August 15, 2008
The Role of Christian Youth in Nation Building
I was invited to speak at the Inaugural Council of the Church World Mission’s East Asian Region (EAR) Youth Leaders’ Assembly 2008 this week, on Tuesday 12th August 2008. I spoke for an hour on “The Role of Christian Youth in Nation Building”, thereafter shared a panel with Ps. Sivin Kit (Pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church) and YB Hannah Yeoh (State Assemblywoman for Subang Jaya constituency) on the topic of “A Christian Response to the Rapidly Changing Youth Culture, Secularism and the Role of Media.”
It was a great experience sharing the floor with friends who share the same vision for the country’s future. I’ll type out my reflections for the session in a separate article, but here is the paper that I presented during my session itself. One key point I highlighted was the need to have role models in their respective countries. In Malaysia, I think the youth have an increasing number of people to look up to as role models, which is something I thought lacking even as late as 2 years ago!
Now we have the likes of young people involved in public life like Hannah Yeoh, Tony Pua, Nik Nazmi, Khairy, Nat Tan, Michelle Gunaselan, Nurul Izzah, Teo Nie Ching, Firdaus Fuuad, Wan Saiful, Abidin Muhriz and so on. (Note that I’m emphasising the fact that they’re young, I don’t necessarily agree with all of the above’s political principles haha.)
The Role of Christian Youth in Nation Building
Inaugural Council for World Mission East Asia Region Youth Leaders’ Assembly
11th August 2008
The notion of nation-building presupposes that the nation itself is in need of building; or rebuilding, in some cases. The term nation-building in its original sense referred to newly-independent nations in Africa to reshape colonial territories that had been carved out by colonial powers without regard to ethnic or other boundaries. This would later include the creation of paraphernalia such as flags, national anthems, national days, national languages and so on. At the heart of this lay the deep-rooted need to search for a national identity.
For many Asian countries bar a few, this was certainly the case. Countries like Malaysia and Singapore (then Malaya), Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, and so on, have had to grapple with their respective national identities in a post-colonial world. A nation’s identity is usually framed along certain themes. In Malaysia, it has been “unity in diversity”, in dealing with the reality of a multiethnic and multi-religious society.
Each nation will have its individual identity based on specific cultural and historical heritage, language, norms and social frameworks. However, can it also be said that our faiths should inform national identity, and hence be instrumental in shaping the nation-building process? What role does Christianity play in the shaping of a nation? The question to ask ourselves within our respective countries is – in attempting to collectively build a nation, exactly what kind of nation do we want to build? What should the nation look like, cultural differences aside?
Building what kind of Nation?
If we believe that Christian principles are holistic, then they should also inform our ideas about public life. Faith in the public square is very different from imposing strict religious values; rather, it is putting to practice those “kingdom values” espoused by Jesus in His time. This means tuning our senses into a frequency that sees the world as a landscape that God can transform. This transformation is one that is prescribed in the Bible: turning society away from dominance, hypocrisy, pomp, pride, “greed, malice, deceit, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7: 22-23) and towards kingdom values of justice, peace, sacrificial love, compassion and goodness.
In the process of nation-building, we then set out to do precisely that: to build our nations based on very concrete values already articulated for us. This is “His kingdom come on earth”. It is important to hold true a vision we desire for our nations, or nation-building effort comes to naught. The cause fought against corruption is a cause fought for social justice. The cause fought against systemic evil is a cause fought for what we believe in through Christ. Sacrificial love also includes having the grace to speak the truth with love, without prejudice of the other.
The Reality of Kingdom Values
Articulating desired kingdom values is the easier part. More difficult is the reality of putting these into practice, given political circumstances and a vastly complex system. In Malaysia, for example, complications arise from varying interpretations of the term “social justice”.
The country is a multiethnic society made up of various different races. Whilst the majority comes from the Malay ethnic group, other races are Chinese, Indians, the indigenous folk, and so on. The population is made up of a majority Malay ethnic group, but they were also the poorest community in the past. Social justice according to some, meant allocating equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth to the less-privileged in society: the Malays. This was implemented in an economic policy that through the years eventually arose in race-based affirmative action policy, largely construed as a social exclusion policy for the non-Malays. Hence, to others, social justice would mean ensuring the Government was fair to all ethnic communities alike.
It is therefore important to make a strong case for Kingdom values as a solid foundation building block, a cornerstone, in building the nation. However, one should brace for disagreements as to how these values should be in praxis terms, and open dialogue should be encouraged in resolving these differences.
Aside from what we can explore based on the Scripture, there are fundamental principles that we can refer to when exploring the need for social justice. The Catholic Church has been working at issues of social justice for many years, the Jesuit order specifically tasked with this very responsibility and role. In 1963, Pope John the 23rd issued one of the most famous encyclicals called Pacem In Terris, or in English, “On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty”.
This document clearly sets the basis upon which justice is grounded, laying the premises that God created all men equal, and as such he has rights and duties that are universal, inviolable and inalienable. Therefore, man has economic, political, cultural, and moral rights and duties. In detail, “man has the right to live, to bodily integrity, to the means necessary for development of life, to be respected, to worship God according to one’s conscience, to choose freely one’s state in life, (and) to freely meet and associate.” (sic)
It further states, “All men are equal in natural dignity, and … no form of approval is being given to racial discrimination… and the possession of rights involves recognition and respect by other people”. Many of such statements ring similar to those contained within present international human rights law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other legal Human Rights instruments. We believe therefore, that mankind has been bestowed these rights to life by God through the moral order through which He has created the world. It is hence when individuals part of this refined order fall through the cracks of the system, failing to be duly recognised as equal citizens whose natural rights are consequently violated, that we say justice has not been sufficiently provided for. A rights-based approach to building a nation is one that is grounded on the dignity and worth given to us by God.
Jesus came for the purpose of reconciliation, to reconcile man with man, man with God and man with the world around him. Extrapolate this to our current scenarios and we can imagine practicing kingdom values by creating a world of greater harmony between different ethnicities, religions and people groups. Our purpose should also be in reconciling man with the environment that is steadily being destroyed today – hence, efforts at sustainable development and alternative energy to combat current climate change crises are all in line with God’s ultimate will on earth – in the here and now.
Where do people – you and me – fit into this complicated web? Enter the youth. It is said that for any society to obtain true reform, two groups should be targeted: women, and the youth. (I happen to fit into both categories presently, fortunate for this talk.)
Wherever the beat and pulse of the nation is, there the youth should be also. The generation of the young has always played a tremendous role in breaking and building nations. It is from this rank that arise idealism; the desire to change the world; the raw passion to push forward; the energy to execute these dreams and ideas.
There are many examples in the Bible of young people rising as leaders who built great nations – David, Joseph, and of course Jesus himself. In contemporary times, we can think of youth leaders who have struggled and fought for a cause they truly believed in – Sophie Scholl, member of the White Rose non-violent resistance movement in Nazi Germany who was executed, Obama who is the youngest candidate in the 2008 race for the American Presidency, and the countless youths around the world speaking their minds firmly about the truths they believe in.
Whenever I think of the role that youth can play in nation-building, I am reminded of the community of people in Timor Leste (East Timor), with whom I have had the great privilege of interacting. This beautiful people group fought long and hard for independence from Indonesia, and eventually gained it. A good friend of mine is Tomas Freitas, a burly, solid and stout man whom I would truly call a freedom fighter. He was only in his twenties when he was thrown into prison, beaten and assaulted numerous times for standing up for justice. There are many other such stories, stories of youth who courageously stood for what they believed their nations to stand for – and these should be told.
Do Christian youth have a role to play in nation building? A resounding yes! At times, this may seem a daunting task as there are numerous issues to grapple with. This especially so when the system seems like an overwhelming barrier, but these should then be broken down into bite-sizes that can be strategically targeted. For example, looking at the institutions that make up society and targeting which of these are of most priority: Parliament? Corruption in the private sector? Building up national identity through enhanced religious conversations? There are multiple ways in which a young person can get involved in charting a direction for his and her own future.
Young, Christian leaders should see it within their reach, their ability to impact society and make a tremendous difference in their countries. Starting small with communities that are close to their hearts first, and based on kingdom values that can clearly be observed in the Bible. Age should be no barrier. Education should start at a young age, of what democratic principles look like; social justice; helping the marginalised, the poor and victimised in society; cultivating values that eventually build a nation. It has been perceived that the “fall of great nations” were due to systemic moral failings emerging in the form of a corrupt society, crumbling and weakening from within. Instead, to build a strong nation one needs to ensure strong moral values – spirituality is both about the public and private life. These common values shared by fellow citizens regardless of race, religion and gender are fundamental building blocks of the nation’s identity and eventual fulfilment of a great nation.
It is said that if a person is in his twenties and not an idealist, he has no heart. If he is in his fifties and is still an idealist, he has no head. Jokes aside, idealism is the one trait that sparks all initiative for change and ingenuity in a nation. Let the youth take full grasp of its idealist nature, and seek to heal wounds, lay the ground for social justice and bring the “kingdom come on earth”.
Comments are closed.