September 18, 2007
Was Jesus Political?
Here is what I said on Saturday at the inaugural dialogue and launch of OHMSI (Oriental Hearts and Mind Study Institute)… on the topic of Was Jesus Political?
I am usually asked to speak on panel discussions for one of two reasons; one, because I am a lady, and two, because I am young. I am here to celebrate these two attributes today, and hope that I may add value through a third element, namely the fact that I have been somewhat exposed to the socio-political fabric of Malaysia while working at the Centre for Public Policy Studies that works on public policy issues, and draw connections between the dots of religion and public life.
As a young person fresh out of Churchianity, the reasons compelling me to work in public policy had little or nothing to do with my faith. This was the sad reality. It is only such interaction with a small but steadily growing group of Christians that has maintained the respect I have for the dignity and honour of the church, which may otherwise have withered away, along with many other activists who have experienced a great disconnect between their Christianity and social action. Further, the support they receive from their fellow Christian family has been insignificant, if at all.
“Was Jesus Political?” is the question to be tackled today. Karen Armstrong, prolific writer of religion, compares Jesus to Muhammad and states that in fact, Jesus was not political. Muhammad clearly set out to create a state with a complete outline of Government in all possible spheres, which Jesus did not. However, as articulated by both speakers (Dr. Lim Kar Yong and Dr. KJ John), Jesus certainly had extremely broad and deep political implications on society, through both the things he believed in and what he acted upon. How so? By influencing the basic structures of society that make up the essential “body politic”, although not explicitly nor necessarily intentionally setting up to do so. Jesus was merely being who he was, and as a result can be considered as “justice personified”. These convictions impacted upon the social, cultural, spiritual, legal, economic aspects of society living. The answers that Jesus had in addressing such issues were epitomized in his blatant advocacy of equality, freedom, liberation, justice, care for the poor, standing up for the oppressed and marginalised, criticizing authorities and being anti-corruption. This, to me, is what the Kingdom should look like, and the Kingdom Jesus was articulating. In praying “His Kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, and seeking a “Kingdom on earth”, we should ask ourselves what this truly means, aside from dreamlike image of palaces and thrones descending upon us from heaven. Theologian N.T. Wright states that Jesus’ kingdom-stories were not just advocating wisdom, but they were also announcements of what was to come. Matthew 7:26-27 therefore was symbolic of the defeat of evil. Certainly, if Israel’s God was going to become king, all other rulers would be demoted. Such a pronouncement was clearly subversive of their great empires and existing kingdoms. Jesus preached peace over violence, and many counter-cultural concepts alien to society at that point. In fact, when he used the term “Kingdom of God”, this was controversial because it introduced an authority that would threaten the position of existing kings. This, however, is an archaic term, familiar to those to whom Jesus was preaching, but hardly relevant for us. Today we might understand it by contextualising this term in other ways. In Malaysia today, instead of calling it “Kingdom of God”, we might make use of “Kerajaan Tuhan/Yesus”. For those more familiar with non-government organizational (NGO) work, it might be “Coalition of God/Jesus”. What about “Ketuanan Tuhan/Yesus”, a term we are very familiar with? Or finally, “Barisan Tuhan/Yesus”. Would this not be as controversial today as it was in the past? Many of us fear being caught in the web of political Malaysia, for valid reasons. However, in my personal quest I was extremely tempted to join a political party, and in doing so asked myself, “Would Jesus have joined a political party? And if so, which political party would he have joined?” Jesus was not directly political, but had strong convictions with major political implications on society. Likewise, a prominent figure Raja Nazrin, the Crown Prince of Perak, who has been extremely vocal in speaking out with balanced and wise statements, is not a political personality but has views that are making waves in society today. I urge you to read and understand his speeches. However, a note of caution that religion should as far as possible not be politicized, even within the church. In conclusion, if by embodying the life of Christ, as the Church is supposed to be doing, this involves an automatic subscription to his values and principles. If we “sign up” to Jesus, we also sign up to all he believes in and calls for. There are no two ways about it. This means each of us already has political convictions. There are big fat socio-political belief systems that exist and lie dormant within ourselves that merely need to be activated on any level. Perhaps, this is precisely the cross that we should be equally willing to bear; not merely a personal cross (which is important), but also a public cross.
In following the example of Jesus, all action must be done in the spirit of peace, love and reconciliation. As a church, we must be different from other communities in wanting to help and reach out to the Malays. We must start from individual levels and stop making racist comments about any other race. We must see ourselves as bridge-builders. In recalling the modus operandi used by Jesus, he practiced the art of persuasion in coming down to earth and ‘going down’ to the level of the people. Likewise, we must be speaking the same language to those we want to convince. Literature must come in the form of Malay and other languages (English is the language of the elite); words must be carefully chosen to convince and not scare off. Every problem must be seen as a Malaysian problem. Parents must begin exposing their children to current issues and should not fear when children want to be involved in political activity.
There is such a broad spectrum of socio-political engagement in society; to each his own, depending on carefully weighed out factors and personal views. It does not matter which path an individual chooses to take (joining opposition/government parties; campaigning for human rights; writing letters to the editor; teaching teenagers through movie themes; blogging). It only matters that something must take place; some conviction that stirs within one’s heart deeply in response to all that Jesus stands for.
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