Christian and Public Engagement

The National Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church in Singapore have released their respective statements on the Health Promotion Board’s Frequently-Asked-Questions controversy. These statements are released partly in response to the recent debate over the role of religion on social issues. Some wonder why certain religious groups are so caught up with the issue? Others chided them for their seemingly fanaticism to impose on the society, disrupting its pluralistic character with religious values. So, should Christians bear the responsibility to engage public issue in a pluralistic society? I think the short answer is, “Yes, as commanded by scripture and tradition, Christians have responsibility to engage public issue.”[1]

The Christian Scripture contains exhortation to “seek the shalom of the city” in Jeremiah 29:7. The word shalom is generally understood as peace though it could be more accurately referred to as wholesomeness or well-being. The New International Version translates it as “peace and prosperity”, while the English Standard Version “welfare”. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, understands shalom at its highest as the enjoyment of living harmoniously with God, fellow humans, creation, and with one’s self. In the New Testament, shalom is translated with the Greek word eirene.[2]

Jesus Christ declared the blessed state of those who promote eirene. Matthew 5:9 can be translated as, “Blessed are those who bring about the highest enjoyment of life with God, fellow humans, creation and one's self.” Throughout His ministry, Jesus healed the sick and the blind, cast out demons, critiqued the corrupted temple system and religious elites, and founded a community to continue His ministry to inaugurate the divine wholesomeness into the world.

Yet the eirene that Jesus introduced is not one that the world would immediately recognize (Luke 12:51-53). What He brought about is the divine well-being as defined by God, not by man. When He sent out seventy-two disciples, He instructed them to proclaim eirene around the region (Luke 10:5). When He appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed eirene to them (Luke 24:36). The gospel is also known as the good news of eirene (Ephesians 6:15). In continuing Jesus' ministry of eirene, Apostle Peter cited Psalm 34:14 to instruct his readers that, “They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek shalom/eirene and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:11).

Moreover, Apostle Paul encouraged the Christian community in Galatia, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people...” (Galatians 6:10, emphasis added). The basis for this command to do good to everyone is because “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). Therefore we can conclude that the responsibility to seek the well-being of all people is also rooted in the theology that we are created for good deeds. If engaging public issue is part of bringing wholesomeness and doing good to everyone, then Christians have the responsibility to participate in it.

For this reason, Christians have been actively engaging in various public issues. Many of these engagements such as providing education to those in the lower social class, abolishing slavery, infant exposure, cannibalism, and widow-burning are now accepted by many as commendable, yet none of them were perceived so initially. Nonetheless, Christians' public engagement has been persisting regardless of popular opinion since the time of the early church. Many of Christian engagements in Singapore's society are documented in National Council of Churches of Singapore's publication Many Faces, One Faith (Singapore: National Council of Churches of Singapore, 2004).

This active participation in public life is not the Christians’ attempt to impose onto the society. Rather, it is the Christians’ answer to the calling of our God to serve the society. However, the nature of a pluralistic society means that not everyone shares the same value. We can agree on most aspect of the common life, and disagree on some.

Nonetheless, we have to bear in mind that Christian engagement on public matter is not due to political interest. As theologian Roland Chia writes, “The Church has no political ambitions. It has no political agenda for the world. The Church only has the Gospel of Christ to proclaim and a hope to point to.”[3] Neither is Christian public engagement an ad hoc responsibility. Rather, it is part of Christian religiosity: “Social and political involvement and engagement is part of Christian discipleship.”[4] At times, this piety coheres with the wider society's aspiration. At other times, it does not. When it does not, Ngoei Foong Nghian, the Principal of Trinity Theological College, reminds us not to “be tempted to aggressively influence society and decision makers,” which “will result in poor witness in the public eye.”[5] Nevertheless, it is clear that the Christian faith is intrinsically intertwined with the common life. As Christian ethicist Daniel Koh elaborates: “The call to live a just life and for the people to advocate justice in the wider society is a reminder that spirituality and ethics cannot be separated, and that personal holiness should express itself in the social dimension of life.”[6]

Importantly, we need to consider the manner of engagement. Necessary attempt should be made to explain intelligibly our theological conviction to others. Along with it, we must also embody Christian truth in humility, gentleness, and continued activism in conversation with others and of doing good to everyone. As Apostle Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Pr. Joshua Woo

[1] This is a shortened version of my reflection. The original one can be read here:

[2] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (USA: Eerdmans, 1983), 70.

[3] Roland Chia, 'Religion and Politics in Singapore: A Christian Reflection,' in Church & Society in Asia Today, vol.16, no.1 (2013):17.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ngoei Foong Nghian, 'Our Pledge: Let Hope and Charity Flourish in this Land,' in Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow's Singapore, ed., Michael Nai-Chiu Poon (Singapore: Trinity Theological College, 2013), 156.

[6] Daniel Koh, 'Justice: A Christian Social Ethical Perspective,' in Issues of Law and Justice in Singapore: Some Christian Reflections, eds., Daniel K. S. Koh and Kiem-Kiok Kwa (Singapore: Trinity Theological College, 2009), 7. Emphasis added.


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