One thing I had to grapple with greatly during my 1.5 years in Australia was my faith and how little Christians seem to care about social issues. As I mentioned, within the first month of attendance of University, I had already involved myself in a Socialist conference. I struggled hard on whether I should go for this conference or go to a Church camp – the church I was attending at that time and in which most of my Singaporean friends were attending. Both were held on the Easter weekend and I decided eventually to go for the conference. I did so because I wanted to get to know others who were interested in politics around the world and who had a heart for the poor and oppressed. On the Easter Sunday, I was even outside a Refugee detention camp protesting!
Most Christians would think that being involved in such a conference and even protesting outside a Refugee detention camp as opposed to attending a Church camp and going to Church on Sunday was such a bad and ungodly choice. But I guess I thought differently and still do. I talked to some Christians at the protest and rally. Throughout my time in Sydney, I got to know other Christians who were involved in politics and protests. I had good conversations with them. I participated in many rallies – including a huge 500,000 people rally against the Iraq war in early 2003. I have to say that it was refreshing for me to be able to be involved in voicing my opinions in solidarity with others on the streets – something I have never done before I went to Sydney as it was and still is illegal in Singapore. Although I met many Christians who were into politics and had a great concern for the poor and suffering people of the world, I also had many bad experiences with more ‘fundamentalist’ Christians in Sydney.
Since a year or so before I went to Australia, I was starting to become more disappointed with Churches and Christians who concerned themselves with merely evangelism and not helping the poor and oppressed. I was starting to see myself have less and less in common with my Christian friends in Singapore. No one cared about politics. None cared about the poor and suffering. None cared to think how they could help the people dying in the Third World. Somehow, their faith had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that thousands die daily because of poverty while they live pretty well-off lives compared to those in the Third World. All they were concerned with was bible study, evangelism, worship and all things ‘spiritual’ and ‘godly’. Certainly, being concerned about the poor wasn’t very high on their Christian agenda list.
But I understood this attitude because I was like that for the first 6-7 years of my life. I was never challenged in church about the poor in the world. Oh, it wasn’t as though I didn’t know there were people out there dying and suffering. It was just that it didn’t bother me. The many passages in the Bible about God and Jesus being concerned about the poor and helping them were never really preached. Or if these passages were taught, it wasn’t taught with much force or passion. Churches and Christians were interested in something else more important – saving the world. For me, I was concerned more about theology, about getting charismatics and conservatives to learn from each other, about being balanced in Word and Spirit. I wanted to see more people and the young come to love God and studying the bible more and evangelizing more and living more for God. But never once did it really occur to me that loving God more and living more for God and obeying God had anything to do with the poor and suffering in another country!
September 11 struck before I went to Australia. That sparked in me a greater interest in social issues and social justice issues. The suffering and oppressed people haunted me. What was I doing? What should I be doing? I believed one of the main reasons September 11 occurred was because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the injustice on the part of Israel and the United States. Yet I also saw most Christians (influenced by a right-wing agenda and the belief that Christians should support Israel always) blindingly supporting Israel and thus the United States in their oppressive policies towards the Palestinians. Now, I do believe the Jewish people are God’s special, chosen people. And I do believe that we ought to pray for them. But that’s a very different thing from supporting the Israeli government’s oppressive policies towards the Palestinians. I think it’s more a form of judgement that the Jews in the Israeli state is suffering from suicide bombers. No side is right on this issue and I do not support the Palestinian terrorist groups. Yet, it’s hard to get a balanced view from most Christians. I do believe that God is on the side of all the oppressed and suffering. Yes, the Jews are His special people and He will one day save all of them as it is written in the Bible. But that has nothing to do with what’s happening nowadays. If anything, we should be praying for the Jews in Israel to be faithful to God and stop their oppression and injustice towards the Palestinian people.
Oppression, suffering, poverty…etc – God’s heart is for all who are oppressed, who are suffering, who are poor. Yet Christians and Christianity down the centuries have not always responded in the way God would want us to respond. We’ve been the cause of much oppression, just like Israel of old, rather than being the ones freeing the oppressed. I believe inherent in the rise of fundamentalism (and later on evangelicalism) is the tendency to over-react against the social gospels of liberal Christians. The fundamentalist movement was after all a reaction against liberal Christianity that denied the essentials and fundamentals of faith. The liberal Christians denied the fundamentals and saw Christianity and faith in and obedience to God as primarily helping the poor and making this world a better place. With the gospel lost on them, they had nothing to do but be good people and help the poor and the world. For liberals, they had no concept of a biblical gospel and salvation and evangelism. The work of Christians is to help the poor, not get people to believe in the gospel and be saved. Fundamentalists strenuously affirmed the importance in believing in the fundamentals and the true biblical gospel. They rejected liberal Christianity. Yet in their rejection of liberal Christianity, they overreacted against the concern and compassion for the poor the liberals had. This was wrong. Christianity is both/and, not either/or. God wants us to truly believe Jesus came down to earth, died and resurrected for the salvation of those who believed in Him. Yet He also wants us to manifest and reflect this love of God in sending His Son Jesus to die for the sins of the world – not only in preaching the gospel, but also in helping the poor. True Christianity isn’t something that focuses only on the spiritual – salvation, evangelism…etc. It also calls Christians to live in the here and now and love the poor and all people. It would be hypocritical to proclaim the gospel of the love of God in sending His son Jesus to earth to die for our sins, without also living out that love in care for the poor and suffering. The liberals got it wrong. But so did the fundamentalists and evangelicals. When I say the fundamentalists and evangelicals got it wrong too, I’m not saying they didn’t believe Christians had to love the poor. But believing and affirming one thing is very different from actually living it out and doing it. Anyone who has been in an evangelical church for long will easily realize the little importance that is placed on helping and loving the poor, as I started to see and realize throughout my time in Australia.
I don’t wish to paint all of evangelicalism as unconcerned about the poor and marginalized. There are some very good leaders and very good groups. But those are few. And while the number of evangelicals who are starting to understand the importance on loving the poor and helping them are increasing, there are some Christians also over-reacting against a more holistic form of Christianity that seeks to integrate spiritual and material concerns, the afterlife and the present.
One may argue and say that all Christians do understand the concern for the poor. I do agree with that to a certain extent. But how deep one’s understanding is – that is the question. One can know that we ought to do it, yet not do it. A Church can preach that we ought to help the poor, but preach it seldom and never go beyond the preaching or have programs to support and promote the cause of the poor. No Christian would deny that God wants us to help the poor. However, what we clearly see (and the world sees this even more clearly!) is that there is hardly any emphasis on helping the poor in most Churches. Our priorities are very different. In fact, I would say that the Bible places a far greater priority on loving the poor and helping them and sharing our wealth with them, than we Christians today.
My many encounters with a very conservative and fundamental/evangelical Christian church in my University over the 1.5 years confirmed to me how unbalanced and hypocritical Christians can be. In a way, I wished I could have settled in better in this Church. I got to know quite a few friends there in the beginning and I know that if I were committed to the Church and regularly attended their church services and bible studies, there would be opportunities to get to know these people better and thus find a group I can feel part of. However, I didn’t really commit myself to this group or go to bible studies because I felt it extremely hard to relate with these Christians. In the first place, they were way too conservative for me. I was more comfortable with the charismatic/contemporary style worship. In addition, there was a whole lot of focus on the Word of God and studying the Bible – typically of a conservative church. So partly my love for a charismatic type Christian lifestyle prevented me from feeling comfortable with a modern, rationalistic approach to the faith so typical of conservative Churches. One thing I realized during this time was how I missed prayer and seeking God – practices of God prevalent in charismatic churches. To me, faith is more than just getting the Word right. Worshipping God with one’s mind is important, but so is using the faculty of the emotions. Furthermore, I was confronted with an evangelical church as it normally is – that is, one without much of a social conscience. There was no ministry to the poor or anything quite like that. It was all about bible study and a little social club. It was a club catered to pretty rich international students (as most would have to be, to be international students!). It never got involved with society around them and stayed pretty much exclusively Asian. I do understand that it’s easier to be in a group with other people of similar culture. It’s after all not easy to relate that easily to people of such a different culture. We are more comfortable with others just like us. However, I’m starting to realize how Christianity is about unity and inclusiveness. And because of that, I’d rather be challenged to be part of an inclusive group – it may be hard, but it’s what God has in mind for all of us ultimately. Another thing that bothered me is how these Asians (Christians or not) would come to Australia and just to take advantage of the good and pleasant lifestyle and education there. Most have no desire to contribute to society at all there. They just want to hang around among themselves and enjoy living there. A lot of them eventually stay on and live there after their studies because it’s a land of opportunity for them. But they are never integrated into Australian culture, nor care much about being part of the Australian way of life. I think it’s wrong especially for Christians who come from a troubled Asian country (like Indonesia) to continue to live in Australia, while ignoring their roots. God would have so much more for them to do in Indonesia, but because life is better in Australia, they ignore their troubled land. They are after all rich enough (or rather have rich enough parents) to study and live in Australia.
One may argue that this is the way the world is. Yes, globalization is occurring. Many more people have opportunities to move overseas and so why not? But sure, that’s the way how the world looks at it, but Christians shouldn’t live according to the world’s standards. A lot of Asians travel to Australia because a more comfortable life will greet them. But I am very sure that most are there solely for that purpose and not to contribute to society or the people there. To me, it’s stupid to go there and start your own enclave of Indonesians or Singaporeans. If you’re not doing much to help the people there and not doing something meaningful (meaningful doesn’t equal having a more comfortable lifestyle!), then go back to your own country and be involved with your own culture and people as there are so many problems in Southeast Asia – let alone the fact that there are so many unreached people there too!
But going back to my encounters with this church group. I remember clearly two responses to poverty given by these church leaders that made me greatly disappointed. When asked why doesn’t the church care about the poor, the response was, “Which is more important? Meeting the people’s spiritual needs (salvation) or meeting the people’s physical and material needs? You have to understand that we focus on evangelism because spiritual salvation is more important.” Well, I don’t doubt spiritual salvation is more important but that doesn’t mean we can neglect the poor. It’s not an either/or thing and what I heard reflects the typical evangelical justification for their lack of concern for the poor. In the 2nd incident, a friend of mine told me of how she explained to a church leader why I wasn’t so involved in the Church – because of my interest in helping the poor that the Church wasn’t involved in. She told me that the leader replied to her that I need to understand that there is so much poverty in this world because of sin in this world. The implication was that we shouldn’t focus so much on the poor as there will always be the poor. By understanding that poverty is a result of a fallen world, the Christian will get one’s priority right and focus more on evangelism and won’t be so burdened about poverty – which is inevitable. My friend mentioned to me that she felt such a response by this leader was so tragic that even a non-Christian could have shown more compassion for the poor!
[By the way, eventhough poverty is no doubt a result of fallen creation, the bible actually speaks more of poverty being a result of the oppression – which is very true in this modern world even. Also, eventhough it is true that in Mark 14:7, Jesus says that the poor will always be with us, looking back to the original verse in Deuteronomy 15:11 which Jesus quoted from, the next sentence actually says: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” The verse thus cannot be used to imply that Jesus wasn’t very concerned with the poor. It’s incredible how Christians use the passage in Mark 14:7 to justify not being too concerned about the poor! Furthermore, in the context Jesus spoke from, He no doubt commended the woman on her splurging her money to buy perfume to be used on Him. His reason was that He will not always be there in a tangible and physical form with them. In such a circumstance, to have the Son of God in our midst was indeed a rare occasion and there is nothing we can do for Him that He would not deserve. However, now Jesus is reigning at the right hand of the Father, I don’t believe Christians should be spending lots of money to build big, expensive and magnificent buildings that ‘glorify’ Him. I’m sure Jesus would be more pleased with us using our money to help the poor as He has great compassion upon the poor. ]
I am not against studying God’s word or going deeper into God’s word. God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet. It tells us God’s will for us. It’s extremely important for Christians to understand God’s Word clearly and to even be interested in theology. And I am. That’s why I care for the poor so much and why Christians aren’t doing more for them. It’s because God’s Word mentions the poor so much – so much more than most Christians ever knew because seldom are the poor talked about in Churches today. One may thus ask, “How can a Christian group/church be so into the Word of God and studying it and yet be so unconcerned with helping the poor?” I think that’s a very good question. One can ask a similar question, “How come conservative churches (which are usually so focused on the Word) not get what God says about the spiritual gifts and all – like a charismatic church would?” I believe if one understands how the development of what we call “postmodernism” came about and why people identify themselves as a postmodernist (as I do to a certain extent), then one will understand why there are so many differences in the Christian world. One thing I always tell new Christians is not to expect Christianity and all Churches to be so united and all. You’ll see Churches who say they believe in the Bible and yet differ from how other Churches do things. Why? Because we’re all fallible and though we think we are right, many times we are wrong. We come to the Bible with our prejudices and biases. We don’t come to our bible being 100% objective even if we try our best. A lot of times, we come with agendas. And we’re influenced by our history and traditions. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading the Bible because we’re bound to get things wrong. No, we should put in hard work in understanding and interpreting the Bible but ultimately acknowledge we may be wrong – especially on non-essentials. We need a spirit of humility…