In previous posts, I reflected on Teo’s analysis of Singaporean society and how the gospel narrative and community offers a promising solution. In this final post, I draw on the previous discussions to sketch out some implications for how we should be thinking about social action. Though reaching this stage has been my goal from the beginning, I must admit that I am most tentative about the more practical conclusions I reach here. Nonetheless, my hope is that this would at least encourage Christians to think more explicitly about how the gospel narrative ought to inform their commitment to social action. I begin by providing a brief articulation of my position and its implications on social action and evangelism. I will then defend and clarify the position by engaging with two extreme tendencies that we may fall into.
A Brief Sketch
Teo’s analysis revealed how the meritocratic national narrative and the state and societal institutions that reproduce these narratives are together the chief ills of society. Offering material aid alone will not help as long as individuals continue to be trapped by the punishing structure of their communities, which are blind to their struggles and the indiosyncracies of their situation. Our social action, therefore, would be fruitless if it stopped at merely offering financial or material aid. What our society really needs is an alternative narrative and an alternative community that embodies that narrative. That narrative is the gospel narrative and that community is the gospel community, the church. To thus put it somewhat simply and no doubt provocatively to some, our social action must be a form of evangelism. Unless we draw individuals into a different narrative and a different community, our aid would not get to the root of their problems.
At the same time, Teo’s analysis reveals that a narrative can only be sustained within a community and social relationships which give it meaning. This means that the gospel must be made concrete through interaction with a community that functions in a manner different from that of society. The larger society functions according to the meritocratic narrative which it embeds, but for the gospel to make sense, it must do so via concrete interactions with a community within which the gospel makes sense. This means, perhaps just as controversially, that our evangelism must be a form of social action. The gospel will begin to make sense to a non-christian, only as they see how it transforms and shapes the life of the church and the Christian’s interaction with them.
I’m no doubt hedging a little when I say that what we are to do is a form of evangelism and a form of social action. The basic idea is that our interaction with others must be shaped by the gospel. This must include telling them about the gospel, but it also includes embodying the gospel via our interactions with them and the church. There is not only one way in which this must be fleshed out. But if we take seriously the idea that the christian community is that which displays and makes legible the gospel narrative, then our outreach ought not be isolated to things we do on the weekends for the homeless or going through that evangelistic tract with a stranger. We need to think harder about how we display the beauty of the church community and gospel-shaped personal interactions with others.
Let me make this more concrete by providing two examples. A couple in my church recently adopted a special needs child from China. In the orphanage that this child is at, he is a little old and so his chances for adoption are slim, his disability also makes him an unlikely candidate for adoption. This is an example of social action that is deeply shaped by the gospel. Such an adoption challenges our meritocratic society’s ideas of worth, and display a love that is not earned but given by grace. This embodies our own narrative as Christians who have been adopted as children of God even though we were not just unlovely, but rebels and fools. Another couple in my church opened their homes to troubled youths and unwed mothers. (See this feature and find out more at their website) Ken and Addy’s guests are invited not just into their house, but indeed their home. In their own words, “They’re invited as part of family … We want them to have the experience of what a normal, safe, functional family looks like.” It’s not just about providing material aid or uploading some information about Christianity, but about inviting them into a context wherein the gospel of grace begins to make sense. Again, “We are not a perfect family. And we are not trying to create a perfect family. But we are forming a community who looks to Him.” These are not isolated pockets of charity either, instead the larger church community is involved. The child, Keyuan, and Ken and Addy’s guests are invited into our church, and we have the privilege of knowing and interacting with them as well. This last aspect is crucial, for they are now invited to peer into the gospel community.
The goal is no doubt the transformation of larger society, or to put it as Jesus would, to ‘Let thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven’. However, the church does not achieve that aim primarily by directly changing the structure of political society, but by presenting a different model of living through the church community. Our primary task is not to have Christians seated into positions of power or to adapt the laws of the land to reflect Christian morality (though there is nothing wrong with hoping or praying for this to happen), but it is to articulate a different narrative by embodying it in an alternative community. We would then love our neighbours by drawing them into this community which exists alongside but yet distinct from larger society. As Jesus proclaims, “My kingdom is not of this world” but we are indeed “sent into the world”. (John 17:14, 18) As I will later note, that we do not completely assimilate into larger society is crucial. For attempting to insinuate ourselves into the halls of power will involve us in the broken narratives and systems which have been the subject of Teo’s analysis. We do better to present to our society an alternative.
In the world but not of the world
To clarify and defend the position I’m sketching out, it might be useful to compare it to two clusters of thought in Singaporean Christian culture. One group is of Christians who are deeply averse to social justice due to a suspicion that it detracts from the gospel. The other group consists of those Christians who plunge headlong into social justice ministries and aim at obtaining influential positions in the culture, often working through state institutions in order to effect change. Though I speak of these two as groups, I believe that they are really tendencies that few hold to extremely resolutely and yet that all of us may fall into. Let me respond to them respectively.
“Not of the world”?
Those in the first group are averse to social action. Of course they do not mind individual members giving to charity, but they are suspicious that the church as a whole should be involved. Part of this comes from a conviction that the proper sphere of action for the church is the church itself. We are to love and care particularly for fellow church members once they have become a part of us, but attempting to change society is outside our jurisdiction. To them we can offer nothing but the preaching of the gospel. This is often tied to certain views about the course of history, whether we can expect the larger society to become more or less Christian (i.e. the pre/post-millenium debate), and about the proper sphere of the magisterium.
I will hardly do any justice to the more deeply theological foundations of this group in this post, but it is probably clear that I am partial to some of their views. Indeed our primary sphere of action is the church itself and not larger society (see Gal 6:10), and our main offer to the outside world is the gospel. But, as I have shown, I do not think that any of this precludes the kind of social action that I am describing. After all, I do not dispute that the primary outworking of the gospel is love within the Christian community, but this does not mean that it is the only outworking of the gospel. It is surely incontrovertible from the command of our Lord that to love your neighbour as yourself extends further than the church community. (see Luke 10:25-37 and indeed much of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount).
I suspect, however, that the worry might be something more like this: to involve the church with social action would undermine our witness to the gospel. The good news of Jesus alone must draw them into the church. We would be creating false converts and impugning on the purity of the gospel if we attract unbelievers not by the word of God alone but by human care or material gifts.
I am once again sympathetic to this worry, indeed I believe it sometimes characterises the opposite position. But this is why I have emphasised that our social action must be gospel shaped. Our social action is a means for us to embody the gospel. Those who are hesitant about the relationship between caring for others in a concrete manner and evangelism should think hard about what Paul says as he describes his gospel ministry: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor 4:5 Emphasis mine) Consider John Piper’s comment on this verse:
The purpose of this transformation into a self-giving servant role is to provide another display of the glory of God as the ground of faith—an embodied display. So we present the glory of Christ not only in our gospel but also in our lives. While proclaiming the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ, we also become the light of the world, so that men may see our good deeds and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16). If we see and love the glory of God in Christ and are being transformed by it, we become a mirror of that glory and a means to the well-grounded faith of others. This is why 2 Corinthians 4:5 stands between verses 4 and 6. The proclamation of the glory of the Lord, and the embodiment of the glory of the Lord, are the occasion for the miracle of verse 6 or the blindness of verse 4. (Piper, Peculiar Glory p. 144-145.)
And so God does win people through his word. And yet he uses his divinely appointment means to do so. One of those means is our gospel shaped love to others which provides the context through which the gospel begins to make sense.
“In the world”?
The contrary position consists of those who rush headlong into social action and actively attempt to shape society’s institutions. Perhaps as a result of occupying a relatively privileged position in society, many Christians have often attempted to effect change through the state’s institutional structures. Though I believe we should primarily aim to work outside the structures of the state, such work is still precious and valuable. There is nothing wrong per se with being involved in politics and speaking truth to power, as perhaps Daniel or John the Baptist did. I have no doubt that Christian presence in the public square is still valuable. The danger is when we begin to blur the lines between the nation and the church. Such work is perilous in at least two ways:
In the first place, it involves the church in all the moral dangers associated with politicking. Even if Christians come in with innocent intentions, engaging in power struggles with secular folks over control of public institutions will certainly be viewed with suspicion. The AWARE sage from not too long ago stands as the prime example of this. Will we be seen as those who proclaim “not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your servants for his sake” (2 Cor 4:5) or those who simply wish to strengthen our political position and lord it over others? To incur such misunderstanding may not be in itself wrong (no doubt whatever one does these days is bound to incur misunderstanding) but is a serious cost that we should take into account.
Second and more importantly, the church and the nation risks becoming intertwined in a way that undermines both the gospel and our effectiveness at making an actual impact in society. Already, many Christians and churches imbibe the harmful meritocratic culture that pervades Singapore society. Many of the mission schools are among the top schools in the nation, and speaking from personal experience, the culture of cutthroat competition and measuring each other by how we stand academically is deeply prevalent. Anecdotally, I know also that many churches are no different in how, despite preaching the gospel on Sundays, members continually compare themselves to each other like the rest of the culture. Not to mention the sad fact that churches are often stratified according to socio-economic status. I’m rarely tempted to commit the sin of being partial to the rich instead of the poor folks in my church (James 2) thanks to the fact that the poor rarely come in.
This intertwining also inhibits our effectiveness. The reason is that in offering such help through the state structure, we inadvertently reinforce the national narrative that is shaped by that structure. Here’s an example of how this could happen. Say we participate in a program that provides free tuition to needy students. To begin with, the very tuition industry itself is already a product of the meritocratic narrative and we reproduce that narrative. Next, how do we motivate these students to continue coming or encourage them to study? If we are working through public institutions, we can’t talk explicitly about the gospel or finding one’s worth in God’s love through Christ. Often, probably out of convenience, we parrot what most of society says: you need to study to get a good job, get into a good course, make it in life, achieve your dreams etc. We would then be merely reinforcing the broken narrative once again!
Now, I’m not trying to discourage anyone from participating in such programs or trying to outright dismiss them. They provide genuine help to others and are an opportunity to form meaningful relationships. At the same time, I think that those volunteering in such areas need to think harder about how the gospel ought to shape their work and be careful to avoid reproducing the surrounding culture. We need to rethink what it means to be helping others; it cannot simply be equipping and aiding them to participate in the surrounding culture and become embedded into the national narrative. Faith based groups in schools sometimes lead bible studies where the application often seems to be being a better student or studying harder. No doubt the bible calls us to be faithful in living out our vocation, which in that case is that of a student. But we ought to ask whether, instead of Christianity offering an alternative of how things could be, we simply make religion an instrument of the defective wider culture.
The gospel and the dying world before us call us to action. We must be intentional in both preaching the gospel and loving our neighbour, and we do so by cultivating a community which embodies the gospel and drawing our neighbours into it. As I close this series of posts I feel at once both excessively verbose and yet at the same time that there is so much more to be said. Yet my modest hope is that this would spur both discussion and ultimately action.