Narratives, Inequality and the Church Part 3

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Narratives, Inequality and the Church Part 2

In a previous post, I reflected on Teo’s This is What Inequality Looks Like and suggested the difficulty in resolving some of the problems she has raised.  I closed by suggesting that the Christian narrative and the Christian community speak to those problems. In this post, I will elaborate on my response. I should add that I will be writing in unapologetically Christian terms here and indeed write as if I address primarily Christians. I do invite, however, my non-Christian readers to look in and hopefully be drawn by the vision that I sketch out. We will see that the gospel narrative provides the resources for believers to live in the Christian community, which in turn reinforces and fleshes the narrative — much in the same way Teo has noticed the relationship between national narratives and our national community. I then bring the discussion to bear on the two questions that I raised in the previous post.

The Gospel Story and the Gospel Community

Let me provide a quick summary of the Christian story. God is the creator of all things. As creature, humanity was to know and to love God and to find fullness of joy in relationship with him, obeying God as a child obeys her father. However, humanity decided to live apart from God, deciding that they should live by their own rules. This is what the bible calls sin. Sin drew humanity apart from God, and God, being just, punished humanity by casting them out of his presence and blessing, resulting in the broken world we know today. All of humanity now lives in alienation and in opposition to God, preferring themselves over God and others. God, however, decided to act in history in order to redeem humanity from the effects of the fall. In the person of Jesus, God took on flesh and dwelt among us. He tasted our brokenness and sin and received the punishment we deserved by dying on the cross. Jesus rose again three days later to signify his victory over sin and death. By his Spirit, he is now creating a new humanity for himself on earth that would enjoy perfect fellowship with him and with each other. 

This summary is a mere recounting of facts. For each individual Christian however, the narrative is embodied in relationships. And the first instance of such relationship is that between God and the individual believer. God himself comes into our lives and speaks his word to us, his Spirit convicts us of our sin. As we put our trust and faith in him, we realise that it was not humanity in abstract that Jesus died for, but it was my pain and my shame that Jesus experienced, it was my sin that hung him on the tree. As the Apostle Paul notes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) From the Old to the New Testament, the chief blessing of God has been this: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7, see Revelation 21:3). God himself reaches down to form a relationship with us and the Gospel story becomes a part of our personal story.

This narrative and this relationship, however, is further embodied and mediated by the relationships among the community of Christians. In his first letter, the Apostle John writes,

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:11-12)

John begins by noting that God’s love for us leads us to love each other in the same way. This is then followed by a profound remark: although God is invisible, God’s love is perfected and made visible by our love for each other. Jesus makes a similar remark as he prays that for the unity of the Christian church, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17: 21-23) These are difficult verses, but it seems that it is through the unity of the Christian church that Jesus would manifest the love of God for his people. As the Christian community interacts with each other in love, humbling serving each other, being willing to forgive offences, rejoicing and weeping together, this manifests and embodies the Gospel narrative and the love of God. Apart from the enactment of that narrative by the church, the gospel would begin to make little sense.

Now, why would it be the case that the love of the Christian church would embody the love of God? How is it possible that one can see God’s love through the love of the Christian church? One reason is that what motivates the genuine love of a Christian is none other than the Christian narrative and a relationship with God. The very gospel narrative empowers the love among the community of Christians. We love because God has first loved us. When someone offends us, we do not become high and mighty because we recognise that we too have offended God by our sin. Instead, we forgive as God has forgiven us. When we see a fellow brother or sister caught in self-destructive patterns we do not shy away from admonishing them and we gently and lovingly pursue that person, just as God has not ignored out sin but has reached out to us and pursued us. We are willing to spend our resources and time to build up and bless others because we “know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) These very acts of love are fuelled by the gospel and in this way they embody the gospel narrative and our relationship with God. 

This last point is crucial. When our acts of love become divorced from the gospel narrative, they start to distort both the gospel narrative and the Christian community. For example, when we start to see our acts of love as religious deeds that help us to earn our place before God or as an expression of our moral superiority. Our acts of love may then lead to burnout or pride, both of which may end up hurting those whom we try to care for. Our care may become conditional and grudging, with a bitterness evident to those whom we care for. Alternatively, we may, out of an inordinate desire to please others, care for others but without being willing to speak frankly about sinful areas in which they need change. This will not merely harm the Christian community, it would distort the vision of God’s love that we aim to present to others. Our acts of love in the community must thus be motivated and strengthened by the gospel narrative and our personal relationship with God if that act of love is to embody and mediate the two.

Notice that I have framed this discussion in parallel with Teo’s insights. There is a grand cosmic narrative which is made concrete as God draws close to us in relationship and within which Christians now make sense of our individual lives. Both the cosmic and personal narratives are then made concrete in our social relationships within the Christian community which in turn reinforces and makes comprehensible the cosmic gospel narrative. 

Back to Step 2

Let’s now revisit the two questions I raised in the previous post and notice how the Gospel narrative has the resources to respond to them:

    1. If we cast off the old narrative of meritocracy, what is the new narrative that we are going to tell ourselves? 
    1. How do we create the new community that embodies this alternate narrative?

In response to the first question, I propose that the gospel narrative is that story that we need to hear. Recall the problem I raised earlier: any narrative has to embed a set of values and norms, to encourage certain actions instead of others. The difficulty is how the narrative can be value laden without being meritocratic in the harmful ways that Teo has pointed out in her discussion. Notice that the gospel narrative is in fact anti-meritocratic due to the central role that God’s grace plays. There are indeed a set of norms that the gospel narrative embodies: there is a moral order created by God for our good and we are obligated to obey our creator. At the same time, the gospel narrative recognises that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and “are justified by his grace as a gift”. (Romans 3) This means that none have the right to exalt themselves over another. Our identity is no longer bound up in our station in life or how much we have achieved, but by how much God has loved us. Our primary identity is as a child of God. Even when we celebrate the good works we have done, but do not attribute merit ultimately to ourselves, instead we recognise that even our good works of love are gifts from God who “prepared them beforehand, that we should walk in them”. (Ephesians 2:10) 

The church community, as the national community, requires leaders. Indeed the bible commands us to appoint leaders who will shepherd and guide others in the church. But our leaders are exhorted to follow the example of Christ, who told them “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-44) There ought to be nothing remotely resembling elitism among them. Such a community is one where “the first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 20:16) and it shall be one that removes the sting from the meritocratic alternative.

What about the second question? There the chief issue I raised was how the intertwining of individual narrative and societal structure can create a cycle in which it can be hard for the individual to simply tell herself a different story or for societal structures to be reformed apart from individual change. One might think that the Christian narrative faces the same problem. I have said that the Christian narrative fuels the Christian community, which in turn embodies and mediates the Christian narrative. But if so, don’t we face the same chicken and egg problem? How can either the narrative or the community get started in the first place?

The answer to this is in noticing that the first relationship in which this narrative is embedded is not that between the Christian and the Church but between God and the Christian. It is first and foremost within the context of our relationship with God that we make sense of the gospel, and God is the one who takes the divine initiative to come and pursue us while we tell our own rebellious, sinful stories. God himself is also the one who comes in to create the new Christian community as it were ex nihilo. This description is apt, for the Apostle Paul himself compares conversion to the God’s creation ex nihilo: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) Furthermore, God’s activity does not cease at the inception of the church. Instead Jesus promises his personal investment in building his church, telling his disciples that “he is with them always, to the end of the age”. (Matthew 28:20) And he works in and through the church to cause them to love each other in a costly way. 

Let me put this point differently. Because individuals are mired in the harmful prevailing structures of the day, to act apart from them would be both personally costly (the competitive culture would leave you behind) and it could even make no sense or be interpreted as foolish. To create an alternative community in which new actions start to make sense is therefore costly and the person who first begins to enact an alternative narrative where a contrasting one previously dominated would pay the largest cost. In the Christian community, however, it is God who is the first mover. In the midst of our selfishness, he makes the first move to respond to us gently forgive our sins. And he paid the cost by bearing our sins on his body on the tree. He then interacts with us and begins to form a new relationship around which the church community can be centered and from which it can draw strength. This new relationship with God becomes one wherein counter-cultural acts of love and care can begin to make sense. We can forgive because God has forgiven us. We can allow others to get ahead of us because Christ our Lord did not lord it over us but humbly came to serve us. God himself bears the primary cost of enacting this gospel narrative. It too will be costly for us to obey the command of love, but in this new relationship with God, we no longer pay the price for being the ‘first mover’ and our acts now begin to make sense.

God therefore is the one who creates the new community that empowers this alternative narrative. He does so first by entering into relationships with individual believers and by interacting with us according to a different narrative than that which operates in the world. However, he also creates the new community by empowering Christians to obey the command of love and as they begin to interact with each other according to the gospel, an alternative community is created around which the gospel is visibly seen. God is the prime mover in creating the community, but his action does not render our individual actions obsolete, rather it enables us to act.

This, in brief, is how the gospel narrative and community has the resources to respond to these two issues. There is, however, still a gap between this and what implications the church should draw when it thinks about social action. I will make some suggestions about that in the following post. Before that, however, I wish to pause and think about some problems. 

“When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.”

As I sketch out this alternative, some might read with a growing sense of impatience. For this ideal, beautiful community is nothing like the flesh and blood sinners they meet at church every Sunday. Perhaps some have even experienced severe hurt or even abuse from within the church. The quote which forms the section title above comes from the Apostle Paul himself as he described the church in Corinth, which, despite their apparent spirituality, had imbibed the licentious and self-centered values of the surrounding culture, and had therefore become a source of harm for the Corinthian Christians. It is possible for the church community to degenerate into chaos and a source of evil rather than good. Though I will make some comments in response to this in a while, I really don’t think there is an easy way to respond to this problem. This due primarily to the complexity involved in why churches might end up that way and the roles in which church members play. Some may be perpetrators of the harmful culture in a church, others may be victims, others by their silence and selfishness condone certain behaviours, and most people are a mix of these. Especially where abuse is carried out within the christian community, spiritual, sexual or otherwise, I want to sympathise and admit that writing a blog post hardly does justice to these evils. (I have tried to show how the Christian narrative engages with these elsewhere in this blog and see this article by Rachel Denhollander for one thoughtful perspective on abuse.)

At the same time, I want to make three brief points in response. First, all communities are vulnerable to such a danger of turning inward and corrupt. The reason for this lies in the depravity of the human heart. Any community which relies primarily on human goodwill is therefore bound to disappoint. According to one popular way of understanding democracy, the democratic system was constructed primarily to deal with this problem. To trust in systems, however, especially one created by fallible human beings, is likely to fare no better. (seriously, just read the news these days) Our hope, therefore, is primarily in God to create such a community. The gospel narrative and community, with God at the center instead of man, offers, at the very least the possibility of the creation of such a community and its continuance. God, moreover, is committed sustaining and creating his church. As the Lord Jesus himself says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) However wretched its earthly form may be, it is the Lord’s commitment to the church that should ground our allegiance, not in the goodwill of any one person or the effectiveness of any system.

Secondly, though I speak merely of possibility in the various paragraph. I dare say that I have seen such love in actuality. When sinners gather together, they are bound to rub each other the wrong way. But what happens after that is where a miracle might take place. Forgiveness, humility, a willingness to admit mistakes. Sacrifice of time, money, emotional resources just to walk with and care for another brother or sister. When a brother or sister makes a mistake and hardens their heart, I’ve seen how the community can firmly correct the person yet gently pursue him with an otherworldly humility. I myself have been at the receiving end of such correction and forgiveness. I have seen displays of radical hospitality and self-sacrifice as well: adopting children with special needs, taking care of unwanted teenagers and walking, often in tears, with those struggling with suffering and sin. When I see these things, I recognise that this is not just the fruit of human effort and goodwill, but indeed that God dwells among his people.

Finally, I must add that my sketch is partly aspirational. I wish to show that Christians have the resources to engage with some of these issues in order to encourage us to work together towards the ideal. The numerous commands to love one another in the bible surely did not arise because the church was naturally predisposed to this. Instead, Jesus’ last command to love one another as he has loved us, came surely because he was familiar with the infighting that regularly plagued his disciples. (John 13) These commands require our obedience: they require us to put aside our pride and actually begin the hard task of loving others. This we shall do by the grace of God.

Conclusion

The gospel narrative and the gospel community is therefore the alternative that we need. The centrality of grace in the Christian religion is key to resolving the issues I’ve raised. Grace is what removes the sting from the harmful tendencies of meritocratic narratives and God’s gracious initiative makes the community which embodies this alternative narrative possible. The discussion in this post is limited, however, within the scope of the Christian community. What does this analysis mean for the way we think about society at large? In the next post, I will draw some implications from this as to how we should think about social action.

Narratives, Inequality and the Church Part 1: Reflections on Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like

No book has so taken Singapore by storm as Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like; perhaps not since LKY’s Hard Truths has a book by a local author been sold out so rapidly. I am perhaps late to the party in registering my reflections on the book, but I offer them up here. As usual, I am interested in bringing a Christian perspective to the issues raised here. I eventually hope to show that Christians have much learn from Teo’s insights: her discussion of how narratives are ultimately socially embedded can be a starting point for us to think about how evangelism, community and social justice can be intertwined. More importantly, I believe her analysis reveals that the Church uniquely can and ought to play a crucial role in Singapore society, but that she should focus her energies outside of the usual institutional structures Singaporean Christians have been fond of working in. In this first post, however, I want to simply examine Teo’s analysis and raise some related issues in thinking about how we can respond to it.

Step 1: Disrupt the Narrative

Teo covers much ground in her work, drawing from extensive interviews with those from low socio-economic backgrounds, providing an ethnography of inequality that describes how the state and societal structures of Singapore are differentially experienced by those from such backgrounds. However, there are two interrelated insights that are crucial to her work and that I want to comment on in this essay. The first concerns the intertwining of the national narrative and the individual narrative and the second concerns how these narratives are socially embedded and instantiated and reproduced in our everyday lives.

The emphasis on narrative is evident from the title of Teo’s evocative first chapter: “Step 1: Disrupt the Narrative” and Teo begins by pointing out the relationship between individual narratives and the national narrative. The essence of our national narrative Teo sees as captured by progress and meritocracy. Singapore is a nation that prevailed against the odds to reach the prosperous state that we are in and we must continue to strive forward if we are to survive. Part of what explains our excellence and success is the system of meritocracy we have instituted. This is a system that purports to provide equality of opportunity to all citizens but which produce, by design, unequal outcomes of credentials, status and wealth. This narrative is furthermore value-laden, 

“What the education system does when it selects, sorts and hierarchizes, and when it gives its stamp of approval to those ‘at the top,’ is that it renders those who succeeds through the system as legitimately deserving. Left implicit is that those at the bottom have failed to be deserving.” (p. 26, Original Emphasis.)

This narrative does not remain at the national level, however, but are concretised in individual narratives. The values reflected in the national narrative are imbibed by us and inform the stories that we tell about ourselves. Teo cites the example of two men who proudly talk about having once been in a state where they have had to take cold showers and sleep with bed bugs. She notes that “with the national narrative of miraculous progress serving as backdrop to their personal stories, these persons can lay claims to a kind of dignified triumph.” (p. 21.) Those who have not been able to progress within this narrative, however, have no such recourse to dignify their hardship. Instead, they are understood as symbols of inferiority and unworthiness.

The stories that we tell ourselves, however, do not exist in a vacuum. Instead it is impressed unto us by our interactions with societal structures and our social relations:

“Individuals do not live on islands (even when we literally do!). We are connected through rich, complex, and intricate ties to others in society. What we do and do not do are shaped by our sense of how others are — shared understandings of right and wrong, good and bad, valuable and worthless. The pathways and practices we end up taking are rendered meaningful by shared scripts and narratives that permeate our society.” (Pg. 32.)

Teo then goes on to show how various aspects of Singapore society structurally disadvantages the poor: availability and type of housing, the kinds of employment that the low income have to undertake and the highly competitive education system serve to mire them in their situation despite their best efforts. But not only does it keep them poor, it perpetuates their sense of inferiority and unworthiness. Because they lack the qualities which our meritocratic system rewards, they are made to feel incompetent. Understood from within the perspective of the national narrative they imbibe, they are not ‘normal’ and have been left behind. 

That these narratives are socially embedded is crucial. One cannot simply choose to tell oneself a different story. As Teo notes in her discussion of parenting:

“Parenting is a socially embedded activity… First, it is linked to other elements of everyday life … Second, it is shaped by and rooted in the broader expectations, demands and habits of society. … Many of us like to imagine we are independent — how many times have I heard people declare “I just do what I want to do and I don’t care what other people say”? — but the reality is that what makes for a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent is shaped by circumstances and informed by criteria beyond any given individual’s control” (p. 144-145.)

For example, the expected outcomes of parenting are informed by societal interaction and norms: it is not possible for a parent to simply do something else and pronounce their parenting as equally valid. Low income parents end up imbibing these values and ultimately reproduce the image of inferiority in their interactions with their children. As Teo notes, many low income parents find themselves in the unenviable position of telling “their kids to listen to them and yet also send them the message ‘don’t be like me’”. (Emphasis mine, p. 139.)

What is Step 2?

Such is the picture Teo paints of Singapore society that I hope to have captured in broad strokes. If this is the diagnosis, however, what is the solution? Recall that the problem really has two parts, (1) the oppressiveness of the national narrative and its effects on the individual narratives of Singaporeans and (2) the fact that this narrative is embodied in the community and state structures and instantiated and lived out in everyday life. If we wish to solve the problem, we must ask ourselves two corresponding questions:

    1. If we cast off the old narrative of meritocracy, what is the new narrative that we are going to tell ourselves? 
    1. How do we create the new community that embodies this alternate narrative?

Teo’s book does not offer any concrete answers to these questions and much of how I reconstruct her here is somewhat speculative. To be fair to Teo, her book does not pretend to offer comprehensive solutions to the problems and I may be seen as attacking a straw woman here. In fact, however, my intention is not to criticise Teo at all, whose main task in the book was after all merely to give an analysis of the problem. Instead, I merely wish to point out some crucial difficulties in responding to these two questions. Let’s think about the two questions in turn: 

    1. If we cast off the old narrative of meritocracy, what is the new narrative that we are going to tell ourselves? 

With regards to this first question, Teo seems to suggest two different approaches. (1) At times, Teo talks as if the problem is the entire system of meritocracy, the idea that worth is accrued to persons based on some action or virtue they have. (2) At other times she speaks as though it is not meritocracy that is the problem but the specific form of meritocracy that is present in Singapore. In these passages, she says the problem is that some forms of human virtue (especially those displayed by the those from poorer backgrounds) are not “legible” within the current meritocratic framework, suggesting that perhaps what we need is to tell another kind of meritocratic story where merit is accrued to different kinds of values or virtues other than academic or bureaucratic excellence. 

Both responses are, in my view, unsatisfactory. The first response continues to leave the question unanswered. If not meritocracy, then what? How can we have a narrative that does not have norms that privilege some qualities and so some persons over others? Besides, how are we to ex nihilo create and tell ourselves a radically different story from the one that is so deeply embedded in our culture? The second response appears more feasible, but I believe that any such alternative narrative would generate the same problems that Teo identifies. If we divert the award of merit to perhaps more ‘moral’ virtues we may essentially create a kind of moral meritocracy. Who gets to decide which kinds of qualities are the ones that are to be commended? Would it create other kinds of inequalities? How do we prevent those other inequalities from becoming oppressive? For all the talk of Singapore being a Confucian society, the idea of a moral meritocracy perhaps comes closest to Confucianism. Confucian governments after all used to provide pensions to e.g. widows who exhibited some form of great virtue in raising their family. Some may be uncomfortable with the state or even society having such a large role in rewarding this or that virtue.

It may be objected here: “It is unfair to press this worry, no one is saying that we need to decide for others what kinds of stories they want to tell, and certainly no one is suggesting that the state should have a large hand in rewarding virtue.” This is a fair criticism. Teo appears to be a liberal and if so she probably advocates the idea that each individual should be free to craft their own narrative. It is not for the state or society or academics to tell individuals what sort of story they wish to tell themselves. However, the worry still remains. If individuals decide to cast off the old national narrative, who is to say that the new narrative that they tell themselves is not without defect or that it does not perpetuate oppression? Furthermore, as Teo herself has pointed out, individuals cannot simply tell themselves a different story in defiance of the overwhelming social structures that operate around a different narrative. This therefore brings us to the second question:

    1. How do we create the new community that embodies an alternate narrative?

Teo seems to indicate that this should happen primarily by state reform and individual action. Educational/social institutions need to become more progressive and individuals need to play their part to tell a different story to themselves and to treat those around them differently. She closes the book by (somewhat cryptically) calling on Singaporeans to “refuse” (p. 269.) to accept the status quo but to be a part of the ongoing national conversation. 

Such reform is crucial and not to be sniffed at. However, there are general problems with relying on such reform. The first of which is that the effect of such reform is usually limited. Unless individual mindsets can be changed, institutional reform cannot alter the narratives or ways of life of citizens. For example, if we decide to reduce emphasis on academic excellence and choose to reward students for more holistic achievement instead, ‘kiasu’ parents can always decide to divert their tuition money to all sorts of other enrichment activities that would prepare their children for whatever alternative quality the system chooses to reward. Second and relatedly, the ability of the state to make more drastic reform is limited by individuals who continue to imbibe the old narrative of meritocracy. Having been the national narrative for so long, citizens have become invested not only in the story of meritocracy but in its institutional embodiment. They have learned to play the game by those rules and would resent having them changed. Consider the balancing act the government has needed to play as it put out the new housing policy of buying back old and maturing estates. In the interest of greater equality and intergenerational justice, it may be said that the government should not buy back the expiring leases so that wealth would be re-distributed. However, having bought into the narrative that a HDB flat is one’s hard earned property, a narrative which the government itself has tried to perpetuate, Singaporeans would be loath to allow their leases to simply expire into dust.

There is chicken and egg problem here. For there to be drastic institutional reform, individuals must be willing to forsake their investment in the previous narrative. At the same time, until such drastic reform is complete, the costs that individuals would have to pay are prohibitively high. Teo refers to the example of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who decided to place her daughter in an American public school although she had the means to place her in a reputably better school. (p. 121.) Would any Singaporean take a similar risk? Not many. In fact, most Singaporeans often try to use any means possible to get their children into the better brand-name schools. Recently, I’ve heard that one method many have tried if they are unable to get their child into a brand-name school at Primary one is to ask for a school transfer the next year. I’m told that this fairly popular method can be effective at achieving the desired results.

The problem here is related to those that commentators have raised regarding the problem of being ‘woke’. David Brooks, for example, notes that “The problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it.” (See his article: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/07/opinion/wokeness-racism-progressivism-social-justice.html) Teo notes that even among her acquaintances, such a sentiment is common. (See p. 13.) When one is aware of the massive structural problems we face and how little the individual can do, one starts to feel like a small cog in a large machine.

Telling a New Story

What then should Step 2 be? Here is my response in brief. The alternative narrative is the gospel narrative. The gospel narrative is not without norms, but it is one that is undergirded by grace. The gracious nature of this narrative avoids the problems of meritocracy, creating a community where “the first shall be last and the last first” (e.g. Mark 10:31). The community that embodies this relationship is primarily the relationship between the Christian God and believers, which is mediated by the new kinds of relationships Christians have among themselves. This new community which exists outside the realm of the state can avoid the problems related to state action. In the next post I will elaborate on this alternative in more detail.