Originally published on Nov 2014
In the 1990s Christian engagement in the public square meant responding to White Papers or Parliamentary Bills. A multidisciplinary study group would get together, and often under time pressure, study the issue and then write a paper to be submitted to Parliament. I remember attending a workshop at an international conference around that time where I was kindly, but firmly, chided by the Korean facilitator for being a wimpy Singaporean Christian for not taking a more aggressive stand in public as a Christian.
These days, engagement in the public square is as easy as posting a provocative piece on one’s Facebook page, preferably ideas that both challenge a national institution and are about sexuality. My sense is that a piece about injustices experienced by a foreign worker at the hands of his Singaporean employer may not receive the same excitement. The technological means by which views can be expressed publicly and ‘go viral’ is one reason that voicing opinions in public is both instant and disseminates quickly. The means, methods and context of engaging in the public square have changed from 20 years ago. And previously where a few people huddled together to write a thoughtful paper which pooled together their collective wisdom, now one voice on social media can start a storm in a tea cup.
What is said in public sways public opinion. The arguments may or may not be well thought through, and often on social media there is not much space for nuance or an involved argument. Sometimes it is the mere fact that so many people seem to agree with this opinion and so it must therefore be right, that sways people’s opinions and including those of Christians. But many issues are complex and need to draw on various threads in order to do justice to the issue. Social media does not lend itself to these details and there is little space for, or patience with, such involved argument. So for example, while we abhor gender stereotypes, we should also discuss what it means to be human, to be male and female and how we relate respectfully across genders. But we give so little time in these conversations; it’s so much more fun just to poke fun at the faults of others.
I suggest two reasons why discourse is quite thin. First the Christian faith today has become highly privatised, that is, my beliefs are for my private comfort and my personal assurance of salvation. My Christian faith does not affect my work, or how I use my smartphone, or the movies I watch, or how I drive. Secondly and following from this, discipleship and church life, to meet the increasing pressures in society, is packaged in palatable sound bites and on “spiritual matters.” Little time is spent in discussing the issues of the day from a Christian worldview so as to gain a Christian perspective. Furthermore, involvement in the community is often undertaken as a means towards some higher spiritual end and not as contributing to the common good.
Now, more than ever, Christians and the church need a framework to engage in the public square. Engagement includes proclamation and postures, appropriate language and an understanding of the rules and dynamics of engagement. These are determined by the context; and hence my Korean friend who opined that I was a wimpy Singaporean was surely judging me by the standards of the more aggressive Korean posture of engagement of the early 1990s.
Today on one level, engagement by Christians in Singapore requires creativity and an element of being subversive to challenge popularly held views. At other levels, engagement has to be couched in language and concepts which are acceptable to the general public while being informed by Christian beliefs. Over all these, Christians must be clear as to why they engage: often it is to inform, sometimes it is to present alternative views, rarely is it to convert. This posture thus shapes our words and actions.
For evangelical Christians the framework and the methods of engagement are to be informed by the Word. Scripture has much to say about how we live in society (“you are the light of the world”, Matt 5:14) and how we are to do so (“always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have…do this with gentleness and respect”, 1 Peter 3:15). But more than this, there are concepts like community and citizenship and justice which surely have a bearing on our collective lives today.
Martin Luther King had a dream of the equality of all human beings, so that they could eat together and where people were judged by character and not skin colour. His dream not only propelled him in his work to shape society of his day, but also inspired others. Our dream for Singapore may be different, but we also need dreams to provoke and excite us and stir us to action.
As Christians, what is our dream for this nation as she enters her Jubilee year? And what steps can we take to make those dreams real? Engagement in society should not be only a reaction but should also be positive contributions that shape and mould this country to be a beautiful place to live. We seek the shalom, the peace and prosperity of this city.
DR. KWA KIEM KIOK
Kiem-Kiok, is Lecturer in missiology and interdisciplinary studies. She brings her legal and theological training, as well as work experience in marketplace, church and para-church organisations into this role. Previously she was lecturer and registrar at East Asia School of Theology where she taught a variety of courses in intercultural studies. She has published on a diverse range of subjects including a contextual commentary on Matthew(ATA, 2017), contributed to the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Zondervan, 2011) as well as on religious harmony in Faith in an Age of Terror (BGST, 2018). She and her husband, a Methodist pastor, enjoy walking in the outdoors.