interfaith relations in Singapore - a christian perspective
In his National Day Rally Speech of 16 August 2009, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out that religious fervour was surging worldwide, and that this was true of all faiths.
“Groups have become more organised, more active. The followers have become more fervent in their faiths”, said the Prime Minister. Together with the other political leaders in Singapore, PM Lee recognised the significance of religion. But he warned that religious extremism can cause harm to Singapore. He said: “Religion provides spiritual strength, guidance, solace and a sense of support to many, especially in a fast-changing and uncertain world. (But) stronger religious fervour can have side-effects which must be managed carefully, especially in a multiracial and multi-religious society.”
In the ensuing months after this address, a number of incidents have underscored the urgency of PM Lee’s message. These range from the insensitive remarks by a Christian pastor in Singapore about Buddhism to the Allah controversy in neighbouring Malaysia.
Christians living in a religiously plural society like Singapore must be concerned about the peaceful relationship between the different faith communities. Christians must contribute to the maintenance of societal peace, including peace among the faith communities. This is part of the Christian’s responsibility in public life. But Christians are also called to be God’s witnesses in the world. And the witness of Christians can sometimes threaten their fragile relationship with the adherents of other religions. How, then, should Christians understand their dual responsibilities of witnessing to God’s grace and maintaining inter-religious peace? Would the concern to ensure peaceful relations with other faith communities compromise the witness of the Church?
Here Jesus’ command that his disciples must love their neighbour (Matt 22: 36-40) should serve as the basis for understanding our attitude and behaviour towards the religious other. The Christian’s response to a person of a different faith is not simply tolerance but neighbourly love or agape. This means that, among other things, the Christian must see the religious other as a person who is already invested with worth because he or she is created in God’s image. As the Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard has put it, the religious other is “your neighbour on the basis of equality with you before God”.
More specifically and practically, to show neighbourly love to the religious other is to accord him with the proper respect and dignity that every human being deserves. And such respect must be extended to his beliefs and his way of life. This means that we must never demonise the religious other and his beliefs. It means further that we must never force our worldview, beliefs and way of life on him. And although in some circumstances we must express our disagreement with what he holds to be true, and even our disapproval of his lifestyle, we must always do so gently and respectfully. For genuine agapic love is always patient, kind and enduring. It is never rude or coercive.
The command to love our neighbour is, at the very fundamental level, a command to become a neighbour to this other. To become a neighbour to someone is to cease to “objectify” that person: to cease to treat him as an “It”, but rather to treat him as a “Thou”. It is to be sensitive to this other, and to take his joys, hopes, loves, disappointments, needs, and aspirations into serious consideration. It is to reject an alienating anonymity and to treat this other as a person with a name, a family and a history – even if much about him remains to be discovered by us. This is how Christians must approach the religious other – as a unique human being wrapped up with majesty and frailty, and who, like ourselves, cannot be easily or adequately pigeonholed into some generic category.
It must also be stressed, however, that agapic love is never satisfied with superficial civility. Neighbourly love requires that we take an interest in the true happiness of the other. And, as far as Christians are concerned, such happiness cannot be attained apart from a restored relationship with God. This means that neighbourly love requires Christians to introduce the true God to the religious other. Love invites the religious other to “taste and see that the Lord is good”. It urges him to respond positively to the love of God in Christ. Simply put, neighbourly love requires that we share the Gospel with the religious other, and invite him to believe and be saved. For the Christian, neighbourly love can never be reduced to a secular humanitarianism. Agapic love is always evangelical and evangelistic.
Finally, the Christian living in a multi-religious society like Singapore must learn to acknowledge his solidarity with the members of that society. To be sure, the Christian is not of the world because the Gospel that shapes his life is truly counter-cultural. But the Christian is at the same time in the world. This means that the Christian stands in solidarity with the rest of society and shares their troubles, triumphs, joys and pains. In addition, Christians are called to work towards the common good of society. This, too, is an implication of the command to love one’s neighbour. Christians therefore should not hesitate to work with other members of society – people of different religions or of no religion – to serve the neighbour and promote his welfare. Because Christians are set-apart by God, they are no longer governed by the dictates of worldly principles and lifestyles. But because Christians continue to be in the world, and are in fact sent into the world, they must serve their fellow human beings out of their profound solidarity with them. This is an aspect of the priestly ministry of the redeemed community.
The command to love one’s neighbour therefore shapes the Christian’s attitude and response to the religious other. Loving our neighbour does not mean that we ignore the fact that our outlook to life and our deepest religious convictions are different. Loving our neighbour means that these differences will not fracture our relationship with one another. It will not diminish the respect and concern that we have for one another. As Christians we only obey this command by despising our own parochialisms, by reaching out to the members of other faith communities, and by our sincere determination to always work for the common good of our fellow human beings and for the welfare of our society.
Author: Dr Roland Chia (Dr Chia is the Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College, Singapore. He has published many articles on theology, ethics and culture in scholarly journals, and books including Hope for the World  and Biomedical Ethics and the Church .)
First published in The Courier, August 2010.