Amid persecution and darkness, expect the unexpected

These are dark days we live in. In many nations, democracy and basic freedoms, including media freedom, are under threat.

Jul 18, 2020

By Anil Netto
These are dark days we live in. In many nations, democracy and basic freedoms, including media freedom, are under threat.

And with the economic outlook uncertain and people struggling, there is a tendency among some to scapegoat or turn their frustration on ‘the Other” — migrants, refugees, minorities, anyone who is remotely different.

Along with it comes a certain jingoistic or xenophobic rhetoric invoking superficial patriotism to silence dissenting views.

We see this trend in many countries.

At the same time, there are real problems with poverty, even as wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Last year, the then-UN special rapporter on extreme poverty, Phillip Alston, pointed to Malaysia’s poverty line income threshold of RM980 and poverty rate of 0.4 per cent which he felt was unrealistically low.

This prompted the government to recently raise the poverty line income to RM2,208 per month per household. This in turn raised the absolute poverty rate from 0.4 per cent to 5.6 per cent - an increase of 14 times.

But Alston still believes the new poverty income threshold of RM2,208 and higher poverty rate of 5.6 per cent is too low - only a third of the figure estimated in most independent analyses. Last year he had estimated the actual poverty rate to be around 15 to 20 per cent.

If this is true, it doesn’t serve anyone’s interest to underestimate the poverty rate. It would only give a misleading picture, especially to policymakers trying to tackle the problem.

Meanwhile, Parliament resumed on July  13 with a stormy first day of debates, culminating in the removal of the Speaker – perhaps the best Speaker we have had since independence. There was much rancour, even chaos, in the House.

It was all a world away from the performance of the youth in Parlimen Digital, a weekend online virtual ‘parliamentary’ session organised by a few youth groups. This session featured 222 young people from diverse backgrounds and regions acting as ‘MPs’. Their debates were on point, sober, earnest and well prepared. These youth give us much hope for the future.

As we emerge from our homes, were there any lessons we picked up during the recent lockdown? Are we going back to our unsustainable development model – more cars, more highways, more forest clearing, more burning of fossil fuels, more unnecessary mega-projects?

Sometimes, it is all too easy to return to the old and familiar, rather than blaze a new trail.

The Apostles, after the crucifixion of Jesus, were probably no different. They must have been tempted to return to their simple lives in Galilee, to their humble jobs by the lake, far away from the troubles in Jerusalem.

Even after the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were not spared persecution, es pecially from Saul, also known as Paul.

Now Saul was a student of Gamaliel the Elder, an authority on the Pharisaic tradition in the First Century AD and a leading figure in the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

This was the Gamaliel who seemed sympathetic to the Apostles in Acts, and even argued against putting them to death. If the message the Apostles had was from just ordinary mortals, it would die a natural death, he said. On the contrary, if the message was from God, it could not be overthrown – and to attempt to do so would be equivalent to fighting against God (Acts 5:38-39). In this, Gamaliel was prescient, and the Apostles were vindicated as their movement and their message, far from fading away, grew from strength to strength.

This is a little puzzling. If Gamaliel was so tolerant of the disciples, how did Saul, his student, become so consumed with rage at the followers of Jesus?

That makes some wonder if Saul really studied at the feet of Gamaliel, or if he did, what he actually studied. Others even claimed that Gamaliel secretly became a Christian!

Either way, what is clear is that Saul could not stand the disciples of Jesus proclaiming the Good News in Jerusalem and beyond, and he persecuted them with extraordinary  zeal.

Saul’s targets were believed to be Greekspeaking converts to Christianity, part of the Jewish diaspora who had returned to Jerusalem, who did not seem so inclined to the Temple traditions in Jerusalem.

Many suffered during this great persecution, not least Stephen, the first martyr, who was stoned to death.

For Saul, the Temple and tradition had the monopoly of the truth, and the Christians were a grave threat.

But in a dramatic twist, Jesus won him over on the Road to Damascus, some time between AD 31-36, and the rest is history. He used Paul’s zeal to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles and saved the Christians in the region from immediate persecution.

Both Peter and Paul, however, had to face suffering and even martyrdom. But before the Empire knew it, the new Jesus movement had taken root in the very heart of Rome.

Today, we have modern-day persecutors who try to snuff out the truth, silence dissenting voices or crack down on those advocating a more just and sustainable world.

These persecutors may inflict a lot of suffering in the process and they may hold sway for a while.

But the Light of the world cannot be snuffed out, neither can the flame of the Spirit be extinguished. He works in unexpected ways and shines a great light when all seems lost and dark – a light so dazzling it blinded Saul for three days.

Meanwhile, unseen by the human eye, the kingdom of God is spreading wildly like shoots from a mustard seed. We wait for the next unexpected twist.

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