Side Views

The pulpit, the pastor and politics — Rama Ramanathan

APRIL 26 — There’s a debate going on among Malaysian Christians. It’s about preachers and their sermons. It’s about what’s appropriate in a sermon, and what’s not. It’s about politics of the partisan kind.

The question being debated is “Should those who step into the pulpits of churches and address millions in Malaysia every Sunday tell their audiences whom to vote for?” Variations of the question include this: “Should Christians participate in Bersih 3.0?” [Bob Teoh addressed the Bersih question admirably in his article in The Malaysian Insider.]

In an article in The Star, Steve Roads proposed that churchmen should focus on fixing their church problems and turn a blind eye to what’s going on “outside”, for that’s the task of others. Alwyn Lau, in The Malaysian Insider, pointed out the problems with Steve’s position: being “apolitical” is actually being “political”, and there’s nothing inconsistent about saying from the pulpit what’s said in coffeeshops. I’d like to add a historical perspective.

Many older Malaysian Christians believe a precept of their religion is that faith and politics should be kept separate. This belief is best illustrated by an example.

Once, an older member of one church chastised me for commending a young preacher’s mention of the first Anwar trial in a sermon. The older member criticised the “politicking” of the preacher. The preacher had pointed out the many changes — during the course of Anwar’s trial — in the date on which Anwar was alleged to have committed the offence.

The preacher’s point was that you can’t produce an alibi if you don’t know when you’re accused of committing an offence, and that the multiple changes signalled sloppy work by the police and the prosecutor. What my preacher friend and I viewed as a commentary on justice was regarded by another as politics-from-the-pulpit.

That, I think, is the nub of the matter. What’s politics and what’s justice/human rights?

We live in a period when youths are underemployed and angry; a period when rich bankers have been bailed out and poor pensioners have been and continue to be robbed; a period when ruling politicians and their kids live lives of luxury without labour: ruling politicians will not declare their assets, while opposition politicians have already done so.

Many young people in Malaysian churches are frustrated. They think the church has become irrelevant. They think the church is too inward looking, too focused on “ministry” of the kind which solemnises things and events (cars, houses, births, funerals, sickness, weddings) and too little on urging renovation of people’s lives. They see pastors as men who make a living pleasing their church committees, not Christ.

This I think is because members of these committees are often people who became rich by getting favours or contracts from the government’s spending frenzy to build things we don’t need (just think of the Formula 1 race track, the 100-storey tower and the excesses of Putrajaya). And who neglected to speak out on issues like the abuse of foreign workers, the lack of minimum wage laws, the Lingam factor in the appointment of judges, etc.

Many in church committees — which often dictate terms to pastors — are more Christ-dressers than Christ-followers; they are “blessing-oriented”, not Kingdom-oriented. Their idea of a cross to bear is their children having to go to public school because they can’t afford to go pay for private, preferably international, schools.

The church, at the behest of committees and with often cowering pastors, stepped out of public life and withdrew from real engagement with the world. It forgot its history. It’s now paying the price: the children are turning against the parents.

The death knell for churches was sounded when the government took over mission schools and replaced principals who expressed their awareness of history by resisting government efforts to “revive” the syllabus and “restructure” schools. The “power principals” were replaced with “putty principals”: more concerned about privilege and promotions. Education is all about power and politics!

When the church exited politics, it exited the world and became irrelevant. If my religion doesn’t impact the way I relate to my neighbour, how does it please God, let alone my neighbour? If Christians don’t embrace politics, how can they foster community life?

As John Stott, famously put it: “Politics is the art of living together in community.”

We don’t speak of Christian countries any more. Today, Americans, Brits, Dutch, French, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, etc. do not claim their nations are “Christian”. So it’s easy to forget that these nations applied the Christian principle of human dignity to create the conditions for living together in community. (This is not to say they were angelic: after all, the bulk of the “visitors” were Christ-dressers: brutal, greedy, rapacious colonists; the Christ-followers were most often school teachers and churchmen.)

You can’t separate religion from community life. Even in America, much as they would like to erase Christian evidences and influence from public life, they can’t escape history: America was built upon the Christian understanding that “all are equal.” There’s nothing natural about equality: just ask the millions of Indians today who still observe caste.

Communities can be built on the wrong bases. There are extreme cases which well illustrate the point: caste-ist India, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, most Middle Eastern countries (which are ruled by sometimes benevolent dictators). The Church has something to say about this.

The Christian is a sojourner, just a camper on earth, whose real home is in another dimension. A Christian is a subject of the Kingdom of God first, and subject of earthly rulers second. The Christian believes God, the Great Shepherd, has appointed some to watch over and guide His sheep, i.e. those who claim to belong to be Christ-followers.

According to the Bible, every Christian has a “pastor”, poimen in Greek, a “shepherd”.

Pastors are appointed by the church to lead and to instruct Christians; they are “called” by God through the congregation and their call is confirmed by the church, often through services of ordination — after which they are usually called “Reverend”.

Pastors are expected to be faithful in prayer, study, obedience and in instructing their congregations on what it means to be God-pleasing. After the reformation (birth of the protestant Christian movement), and thanks to the invention of printing, some pastors became well-known influences upon politics and politicians.

In Switzerland, Pastor John Calvin (1509-1564) had much to do with the structure of government in Geneva, which was later replicated across Switzerland and elsewhere.

In Scotland, Pastor John Knox (1514-1572) once told Queen Mary that she was a member of his parish and so was subject to him! Pastor Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), of whom it was said,: “He was always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechising, always writing and studying,” wrote Rex Lex, “The Law, the King,” which argued for limits on government and revisions to the ideas of divine rights of kings. Rex Lex is considered foundational for constitutional studies.

In the Netherlands, Pastor Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was even prime minister.

During WWII, many pastors became well known. Some for their complicity with the Nazis, others for their opposition to the Nazis. Of the former, little is remembered; of the latter, the best known is Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

Other pastors whose lives have been documented and celebrated include Trevor Huddleston, whom I have written about; Festo Kivengere (Anglican, Uganda, 1919-1988); Oscar Romero (Catholic, San Salvador, 1917-1980). These men were bishops, i.e. pastors of pastors.

Martin Luther King Jr (whom I wrote about, re: Bersih 2.0) was a Baptist pastor.

I said “have been documented and celebrated” because there are many who have not been, but whose contributions have been significant, e.g. Cambodian pastors martyred in the days of Pol Pot; American pastors who developed Negro spirituality and influenced other pastors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Chinese pastors who turned Mao Zedong’s prisons into seminaries; and those who continue to be behind bars in many countries today.

So, when “practising Christians” say politics should be kept out of pulpits, I wonder whether they are ignorant of history or whether they simply wish to be left alone to enjoy the idol they have made of the church, in their own image.

As for me, I call on pastors to be true to their callings and remember their forbears. The Great Shepherd and a long line of his appointees identified with the oppressed against the rich and the religious. Can we do any less? See you at Bersih 3.0.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.


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