Monday, September 21, 2015

Penang's culling of stray dogs: Why the outrage?

The present outrage over the culling of stray dogs in Penang has not shown how "animal rights" can be defended consistently. Yes, it is emotionally offensive. But why so?

I think this emotional offense is enabled by the implied assumption that dogs are more precious than pigs and chicken. But again, why so?

On one hand, there are animal rights advocates who lobby for the protection of animals' natural habitat, and so humans must not intervene. For instance, they went the extent of advocating the killing of baby polar bear Knut when it was abandoned by its mother. By saving the bear, as they argued, we are intruding nature.

On the other hand, there are those who lobby for the protection of animals not according to their natural habitat but according to how we treat humans. These advocates argue that we must not only protect the animals, but we must treat them as if they are humans. We must clean, feed, and dress them as how we do to humans. Some animals are even better treated than humans. As one of the 50 animal lovers who gathered at Esplanade last night called the stray dogs her "babies" and "family", which is an obvious example of their attempt to "humanize" animals. This latter group disagrees with the former by questioning the "natural" way of things, with the world famous animal-rights philosopher Peter Singer dismisses it as "an error of reasoning in the assumption that because this process is natural it is right."

From a theological point of view, such outrage (which resembles the reaction against Yulin's dog meat festival) shows that we have lost the idea of human uniqueness in relation to animals. We talk so much about eco-balance, but we have no idea where the scale is tipping towards.

Due to this, we are vulnerable to either "naturalize" animals to the extent of completely allowing the cause of nature to take its place, or "humanize" animals to the extent of treating them as if they are humans even though our treatment contradicts their habitat.

One should be reminded of what Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek calls the "radical ecology" which understands nature not as serene, balanced, and harmonious existence. Rather, nature is constantly in flux and subjected to intervention and manipulation.

If so, how then can we even begin to understand nature? This is the question that Oxford professor Alister McGrath asks, "How can we construct a philosophy based on nature, when nature has already been constructed by our philosophical ideas?" McGrath's own answer may not satisfy the secular or irreligious mind of the multi-cultural public as he approaches it from a religious point of view.

Nonetheless, it is clear that unless we have the answer to the question of "nature", we cannot simply and arbitrarily elevate one species (dog) over above others (pig, chicken, cow, lamb, etc).

Unfortunately, many are carried away by the emotional offenses they feel and lobby for and against things that they have yet to approach in a sensibly or reasonably robust manner.

It seems that animal lovers are contented to cry and shout at the Penang State government via social media, vigil, and press conference rather than to have civil discussion based on reason as humans should do.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Theological ethics and 'WWJD'

When Christians hear "WWJD" (what would Jesus do?) preached as principle/guideline for life, they should ask:

- is the preacher married, or looking forward to start a family? Because Jesus didn't.

- does the preacher owns a property, or servicing a mortgage, or looks forward to own one? Because the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

The point: theological ethics cannot be simplified as WWJD abstracted from Paul's phrase "imitate me for I imitate Christ". The phrase refers to the precedent things Paul said in 1 Cor. 10, which he wanted his readers to imitate. So not in all things.

This means there's no easy way to theological ethics except through the cumbersome task of theologizing, which is often neglected (for better or worse) for the sake of "pastoral" expediency.

Is "Jesus is Lord" a political claim?

Stanley Hauerwas famously says:  "[The phrase] 'Jesus is Lord' is not my personal opinion; I take to be a determinative political claim."

I think that's true only when we assume that the purpose of politics is to bring about the eschaton. This is what some theologians call "over-realized eschatology".

It's wrong as John 18:36 and Luke 17:20-21 tell us that God's kingdom's policy does not materialize in this world. But politics' policy does. If there's convergence between kingdom's and politics' policy, it's coincidental and temporal until the end of (in Augustinian phrase) "secular" time.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Bersih 4 (29-30 August 2015)

Bracing the scorch of day and cold of night,
to pave a way for a future bright.

Walking from National Mosque to Merdeka Square,
drenched in sweat with hope we wear.

Sitting on the floor under the LRT track,
with thousands more having each others' back.

Seeing Malays, Chinese, Indians, and all,
singing songs that breach racial wall.

Bersih! Bersih! We cry out loud,
demanding transparency, justice, and equality now.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Origin of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" language

The most famous phrase by the father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith that illustrates the pragmatic logic of market ideology is (for better or worse) adopted from Christian theological language of divine providence.

Hugh Binning (1627–1653) was a Scottish Presbyterian philosopher and theologian at Glasgow University.

(H/T: Prof. Peter Harrison @uqpharri's Tweet:

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Give us a transparent government
Several of us from the Penang state government are now in Kerala, India to attend a week-long cross-cultural learning. After 9 hours of traveling, the first thing we looked for at the airport was not food or toilet but mobile data plan! 

While in a telco shop listening to the heavily Malayalam-accented sales pitch given by the promoter, I could sense our entourage’s anxiety in not knowing whether were we being conned or given a real good deal. There was no official contract shown to us, but a brochure highlighting 4G speed. All that we are told to give them 500 Rupees (RM30) and they will give us mobile data. And there was no receipt. 

After waited until the next working day for our registration verified, we finally had access to mobile data. But only at 2.5G speed, slower than the publicised 4G. There is nothing we can do about it. 

One obvious lesson I learnt from this is the need for transparency. 

Recently Y.B. Datuk Paul Low, our Minister in-charge of governance and integrity, has commented that the federal government is not ready to provide official information to the public. He raised questions on the demand for more openness as akin to wanting the government to be ‘naked’ and so is similar to promoting pornography. He also cited the lack of administrative structure in place to facilitate public access to official data as another reason why the federal government cannot be transparent. 

In one broad stroke, Datuk Low has dismissed the need for the federal government which has ruled the country for more than half a century to work on being transparent to the public. While Penang and Selangor, ruled by the opposition for less than a decade, have already put in place a law to allow the public to have access to official data. 

We are not talking about 500 Rupees telco service here but financial scandals amounting billions of public funds and implicating top officials. All that we ask for is more transparency from the federal administration so that the public can protect the country from further mismanagement. 

However, such request is denied by the very minister whose responsibility is to enhance the government’s integrity. 

It makes me wonder if Datuk Low’s actual portfolio is to protect the federal government’s integrity by sweeping the dirt underneath the carpet so that everything looks fine, and discourage others from discovering and cleaning the dirt? 

When it comes to public administration, transparency expresses integrity and integrity strengthens governance. 

We may be conned by others at other places, and we cannot do anything about it. But for Malaysia, we want it to be ruled by a transparent government which is committed to be held accountable by the public.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Back to Singapore during SG50 weekend

I went back to Singapore over the SG50 weekend.

After being away for 4 weeks, it was a relief when I walked into Changi airport's toilet and found that the soap dispenser actually had soap and worked!

In fact, the soap dispensers in every public toilets that I entered were likewise functional. This is rare in Malaysia.

I managed to catch the "LKY" musical, which is based on Lee Kuan Yew's life, from his schooling days until Singapore's independence.

I left the theatre feeling happy for Singapore. But sad for Malaysia.

Singapore is what Malaysia could have been. Or vice versa, as determined by historical circumstances and national leadership.

Speaking of the latter, the late Lee Kuan Yew and his fellow founding fathers of Singapore are to be acknowledged. Their tireless works have left traces throughout the island. Their legacy pervades through generations.

In fact, it was Lee Kuan Yew's now-immortalized words that have largely prompted me to relocate back to Penang after having spent 12 years in Singapore: "At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life."

His dedication and vision have made Singapore into what she is today. He and Singapore are great inspiration to the developing world.

Therefore, I rejoice together with Singaporeans in their golden jubilee for what their wonderful nation stands for. There is much Penang can and should learn from.

Perhaps one day, the soap dispensers in Malaysia will contain soap and work too.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

How to relate faith and science?

As I was clearing my office, I realized that I have bought books to help me form my own understanding on the relationship between faith and science.

So, how to relate faith and science? I think there are 4 ways.

First, we learn about the nature and limit of scientific inquiry. Two professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have published works on this: Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism (Fiat, 2011) by Professor of Nuclear Science & Engineering Ian Hutchinson, and Certainty: Is Science All You Need? (Veritas, 2014) by Professor of Chemistry Troy Van Voorhis.

Both of them point out the limitation of scientific inquiry to attain truth, exposing the prevalent yet mistaken belief that only science can produce true knowledge or certainty (a.k.a. ‘scientism’). British scientist Rupert Sheldrake in The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012) and American philosopher Thomas Nagel in Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012) make similar point.

The Professor Emeritus of Physics at Open University Russell Stannard and Professor of Computer and Information Science at City University of New York Noson Yanofsky in their respective The End of Discovery: Are We Approaching the Boundaries of the Knowable? (Oxford University Press, 2010) and The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us (MIT Press, 2013) highlight several areas of inquiry that scientific method could not investigate, and so cautioning the public from having blind faith in science to give answer to all questions.

David Goodstein, the former Vice Provost at California Institute of Technology, has drawn from his experience of investigating allegations of scientific misconduct to produce the book On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science (Princeton University Press, 2010). He detailed how the scientific enterprise is not as objective as many would like to believe, that science is actually a very human endeavour that is filled with subjective interest, agenda, and belief. And often, it is not easy to differentiate actual scientific fact from its misrepresentation. Many scientific reports are taken to be truthful by the sheer act of faith. Alexander Unzicker and Sheilla Jones have recorded many such cases in ‘Bankrupting Physics: How Today's Top Scientists are Gambling Away Their Credibility’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

This first approach reveals the reality of the scientific enterprise in all its usefulness and weaknesses in achieving and publicizing real knowledge. Faith is found in the whole enterprise. In fact, the very advancement of scientific experimentation requires certain dogmas to be accepted before it can be conducted.

The second way to relate faith and science is by learning the broad history of scientific development. The three classical texts are David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450 (University of Chicago Press, 2nd edition, 2007), Edward Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion:  Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

These works show that modern science didn’t come into the world out of nowhere. Rather, it is a product of a long historical process where faith and the investigation of reality are more often intertwined than separated. In many cases, it was faith that motivated and sustained scientific inquiry. Therefore what we call ‘science’ today is a profoundly circumstantial enterprise.

If these 3 works appear too academic, there are 4 books on the same topic that are more accessible: John Losee’s A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2001), Owen Gingerich’s God’s Planet (Harvard University Press, 2014), Ronald Numbers’ Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2010), and John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2008).

The third way to make sense of faith and science is to learn how theology can be done in a ‘scientific’ manner. This exercise enables us to see how faith and science can work together to advance collective knowledge about the world and ourselves.

For examples, J. Wentzel van Huysteen’s interdisciplinary study on human uniqueness in Alone in the World?: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Eerdmans, 2006), Philip Hefner’s proposal on the ways and benefits of collaboration between faith and science in The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Fortress, 1993), Alister McGrath’s research on doctrinal development by interacting with philosophy and science in The Order of Things:  Explorations in Scientific Theology (Blackwell, 2006), John Polkinghorne’s study on the binary relation in Science and Theology: An Introduction (Fortress, 1998), Tom McLeish’s study on the theological purpose of science and the scientific wisdom of theology in Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford University Press, 2014), and Andrew Steane’s work on the dynamics between science and belief in Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion (Oxford University Press, 2014).

The fourth way to relate faith to science is by learning about the sociological and personal account of scientists who practice religious faith. Willem Dress' Religion and Science in Context: A Guide to the Debates (Routledge, 2010) highlights cultural factors that influence how we relate faith and science. The ground-breaking work Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press, 2010) by Elaine Howard Ecklund shows that many scientists are also people with faith. The volume Faith in Science: Scientists Search for Truth (Routledge, 2001) edited by W. Mark Richardson and Gordy Slack contains interviews with scientists across various religions on how they see their scientific work in view of their faith and vice versa.

As for personal account, one can see how faith and science are related from the story of John Polkinghorne, who was previously a Professor of Theoretical Physics at University of Cambridge before becoming an ordained Anglican priest, through his own From Physicist to Priest: An Autobiography (SPCK, 2007) and biography by Dean Nelson and Karl Giberson Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion (Monarch, 2011).

Lastly, there are many easily accessible books written on this subject. I would personally recommend the following: God’s Undertaker:  Has Science Buried God? (Lion, 2007) by Oxford’s mathematician John Lennox, Pascal’s Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding (Oneworld, 2006) and Why There Almost Certainly Is A God: Doubting Dawkins (Lion, 2008) by London's philosopher Keith Ward, and Big Bang, Big God: A Universe Designed for Life? (Lion, 2013) by Cambridge's astrophysicist and priest Rodney Holder.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jesus and Paul may not be as 'pro-family' as we like to believe

It is the time of the year again when the topic on "family" is widely discussed, due to the Pink Dot gathering on 13 June 2015. The "Wear White For Family" movement has gathered momentum in response, especially among Christians.

There are widespread assumptions about what "family" is among Christians. It is commonly perceived that family is about a tightly knitted group of members who share the same gene pool (through procreation done within the confine of faithful and lasting marriage) that commits to spend weekends together, support and care for one another, celebrate each other's birthday, and if possible enjoy overseas vacation annually. And of course, to do all these consistently, the family members (especially the parents) have to be educated, socially adaptive and economically driven.

This is the prevalent social imaginary of what family means. And among other things, it is also a significant contributor to a country's annual GDP. Christians likewise think that this is what our religion teaches about family.

Nonetheless, what does the New Testament really teach? Here are some thoughts to consider.

1. Jesus may not be as pro-family as we would like to think.
There are three instances where Jesus teaches against family ties. First, Jesus strongly objects against those who want to maintain their family ties at home while at the same time wanting to be his disciples:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)
Second, Jesus dismisses the blessedness of parent-child relationship in favor of obedience to God:
Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:27-28)
These two examples are commonly interpreted as Jesus' teaching on priority between family well-being and God's kingdom; that we must prioritize God over family in situation when we need to choose between the two. For instance,
 "[The] spiritual principle that following Jesus ought to be every Christian's first priority continues to apply, and where this brings an individual into conflict with his or her natural family obligations, he or she must first seek God's kingdom and his righteousness (Matt. 6:33)."
(Andreas J. Kostenberger and David W. Jones, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation [USA: Crossway, second edition 2010], 102.)
This interpretation makes our family responsibility a subset of Christian religious obligation:
"While Jesus places people's obligations within the larger framework of God's kingdom, however, this should not be taken to imply that Christians are to neglect their family responsibilities. As Paul would later write, "But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8)."
(Ibid, italic added.)
This explanation seems reasonable for the two scriptural passages above, yet it does not have the same explanatory effect to the following passage where Jesus sees himself not only as someone who brings division in family but as someone who also wishes for it:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)
As it is not so easy to read priority into this passage therefore one usually explains this anti-family passage by confining its relevance and application to Jesus' three-year ministry before his death:
"Clearly, Jesus' physical presence on this earth and his three-year public ministry necessitated unconditional physical following of the Master in a unique way."
(Andreas J. Kostenberger and David W. Jones, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation [USA: Crossway, second edition 2010], 102.)
What I find intriguing is the hermeneutical decision that pro-family readers make. The steps can be stated as follows:
Step 1: We assume that "family" has unquestionable value in God's kingdom. (It must be so because it feels so right---especially to those who cherishes family ties. Something that feels so right must be valuable to God.)

Step 2: Therefore when Jesus teaches against family, he is not subverting existing family ties. Jesus is either highlighting priority of our obedience to God over our familial allegiance, or teaching lessons that only applicable in his three-years ministry on earth.
Such hermeneutical decision has a problem. In order to take Step 2, we need to assume that Jesus sees familial responsibility as part of our service or obedience to God (let's call this 'Step 2's assumption'.) Without Step 2's assumption, we have no ground to read Jesus' teaching against family as prioritizing God over family, nor can we read into Jesus that he subsumes family responsibility under obedience to God.

At this point, pro-family readers would cite the principle of letting scripture interprets scripture. For instance, they will point out that Jesus cared for his mother when he was on the cross (John 19:26-27). This scripture shows that Jesus is pro-family and so it is the basis for Step 2's assumption. 

The problem with this principle of scripture interprets scripture is that it simply pushes the hermeneutical puzzle a step back, which in this case we are the ones who choose which scripture to interpret the contested passage. As much as one can invoke John 19 to support Step 2's assumption, one can equally highlights Jesus' disrespecting his mother by calling her "woman" (John 2:4) and his disregard for his familial ties (Matthew 12:46-50) as basis to reject the assumption.

In the end, we cannot reach a solid hermeneutical reason to cast Jesus either as pro- or anti-family.

2. Apostle Paul may not be as pro-family/marriage as we would like to think too.
The apostle has said many things about domestic affairs (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, 1 Timothy 3:4, 5:1-16, Titus 1:6, etc). Nonetheless, Paul does not appear to be pro-family/marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. After Paul has written much about his view, he summarizes:
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not... For this world in its present form is passing away... An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.
(vv.29-38, italics added.)
The apostle does not see commitment in marriage as a subset of devotion to God. In fact, he understands family ties as distraction; family takes away our devotion to God. Paul even thinks that celibacy is better than marriage and setting up family.

Pro-family readers would point out that Paul mistakenly thinks that the second coming would happen in his own lifetime, therefore such urgency for undivided devotion to God.

But this explanation does not work because Christians are generally taught to live as if Christ is coming back anytime. Hence it does not make a difference if Paul thinks Christ would be back soon or not. (This approach resembles the hermeneutical decision to confine the application of Jesus' teaching to his three-years ministry on earth, as one can draw from the "present crisis" in 1 Corinthians 7:26.)

Pro-family readers would also point out that Paul qualifies that these verse are his own judgement, not God's command (v.25).

What this approach misses is Paul's other qualification made on his own judgement, that his view is empowered by the Holy Spirit (v.40), and so they are as trustworthy as God's command by divine mercy (v.25).

Therefore we cannot reach a solid hermeneutical reason to cast Paul either as pro- or anti-family too.

I do not know what historical circumstances have contributed to the shaping of our contemporary social imaginary of "family". As far as I can tell, the idea of "family" that many Christians prize and champion today is not so immediately acknowledged by Jesus and Paul. 

This post is not to side with either the pink or the white. My sole interest is in examining how biblical texts are being used today, and raise questions over the assumptions we modern readers bring to the scripture.

I hope this would help readers to re-look at their hermeneutical approach to the Bible so that we are more cautious when making statement about God's view on matters dividing the society.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Sharing at Q. TEA Peace Talks

Last Saturday I took part in an interfaith event organized by Q Commons Singapore. My fellow presenters were Md Imran Md Taib (Muslim interfaith activist), Isa Kamari (acclaimed Malay poet), Chew Lin Kay (humanist interfaith activist), Jason Leow (Zen practitioner), and Aaron Lee (prize-winning poet and Christian activist).

I presented on a theology of peace which revolved these three points:
  1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
  2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
  3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
The presentation might not be clear. So, here is the tidy version.

1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
The world is filled with competition for sovereignty. Everyone wants to be sovereign. We see this competition in four domains:
  • First, the international domain. Major superpowers contesting over global hegemony. Previously, between the western and eastern blocs. Now it is between USA and China. The recent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is but one example.
  • Second, the national domain. Different political, ethnic, and religious factions contesting over governance within the country. (Certain national contest extends over into the international domain, such as the call to establish Islamic caliphate across the globe by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.)
  • Third, the communal (and domestic) domain. We see competition within a community that is based on differences such as gender and individual interest. Dispute within church, sibling rivalry, and marriage commotion are examples.
  • Fourth, the personal domain. This is the competition experienced by individuals within. We find in ourselves conflict between our ideal self and our base self. To use psychoanalysis term, it is the competition between our id and superego. Very much like what Paul wrote in Romans 7:15: "…what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."
When mismanaged, the competition in each domain can lead to violence and chaos. The international conflict leads to war, national to riot and coup, communal to separation or felony, and personal to mental breakdown and suicide. The competition in these four areas are perennial. Thus, the need to pursue peace.

2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
What can Jesus teach us about peace in a world where the competition of sovereignty is perennial at these four areas?

Jesus introduced the idea of the kingdom of God that is already here and now but not yet completely manifested. In Christian theology, this is known as the "already but not yet" kingdom. The idea of kingdom is also an idea of sovereignty that also promises peace into the world.

But what kind of "peace" that Jesus promised? The idea of peace is commonly understood as the peace of empire. In Jesus' time, it was known as Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. When Japan was conquering Asia during the Second World War, they promised to bring "great peace". 

The peace of empire is a combination of military and political power. They are intrusive in nature. The peace of Rome brought heavy taxation and political subjection. The so-called "great peace" of Japan brought massacres and sub-standard living. Therefore the peace of empire provokes hostility and insurgency. People rebelled against such peace.

Jesus promises peace, but what differentiates his version of peace from that of the powers in the world? There is degree of ambiguity on this. For even in Jesus’ time, not everyone understood peace the same way as Jesus did. He knew that his peace would come across as division to some (John 16:33 contra Luke 12:51-53).

Nonetheless, I think here are some characteristics of the peace promised by Jesus:
  • Jesus' peace is not the peace of empire. It is not military or political. Although it has a skewed view on military force and has something to say on the political, it is not a peace to be established by weapons and parliament.
  • Jesus’ peace is not primarily concern over the competition of sovereignty in the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal). Jesus’ peace addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God. He is concerned over the conflict between the empire of humanity and the kingdom of God. Violence, greed, oppression, and transgressions of all kinds and forms are manifestation of humanity's challenging God's sovereignty. Sometimes these competitions are carried out in the name of religion. At other times, in the name of humanistic ideals.
  • Jesus saw humanity's rebellion as futile and will be ended by God. This is so by the principle of justice. If humans are not made to rebel against God, then it is only right that God corrects this error by unmaking them, that is to destroy them. The only way to escape this without deviating from the cause of justice and still preserves humanity is through the sacrifice of a scapegoat that can represent humanity.
  • Jesus saw himself as that scapegoat. He willingly set down his life as the sacrifice on behalf of the human race to fulfill the required divine justice while preserving humanity. Through his sacrifice, the ultimate destruction of humanity is averted. This is the peace that Jesus brought. His is not the peace of empire spread by weapons and sustained by force, but the peace through the cross that addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God.
What then does this peace have to say to the competition in four domains today?

3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
First, Jesus' peace is not established by military or political powers, therefore Christians should not think that we are doing God a favor by using empire's apparatus to establish God's kingdom. If Jesus’ peace is coercive, his servants would have fought to prevent his arrest (John 18:36).

When Jesus was about to depart, he said: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

So, let us freely, without trouble and fear, continue to make peace, build peace, and sustain peace in this chaotic world. But with the way of the cross, not the means of the empire.

Second, Jesus' own example as peacemaker between humanity and God is a model for peace-making. Our pursuit for peace must prioritize justice and the preservation of humanity.

By framing conflicts in term of the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal) is not complete without also seeing them as subsets of the war humanity waged against God. Without the latter, justice is factional and open for re-definition by the competing parties. And preservation of humanity then becomes preservation of human beings who are on our side.

Between justice and preservation of humanity, we cannot choose one over the other. And when we had to, self-sacrifice is an option. Striving for justice and humanity's peace (instead of factional justice and self-preservation) is imitating Jesus.

Third, Jesus taught the importance of peace-building in relation to religious identity: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9)

Interestingly it is not the other way around. Jesus didn’t say, blessed are the children of God (that is those who see themselves as religious) for they will be peacemakers. Jesus didn’t start with who we think we are, and then we have to go and make peace. He started with those who are already making peace, and declared that they will be called children of God.

Therefore let us not get caught up with solidifying our exclusive socio-religious identity that we forget that those who will be called children of God will not be those who are busy identifying themselves as such but those who are actually pursuing peace.

Monday, May 04, 2015

A word on church growth methods
Christianity is a missionary faith. It aims to make everyone into Christ’s disciples. Thus, numerical growth is a major characteristic of the faith since its beginning. All believers are to share the gospel to everyone they know in order to increase kingdom membership. However, this is so much easier said than done.

The difficulty is not so much in how to increase numbers but in what numbers we want to increase?

It is not difficult to achieve numerical growth because there are time-proven methods that guarantee increased membership. This is the good news.

As found in various studies, there are three ingredients which are empirically demonstrated to boost membership effectively.

The first ingredient is “spiritual entrepreneur”. Most congregations that achieve exponential growth within one generation have a celebrity Senior Pastor.[1] 

The Senior Pastor is a highly popular, eloquent, and innovative person who runs the church like an entrepreneur would a company (which Presbyterian’s Elders-Deacons system does not allow). In fact, the Senior Pastor is the brand of the church, as how Steve Jobs is to Apple Inc. 

Not convinced? Well, think of all the big churches you know—most of you probably do not know anyone else from those churches except their Senior Pastor, right?[2] Just like everyone knows Steve Jobs but most has not even heard of Jon Ive, who designed Apple’s revolutionary products.  

The second ingredient is the “deployment of marketing strategies, technologies and consumerist ethos” for the church.[3] Churches that adopt this method “draw on popular culture and a consumerist logic in order to attract an audience more familiar with rock and roll, shopping malls, and self-help culture than with traditional church liturgies, hymns, or symbols.”[4] 

The relationship between church and members is viewed through the relationship between a company and its customers. The church produces messages and experiences that are consumer-driven, which is effectively presented via marketing techniques and technologies to capture the populace’s interest. 

Emphasis is placed on making the church “seeker sensitive”, which often means toning down the inherited religious symbolism and rituals. The sermon has to be TED-like, that is topical in addressing popular needs rather than expository in seeking God’s prophetic voice in the Bible.

The third ingredient, which is related to the second one, is to provide a range of services cater for the members. The church invests in programs that address the various needs of the members and allow them a few varieties to choose from. Church is structured like a shopping mall that has “something for everyone”.[5]

These three ingredients guarantee numerical growth. 

However, there is not-so-good-news. Like all methods, these three come with pitfalls as much as promises.

When churches that grow due to a celebrity Senior Pastor often cultivate a personality cult following more than a congregation that gathers for a communal spiritual journey. 

Mars Hill Church was founded in 1996 by its Senior Pastor Mark Driscoll, who is famous for his Reformed preaching. The church deployed effective marketing strategies and technologies to maximize its outreach. The church is ranked by Outreach Magazine as the third-fastest growing church in 2012.[6] At its peak, it had 14 branches with weekly attendance of 13,000. 

Yet, in 2014, Driscoll resigned. Following that, it was announced that all Mars Hill churches will dissolve by 2015.[7] Another similar example is Robert H. Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral. Therefore, it would not be too imaginative to suppose that the same would also happen to many local big churches with a celebrity Senior Pastor.

Aligning churches along the consumerist logic to be “seeker sensitive” and as centre that has “something for everyone” raises serious questions on what disciples are we making? 

The Willow Creek Community Church has congregational size of 24,000 and listed as the most influential church in America. Outside its founding Senior Pastor Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” The church invested millions of dollar annually to provide many types of programs for members to participate. 

This reflects the church’s ministry philosophy, as its executive pastor Greg Hawkins said, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.”[8]

Then around the middle of 2000s, the church engaged an external agency to conduct a multiple year qualitative study of the church. The findings were unexpected—63% of the church’s most active and considered spiritually matured members were actually contemplating leaving the church! 

The multimillion-dollars-programs the church invested in to cater for all its members and its “seeker-friendly” culture could not retain members. The turnover rate was high. This corresponds to what we see in local “seekers sensitive” churches.

Furthermore, in a separate study, it is found that today’s young Christians (18-29 years-old) are more appreciative of liturgical religiosity: 78% preferring quiet church than loud church, 67% describe their ideal church as “classic” rather than “trendy”, and 77% like church with a sanctuary than church with an auditorium.[9]

My point is this: There is no perfect church growth method. Each comes with pitfalls and promises. As churches embrace the method of their choice, they also must prepare to brace themselves for the pitfalls. Indeed, these methods guarantee numerical growth—of personality cult followers and high turnover rate in church membership. Therefore, the difficulty is not on how to increase disciples, but what kind of disciples are we making?

Recognizing where the real difficulty lies helps us to see ‘doing church’ in a way that is freed from the shadow of surrounding churches with exponential growth. Only then can we begin to understand the bearing of disciple-making.

A pastor friend once told me that his ideal church size should be about 200 to 300 members. That is a good size to build community that is socially viable, where most people can get to know most other people as how they should be as a spiritual family. Any number beyond this should be directed for a new church plant. (This is of course another easier-said-than-done issue as small congregations have difficulty getting venue for their activity. Yet, the suggestion rightly prompts us to rethink the purpose of the church.)

[1] Scott Thumma, “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2003,
[2]  Jeaney Yip and Susan Ainsworth, “’We aim to provide excellent service to everyone who comes to church!’: Marketing mega-churches in Singapore,” Social Compass, vol.60:4 (2013):508.
[3] Terence Chong and Daniel P.S. Goh, "Asian Pentecostalism: Revivals, Mega-Churches, and Social Engagement," in Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia, eds. Bryan S. Turner, Oscar Salemink (Routledge, 2015), 407.
[4] Stephen Ellingson, “New Research on Megachurches: Non-denominationalism and Sectarianism,” in The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, ed. Bryan S. Turner (Blackwell, 2010), 247.
[5] Thumman, Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena.
[6] Brendan Kiley, “Mars Hill Announced the “Third Fastest-Growing Church” in America,” dated 24 September 2012, The Stranger,
[7] Ruth Graham, “How a Megachurch Melts Down,” 7 November 2014, The Atlantic,
[8] “Willow Creek Repents? Why the most influential church in America now says “We made a mistake,” 18 October 2007, Parse: Leadership Journal,
[9] Stephanie Samuel, “Study Shows Millenials Turned Off by Trendy Church Buildings, Prefer a Classic Sanctuary,” dates 14 November 2014, The Christian Post,

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
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”.