This mule and Wesley’s catholic spirit

What does faith have to do with public policy and politics?

My “insider experience” of Christian faith spans four denominations, nine congregations, 45 years. For the first 30 years, I kept my faith personal, or within the churches of which I was a member.

After the Hindraf and Bersih rallies in 2007 which contested public policies, and after the immoral detention of the EO6 in 2011 which exposed blatant abuse of police powers, I interrogated myself.

I saw that others were investing and expending their lives in order that I might enjoy my rights.

I wondered what kind of person I was, being a receiver more than a giver. I wondered what the command of God, in the words “love your neighbour as you love yourself” (Mark 12:31) meant for me.

I began to read, write, and show-up at protests. I read about Christians and political engagement. I mined Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, William Wilberforce, John Wesley and many others.

While choking in the fumes of the 1MDB fiasco involving Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, Jho Low, and the government of the day, I realized there are many who, daily, influence public policy decisions.

I asked, “why not Christians?”

I learned that Philip Koh, a Christian and a practicing lawyer whom I’d first met during Operation Lalang in 1987, was running a course on public theology in Seminari Theologi Malaysia (STM).

I took and completed his course. I enjoyed the reading, writing, and interaction with course mates and lecturer. I learned the extent of my ignorance both of Christian theory and history of political engagement.

I took another course on public theology, run by TRACI, a New Delhi based Christian organization. I listened to Christian pastors, politicians, social workers, academics, in another nation, speak about why and how Christians should and didn’t influence public policy.

I learned to read the Bible politically – to think of the structures of society when reading any passage of scripture.

The first scripture I ever memorized

But I’m a slow learner. It’s no coincidence that the first scripture I ever memorized was “be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, …” (Psalm 32:9)

Although I’ve feasted on Barth, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann, Martin Luther King Jr and many more, I still feel the need to learn better ways to live comfortably in the nexus between church, public policies, and politics.

Like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, the words “preach faith until you have it” (Wesley’s four resolutions), spoken by the Moravian Christian pastor Peter Bohler, ring in my ears. What it means to me is “you must search for what undergirds your praxis until you can express it clearly.”

Bohler’s words ring in the hearts of many Christians in Malaysia. Even church leaders want to speak about the church and politics.

An ecumenical webinar

Bishop Jeyakumar of the Methodist church in Malaysia (TRAC) invited Philip Koh to speak on Tuesday to dozens of Methodist leaders in a 90-minute webinar which he titled “Public issues, the pastor and the church in the Malaysian context.”

Philip asked me to speak along with him. It was ecumenical, because Philip has been, for decades, a member of the brethren church (“gospel hall”). And I’ve been, for 15-years a member of the Lutheran communion.

I agreed on condition that Philip must do the heavy lifting. I limited myself to speaking about how public policy intersects with my life.

I spoke for 10 minutes. I told two stories involving me, set in Malaysia. One was a conversation I had with a server in a kedai mamak in KL. The other was about a death inquiry in a court in Shah Alam.

I weaved in two stories about Wesley. First, he engaged in efforts to end the slave trade. Second, he engaged in efforts to reform prisons. I titled my talk “On account of Mr Wesley, no more kedai mamak for me” (video).

Philip titled his presentation “A Christian-Wesleyan-Methodist approach to public issues.” I found it very helpful. I think you will too. Here’s my summary of what he said.

Philip quoted and credited many authors; since I’ve summarized, I’ve omitted the attributions.

Part 1 Wesleyan backdrop

In 1750, John Wesley published a sermon titled “A catholic spirit.” This was his response to persecution by leaders of other communions. In the sermon, he made this call:

“Is your heart right,
as my heart is with your heart?
If so, then give me your hand.”

“Heart” was no mere sentimentality for Wesley. It was the biblical concept of the whole person. And “give me your hand” was his call and commitment to work with others ecumenically, despite differences.

Wesleyan theology is grounded in teachings about prevenient grace – the grace of God which prepares a person for conversion. God is active even pre-conversion. So, we should have no qualms about working with others.

But what do we work for? We begin by recognizing that God works sanctification, the restoration in humans of His moral image. We join the work of restoration, of transformation, of moving the centres of human lives from self to neighbour, whether friend, stranger, or enemy.

Wesley urges us to see that God is a triad of justice, mercy, and truth, and therefore, our encounter with Christ will radically transform our attitudes and beliefs, will result in concrete actions (e.g., ending slavery), will make us resolute in opposing evil structures and deceptions.

So, what’s the distinctive contribution of Christians to public issues?

We must bring our moral insight – informed by faith, teaching and practice – to bear on questions of public good.

Part 2 Malaysia

Against that “Wesleyan backdrop,” we can look at Malaysia.

Impelled by the gospel which transforms, Christians played a role in shaping post-colonial Malaysia: in the New Villages, in political participation (e.g., Tan Chee Khoon, a Methodist Member of Parliament), in professional callings, and more.

Christian legal professionals, young and old, have taken up controversial cases. Philip himself entered contestations involving conversion and child custody; language; apostasy and proselytization; constitutional crises.

Ecumenical groups such as CCM, CFM and NECF have and continue to issue public statements on behalf of Christians. And pastors daily tread the fine line between non-partisanship and pastoral care of flocks.

Part 3 Concluding exhortation from John Wesley

A person of catholic spirit is one who:

… gives his/her hand to all whose hearts are right with his/her heart.

… knows how to value, and praise God for … the knowledge of the things of God, the true scriptural manner of worshipping Him, and, above all, through union with a congregation fearing God and working righteousness.

… retains these blessings with the strictest care, keeping them as the apple of her/his eye.

… loves as friends, as brothers in the Lord, as members of Christ and children of God, as joint partakers now of the present kingdom of God and fellow heirs of His eternal kingdom, all of whatever opinion or worship, or congregation, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; who love God and man, who, rejoicing to please, and fearing to offend God, are careful to abstain from evil, and zealous of good works.

… having an unspeakable tenderness for their persons and longing for their welfare, does not cease to commend them to God in prayer, as well as to plead their cause before men.

… speaks comfortably to them, and labors, … to strengthen their hands in God … assists them to the uttermost … in all things, spiritual and temporal.

.. is ready “to spend and be spent for them,” even to lay down Her/his life for their sake.

I hope you’re as helped by Philip’s presentation as I am. I hope his thoughts provide the undergirding you may be looking for as you find yourself drawn into the work of influencing public policy and politics – in the company of others who may not share all of your own convictions.

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