Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: 'Pilgrims and Citizens: Christian Social Engagement in East Asia Today', edited by Michael Nai-Chiu Poon

This book is a collection of essays presented at the 'Seek the Welfare of the City' conference held at Trinity Theological College Singapore, with the National Council of Churches of Singapore and Tyndale House Cambridge as co-sponsors, in August 2005.

Altogether there are sixteen articles with the 'Foreword' written by Singapore Methodist Bishop Robert Solomon, 'Introduction' by Singapore Anglican Archbishop John Chew, and 'Editor's Introduction' by Michael Poon, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia.

The essays are grouped into five parts:
  • Preliminaries
  • Biblical Studies
  • Historical and Theological Studies
  • Contemporary Engagements
  • Concluding Reflections

For the 'Preliminaries', two political leaders contribute their perspectives on the relation between the government and the various religions.

Lim Siong Guan, who was the Head of the Singapore Civil Service and the Permanent Secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Finance, examines whether are religions positive or negative factor in Singapore. He prefaces his presentation that it is purely his "personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the government." (p.3)

Lim's main point is that the only role religions can play in society is in the building of people whose morality is motivated by fear. In his words:
"Where the conscience in the individual is strong and where people have the fear of God---which very often is a fear of divine retribution and of what may happen to them in this life or after they die---people will behave responsibly even when there is no one to catch and punish them. The weak society is where people need to be forced to do things, and lose their sense of concern and responsibility for their fellowman. This is where religion plays the role only it can play, of bringing to people a consciousness of god, even a fear of god, that will cause them to do what is right and good even when there is no law to force them to do so, or no policeman around." (p.13-14. Emphasis added)
Religions, by playing this role, help to preserve social harmony and stability in Singapore. Lim ends his essay by raising this concern: "How can we make religion a positive factor?" (p.16. Emphasis added.)

Lim's concern assumes that religion is something that can be made into something some parties desire. If this is the case, then religion is just a manipulative tool employable for hegemonic purposes or national interest.

Yes, we cannot deny that religion has been employed in such way before. Yet to say that religion is meant to be used in that manner does not contribute to the understanding of religion and hence impede on the effort to relate it to the society.

Besides, whether is a religion "positive factor" depends on whose interest the religion serves. This makes ambiguous Lim's assumption that religion is perceived primarily for its manipulative characteristic.

The second Preliminary essay is written by Ye Xiaowen, the Director-General of the State Administration of Religious Affairs of China. He presents China as a country that seeks harmony but not uniformity as it is one of the Chinese people's national characteristic.

Ye assures us that China's "respect for freedom of religious belief is sincere and consistent." (p.22) He cites quotations from the Qur'an, Bible, Buddhist sutra, and Confucian literature to point out the message of peace and harmony in each religion.

The diplomatic tone in the essay somehow gives a sense of superficiality underlying its message which fundamentally shares the same mistaken assumption on religion with the previous essay by Lim.

Next, entered the 'Biblical Studies' part where Bruce Winter, Tan Kim Huat, and Paul Barnett, three accomplished scholars on the Christian scriptures, explore historical precedences that illuminate the challenges to live as a follower of Christ in the present world.

Winter examines the early Christians' paradoxical perception of being a citizen yet at the same time a foreigner in their social environment. He noted that the early disciples as citizens "devote themselves to the doing of good deeds in all human activities in the private as well as the public spheres of life." (p.33) However, as foreigners, they "must withdraw from the self-indulgent lifestyle of their contemporaries." (p.32)

Tan writes a substantial article detailing the contributions of the diaspora Jews to the cities of their dwelling between 323 B.C. to 66 A.D. Tan highlights the types of Jewish participation in civic life and individuals like Philo of Alexandria who are highly regarded and trusted among the Gentiles.

Tan points out a remarkable discovery where Jewish names are found among Greek participants in the gymnasia. "The inclusion of Jews in these ephebic lists demonstrates that they were numbered among the elite. Jews did not shy away from enrolling in the gymnasia even when it was clear that their being circumcised might expose them to ridicule in a place where males trained naked." (p.45)

Tan argued that we do not need to conclude that these diaspora Jews apostatised from their tradition or syncretised into their surrounding pagan culture. He thinks that:
"What might be a better explanation is that they have managed to negotiate the intricacies of diaspora and learned to live and let live, to contribute and also to receive. [...] What we have established thus far is that Jews were very much aware of the kind of cultural ethos they were encountering and were also either contributing to it, being part of it or milking it." (p.48)
Tan's essay ends with further list of five different areas the Diaspora Jews have contributed to their cities, namely moral, military, administrative and fiscal, and benefactions.

Barnett's piece looks briefly into Jesus' relation to the Roman state, and how his followers up to the fourth century A. D. have since tried to imitate his example.

By looking into Mark 12.13-17, where Jesus proclaims the rightness to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," Barnett shows that Jesus "repudiates zealotry and theocracy." Furthermore,
"In effect, then, Jesus attributes all authority to God, demanding due recognition of his deity and sovereignty. Beneath that sovereignty, however, Jesus located a rightful role 'Caesar', that is, for the state. In the divine order, Caesar is to provide an infrastructure for the welfare of his citizens." (p.68)
Barnett concludes his article with six reflection pointers to direct present followers of Jesus to pick up as they engage in the society.

Oliver O'Donovan's probing essay that unpacks the complexity of the Christian proposition "All authority is from God" graces the opening of the third part of the book on 'Historical and Theological Studies'.

In this essay, O'Donovan demonstrates not in one but in two areas how political authority when pursued without reference to theology---when secularised---is fundamentally ungrounded. Political authority is similar yet profoundly different with two other authorities we are familiar with, namely authority of the wise or experts, and authority of a parent over a child.

Political authority in the former sense only possible on "matters and occasions for which it has functional use" while in the latter sense it is "a simple givenness" that "can persist in the face of startling failures of wisdom and virtue on the part of those who exercise it." (p.85)

However, political authority "having no natural basis on the one hand" (unlike a parent's relation to the child) and "no basis in achievement on the other"(for politicians' failures in being wise and virtuous), "seems to float in the air without support. It is ungrounded." (p.85)

O'Donovan inquires further, "Since human beings have no natural sovereignty over one another, by what sovereignty are they authorised to dispose of one another's lives in the service of justice [for eg. when policeman shot down a running suspect, or countries exercising capital punishment]?

He points out that the notion of social contract employed to justifies sovereignty of the government over citizens cannot do the job:
"The central Western myth of the social contract has imagined citizens contracting with one another to make their lives subject to a form of government that they set up. But not only is it impossible to imagine such a contract---how would you make such a contract where there was not even the most vestigial notion of what contracting and promising meant?---it is not clear how such contract could introduce a right of government. I may perhaps agree to surrender my goods and liberty and life to the judgment of the state; but can I agree to surrender yours? Or my grandchildren's?" (p.87)
O'Donovan is not hesitate to assert that "the Western tradition can offer no answer. The Christian answer is: 'all authority is from God.'" (p.87)

Michael Poon's essay, drawing from the works of Jaroslav Pelikan, suggests that the "non-Western world to learn again from the early church, to establish a canonical frameworks that can enable them to become a confident Christian society for today." (p.106. Emphasis original.)

Here, I need to emphasize that Poon does not mean to establish a Christian state, but a community that "by demonstrating in its own life the welfare of the heavenly city would it be able to discern the needs of the wider society, and find fresh initiatives to seek for its true welfare." (p.106)

At another place, Poon writes similarly that the "Christians in East Asia need to move out of an entrenched understanding that they are local agents of mission societies and movements. They need to recover the vision that the Christian community itself assumes a public form; its manner of life creates a social reality that contributes to the true welfare of people and nations." (p.104)

Hwa Yung, the Malaysian Methodist Bishop, produces an inquiry into the formation of civil society. First, he expounds from Ernest Gellner's work that the characteristics of a 'civil society'
"excludes all forms of centralised authoritarianism, whether Marxist or otherwise, as well as the stifling communalism of segmentary societies,"
while possesses
"an effective central state which, while acquiring such great power, nevertheless did not pulverize the rest of society, rendering it supine and helpless. A society emerged which ceased to be segmentary---either as an alternative to the state, as a mode of efficient state-lessness, or as an internal opposition to the state or in part its ally---yet capable of providing a countervailing force to the state." (p.110. The latter paragraph is a quotation from Gellner's work.)
Hwa probes into Islamic and Chinese tradition to see if both can materialize the said civil society. By looking into the achievement of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Rachid Ghannoushi, and Abdolkarim Soroush, Hwa concludes that though there are many strengths in
"classical Islam on issues of justice, rule of law, human rights, and so forth, in and of itself it did not and could not produce civil society as defined here. Indeed for Islam to come to terms fully with civil society, people like Soroush must be taken seriously. But it is far from certain that this is where the majority of Muslims wish to go at the present." (p.117)
On Chinese tradition, Hwa looks into the works of Hu Shih, Lee Kuan Yew's appeal to Confucian tradition and Goh Chok Tong's observation. He sums up that "despite the elements that can contribute to civil society found in Islamic and the Chinese traditions, civil society did not emerge from within these or any other culture apart from the West [in the form of liberal democracy at its best not at its worst], shaped as it is in large measure by its Christian heritage." Therefore, "if we are serious in wanting our own nations to become civil societies, it would be wise for us to ask how that came about in the only one place where we meet it in human history." (p.120. Emphasis added.)

After Hwa's piece, we have an article examining theological metaphors best describe Christians in East Asia by theologian-ethicist Daniel Koh. He wonders if the metaphor 'resident aliens' popularized by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon appropriate since it "has given support, perhaps unintentionally, to those who take an explicit stand that Christian should not be socially engaged." (p.127)

Besides, by adopting 'resident aliens' as identity metaphor in the East Asia context that often misunderstands Christianity as an alien religion "will only give further credence to the already suspicious Asians that the faith we hold an our belief in Jesus Christ is an adoption of a foreign faith that supports the political and commercial agenda of the Euro-North American powers." (p.141)

Koh affirms that there is "no denying that Christians are citizens of two cities, but we do not have to overemphasise that identity by displaying the 'resider aliens' membership card." (p.142)

Nonetheless, taking "such a stance [...] is not being anti-West. What we are asking for is that in as much as we should be critical in our social engagement in the local public arena, we ought also to be critical in our engagement with the Euro-North American world. This is not endorsing the status qou or glorifying all things Asian." (p.142)

In replacement, Koh proposes the metaphor of 'salt and light' that are "associated with food and energy" and hence might be better understood and appreciated. (p.143)

The fourth part of this book on 'Contemporary Engagements' comprises four essays. Two focus on China, one on Singapore, and one on Roman Catholic perspective on social engagement.

The first article in this section by Cao Shengjie, President of China Christian Council, is overlaid with angst over imperialistic injustice done on China. For example, this paragraph:
"Undoubtedly some [Western] missionaries were sincere in their beliefs and made some contribution in East-West cultural exchanges. However their missiological outlook was not in accordance with the truth of the gospel. They harmed the interests of the nation to which the Chinese believers belong, and separated them from their own compatriots. Their presentation of the 'gospel' made the majority of Chinese people reject Christianity and regard it as 'an alien religion'." (p.148-149)
For that, the author gives the impression that Chinese Christians reacted by combining nationalism with their Christian faith. For instance, Cao endorses this remark made by former Anglican Bishop Kuang-hsun Ting, who was the Chairperson of Three-Self Patriotic Movement and Cao's predecessor in the China Christian Council:
"'[T]he cosmic Christ bestows his grace to all people in the world'; 'there also exists truth, kindness and beauty outside of the church'; and 'Chinese Christians shall combine two 'Cs' together, namely Christ and China.'" (p.150. Emphasis added.)
This seems to me to be the logical end of the mistaken assumption that I have underlined in Lim Siong Guan's paper above. When religion is perceived as meant to be made as (Lim's words) "positive factor" for hegemonic purposes (in the case of imperial West) or national interest (in the case of China's angst over its colonial experience), the religion will be distorted to serve whoever that claims patronage over it. For the China Christian Council, Christ and China are to be combined.

I wonder isn't this the exact mirror-image of the distortion of Christianity made by Western imperialists that combined the gospel with imperialistic goals, which summed up in the phrase 'God, Gold and Glory'?

Apparently, the Chinese Christians in their reaction have assumed exactly in the likes of those they loath towards.

Nonetheless, Cao makes a good point that the notion that "Christian lives only for his own benefit in order to go to heaven after this world and that too much care about this world will weaken commitment to God" as "obstacles" for Christian social works. (p.152)

The following essay by Zhuo Xinping, the Director of the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, details the Christian contribution to China prior to 1949. Zhou lists four areas where Christian contributions are evident: (1) the spiritual cultivation of the Chinese people, (2) public education, (3) development of news and publication, and (4) social welfare and philanthropy.

Zhou recognizes that "Christianity should or could not be interpreted or represented by political images [i.e. imperialist aggression], which are at best partial. [...] [W]e can still discern or discover its light behind the political shadows." (p.167)

Richard Magnus, a Senior District Judge in Singapore, provides a framework based on local historical precedences of how Singaporean Christians can contribute to the society.

First, Christians' loyalty to the nation is "unquestioned". (p.172) Second, Singaporean Christian's work "is also to preserve the good gifts of a good creator: marriages, families, work and leisure, friendships, the inter-racial and inter-cultural community, the arts and our environment which enhance our quality of human life." (p.172) Third, Christians support national leaders by praying for them. Fourth, Christians should promote justice.

Fifth, Christians should encourage reconciliation and peace. Sixth, helping dysfunctional individuals. Seventh, promoting the sciences by participating in bioethics discussion. Eighth, helping societies in other countries, and ninth contributing to the society in love in instances like helping to deal with "social fallout and offer counseling for people with gambling problems" after the government decided to approve the building of two casinos in Singapore. (p.177)

I find Magnus's proposals puzzling, not least the last point. It gives the impression that the government expects the Churches to help clean up the mess it caused. And it is surprising that Magnus does not note whether the Churches obliges without giving a stern warning to the government of the severity of its decision.

Fr. Kenson Koh, the current Dean of Studies at St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary, offers the Roman Catholic perspective on Christian social engagement. He argued for a critical appraisal of globalisation which very much affects the economic and social landscape of Singapore.

Fr. Kenson focuses on the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity that form the Catholic's response to the present society. He emphasizes the need for "inculturation", a "dialogical process between the cultures and the ecclesial community for the growth and enrichment of persons," and the need to be vigilant that this process does not lead the Churches to end up either as arrogant or syncretic. (p.188)

The 'Concluding Reflections' contains three write-ups. The first one is by Oliver O'Donovan on the necessity of the Church's continuous effort in "testing, questioning and examining" the discourse on the relation between the Church and the society.

The second write-up is by Zhou Xinping on the role of Christianity in the construction of a harmonious society.

The final article is by Daniel Koh, that asserts the necessity for the state to know its place that it is not a religious authority that should trespasses into adjudicating the Church's concerns, implying that this should be the case even on issues that the Church disagrees with the decision of the state. On this basis, Koh questions some of the points made by Lim and Ye in their respective essays.

Overall, this is a relatively small book (206 pages) covering a huge discourse comprising various perspectives. It is unfair to view the author of each essay as a product of their profession, yet it is not difficult to sympathize with the author's concern if we associate it with his job. Those who hold or held government post (Cao, Lim, Magnus, Ye, and Zhuo) are expectedly not critical on their professional establishment or their ethos. At times, their essays give the impression that they are the publicist for the government. Hence contributions by others like O'Donovan, Koh, Hwa, and Poon are valuable not only for the points raised but also for their differing perspective from the former group. Nevertheless, all the articles are worth collecting as each presents a significant point of view on the relation between the Christians and society in a contextually sensitive manner.


Martin Yee said...


Cool. Thanks for great review. Is this book on sales at TTC book shop?


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

Glad the review is helpful. I think SKS bookshop still have one copy left. You can call them at 6227 9700 to check.

If SKS doesn't have, you can contact Trinity Theological College directly: Email to or call 6767 6677. They sell books over the reception counter on the 2nd floor.

Martin Yee said...

Thanks for info!


Sze Zeng said...

You're most welcome, Martin.