“When Christians deprive others of legitimate rights, the Gospel is brought to disrepute,” was the emphatic opening statement by Dr Philip Satterthwaite, Principal of Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST), as he gave the first lecture at the ETHOS Public Conference on 30 Sep 2017. “When the Church fails to uphold justice, that is when it most fails to live up to its calling.”
He acknowledged, however, that many of us tend to feel uncomfortable when we hear the word “justice”. “I’m not one of nature’s activists,” he confessed. “But in studying Scripture, justice appears as a remarkably pervasive theme in the Bible” – necessitating our appropriate attention and action.
This Conference, themed ‘Justice and the Common Good’, was the second one organised by ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity in conjunction with seven of the eight degree-granting seminaries in Singapore: Baptist Theological Seminary (BTS), BGST, Discipleship Training Centre, East Asia School of Theology (EAST), Singapore Bible College, TCA College, and Trinity Theological College (TTC). (The first Conference on ‘Human Sexuality, Marriage and the Church’ had been covered in the September 2016 issue of Methodist Message.)
Dr Satterthwaite set the tone for this year’s Conference, which was held at TTC, by tracing the theme of justice throughout a broad overview of the Bible, stretching from Genesis through to Revelations. “Justice is a central theme in the Old Testament,” he noted. “It is celebrated as something that brings healing. On the other hand, a lack of justice is a blight on the land.”
He also pointed out that justice (and its negative counterpart, injustice) remains a common concern in the New Testament. There, he explained that the same group of words is used to translate both “justice” and “righteousness”. In some familiar passages, such as in Romans, one could just as well read “the justice of God is revealed” (Rom. 1:16-17) or “the kingdom of God is… justice and peace and joy” (Rom. 14:17).
Dr Satterthwaite then delved deeper into particular texts such as Exodus 20-23, highlighting that throughout the range of topics covered, the underlying concern was about community. Violence and injustice have the potential to rip society apart, and hence must be restrained, and appropriately dealt with when they occur. Several points were raised: the realism of this passage (starting where people are and urging them to learn to be just); egalitarianism or how humans are equally valued before God, in contrast with other ancient writers; concern for the vulnerable; and Israel’s motive for following these teachings.
For this last point, Dr Satterthwaite referred to Deuteronomy 4, noting that Israel was to follow these teachings on justice in order to reflect God’s character (particularly His just nature) to the surrounding nations.
This was further supported by the “deep structure” of the Bible’s teaching about justice, as articulated by Nicholas Wolterstorff – the inherent rights of humans as having been made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28); repeated injunctions to care for the ‘quartet of the vulnerable’ (poor, foreigner, orphan, widow); rights to fair treatment, freedom from oppression, food, shelter, and clothing (Isa. 58:6-7); and God Himself declaring: “I the Lord love justice” (Isa. 61:8). Quoting Wolterstorff: “God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s human creatures; justice is indispensable to that.”
“Justice should disturb us,” concluded Dr Satterthwaite. “It should move us to prayer and action.”
The succeeding lectures focused on different aspects of this call to action. Dr Fong Choon Sam, Dean of Academic Studies at BTS, spoke about ‘Justice and Immigration’, sharing briefly his personal experience as a child migrant. “Migration,” he pointed out, “is not a new phenomenon. What is new is the surge in recent years,” as indicated by data from the United Nations that shows a 41 per cent upsurge in international migrants between the years 2000 and 2015.
Dr Fong highlighted the complexity of immigration issues: differing views on whether immigrants have a positive or negative impact on host countries (as immigrants are not homogenous); the impact of migrants on the economy not being easily discernible (possibly industry-specific); how migration issues are often politicised; the involvement of issues of race, culture, and identity; and the delicate balancing act between security and freedom of movement. In Singapore, for instance, there is tension between aspiration (towards being a global city) and unease (about decreasing proportion of local-born citizens).
How do we respond as Christians? Said Dr Fong: “The Christian understanding of how to treat foreigners is derived from God’s compassion for the vulnerable, and the understanding of ourselves as pilgrim people.” Foreigners were vulnerable as they did not have the social and cultural advantages of being in community. God, through His law given to Moses (see Exod. 23, Lev. 19, and Deut. 24), placed Himself as the compassionate advocate of the vulnerable, including foreigners.
Jesus’ teachings re-established the spirit of this Old Testament ethic, even superseding it in some ways, like redefining the meaning of “neighbour” in Luke 10 – no longer understood in geographical, ethnic, or cultural proximity, but exhorting us to be neighbours in showing mercy. Paul’s injunction to show “hospitality” in Romans 12:13 was translated from the word philoxenian, meaning “love for or willingness to embrace those who are different from you”.
The need is great for us to extend such mercy. In 2014, there were 49,000 foreign students in Singapore. More than half of ‘study mamas’ (who accompany their children pursuing studies overseas) are divorced or separated from their spouses. There are foreign workers here who overstay out of desperation, and victims of human trafficking. “Do we have no room for those who are damaged by law and persecution?” questioned Dr Fong. “Do we accept only the best and brightest migrants? Can we extend our hospitality to others regardless of race?”
He issued strong challenges to the audience to take steps that were within their means, for example: Knowing your family’s immigration story; examining yourself for prejudiced views; being interested in the culture of foreigners you meet, and understanding their difficulties; getting upset about workers’ mistreatment by employers, etc. For those specifically gifted, he further encouraged them to take targeted action, such as: Giving voice to the voiceless; bringing a moral voice to national debates on immigration issues; creating blogs, articles, books, poetry, or films that help share the foreigner or migrant experience; becoming a theologian in this area (or sponsoring one), etc.
Finally, Dr Fong challenged churches and organisations to take steps like providing foreigners a place to belong in fellowship; assisting foreigners in practical ways; increasing members’ sensitivity through education; encouraging members to accept visitors’ transnationalism; changing attitudes or activities that promote a silo effect, etc.
The third lecture by Dr Kwa Kiem Kiok, Registrar and Lecturer in Inter-Cultural Studies at EAST, focused on ‘Justice and the Ecological Crisis’. Dr Kwa began by highlighting the haze as Singaporeans’ personal experience of the injustice of the ecological crisis, where the sources are out of our control. Further afield, instances of natural disasters have been on the rise recently. But the question quickly turns bleak when we consider: Who is going to die first? “When there is change in the weather, the vulnerable in society suffer from it, as they can’t afford to protect themselves,” she said.
This was starkly illustrated by the horrifying phenomenon of farmer suicides in India, where crop failure has led to nearly 60,000 suicides over the past 30 years. Agriculture being the main source of income for many in India, weather changes are devastating, especially for poor farmers.
Christians, therefore, have a responsibility for justice and creation care. After all, sin has a corporate and cosmic dimension, which the earth is suffering now. “As Christians,” said Dr Kwa, “we must do the right thing, not the expedient thing. By taking steps to counteract this crisis, we are acting for the common good, for humanity.”
Among the related justice issues she raised, two stood out. “Justice means counting the full cost of our actions – now the earth is paying for our greed.” Supporting companies that have a good environmental profile means we must be willing to pay more for goods and services that take into account the full cost of production, including environmental cost e.g. proper waste disposal. Also, “justice means intergenerational justice”. “We need to start taking steps to curtail climate change now,” emphasised Dr Kwa, “or else our children and grandchildren will suffer.”
In the face of such global-scale challenges, and even our Singaporean quandary of economic survival versus ecological footprint, it would be easy for discouragement to set in. However, Dr Kwa pointed to the “Kingdom of Heaven principles” encapsulated in the parables of the mustard seed and of yeast: Small steps can have a wider impact.
The first of these would be changing our personal and corporate lifestyles to live more responsibly and in harmony with God’s creation, accepting that this would cost us, whether in monetary terms or inconvenience. “There’s a place for regulating big corporations,” said Dr Kwa, “but we also need to take personal responsibility” – for example, reducing the use of plastics, or intentionally recycling them.
As churches, we can also take steps to be aware of and reduce our environmental impact, e.g. bringing our own coffee mugs, rethinking the use of disposable communion cups, etc. Can our missions efforts encompass a holistic concern for all of life (e.g. Asian Journeys and the Green Desert Project)? Would we place creation care as a justice pursuit squarely on the agenda in discipleship programmes and in our pulpits, to effect real change?
The last lecture by Dr Richard Goetz, Associate Professor in the School of Theology English at TCA College, focused on the nature, origin, and basis of human rights, positing that human rights in general can and should be supported by Christians. The specific discussion on human rights arose in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and led to the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 Dec 1948, encompassing 30 articles identifying basic human rights, though it did not state what a human right was.
However, the principles and thinking underlying these rights had been discussed centuries ago, as far back as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine of Hippo, going on to Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, etc. Often, the discussions debated the existence of a Natural Law that preceded social and political systems, or surrounding issues such as the state of human nature, ‘just war’, the harm principle, etc. Also influential were the English Bill of Rights in 1689, the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
The UDHR had been largely influenced by the themes of Natural Law and Justice, by the writings of Locke and Rousseau, and by the American and French Declarations. It was, however, challenged by the Bangkok Declaration of 1993, with the following emphases: loyalty to family, corporation, and nation; foregoing personal freedoms for the sake of societal stability and prosperity; preference for social harmony; concern for socio-economic prosperity; collective well-being of the community in addition to or before individual freedom of expression; loyalty and respect for figures in authority; collectivism and communitarianism.
Dr Goetz observed that human rights are a combination of moral rights (based on Natural Law) and legal rights (in order to be enforceable), quoting Lynn Hunt that “human rights only become meaningful when they gain political content.” Although rights are often stated for the individual, the duty to secure human rights falls on governments, and hence society.
Some key biblical themes are also related to rights. For instance, humans being made in the image of God indicate there is something substantive in each person that confers worth, rather than worth being conferred on a relational basis (i.e. role-based). The Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20 convey moral laws that have a universal nature – as recorded in Genesis 12, Pharaoh was aware that taking Abram’s wife for his own would be adultery. Numbers 35 records the rights of the accused, the rights of the innocent, and the responsibility of the state to uphold them. Justice is a key concern (see Isaiah 1:17-18), and Jesus identified with the marginalised and the vulnerable.
In summary, noted Dr Goetz, human rights are grounded in the person of God and in His nature as good and just; this also means they are grounded in an objective universal morality, which is grounded in God. “In North America and Europe, some rights claims are excessive,” he acknowledged, “but libertarian individualism and the harm principle are not the problem: a failing cultural and religious ethic is the problem. In South East Asia, Confucian Asian Values and a multi-religious ethic provide strong cultural values which hold libertarian individualism and the harm principle in check.”
Some of his recommendations included: Acknowledging the importance of basic human rights as grounded in God and the image of God in us; preaching and teaching about the biblical basis of human rights; searching out ways to minister to vulnerable groups; being aware of the common good and the role individuals play in its flourishing; speaking out against excessive individual expressions and how they threaten the common good and religious cultural ethic, etc.
In addition to two ‘pastoral responses’ given by the Rev Dr Simon Chan of TTC and the Rev Malcolm Tan, Pastor-in-Charge of Covenant Community Methodist Church, the Conference closed with a panel discussion moderated by Dr Roland Chia, Theological and Research Advisor of ETHOS Institute.
Editor’s Note: This is a longer version of the article printed on P1 and 15 of MM Nov 2017, which had to be shortened due to space constraint.
Grace Toh –
is the Editor of Methodist Message and a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
Photos courtesy of the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity