Sunday, March 31, 2013

Vinoth amnesia?

Vinoth Ramachandra has recently wrote a post titled 'Reformed amnesia?' on his blog and the Micah Mandate website in protest against "some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy”". I shall quote Vinoth's statement at length (emphasis added):
The Reformed Church tradition can boast of a rich heritage of social transformation, resistance to political tyranny, cultural engagement and ideological critique. Paradigmatic twentieth-century figures here are Abraham Kuyper (Netherlands), Karl Barth (Switzerland), Alan Boesak (South Africa). In the US, political philosophers such as Richard Mouw and Nicholas Wolterstorff have helped recover the centrality of justice to the Biblical narrative and Christian discipleship.

This goes back to John Calvin himself. He spoke boldly of the “wounds of God” not only with reference to the cross, but in terms of human beings as icons of God. For Calvin, notes Nicholas Wolterstorff, to injure a human being is to injure God; to commit injustice is to inflict suffering on God. “Behind and beneath the social misery of our world is the suffering of God. If we truly believed that, suggests Calvin, we would be much more reluctant than we are to participate in the victimizing of the poor and the oppressed and the assaulted of the world. To pursue justice is to relieve God’s suffering.” [Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Wounds of God: Calvin on Social Injustice”, The Reformed Journal, June 1987]

Not only did Calvin vigorously denounce corruption in the church, but also tyranny in the polity and huge inequalities of wealth in the economy. In his Commentary on Habakkuk 2:6, Calvin claims that the cries of the victims are the very cry of God. The lament “How long?” is God’s giving voice to his own lament. One rarely finds such thoughts expressed in Calvinist circles today!

Was Calvin the first liberation theologian? He has as good a claim as any. He persistently fought the City Council of Geneva for the rights of poor refugees, persuading them to provide adequate social welfare. He himself was often exiled, experienced severe deprivation and other indignities, which must have made him particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees and the downtrodden.

How strange, then, to hear some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy” while demonstrating little of Calvin’s heart. For these men (they are always men), the church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation.
Basically his complaint was that these pastors from the Reformed movement have been prioritizing the proclamation of "a message of individual salvation" and by so doing have deviated from the rich heritage set by John Calvin himself, namely the championing of "social transformation".

Then Vinoth went on (emphasis added):
But perhaps not so strange, once we recall that our personal experiences, social and political contexts, profoundly shape the way we read both Scripture and the world. That is one reason why we need to listen to each other in the global Body of Christ. Authentic Christian witness has to be ecumenical and trans-cultural. (Italics original)

We have a long way to go in developing such theological maturity despite all the deceptive language of “partnership” and “equipping”. Below is one example of the huge obstacles we face.

A group of North American pastors calling themselves The Gospel Coalition of International Outreach is engaged in what they call “a mission of Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church”. They state on their website: “We are partnering with translators, publishers, and missions networks to provide new access to biblical resources, in digital and physical formats. Our goal is to strengthen thousands of congregations by helping to equip the pastors and elders who are called to shepherd them.”

Sounds loving, until one asks: who decides who is theologically famished and who is not? who selects what “resources” to send the famished? who decides what constitutes “equipping” and who should be doing it? The answer is always the same. A small group of white, well-to-do American or British males. We have experienced such paternalistic, colonial “mission” before- others deciding what is the “Good News” for us, what is “sound doctrine”, which authors to read and whom to avoid, etc. They have exported their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders. The learning and theological traffic is all one-way.

Perhaps a day spent with leaders like Pope Francis or Desmond Tutu may be more useful for African pastors than all the “resources” from north America.
We get a better picture here that the Reformed "influential pastors in US and UK" whom Vinoth refers to are "a small group of white, well-to-do American or British males" of which The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is an example.

In other words, Vinoth is saying that certain contemporary Reformed pastors, such as those involved in TGC, have been prioritizing the proclamation of "a message of individual salvation" and by so doing have deviated from the rich heritage set by John Calvin himself, namely the championing of "social transformation". What is worse, to Vinoth, is that these Reformed pastors are exporting "their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders."

In a comment on his blog, Vinoth further reveals his failed attempt to get an audience from TGC. He is concern that such exclusiveness has likewise being exported to churches in the global south: 
"If you can get around the firewalls of these super-pastors and invite them and their fans to read my posts and engage with the likes of me, I would be delighted. I have tried and failed.

"Also the local churches in Asia which are linked to the GC have a reputation for being isolationist and exclusivist. They refuse to talk with- let alone work with- other churches and local theologians/institutions that do not share their views."  
I find Vinoth's post and comment problematic for three reasons. First, Vinoth's portrayal of John Calvin is questionable. Second, Vinoth's description of TGC is ignorant. Third, Vinoth's critique on TGC's exporting their theology is unfair.

1. Vinoth's 'John Calvin'
Vinoth portrays John Calvin as a liberation theologian and social activist who did not prioritize the proclamation of a message on individual salvation. Vinoth charges certain contemporary Reformed pastors, like those affiliated with TGC, to have abandoned this "rich heritage" for thinking that the "church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation".

What did Calvin say?
"Yet, whatever result may at length follow our efforts, there never will be reason to regret that we showed both pious and grateful obedience to God, and, what we will be able to relieve our sorrow even in the greatest catastrophes, that we faithfully served both the glory of Christ, which is preferable to all the kingdoms of the world, and the salvation of souls, which is more precious than the whole world."
(John Calvin, Concerning Scandals, trans. John W. Fraser [UK: St Andrew Press, 1978], p.115. Emphasis added.)

Commenting on Isaiah 2:3, Calvin wrote: "By these words he first declares that the godly will be filled with such an ardent desire to spread the doctrines of religion, that every one not satisfied with his own calling and his personal knowledge will desire to draw others along with him. And indeed nothing could be more inconsistent with the nature of faith than that deadness which would lead a man to disregard his brethren [...]. The greater the eminence above others which any man has received from his calling so much the more diligently ought he to labor to enlighten others. This points out to us also the ordinary method of collecting a Church, which is, by the outward voice of men; for though God might bring each person to himself by a secret influence, yet he employs the agency of men, that he may awaken in them an anxiety about the salvation of each other."
(Emphasis added.)

Commenting on Psalm 109:16, Calvin wrote: "...as we cannot distinguish between the elect and the reprobate, it is our duty to pray for all who trouble us; to desire the salvation of all men; and even to be careful for the welfare of every individual." (Emphasis added.)

Commenting on John 1:40, Calvin wrote: "The circumstance of Andrew immediately bringing his brother expresses the nature of faith, which does not conceal or quench the light, but rather spreads it in every direction. Andrew has scarcely a spark, and yet, by means of it, he enlightens his brother. Woe to our indolence, therefore, if we do not, after having been fully enlightened, endeavor to make others partakers of the same grace."
(Emphasis added.)

Commenting on Mark 8:12, Calvin wrote: "By these words Mark informs us that it occasioned grief and bitter vexation to our Lord, when he saw those ungrateful men obstinately resist God. And certainly all who are desirous to promote the glory of God, and who feel concern about the salvation of men, ought to have such feelings that nothing would inflict on their hearts a deeper wound than to see unbelievers purposely blocking up against themselves the way of believing, and employing all their ingenuity in obscuring by their clouds the brightness of the word and works of God."
(Emphasis added.)

In his sermon on 1 Timothy 2:3-5, Calvin wrote: "God will have His grace made known to all the world, and His gospel preached to all creatures. Therefore, we must endeavor, as much as possible, to persuade those who are strangers to the faith, and seem to be utterly deprived of the goodness of God, to accept of salvation."
(Emphasis added.)

"For God there is nothing higher than the preaching of the gospel... because it is the means to lead people to salvation."
(John Calvin, Supplementa Calviniana, Sermons inedits, ed. Erwin Mulhaupt [Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag der Buchhandlung des Erziehungsvereins, 1961], 8:21, quoted in Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life [USA: IVP Academic, 2009], p.111. Emphasis added.)
From the quotations above, we know that Calvin certainly prioritized the proclamation of a message of individual salvation (or in his parlance, the "salvation of souls"). Due to his missionary enthusiasm, the Genevan church's mission expanded tremendously. As Bruce Gordon wrote:
"In the years between 1555 and 1562 just under a hundred ministers left the relative safety of Geneva and the Vaud to face appaling risks; they travelled in clandestine manner to avoid detection, and knew that capture meant torture and death. [...] Calvin recognized the opportunities and the challenges and sought to educate the ministers as best he could [...]. Calvin was involved in every aspect of this missionary activity. He taught scripture to the ministers, oversaw their pastoral training in Geneva, Neuchatel and the Vaud, examined them and presented them to the council. [...] During the years 1560-1 the growth of the Reformed churches in France was nothing short of spectacular. In Rouen about 20 per cent of the population had embraced the faith."
(Bruce Gordon, Calvin [USA: Yale University Press, 2009], pp.312-315.)
This is not to dismiss Calvin's social activism but to point out his enthusiam in missionary work and his prioritization of proclaming the message of salvation. As shown in one of the quotations above, Calvin even saw that nothing is higher for God than the preaching of the gospel which leads people to salvation. 
 
It is unfortunate that Vinoth had to make John Calvin into his own image to suit his complaint against some contemporary Reformed pastors. To think about it, it is rather ironic that Vinoth is presenting a false picture of Calvin in the world-wide-web while accusing some Reformed pastors for exporting "their theological blind-spots" to the global south. 

2. Vinoth's TGC
The Reformed movement, of which TGC is part of, traces their heritage back to Calvin (some to Zwingli). If Calvin had indeed prioritized the proclamation of a message of individual salvation while remained a social activist, then it is only fair for those in the present who claimed to be guardians of Reformed orthodoxy to follow suit. 

As far as I can see, those involved in TGC are faithful to Calvin and the Reformed tradition in that they see the church's mission as primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation while maintaining social activism.

The reason why Vinoth does not see certain contemporary Reformed pastors (of which some are involved with TGC) following the footsteps of Calvin is because Vinoth has a wrong impression of the magisterial reformer. In other words, Vinoth's critique is based on his own mistake.

Besides, it seems that Vinoth has no idea what TGC is about. The coalition's theological vision for ministry lists 5 characteristics of a gospel-centred ministry: (1) Empowered corporate worship, (2) Evangelistic effectivenes, (3) Counter–cultural community, (4) The integration of faith and work, and (5) The doing of justice and mercy.
 
As reported of its first national conference in 2007, TGC aims to create "an evangelical movement led by churches that grow by multiplying, preach with theological substance and winsome apologetics, encourage holiness among members, engage their communities in areas such as politics and art, and even share economic resources and welcome the poor."

TGC is more holistic than the one portrayed by Vinoth. One (like myself) does not need to be affiliated with TGC to see the wrong in Vinoth's misrepresentation of the group.
 
3. Vinoth's Unfair Critique on TGC's International Outreach
Vinoth critiques TGC's International Outreach as "paternalistic, colonial “mission”" that reproduces "carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders." 

Vinoth stated rhetorically,
"who decides who is theologically famished and who is not? who selects what “resources” to send the famished? who decides what constitutes “equipping” and who should be doing it? The answer is always the same. A small group of white, well-to-do American or British males. We have experienced such paternalistic, colonial “mission” before- others deciding what is the “Good News” for us, what is “sound doctrine”, which authors to read and whom to avoid, etc. They have exported their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders. The learning and theological traffic is all one-way."
First, I think Vinoth is aware that one of the resources that TGC is sponsoring is a book written by Vinoth's own countryman, Ajith Fernando. If so, how can one just dismiss TGC's project as paternalistic and colonizing?

Of course Vinoth can argue that Ajith though a Sri Lankan is a colonized theological victim. If that is the case, we have to ask Vinoth, so who is not a theological victim to him? Only those who accept Vinoth's false portrayal of John Calvin is considered "real leader"?

Second, TGC's project is not "colonizing" in the sense of forcing people to accept what they have to offer. People are free to ask for the resources. TGC does not demand those who accept these free resources to commit to their doctrinal statement. How is this being theological colonizing? 

If so, then am I being paternalisitc and colonializing when I buy Vinoth's books and give them to a friend for free? Or I am being paternalistic and colonializing only when I buy books authored by TGC's members and pass them around for free? 

Besides, how is passing books written by white well-to-do American and British males is paternalistic and colonializing, while passing books written in English by a Sri Lankan who holds doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering from University of London is less so?

I think it is unfair to categorize people as paternalistic and colonializing only when they pass TGC's books around, and not so when it comes to Vinoth's books. If this is what Vinoth thinks, then it is (again) ironic for someone who champions fairness can be so unfair.

In his comment, Vinoth said that he failed to get an audience with the TGC members and hence they are "isolationist" and "exclusivist", a resemblance he noticed in Asian groups that are linked to TGC. But is not the case that any correspondence between two willing persons needs, well, two willing persons?

Can we fault people as isolationist and exclusivist simply because they do not want to talk to us? It requires a huge ego to think that people should talk to us no matter what. Of course, we can ascribe impoliteness to those who do not want to talk to us even after we initiated the correspondence. But not so much of "isolationist" and "exclusivist", I think.

Anyway, someone who is affiliated with TGC has notified Vinoth of his availability to talk.

These are the problems that I have observed in Vinoth's post. Agree, disagree?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Interview by New Mandala on Malaysia's upcoming General Election

Australian National University's New Mandala is interviewing people for "views on the two coalitions vying for power at the 13th general election in Malaysia". Here are the questions:

1. What do you think will be the most important issue that the new government must address?

2. What do you think is Barisan Nasional’s greatest strength?

3. What do you think is Barisan Nasional’s greatest weakness?

4. What do you think is Pakatan Rakyat’s greatest strength?

5. What do you think is Pakatan Rakyat’s greatest weakness?

6. What is your hope for Malaysia?

My view is published today. For those interested, you can read it here.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Presbyterians' strange view on the sacred/secular divide

Do you all think it is strange that nowadays Presbyterians think and taught to think that the sanctuary in church building is not sacred (to avoid having congregational members think that the building is holy)... But on the other hand, think and taught to think that their secular work outside of the church is sacred (with all the prevailing 'theology of work' and the notion that there is no distinction between sacred/secular and private/public going around)?

Have you come across this tendency among Presbyterians to vacate sacredness from the spot for Sunday service, yet insert sacredness in the everyday routine of work and family life?

It seems that the notion of 'priesthood of all believers' has made everything, everywhere, and everyday priestly except things in the sanctuary, the sanctuary itself, and Sunday.

And then we wonder why congregational members is so slack during Sunday service in their late arrival to service, reluctant to participate in ministries, don't see a point in attending prayer meeting, and read their phones during sermon. While they arrive early for work meeting, active in volunteering in company's events, switch off their phones during business meeting, etc.

Of course this observation is not confined only among the Presbyterians, but across the local Protestant communities.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Our belief in and suspicion over authority

Take Sherman Kuek, the Director of the Diocesan Pastoral Institute, as an example. On one hand, he is very suspicious of those in powerful offices,
"The truth is, I don't need any politician to preach 1Malaysia at me. There are very good people in Malaysia - non-political people - who recognise our differences in colour, culture and religion, and who celebrate these diversities. My own religion has preached 1Humanity long before the very political entities who polarised the races in Malaysia started ironically preaching 1Malaysia.

"I believe in Malaysia. But leaders, I don't believe in you."
On another hand, he has no qualm pledging all allegiance to whoever who occupies the papal office, the most powerful office in the Roman Catholic church (emphasis added):
"...there is no need to for me to announce so overtly that I intend to render my unconditional obedience to this new pontiff. It is an understood reality. Whoever sits on the Chair of Peter is the supreme and universal shepherd of the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and deserves nothing less than my allegiance, my submission of intellect and will and even my religious assent. It is my intention to continue living the Catholic life and my vocation cleaving to the Petrine Office upon which the Church of Jesus Christ is built and continues to stand. This promise of obedience stands regardless of the man who holds the office and remains untainted by whatever subjective feelings or sentiments I may have about the man himself."
Most of us are suspicious of all office holders regardless whether religious or secular, yet at the same time recognize "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy" (Phil. 4:8) in any given moment in history. Therefore, we can celebrate the secular rulers as well as the Pope according to their merit, and distance from them according to their demerit. 

This meritocratic position is not to be played into the binary between the community and the individual. It is not as if one has to give up entirely one's allegiance to a communal tradition nor be critical over everything except the individual self. 

What matters here is the recognition of merit/demerit which presumes the tentative three sequential basic beliefs: First, the authority discourse between scripture, tradition, experience, reason, and imagination; second, the fallibleness of all human persons except the God-Man; and third, the availability of common and special grace. It is from this recognition that we evaluate everything, including the basic beliefs themselves. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Boris Dittrich on the legislation development of civil marriage



Very interesting to hear Boris Dittrich (the Advocacy Director of the LGBT Rights Program of Human Rights Watch, and the politician who successfully fought for the world's first same-sex marriage in Netherlands) talks about changing forms of "civil marriage":
"We thought it might be psychologically better to first introduce registered partnerships. And it appeared to be a good decision, because once we have registered partnership in 1998, people got used to the idea that two men or two women went to the municipality, had their relationship recognised by the law.... So then the next step of marriage equality, and really being equal, was a logical step.... There is now a discussion in the Netherlands that sometimes people want to marry with 3 people or may be even more. But that is the beginning of something completely new. And that'll take a lot of years, I guess."
Why interesting? Because it resonates with my discussion with a local activist for the LGBT movement over the weekend. The activist lamented over the many censoring mechanisms put in place at various levels of the local society that bar LGBT from getting their voice heard and lifestyle recognized by the public. She said that there should be a public space provided for the LGBT to voice themselves so that they are heard. 

I told her that we should not stop at LGBT censorship. If we want to lift up censorship, why do we stop at LGBT? If the civil society should provide a space for the LGBT to be heard, I don't see why can't the civil society do the same for polygamist and various other arrangements?

The activist looked stunned, and hesitantly noded in agreement.

Then another person spoke up, "If we allow all kinds of the discussions to carry out, what we will have are just talks; when can the society act and move?"

That's precisely the point I wanted to drive at: Do we even know where should the society be moving towards with all the talks about 'civil society', 'equality', etc?

To the Christians, the clue lies in the canonical scripture and tradition.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Evangelism and interfaith engagement


I was at a recent interfaith conference and facilitated a session on 'Christian Mission and Interfaith Engagement'. One of the participants of my session was a Roman Catholic priest. I thought it was very interesting to hear him say that Christians are not tasked to carry out Matthew 28:18-20. The priest mentioned that the apostle Paul asked us to share the "good news" but if we seek to evangelise by inviting people to consider Christianity, then that is not good news. 

I disagreed with him respectfully. I remarked that the very word "good news" is 'euangelion' in Greek, and when used in the New Testament it is referring to the message of Jesus Christ. In fact it is from the word 'euangelion' we get 'evangelism', 'evangelical', evangelization', 'evangelist', etc. Besides, apostle Paul's entire life testifies to the mission to evangelise.

I found my encounter very interesting because what the priest said was in direct disagreement with what Pope Benedict XVI wrote to all Roman Catholic bishops September last year:
Jesus Christ desired to entrust the mission of proclaiming the Gospel first of all to the body of Pastors who must work together and with the Successor of Peter (cf. ibid., n. 23), so that it may reach all people. This is particularly urgent in our time which requires you to be bold in inviting people of every state to encounter Christ and to consolidate their faith (cf. Christus Dominus, n. 12).
Between the Roman Catholic Pope and a priest, who is more representative of the Roman Catholic church?

It is perfectly understandable for those who are involved in interfaith engagement to feel compelled to reject the mission to evangelise. But one can see this as the other around too: Those who reject the mission to evangelise are attracted and more enthusiastic to involve in interfaith engagement.

My session was crafted precisely to address the seemingly tension between Christian mission and Christians' participation in interfaith work. Christian mission and interfaith engagement go along hand-in-hand out of our gratitude to God's love for us and our love for others.

Besides the Roman Catholic priest, there were Buddhists, agnostics, Protestant Christians, and others who attended the session. I hope I managed to accomplish what the session was set out to do given the diverse nature of the group. And it was assuring that one of the participants, who was not a Christian, told me that the session was clear.