We must not become the Christian version of Perkasa, Pekida, or ISIS. On the other hand, we have to draw from the Christian scripture and tradition resources to inculcate an appreciative, open, and discerning disposition among our community’s members towards the religious others, as how we should be in relation to our own faith. We want to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles while at the same time being fair to the religious others as we want them to be fair to us. All these are to be pursued for the glory of God, for the work of the gospel, and for the cultivation of peace and harmony in our society. 

This article was originally published on New Mandala website, 2 March 2015.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Hell" is Valley of Hinnom, so Jesus is back already?

Benjamin Corey's post on Jesus' reference of hell as the Valley of Hinnom is being circulated widely on social media. He rightly points out that the word "Gehenna" which is usually translated as "hell" is a reference to the valley. 

What's wrong with Corey's post is his conclusion that Jesus' warning to his hearers in Matthew 24 is a reference to the impending destruction of the temple in 70 A.D (with emphasis added):
At the beginning of Matthew 24 Jesus explicitly sets the stage for the coming destruction, warning them that even the temple will be destroyed (“not one stone will remain on another, it will all be thrown down.” V. 2) Jesus goes so far as to even tell them what the signs of the coming judgment (the end of the “age”) would look like: wars, rumors of wars, famine, earthquakes, etc. As Jesus describes this “great tribulation” with horrible persecution, he advises them that if they want to escape death at the hands of the Romans, they would need to flee to the hillsides when they see the “signs of the times” (verse 16).

This actual event and the fulfillment of Jesus’ warning came in AD70 when Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem along with her temple. Presumably, those who heeded Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24 of fleeing to the hillside would have survived the advancing destruction of the Roman army… but those who didn’t?

Well, those folks were killed. And guess what we know actually happened to their bodies? They were burned in… “hell”, just outside of Jerusalem– exactly as Jesus had warned. This makes the teachings of Jesus very practical when considering the historical and grammatical context: those who listened to him would live, and those who didn’t would end up burned in the Valley of Hinnom. While we don’t know for sure, it is highly likely that some/many of the people in the audience when Jesus warned “how will you escape going to the Valley of Hinnom?” actually ended up dead and burned in Gehenna by the Romans.

You probably didn’t hear any of this in Sunday School, but that’s what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hell, at least on a historical level (not accounting for symbolism or dual fulfillment).
Corey argues that Jesus was referring to an event that will soon take place, and so the reference of Gehenna points to the cremation of those who didn't heed his warning. I find this an inconsistent reading of Matthew 24.

When we read the whole of Matthew 24, we would see how Corey has wrongly concluded that Jesus was referring to the imminent destruction of the temple.
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you...

29 Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:3, 29-30. Emphasis added.)
The whole point of Jesus' reply is to answer his disciples' inquiry about his glorious return. If Jesus' warning refers to the temple destruction in 70 A.D., then he would have return at that time, as per his own foresight.

The only way for Corey to go around this is to insert a "gap" between verse 29 and 30. Yet this hermeneutical move is perhaps too convenient. When the verses agree with one's proposal, there is no gap. When the verses disagree, suddenly we should find a gap there.

Well, historically, there is no record of Jesus appearing after the temple's destruction in 70 A.D. So on historical basis, we can deduce that Jesus had something else in mind in his warning. Gehenna as the Valley of Hinnom doesn't lead to the conclusion that Jesus was referring to the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24.

Of course, there is a way to go around this. Corey could say that Jesus has returned, but it wasn't recorded anywhere in the ancient world. But I don't think he and those who agree with him want to take this route.

To sum up, we can agree that Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom. However, we have to recognize that Jesus uses it as a vivid imagery of his days as illustration of a horror. And Jesus' warning in Matthew 24 may or may not link to his reference of Gehenna in the previous chapter. Jesus could be envisioning the hypocrites' upcoming cremation at Hinnom Valley in chapter 23, while talking about the afterlife condition of weeping and gnashing of teeth for hypocrites (24:50, 25:30), which may be his reference of eternal punishment (25:46).

Or, Jesus was using Gehenna as a symbol for the afterlife condition. Whichever it may be, the reading of Jesus' warning in Matthew 24 as reference to the 70 A.D. temple destruction can hardly be sustained.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Faith, reason, and feminist movement: Letter to Boo Su-Lyn

Dear Su-Lyn,

Your sharing about your own faith journey (Why I left the faith, The Malay Mail Online, 7 November 2014) is very much appreciated and I trust that it has helped you to make better sense of this mysterious journey we call life.

I noted at least 6 impressions you have developed about Christianity in your sharing: (1) Believing in God gives no satisfactory explanation for suffering and death, (2) immorality in the Old Testament doesn't make sense, (3) church's teaching on sexual purity is guilt-tripping and seems harmful to the public, (4) we can live without God, (5) atheist has the freedom to think, and (6) the Bible is anti-women. And you mentioned that your biggest relief for leaving the faith is that you don't have to reconcile your idea of women's rights with the sexist notions in Christianity. 

I would like to share some thoughts on these 6 impressions which may or may not be of interest to you. Nonetheless, it's at least a platform to initiate some conversations on the faith with you.

1. Believing in God gives no satisfactory explanation for suffering and death [therefore it is not rational to believe?]
I learned that the existence of suffering, death, and evil is a major stumbling block to Christians. Often believers cannot give a good account for their existence and the hurt that come with them. 

All my grandparents have died, except my maternal grandpa. One day, he will die too. The same goes for my parents, my wife, and my good friends. And eventually each of us will face our own death. So if there is a good and able God, why would such thing be allowed?

As you have mentioned, some think these bad things happen because they are in God's will and his higher ways. Frankly, I don't know. What I do know is that this ignorance has little to say about whether the belief in God is rational or not. 

If you ask me to elaborate, I don't think I'm able to. But Alvin Plantinga seems to have a good way of explaining:
"[A Christian] might want very badly to know why God permits evil in general or some particular evil---the death or suffering of someone close to him, or perhaps his own suffering... [S]uppose that the [Christian] admits he just doesn't know why God permits evil. What follows from that? Very little of interest. Why suppose that if God does have a good reason for permitting evil, the [Christian] would be the first to know? Perhaps God has a good reason, but that reason is too complicated for us to understand. Or perhaps He has not revealed it for some other reason. The fact that the [Christian] doesn't know why God permits evil is, perhaps, an interesting fact about the [Christian], but by itself it shows little or nothing relevant to the rationality of belief in God."
(Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974], 10.)
He also wrote that we don't really know many things in life yet we have no problem believing in them:
"The [Christian] believes that God has a reason for permitting evil; he doesn't know what that reason is. But why should that mean that his belief is improper or irrational? Take an analogy. I believe that there is connection of some sort between Paul's deciding to mow the lawn and the complex group of bodily movements involved in so doing. But what connection, exactly? Does his decision cause these bodily movements? If so, how? [...] Exactly  what is the relation between his deciding to mow the lawn---which decision does not seem to be a bodily event at all---and his actually doing so? No one, I suspect, knows the answer to these questions. But does it follow that it is irrational or unreasonable to believe that this decision has something to do with that series of motions? Surely not. In the same way the [Christian's] not knowing why God permits evil does not by itself show that he is irrational in thinking that God does indeed have a reason."
(Ibid, 11. Emphasis original.)
I don't know why I (or anyone for that matter) must die. I don't like not knowing. Yet one cannot reasonably conclude from there that therefore the belief in God is irrational. 

In the same way one cannot reasonably conclude that it is irrational to believe that you are reading this right now solely because he/she cannot explain how your decision to read this has caused your eyes and mind to process (agree or disagree) with what is written here.

That said, death is not the end in Christianity. There will be future resurrection. Hence, death though painful to many, is situated within the context of Jesus' victory over it. Death has been conquered.

"The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 15:56-57)

2. Immorality in the Old Testament doesn't make sense.
Indeed, the immorality in the Old Testament is senseless. Immorality whether those recorded in the Old Testament or reported in today's newspapers doesn't make sense. I don't understand how ISIS militants are able to inflict atrocity on another human being.

Neither can I comprehend how the anti-Christianity Fete de la Raison (Festival of Reason) championed by Jacques Hébert, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, and Antoine-Francois Momoro to celebrate "reason", "philosophy", and "truth" could be part of the 'Reign of Terror' that massacred tens of thousands of people, including celebrated feminist activist Olympe de Gouges.  

I remember someone who once taught me that there is a difference between 'descriptive' and 'prescriptive' statement. When we read the Old Testament (or any military history for that matter), we should learn to discern what is descriptive (recorded events that do not instruct us to act) and prescriptive (recorded events that instruct us to act).

To give a New Testament example, Jesus' teaching on loving our neighbors is a clear instruction which is prescriptive. But his walking on water is not an instruction to his followers to walk on water. He didn't instruct them to do that (even Simon Peter's once-off experience was requested by Simon himself and not commanded by Jesus, Matt. 14:28-29).

Recognizing the difference between 'descriptive' and 'prescriptive' would help us to discern stories like Lot's offering of his daughters to be gang-raped is a recorded event which does not instruct us to act. It was merely an event that took place.

Come to think of it, the Old Testament doesn't sugar-coat immorality that humans are capable of. It is not a history written by victors. It doesn't shy away from recording the failure of Israel's most authoritative prophet (Moses' impatience and faithlessness) and most celebrated king (David's adultery, abuse of power, and murder). It captures the worst of humanity as it is. Realism in its starkness.

3.  Church's teaching on sexual purity is guilt-tripping and seems harmful to the public
I have problem with this too! In fact I have problems with the church's teaching on many other things such as the command not to be greedy, covetous, non-forgiving, etc, and the instructions that we must love and help everyone (including those who hurt us), and look after orphans and widows in their distress.

Failing to do all these at all times make me feel that I'm always inadequate, always in the lack, always sub-Christian. Suck big time... 

I think that's what Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin." (Rom. 3:20)

Yet I also remember that Christianity doesn't stop at guilt. Rather, it points to redemption through Jesus Christ. As Paul himself reflected, "[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (Rom. 3:23-24)

This is not to say that therefore people can go on sinning (Paul himself thought of this too in Rom. 6:1-4). Neither am I saying that churches are exploiting guilt to point out the importance of redemption.

All I'm saying is this: If Christianity is about God redeeming the whole creation from sin and corruption through Jesus, then it would be deviant for churches to deny this or to teach something else.

4. We can live without God.
Again, I think you are right on this. Many people have been living without any reference to God their whole life. And they do fine. More on this below.

5. Atheist has the freedom to think.
Definitely atheists have the freedom to think. Anyone without mental impairment has such freedom regardless whether they are religious or not. Yet in our modern world, much of what we take for granted does not come from atheists' thinking. Rather, they are the progeny of people who believe in God.

Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton are not atheist but their thought laid a foundation for modern scientific thinking (see John Losee, A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science [UK: Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2001], 63-85).

John Locke is not an atheist but his articulation of humans' relationship with each other under God gives rise to the notion of equality and rights. "Many also express admiration for John Locke's seventeenth-century works as a major source for modern democratic theory, seemingly without the slightest awareness that Locke explicitly based his entire thesis on Christian doctrines concerning moral equality." (Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success [USA: Random House, 2005], 76.) As John Dunn elaborates,
"Jesus Christ (and Saint Paul) may not appear in person in the text of [Locke's book] Two Treatises but their presence can hardly be missed when we come upon the normative creaturely equality of all men in virtue of their shared species-membership... In seventeenth-century England, if the gospel could only be forgotten (which it pretty readily was), there were no problems at all about justifying inequality... (As for giving reasons, our social structure will do that for us.) At the biological level the axiom of equality is whole inert socially, and in pre-industrial Western civilization it could hardly be a conclusion of sociological reason. Far from being extrinsic, the theology was the sole possible significant locus for equality."
(John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the Two Treatises of Government [UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969], p.99-100. Emphasis added. See also Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke's Political Thought [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002].)
In fact, the notion of natural rights is grounded in medieval Christian discussion:
"The idea of natural rights grew up---perhaps could only have grown up in the first place---in a religious culture that supplemented rational argumentation about human nature with a faith in which humans were seen as children of a caring God."
(Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150-1625 [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001], 343.)
Luc Ferry, an atheist, likewise recognizes Christianity as the ideological impetus which gave rise to modern democracy:
"In direct contradiction [to Greek philosophy], Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity---an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance... At times hostile to the Church, the French Revolution---and, to some extent, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man---owes to Christianity an essential part of its egalitarian message."
(Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe [USA: HarperCollins, 2010], 72, 74.)
Adam Smith is not an atheist but his thinking provides the seed for modern economics (see Paul Oslington, ed., Adam Smith as Theologian [USA: Routledge, 2011]). Max Weber famously pointed out in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that it was Christians' thinking and lifestyle that greatly influenced capitalism.

Ideas such as modern scientific method, egalitarian democratic principles, and economics are forged from the religious concepts derived from Christian scripture and tradition.

This does not mean belief in God has consistently champion equality and human rights. I'm merely saying that the genealogical account for these concepts is one that traces its root to Christian thinking, not one that emerges from atheistic ground.

In fact, it is from the Christians' thought that feminist movement came about, which leads to my next point.

6. The Bible is anti-women [the idea of women's rights doesn't go along well with the sexist notions in Christianity].
No denial that Christians have over the centuries used the Bible to suppress women's rights. This is historical record that no one can dismiss. So I share your disgust over men who exploit the scriptural passages to subdue women.

However, I also know that there is another side to the history of the feminist movement: It was Christianity that enabled concepts such as equality and women emancipation to emerge.

Take for instance the first wave of feminism. It was Mary Wollstonecraft's book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 that initiated modern feminist movement (see Valerie Sanders, 'First Wave Feminism', in The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism, ed. Sarah Gamble [UK: Routledge, 2006], 15-24). In it, Wollstonecraft calls women to cooperate with God if they are to be freed from "tyranny of man":
"In treating... of the manners of women, let us, disregarding sensual arguments, trace what we should endeavor to make them in order to cooperate...with the Supreme Being." (Quoted in Barbara Taylor, 'The religious foundations of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminism,' in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 99.) 
At one point, Wollstonecraft boldly asserts, "I build my belief on the perfection of God." This theological conviction contributes significantly to her point on women's rational capability. As Daniel Schierenbeck comments, "This assertion allows Wollstonecraft to build her argument for the improvement of women's rational understanding..." (Daniel Schierenbeck, 'Reason and Romance: Rethinking Romantic-Era Fiction Through Jane West's The Advantages of Education,' in Enlightening Romanticism, Romancing the Enlightenment: British Novels from 1750 to 1832, ed. Miriam L. Wallace [UK: Ashgate, 2009], 75).

To Wollstonecraft, women deserve education because of their ability to attain truth about God. So wrote Natalie Taylor: "Wollstonecraft argues there are innate principles of truth. Not only does she encourage her readers to contemplate God, but she argues that human beings can attain divine wisdom." (Natalie Fuehrer Taylor, The Rights of Woman as Chimera: The Political Philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft [UK: Routledge, 2007], 89.)

Barbary Taylor summarizes Wollstonecraft's principal mission in this way: "[T]o liberate women from masculine tyranny not in order that they should become free-floating agents, stripped of all obligatory ties, but in order to bind them more closely to their God." (Barbara Taylor, 'The religious foundations of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminism,' in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Claudia L. Johnson [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 116.)

Many women similarly inspired by their belief in God emerged to champion gender equality: Olympe de Gouges, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Hays, the women in the Quakers movement, etc (see the essays in section 7 of Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor, Women, Gender and Enlightenment [USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005], 410-518).

Christian activism for women emancipation is not confined to Europe alone. Take modern China as example. It was the Christian missionaries who spearheaded the campaign to abolish foot-binding and so led to the liberation of thousands of Chinese women from this torturous centuries-old social norm. As Kwame Anthony Appiah chronicled:
"The Chinese knew foot-binding produced suffering and debility. Foot-binding was done to young girls, crushing the four smaller toes under the sole and compressing the rear of the anklebone. After months and years the pain diminished, but walking was usually difficult... Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet because that was the normal thing to do.

"The movement that eventually turned the Chinese around began with Christian missionaries in the 1860s. In 1875, the Rev. John Macgowan of the London Missionary Society, who had campaigned for some 15 years against foot-binding, called a meeting of Christian women in Xiamen. He asked them to sign a pledge to abandon foot-binding. Nine women did. Eventually women joined the Quit-Footbinding Society in larger numbers, pledging not to bind the feet of their daughters and some choosing to undergo the often painful process of unbinding themselves. Then they were joined, in 1894, by the Unbound Foot Association, which the Confucian scholar and reformist leader Kang Youwei helped found. It eventually had more than 10,000 members."
Rev. Mcgowan's conviction to abolish foot-binding is deeply rooted in his faith. As he remarked,
"We became more and more convinced that mere human argument had no power to solve it [footbinding]. What was needed was a Divine force to master and control it, and that force was the Lord Jesus Christ. With Him alone lay the great secret of the solution of a problem that neither sage nor saint had ever been able to unravel."
(Quoted in He Qi, 'The Changing Other: Footbinding, China, and the West, 1300-1911,' [Master's thesis, National University of Singapore, 2012], 45.)
In summarizing the impact of Christianity to women's emancipation in China, Fan Hong writes,
"The origin and development of the Chinese women's emancipation movement cannot be understood without first placing it in the context of the changing image of the female body, and this fundamental change in Chinese culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cannot be understood itself without an examination of the influence of the Christian missionaries and their powerful impact on Chinese women's physical education and education."

"It was Christian missionaries, rather than radical critics, who effectively challenged traditional Chinese culture and created the opportunity for women to free themselves, first physically and then mentally."

"In 1895 ten influential Christian women of different nationalities formed a natural-foot society and, in order to request support from Empress Dowager Cixi, drew up a memorial to which 'nearly all foreign ladies in the Far East added their names'. The memorial is believed to have eventually reached the Palan, and it is said that the Empress Dowager finally issued the Anti-footbinding Edict of 1902 'after sustained pressure from foreign women of various nationalities'."
(Fan Hong, Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom: The Liberation of Women's Bodies in Modern China [UK: Frank Cass, 1997], 43, 50, 57. Emphasis added. For other sources, see Kathryn Sikkink, 'Historical Precursors to Modern Campaigns for Women's Human Rights: Campaigns Against Footbinding and Female Circumcision,' in Women's Human Rights: The International and Comparative Law Casebook, ed. Susan Deller Ross [USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008], 482-486 and Alison R. Drucker, 'The Influence of Western Women on the Anti-Footbinding Movement 1840-1911,' Historical Reflections 8.3 [1981]:179-199.)
Women in modern India likewise achieved liberation from sati (widow-burning) due to Christian missionary efforts. In Clare Midgley's account,
"Between 13 February 1829 and 29 March 1830 a total of 15 separate groups of women from around England sent petitions to Parliament calling on it to abolish sati... This step into direct engagement with parliamentary politics was taken not by women who identified as political radicals or supporters of the 'rights of women', but rather by women associated with the evangelical missionary movement. The petitions formed part of a broader campaign against sati that was linked to garnering female support for the foreign missionary enterprise and also led to English women being drawn into organising the dispatch of the first single women to India to provide Christian education for Indian girls and women."
(Clare Midgley, Feminism and Empire: Women Activists in Imperial Britain, 1790-1865 [UK: Routledge, 2007], 65. Emphasis added.)
In India itself, the missionary William Carey initiated the campaign against sati.
"The Serampore Christian missionaries, headed by William Carey, had started a movement for the abolition of sati in 1799... He prepared a statistical record of widow burning and having witnessed a horrible scene of widow burning was able to present a vivid description of it... In 1802 Carey conducted an inquiry into the practice of sati and gave his recommendations for its abolition. He organized open discussions on the subject and arranged a debate in 1803 at Fort William College."

"The efforts of the Christian missionaries to eradicate social evils in India though did not always achieve immediate success, yet these helped to popularize an ideology that was conducive to the growth of humanitarianism in India."
(B. S. Chandrababu and L. Thilagavathi, Woman: Her History and Her Struggle for Emancipation [India: Bharathi Puthakalayam, 2009], 325, 327. For details, see chapter 10 of Arvind Sharma, Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays [India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988], 57-65.)
In Singapore, there are local Christians who spearhead initiatives to help marginalized women. Two of them are pastor Andrew and his wife Grace Choo. Both of them founded AG Home in 1998 to help troubled teenage girls. Some of them are pregnant and don't know where to turn to. AG Home accepts them and help them to get back on their feet.

In Malaysia, when my very good friend Steven Sim started to get involved in politics, he made gender equality one of his top priorities. Under his leadership, the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) became the first local government that has a gender responsive budgeting (GRB) policy. Now that he is a Member of Parliament, he continues to exert his influence to bring about a more egalitarian society (his writings can be read here, here, and here).

When I ask him what inspires his activism for gender equality, without hesitation he replies that it is the "Jewish prophetic tradition" mirrored through the life of Jesus Christ. In particular, the passage of Micah 6:8, "[W]hat does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Here is someone whose advocacy for equality is based on the Christian tradition.

Yes, the Bible has been used to suppress women. Yet there are two sides to the relationship between the Bible and women in history. As M. Christine Green reckons, "When it comes to the rights of women, Christianity is rife with dualities of subordination and liberation, equality and difference, sacrifice and virtue, creation and redemption." (M. Christine Green, 'Christianity and the rights of women,' in Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction, ed. John Witte, Jr. and Frank S. Alexander [UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010], 303.)

Despite this ambivalence, history tells us that the modern feminist movement that upholds gender equality (which you identify with), abolished foot-binding and sati, and promoting humanitarianism around the world is conceived not in an atheistic lab but the womb of Christian discourse. Hence, I think your focus on the Bible being "anti-women" is skewed, not fair to history in all its sides.

Let's go back...
Now, let's go back to the notion that we can live without God. Many women in the past have lived through oppressive patriarchy, torturous social norms such as foot-binding and sati without emancipation. And as history testifies, once God came into the picture, their lives changed. These women discovered their dignity, they are regarded equally. Their emancipation is the result of Christianity working through the faithful in the contingency of history.

Can they live without God? Of course, they can. But I suspect they very much prefer that God came into the picture than not even if they themselves don't personally believe in the faith.

When I started writing, I didn't foresee this letter to be so lengthy. It shows how weighty your reflection is!

Anyway, I don't know if you will read this. If you do, I would like to say that I don't see this letter as the last word on anything. Rather, it's my attempt to join you in exercising our freedom to think.

Best regards,
Joshua Woo

Thursday, October 30, 2014

SG50 and Christianity's Jubilee

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Singapore will celebrate 50th anniversary next year. The SG50 committee was set up to see through various events and programs to commemorate this important milestone. Many are using the common phrase "golden Jubilee" to mark this anniversary. And of course the word "Jubilee" came from ancient Israel's religious tradition. For this reason, many local Christians see this celebration as the "Jubilee". Some think that the nation has entered into its 50th year since 9 August 2014, and so the Jubilee has started.

The Love Singapore movement describes the Jubilee as a time for "celebration" and "consecration" (see screenshot below). The Global Day of Prayer in Singapore has changed the name for 2015's nation-wide prayer event to Jubilee Day of Prayer. The Anglican Diocese of Singapore calls the faithful to "pray, prepare and posture for a year of Jubilee in both Church and Society."

In view of all these, it's perhaps good for churches to rediscover the concept of Jubilee.

1. Jubilee's Origin
The concept is found in Leviticus 25-27. There are two possible etymological origins for the word 'Jubilee'. The first one is its connection to the Hebrew term yobel, the horn trumpet which was blown to mark the beginning of Jubilee (Lev. 25:9). 

The second one is related to the verb y-b-l that means 'lead back, lead forth', which carries the imagery of release and return (Isa. 55:12, Jer. 31:9). Hence, the word yobel was translated into the Greek word aphesis ('liberation') by ancient scholars of the third to first century B.C. to be used in the Septuagint.

This connotation of freedom goes along with Lev. 25:10's main theme of Jubilee as the liberation of the Israelites: "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." Subsequently, the prophet Ezekiel called it the "year of liberty" (46:17). (See the brief discussion in David L. Baker, "The Jubilee and the Millennium: Holy Years in the Bible and Their Relevance Today," Themelios 24.1 [1998]:47.)

Additionally, Jeffrey Fager points out that the background for Jubilee is the ancient socioeconomic system of land tenuring. The Jubilee carries "moral imperative toward its economically vulnerable members." Hence the proclaimed liberty is to free the vulnerable members in the Israelite society from alienation from their land. (Jeffrey A. Fager, Land Tenure and the Biblical Jubilee: Uncovering Hebrew Ethics through the Sociology of Knowledge [Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993], 122.)

2. Jubilee's Purposes
Regardless of its etymological root, it is clear that Jubilee is to be celebrated by proclaiming liberation marked by the sounding of the trumpet on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in every fifty-years cycle (Lev. 25:8-9).

And Jubilee's occurrence on the Day of Atonement is not coincidental but to highlight the other significance of the jubilation: the Israelites will not only be liberated from alienation from their inherited land, but also liberated from their sins and separation from God. This combination of Jubilee and the Day of Atonement points out the overarching motif of the people's restoration to their rightful place before humans and God. As Brian T. Hoch comments,
"[T]he reason the Jubilee begins on Yom Kippur is that both institutions are kindred events of restoration. The primary foci of the restorative activity are: the meeting places with Yahweh (in respect to the Jubilee it is the land; with Yom Kippur, it is the sancta), and his people who are to meet with him."
(Brian Thomas Hoch, "The Year of Jubilee and Old Testament Ethics: A Test Case in Methodology," PhD diss., (Durham University, 2010), 91.)
The prophet Isaiah refers to this "consecrated" year as the "year of the Lord's favour", when liberty is proclaimed and restoration takes place (61:1-9). John Bergsma, in his survey of the history of interpretation of the Jubilee, called this the first messianic re-reading of the Jubilee for it is "associated with a coming "messianic" (anointed) figure, who will proclaim and inaugurate a new age characterized by the freedom and restoration of the jubilee year." (John Sietze Bergsma, The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran: A History of Interpretation [Leiden: Brill, 2007], 202, 203.)

The Jubilee is to be expressed among the Israelites through the following 12 instructions:
I. The Israelites should return to their family property (Lev.25:10, 13).

II. The Israelites are not to sow or reap plantation that grow by itself, or harvest untrimmed vines. They should eat only the produce from the existing crop (Lev. 25:11, 19).

III. The Israelites should not overcharge or undercharge one another---must practice 'fair price' as an expression of their reverence for God (Lev. 25:14-18).

IV. On the year before Jubilee, the sixth year, the Israelites' plantation will produce food enough for the next three years. They are to resume work on their plantation on the eight year (Lev. 25:20-22).

V. No land must be sold permanently as God is the true owner. Hence all sold land must be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:23-24).

VI. Israelites who become poor can sell their land, and their relatives should help them to buy back the land. If no relatives can help them, then their land will remained with the buyer until Jubilee (Lev. 25:25-28).

VII. Houses within walled cities can be sold permanently, though the possibility for original owner to buy back the house should remain for the first year after the sale. After that, the house will be owned by the buyer permanently. These houses need not be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:29-30).

VIII. Houses  in villages can be sold, but must be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:31).

IX. Levites' permanent possession is the pastureland, which cannot be sold. Their houses, however, can be sold though need to be returned to them during Jubilee (Lev. 25:32-34).

X. Israelites should provide social safety net to the unfortunate Israelites as how they are to treat foreigners. They should lend fellow Israelites money without interest, sell them food at cost price (Lev. 25:35-38).

XI. If poor Israelites sold themselves to their fellow Israelites, they must not be treated as slaves, but as servant. And they and their family should be liberated and be restored to their property during Jubilee (Lev. 25:39-43). The same with Israelites who sold themselves to foreigners (Lev. 25:47-55).

XII. Trade and manage the land fairly by determining the price according to its proximity to the Jubilee (Lev. 27:16-25).
Several times the Israelites were reminded of their obligation to follow these instructions because of their covenantal relationship with God (Lev. 25:17, 36, 38, 43, 54, 26:1-2, 12-13, 44-45). Bergsma helpfully explains the reason why Jubilee falls on the Day of Atonement (his preferred term "Day of Purgation") and its connection to the above listed instructions:
"[T]here is nothing arbitrary about the proclamation of the jubilee on yom kippur; on the contrary, there may be the most intimate conceptual relationship between the purgation of the temple and the restoration of social justice in Israel. [...] Inasmuch as the renewal or reassertion of a (divine or human) king’s rule was associated with the re-establishment of "freedom"... and "social justice"... for the populace throughout the ancient Near East, yom kippur offered an attractive occasion in the cultic calendar of Israel for the proclamation of the jubilee. [...]

"As the kingly rule of the patron deity of Israel is re-affirmed and renewed through the purging of the sanctuary, the deity expresses his justice and righteousness by proclaiming freedom to his servants who live on his sacred estate. [...] The primary imperative of the jubilee was the return of each Israelite to his ancestral possession of land and his clan. The reunification of family with land is the central concern of all the stipulations."
(Ibid, 31-32, 105. Emphasis added.)
For detailed discussion on the Leviticus Jubilant laws, see David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law (Grand Rapids, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 80-97.

From all these, we can draw out two major objectives of the Jubilee. First, Jubilee is about the restoration of the Israelites' socioeconomic life, and hence the whole community's sustainability. The institution of social safety net through property return, workers' liberation, and cessation of field plantation brings about a new start for the less fortunate and narrows the gap between the rich and the poor. 

Secondly, the Jubilee was instituted to have the Israelites put into practice their knowledge that they belong to God, that God is their Lord. "Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God." (Lev. 25:17) "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers." (v.23) In other words, Jubilee was given to transform 'theology' into 'ethics', turning the people's knowledge of God into practices that reflect that knowledge.
 
3. Jesus Christ and Jubilee
Although there is no explicit mention of the Jubilee in the New Testament, Jesus quoted the messianic imagery of Isaiah's "year of the Lord's favour" as the overarching motif of his ministry (Isa. 61:1-2; Lk. 4:18-19). He proclaimed the fulfillment of the Jubilee concept through him (Lk. 4:21). He has initiated the true Jubilee. And it is through him, we gain liberation from socioeconomic struggles and eternal separation from God.

His followers (as the spiritual descendants of the Israelites) therefore have the responsibility to carry out the restoration of socioeconomic life and community's sustainability among themselves. Living out this communal life is practicing the acknowledgement that we belong to God. It is the reflection of our covenantal relationship with him. Christians' understanding of Jubilee should always be appropriated through Jesus' ministry.

This is not a call for state communism. It is not meant for everyone, just as the Israelites' Jubilee is not for everyone. It is for the churches. This church-based ethics is how Christian disciples to live in their community.

Therefore, Christian's celebration of the Jubilee is neither a call for cancellation of public debt (à la Jubilee 2000 movement) nor overturn alleged unfair political and economic policy (à la John H. Yoder's proposal). Christopher  R. Bruno has clarified this in his article: ""Jesus is our Jubilee"...But How? The OT Background and Lukan Fulfillment of the Ethics of Jubilee," in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53/1 (2010):81-101.

Rather, Christianity's Jubilee is a call for the faithful to establish and manage the church as a community where believers are liberated from socioeconomic struggles and spiritual alienation from God. Let this messianic Jubilant call as understood through Jesus be a reminder for local churches as the nation celebrates her 50th anniversary.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Jesus in the Old Testament? Westminster Theological Seminary and Douglas Green

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Theologians and biblical scholars have been discussing Westminster Theological Seminary's (WTS) controversial announcement of Douglas Green's retirement in June. The seminary's Board of Trustees found Green's interpretation method is not consistent with the institution. Here is the official statement:
The Board of Trustees regards the particular hermeneutical method of the New Testament use of the Old Testament included in Dr. Green’s response to be inconsistent with the Seminary’s confessional standards.

While Dr. Green respectfully disagrees with this decision of the Board, he acknowledges the governing authority of the Trustees to lead Westminster in fulfilling the institution’s mission as a confessional Reformed seminary.
Basically, Green thinks that the Old Testament (OT) authors didn't have Jesus Christ in mind when composing their document. WTS' position is that Jesus was objectively present, though vague, in the OT authors' mind when they were writing the relevant passages (its faculty G. K. Beale calls this "cognitive peripheral vision").

To be sure, the WTS doesn't condemn Green as heretical, but (as its faculty member Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. wrote) views his approach as "obscuring" and "compromising" the truth.

This has provoked many responses. Brandon Withrow, who did his doctoral study at WTS, commented that the seminary has over the years becoming inward-looking and hence fundamentalist. Tremper Longman III who taught at WTS for 18 years has strongly criticized the seminary's decision: "Westminster Theological Seminary is a toxic environment for the training of future pastors."

Another former student of WTS, William B. Evans, examined the changes of WTS' doctrinal position through its faculty member Vern Poythress' writings. In the past, Poythress' position was "careful and considered". Now, it's ad hoc and closed---as if the shift is made to justify WTS' current doctrinal stand. (To which Green Baggins disagrees.)

Kevin Davis points out that John Calvin himself wouldn't get a job at WTS given the institution's present position. As Calvin wrote concerning Hebrews 2:7's usage of David's Psalm 8:4-6:
I answer that it was not the purpose of the apostle [author of Hebrews] to give an accurate exposition of the words. [...] The apostle has no intention of overthrowing this meaning or of giving it a different turn; but he only bids us consider the humiliation of Christ, which was shown forth for a short time, and then the glory with which He is crowned for ever, and he does this more by alluding to the words than by expounding what David meant.
(John Calvin, Hebrews and 1 & 2 Peter [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994], 22-23.)
The author of Hebrews, as Calvin commented, was not describing what David had in mind.

The World Reformed Fellowship has produced a statement signed by dozens of WTS' former faculty members and alumni in support of Green---in disagreeing with WTS' present position. 

How then should Christians decide which position is right? Did the OT authors had Jesus Christ in their "cognitive peripheral vision" when writing the scripture? If yes, then aren't we assuming too much on what the OT authors knew? I think it is too ambitious, too self-conceited, on our part to claim that we know the OT authors had Jesus in their mind when writing the scripture. No one can know such thing for sure. Saying that we know is making our faith in our cognitive ability an idol.

If no, then how can we claim that the OT foretells the coming of Jesus as the Christ? I think we can. It has to do with our understanding of how scripture's authority works.

The OT foretells Jesus as the Christ because of his own foretelling of his own death and resurrection, and the fact that he did rose from the dead. In other words, the veracity of Jesus' application of the OT passages as referring to himself depends entirely on (1) his prophecies about himself and (2) the fulfillment of them.

If Jesus merely prophesied about himself yet he wasn't raised from the dead according to his own prophecy, then he was just a loony, and according to Deuteronomy 18:21-22, a false prophet. Jesus was raised, and so his application of the OT prophecies about him was vindicated. This means that Jesus didn't override the OT authors' intention. Rather, he was revealing what they didn't know.

This is not special-pleading. When a text becomes authoritative, its intent does not belong entirely to the authors alone. This is how authoritative text works. For example, a country's constitution which was drafted in the 1950s is still being invoked to address a new situation in 2014. Though the drafters of the constitution did not have the 2014's situation in mind, yet their writing carries the authority to speak to 2014's situation as if the latter is implied in the text. And how we know whether there was such implication depends on how history turns out to be. In Jesus' case, he was raised.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Theologian's calling and the context of local theological scene

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My previous post is a reflection based on my two years observation of the context in Singapore (and in lesser degree Malaysia) as a pastoral staff who tries very hard to remain connected with the academic theological scene. Here are three things that I have observed.

1. The High-Calling of 'Pastor-Theologian'
I have met fellow Christian workers who seem to believe that 'pastor-theologian' is achievable. After more than two years of trying to keep myself immerse in pastoral ministry as well as theological academy, I begin to lower down my optimism.

A regular full-time pastoral staff simply doesn't have the bandwith to keep up with academic theology while wholly giving in to pastoral ministry, not to mention the tedious task of bridging the two. The fact that John Piper, Timothy Keller, and Tom Wright cannot do it (in my view), what makes me think that I can?
 
2.The High-Calling of Theologian
For the past two years, I have met a few young people who told me that they want to study theology not because they want to be equipped for pastoral ministry but because they felt being called to serve in the academia or be a theological lecturer. I can very much identify with them because I was like them.

I enrolled into theological college purely out of my interest in theology. I didn't know what will I do after graduation. When I started my theological education, I wasn't ready to go into pastoral ministry nor expecting myself to do so. In my final semester, I talked to a few theologians, including the principal of the college, about my desire to go for further study so that I can be a theologian. Basically, there wasn't such opportunity open at that time. Or perhaps, I wasn't a suitable candidate even if there was.

In retrospect, I realized that it was probably truer that I wasn't a suitable candidate. I didn't know what exactly is the vocation of a theologian. It took me some time to discover that being passionate in reading, thinking, writing, and arguing for certain ideas about God is not a theologian's vocation. Unfortunately, this mistaken idea of a theologian's calling is pervasive due to the widely read kind of popular-level theological literatures which are usually oversimplified polemic crafted in the context of "modernist/postmodernist conservative versus liberal". For an example of a good local theological work, check out Trinity Theological College's theologian Tan Loe-Joo's recent article in the New Blackfriars, which is made freely available for now.

Rather, a theologian's calling is to articulate and express his/her love for God and people through his/her teaching and research topic, academic presentation at theological conferences, and publication in respectable and ecumenical academic journals. This means that when people read your academic paper or sit through your lecture, they don't only learn theological ideas, but also through your work sense your own love for God and people and thus inspired to love God and people. This demands much more than intellectual capability. It is the giving of one's whole self in making one's love for God and people in academically visible ways. It's practising theological-pastoring.

Interacting with academic theology as a pastoral staff has made me more aware of the kind of pastoral care that people need and what kind of academic theological literatures can help them. Many academic theological works out there do not meet much of the need of local regular believers. Certain instinct and judgement can only be gained from pastoral ministry.

Therefore I think that the notion "You are a theologian because you have some ideas about God" is an insult to theological vocation. In the art scene, you are not an artist just because you have a degree or postgraduate degree in the arts. Only the renowned ones are callled artist. This perspective of theologian's high-calling may help young people who aspire to be theological teacher to get a glimpse of what they should actually work towards.

3. Organic Unity of Local Theological Scene
Local theological schools are very different from state-funded secular universities' divinity or religious study faculty in other countries. Theological institutions in Singapore have very intimate link with local churches. I think this is the same with Malaysian ones.

Some denominations and churches only recognize graduates from certain theological school. Therefore funds needed to sustain the schools come mainly from the denominations and affiliated churches. Many of the lecturers are financially supported by their own churches and friends. Hence, theologians in this part of the world need to have very close working relationship and deep level of trust with their own church. 

For this reason,  renegade theologian can hardly find a place here. I know a few people who have completed their theological degree at established theological schools out of their passion for theology and desire to teach theology. Yet they are now too busy with their work (for very practical reason), and hardly able to pursue their ambition further. Even if they manage to get their doctorate, they would have difficulty looking for a teaching post in local theological institutions as they don't have a denomination or church to support them. 

Therefore, the local theological scene is very much a communal enterprise. A theologian discovers his/her vocation within a community, commissioned to study from the community, and then research and teach with the support of the community. #youngpeoplewhoaspiretobetheologians, take note of this.

So my previous post wasn't written with negative experience of serving in church. On the contrary, I've learnt much from the two years as a pastoral staff. My church leaders and colleagues have expanded my theological horizon. The congregation has deepened my appreciation for pastoral care and theology. The post was a reflection of the theological scene here.