Living as Christians in a pluralistic society

Christians and nation-building in a pluralistic society is a series of four webinars aimed at challenging Catholics and others to carry out their duties and responsibilities as Christian citizens in a multi-racial and multi-religious society. It means to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” in our national context.

Nov 21, 2020

By Gwen Manickam
Christians and nation-building in a pluralistic society is a series of four webinars aimed at challenging Catholics and others to carry out their duties and responsibilities as Christian citizens in a multi-racial and multi-religious society. It means to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” in our national context.

At the second conference, three panelists discussed A Christian social vision - reflection from Bible and Theology. They were: Rev Marvin Wong (Biblical Reflection), Fr Dr Clarence Devadass (the Roman Catholic Tradition) and Rev Daniel Ng (the Protestant Tradition).

A Biblical Reflection
Rev Marvin Wong began his session by asking the participants “What if God’s people were ruled by authorities from another religion and or another race? How should we respond?”

This apparently isn’t just an issue faced by our countrymen today – but it has been in existence since the time of Christ.

Rev Wong said eight million Jews lived under the Roman Empire at that time and they didn’t worship the Greek and Roman gods. They refused to eat unclean food with their neighbours, and they stopped work on Friday evenings ahead of their fellow countrymen. This behaviour made the Romans look on this minority group with hostility and suspicion.

“First-century Jewish sects had one of four opinions on how to deal with this. On one end was to passively agree as did the Essenes, and on the other end, to engage in outright violent resistance as the Zealots did. The other two were to cooperate with the Romans and benefit from their collaboration as did the Sadducees, or to straddle the middle ground — sometimes collaborate while other times criticising the ruling powers, as the most popular group, the Pharisees did.”

Rev Wong said Jesus didn’t support any of these paths for his fol lowers to take. In Matthew 22:17, when the Pharisees asked if they should pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus was caught in a catch 22 scenario. If he said yes, he would have been denounced as a supporter of the hated Roman Empire, and if he said no, branded as a dangerous revolutionary to the Roman rulers. Instead in Matthew 22:21, he asked whose image was on the coin and told them – “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Thus, making a distinction between the earthly kingdom we live in with the heavenly one, which is still to come. It also taught his followers that we live in two overlapping, intertwined kingdoms at the same time and what happens in one affects the other for good or ill. 

Fr Dr Clarence Devadass’s sharing was a summary of 2000 years of the Catholic perspective, known as Catholic Social Teaching (CST), on the Christian Social Vision.

The term CST was derived after a series of papal Encyclical Letters on ethical issues was published in 1891. Its foundation is Biblical, not populism or activism.

CST looks at Jesus as a person and is based on how he engaged not just in spiritual matters, but the social issues experienced by people during his era. Even in the early Christian community, we see their concern for the poor, the widowed, and equality among believers.

“CST is an attempt to spell out the moral and ethical consequences of our faith when we confess  ‘Jesus is Lord’ and the way we live our lives. What we profess with our lips must be seen in the way we relate to one another because faith is the starting point for CST, not just social issues.

In the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII adhered to the needs of his flock to address the subhuman conditions brought about for millions of people by industrialism and economic liberalism. He condemned the abuses and illusions of both liberal capitalism and socialism, establishing that the Church cannot stand alone but must be a part of society.

Today, CST has nestled the Catechism of the Catholic Church under the seventh commandment, “Thou shall not steal”.

There are several Papal and Vati can foundational documents that contribute to the development of CST – pre-Second Vatican Council, Second Vatican council, postSecond Vatican council and the three recent popes (1980s to the present day) and their views. These documents provide a rich treasure of wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness amidst the challenges of modern society.

Fr Clarence concluded by saying that CST is at the core of the Catholic faith — one cannot separate faith and social action as it is integral and based on the Word of God. CST calls us to uphold the dignity of human life, support those near and far from us who need our help, work for the common good and help build a just and better society.

The Protestant Tradition
On the Protestant Tradition of Christian Social Vision, Rev Daniel Ng reminded participants that in these trying times, where Malaysians are concerned about political instability, the rate of unemployment and the pandemic, the question of what is a Christian’s role is Malaysia is also bound to emerge.

While there will certainly be a  difference of opinions, he feels most will agree that the secular government is ordained by God (Romans 13), that it is the government’s role to protect the innocent and punish the wicked, and that Christians are taught to obey conditionally the government, as it’s ordained by God, but if it goes against God’s teaching we have a right to stop obeying.


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