In recent times, disparate groups of Christians in Singapore have galvanised around a common cause—defending Section 377A of the nation’s constitution, a colonial-era statue which criminalises private gay sex. The conservative alliance between Church and establishment elites has frayed, it seems, and outspoken voices like the Apostle Lawrence Khong have made clear their displeasure. Posturing for debate, arguments invoking the politics of fear have circulated widely online: Christians would have a hard time teaching their children, social norms would shift and alienate Christians, and most remarkably, that Christians might become a discriminated-against minority in Singapore.
That this fear of one particular social group being subject to injustice in a polity is precisely the reason why we need more robust legal provisions to protect the rights of all citizens. Yet such a notion has not exactly resonated with a majority of Christians in Singapore, especially clergy exhorting their congregations to bombard government email addresses with the prosaic petition: “I Want 377A to Stay!” (In other words, that “I would like my fellow Singapore citizens to be subject to caning and jail for engaging in private sexual acts.”)
Is this truly the best way to exemplify the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? Or is it merely, as the theologian Pete Enns writes, claiming to uphold “Christian values” while seeking to perpetuate one’s own privileged position?
As a Singaporean and self-identified Christian, who dearly loves the confessional community in which I was raised, I am dismayed at the reactionary, fearful, even militant language that afflicts the current state of public discourse. Hence, I venture to offer Singaporean Christians three suggestions to reflect upon as we move forward in the hopes of more productive, civil dialogue and debate.
First, Christians in Singapore must acknowledge and embrace the fact that we live in a multiracial, multi-religious democracy. The law protects the right to evangelise, to speak freely of our faith; it likewise safeguards the right of others to agree, or to dissent.
The legal scholar John Inazu theorises in his book Confident Pluralism, “When it comes to the law, we must insist that those in power protect our ability to disagree.”
I accept that for many, support for abolishing 377A might be anathema. But I urge the community to reflect not solely on how to safeguard one’s own social position, but also how the law can protect the rights of all citizens in an increasingly pluralistic, polarised world.
In a separate article on Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical news-site, Inazu further notes, “Confident pluralism seeks to avoid chaos, which ignores our differences. It also cautions against control, which suppresses those differences we don’t like. We can choose to live between the extremes of chaos and control by insisting on legal protections that honour difference for all and practicing civility in our own relationships across difference.”
History has proven repeatedly that the radical message of the gospel spreads freely when unencumbered by political power, and falters when accompanied by overzealous coercion or enforcement of moral norms by the State. Rather than posturing for a legal “fight”, we must come to terms with the fact that matters relating to family, relationships, and religiosity mandate a healthy degree of generosity towards practices different from ours. Without empathy for others, how can we expect others to respect and see the good in our tradition?
Even if you cannot bear the thought of the inevitable repeal of 377A and find certain “lifestyles” privately abominable, a healthy dose of empathy is necessary. Inazu describes this as closer to “endurance” rather than “approval.” Regardless, the rhetoric of outrage and apocalyptic fear must be reined in. Caricaturing and vilifying the Other is counterproductive and inimical to good Christian witness.
Second, the Church in Singapore needs to rethink its relationship with the State, and its posture towards politics. This re-thinking is pertinent because if (or when) 377A is repealed, life must go on, and Singapore citizens of various faiths will still share the same space and go about their daily lives. Rather than living in constant fear of imagined secular attacks on faith, Christians should recall who exactly the arbiter of ultimate truth in the Christian tradition is.
If Christians truly believe that our source of morality, truth and justice is in the divine rather than human authority, and that the kingdom of God will ultimately reconcile and resolve all the brokenness of this world, then we can have the confidence to engage with others whose convictions are different than ours. We can do so without fear that shifting social norms would erode our faith.
Rather than immediately complaining to the authorities—a peculiar Singaporean tendency— and insisting that the government enshrine our moral standards in law, why not look beyond the temporal and focus on things eternal? The gospels of Christ never stated that the values of the world would align neatly with Christian morality. On the contrary, Jesus preached a radical vision of justice, mercy, and humility that would transcend all this worldly contradictions and imperfections.
That Singapore’s National Council of Churches (NCC) only appears in the headlines in relation to this particular issue of 377A is deeply problematic. Why does grassroots Christian unity only emerge in the public square when we feel threatened? There are many good humanitarian initiatives which should be publicised further; I see this as a challenge for the Church must redouble its social mission—to reach out to people beyond the pews. There is poverty, injustice and exploitation all around us.
In light of this, what would Jesus do?
Many young Singaporeans have been encouraged by the Buddhist Fellowship’s choice to publicly foreground its ideals of humanitarianism and benevolence for all, rather than hiding behind the shield of Asian conservatism. I’m not saying the NCC should imitate their statement, but it would do well to consider how it can set its own agenda.
Young Christian Singaporeans are in desperate need of more positive examples of deliberate, thoughtful social engagement (and activism) in the local context. The Church cannot respond only when prompted by politicians, or when it feels threatened, fearful, and defensive. The Christian scholar John Fea writes in his book, The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, that the current malaise of American evangelicalism has much to do with evangelical reliance on political strongmen to shield them from rushing secularisation.
Taking heed from this example, Singapore’s Christians must take the broader perspective that a hope and confidence in Christ is sufficient basis to engage our world in uncertain times.
Finally, Singapore Christians must broaden our definition of “family values.”
The most vehement faith-based defences of 377A have unsurprisingly come from voices borrowing the idiom of “family values” from the Christian Right in the United States.
This idiom, narrowly defined, focuses essentially on protecting the nuclear family as the basis of society. Yet we ignore the fact that Singapore’s modernisation and trajectory of development has been undergirded by the literal breaking-apart of hundreds and thousands of nuclear families. We have too often entirely ignored the underclass of indentured workers in our midst: domestic maids and construction labourers who work in Singapore on multi-year contracts, at wages insufficient to live dignified lives, with little or no legal provision for family reunion.
Insofar as we turn a blind eye to these foreign families and their God-given rights and dignity, the advocacy for the protection of our own nuclear families rings hollow.
Rather, it is showing the love of Jesus by advocating on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, and fighting against these systemic injustices in our system, that will testify to the credibility of our convictions.
“Here’s something I’d like to hear in election years: ‘I don’t believe as these Christians do, but I sure do want them running our government!’”
“Instead, the general public is skeptical, if not fearful, of politicians who parade their Christian faith, and I don’t blame them.”
For better or worse, the developed world increasingly views Christianity as outmoded, and associations with the church run the gamut of sexual abuse, anti-intellectualism, homophobia, reactionary conservatism, etc.
As one commentator notes, “For many people Christianity is simply not plausible considering the social imaginary regarding homosexuality, and the disjunction between what Christians preach and what is seen in the media.” Again, I ask, how can Christians best exemplify the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, in our social engagement with contentious issues in Singapore?
It would take some serious reflection, a shift of posture, and perhaps a dose of humility to rectify the current state of affairs, but hopefully we take a step in the right direction.