Interactive Pluralism in Asia -  - ebook

Interactive Pluralism in Asia ebook



In den heutigen multiethnischen und multikulturellen asiatischen Kontexten ist religiöse Vielfalt für viele Gesellschaften kennzeichnend. Dieses Buch bietet neue Einblicke in die gegenwärtige Situation des religiösen Lebens in Hongkong, Indien, Indonesien, Japan, Malaysia und Myanmar, beleuchtet den Einfluss religiösen Engagements im öffentlichen Raum und stellt dar, wie christliche Theologie sich mit den gegenwärtigen Realitäten in Asien auseinandersetzt. Christliche Theologen aus verschiedenen Denominationen reflektieren in diesem Band auf faszinierende Weise über Rechtfertigung, Erlösung, den Heiligen Geist und die Trinität und diskutieren die wechselseitigen komplexen Entwicklungen sowohl in und als auch zwischen den asiatischen Gesellschaften und weltweit. In today's multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Asian contexts, religious plurality is one of the hallmarks of many societies. This book provides new insights into the current realities of religious life in Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Myanmar, highlights the influence of religious commitment on the public space, and examines how Christian theology engages with contemporary realities in Asia. Christian theologians of different denominations offer fascinating theological reflections on justification, salvation, the Holy Spirit and the Trinity, and discuss interactions within and between Asian societies as well as with the world at large.

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The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Lutheran World Federation




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ISBN 978-3-374-04657-7






Martin Junge


Simone Sinn


The Role of Religions in the Dialectic of Public Space in Asia

Anselm K. Min

The Trinitarian and the Public Space

Joas Adiprasetya

Religious Diversity and Public Space in China: A Reconsideration of the Christian Doctrine of Salvation

Lai Pan-chiu

Lutheran Theology Between Exclusivism and Openness: Reconsidering the Classical Lutheran Distinctions Between “Creation” and “Salvation”

Notto R. Thelle

The Holy Spirit, Spirits and Spirituality: Spirit-filled Guidelines for Transformative, Loving Dialogue

Kristin Johnston Largen


The “Post”-Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong Identity and Christians

Kung Lap-yan

Public Space and Islamic Piety: Spatial Politics, Madrasah and Ethnic Muslim Minority in Hong Kong

Ho Wai-yip

Jesus, Creativity and Nuclear Power: A Post-Fukushima Reading of Gordon Kaufman’s Christology from a Hong Kong Perspective

MOK Kie Man Bryan


India: Ek-Centric Engagement—Reshaping Christian Engagement in the Public Space from the Perspective of the Margins

Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar

Indonesia: The Challenge of Plurality. Building Communion for the Sake of Peace and Justice

Fernando Sihotang

Japan: Mission and the Public Sphere

Arata Miyamoto

Malaysia: Reimagining Solidarity—The “Allah” Controversy, Public Discourse and Interreligious Relations

Sivin Kit

Myanmar: Religious Presence in the Public Space and Interreligious Relations

Saw Hlaing Bwa

Communiqué – Interfaith Consultation “Religious Life and Public Space in Asia”

Lutheran World Federation/Tao Fong Shan Christian Center/Areopagos. 3-7 September 2015, Hong Kong, China

List of contributors



Martin Junge

In times when fragmentation, segregation and withdrawal seem to be the order of the day, to see people of faith constructively engaging in the public sphere on issues of common concern is a sign of hope. It takes courage and determination not to stay within the comfort zone of one’s church or one’s familiar academic terrain, but to go out and interact with others who are considerably different. Asia provides many opportunities for the encounter between people of different ethnicities, nationalities, religions, caste and class, but do people of faith actually grasp these opportunities?

This book proposes interactive pluralism as a meaningful and promising way forward for Asian communities and countries. The reflections and analyses pave the way toward such interaction and collaboration. The authors engage in theological conversation with tradition in a way that opens the future as well as with complex and antagonistic dynamics in society in a way that brings people together and creates a sense of belonging and solidarity. This is daring and prophetic; as people of faith, it is precisely this that is our calling. With open hearts and minds and with outstretched hands we engage together with others.

Setting out on the path toward interactive pluralism is clearly an ecumenical endeavor. In this volume, Lutheran voices join those of theologians from other Christian denominations and I appreciate the depth of the theological reflections and the detailed analyses of social and political processes. It has been my experience that we cannot shy away from complexities in our work toward sustainable transformation.

Deeply moved by the transformative power of the gospel, Martin Luther called Christians to a new sense of maturity. The priesthood of believers is a notion that empowered all those who are baptized not only to take responsibility within the church, but also in worldly affairs. As we reconnect with the insights of the Reformation today, the vision of maturity—both in matters of faith and in worldly issues—speaks right into our time and age. Reformation theology emphasizes that mature Christians actively engage as citizens in their community. Today, it is vital that we understand citizenship as a calling and actively contribute to our societies by joining hands with other citizens in the public space in order to overcome injustice and to promote peace.

This book is based on lively encounter and interaction at a consultation of the Lutheran World Federation’s (LWF) program for public theology and interreligious relations, organized together with Tao Fong Shan Christian Center (TFSCC) in Hong Kong. I thank TFSCC and Aeropagos for their friendly collaboration.

I commend this publication to all those interested in public affairs and interreligious relations in Asia, and to all who seek to deepen their theological engagement with complex societal realities. The theologians who have contributed to this book provide concrete examples of what it means to be theologically accountable to our traditions as well as our neighbors.


Simone Sinn

In Asia’s culturally, religiously and ethnically diverse societies, an amazing overall plurality exists side by side a tangible and dangerous fragility. Authoritarian political regimes, ideologies and colonialism have left their traces and religious and non-religious worldviews significantly influence cultural life. In many countries, asymmetries between religious groups have increasingly gained political and cultural importance, and the predominance of certain religious traditions has become burdensome on the others. Significant differences between the realities in urban centers and rural areas, changing patterns of work as well as transformations in gender relations have led to a renewed understanding of the public and private spheres.

Hong Kong is one of the main economic hubs in the region. Its diverse population and distinct political configuration were the focus of attention in autumn 2014, when the Umbrella Movement visibly shaped the city’s public space. For the churches and other religious communities this movement raised the question of how to respond to and engage with the political issues at stake. What are the hopes and visions for shaping and engaging in the public space? What do people of different generations, religious affiliations and gender bring to the conversation? How can shared agendas be developed in order together to work for justice and peace?

Religious communities relate to the state, other religious communities and actors in society in various ways. These are shaped by constitutional and legal frameworks, public discourse and living encounter as well as certain global trends regarding how the relationship between the spiritual and the worldly realms is conceived of. Discussions at the international and local levels appear to have become more polarized. Whereas some praise the crucial role of religions in society and the leadership they provide, others warn against a dangerous “resurgence of religion” and advocate for a clearcut separation of religion and politics. In light of this contested terrain, it is vital that religious communities account for why and how they engage with others in the public space and thereby give clarity and credibility to the communities’ advocacy work, social engagement and public relations.

Lutheran theology clearly distinguishes but does not advocate for an antagonistic divide between the worldly and the spiritual realms. It provides a strong rationale for the commitment to the common good and a public sphere that gives space for the different communities to interact peacefully. Furthermore, it emphasizes the importance of providing education in order to enable people to become mature citizens. “Citizenship” has become a key concept in plural societies and enables the creation of a public space in which people of different religious, ethnic, gender and other identities can interact as different yet equal partners. The concept of citizenship helps to critique discourses of majority vs. minority groups, allows for the naming of injustice and oppression and the joint development of visions of a just society. In order constructively to engage with plurality, dialogical methodologies have become important.

The notion of interactive pluralism captures the idea that communities cannot withdraw into ghettos but need to be actively involved with one another to create a shared public space, where different convictions and perspectives have their place and common commitments and values can emerge.

The first section of the book provides an in-depth engagement with theological questions that emerge from current realities in Asia and relates them to classic theological fields such as Trinitarian theology, soteriology and pneumatology. Anselm K. Min introduces the concept of the public space as a space that is constituted through the dialectic socio-political negotiating in society. Min questions traditional ways of setting the spiritual apart from the political and calls on Asia’s rich spiritual resources to help people connect more deeply with their daily realities. He underlines the importance of a theologically sustained understanding of human dignity and solidarity. In light of globalization, a pluralist sensitivity to the other and a unifying sense of solidarity are needed in order to live together in the common space of one country, one region and one world. Min encourages faith communities in Asia to mobilize their profound spirituality to help communities transcend perceptions of identity based on gender, ethnicity, religion, ideology and culture.

Joas Adiprasetya argues for linking the public space to the Trinitarian space. He maintains that unless both theological-Trinitarian and socialpublic understandings of an open space are creatively intertwined one is unable to construct a robust theological reflection on religious diversity. He critiques theological attempts that separate the two, either by basing religious diversity on the more metaphysical argument through the Trinitarian lens, without any social implication, or finding sociological explanation for religious diversity, without any metaphysical imagination. Adiprasetya’s proposal is centered on the idea of perichoresis that engages with the problem of diversity through the classical idea of participation of all creation in the Trinitarian communion.

Lai Pan-chiu outlines how, in contemporary China, many Chinese intellectuals regard salvation and enlightenment as key for the modernization of Chinese culture. Based on a review of the Chinese Christian discourses on salvation, especially how they address issues related to religious diversity and public issues in China today, he proposes a Christian understanding of salvation that may enhance the dialogue with other religions and their cooperation on public issues, especially the development of civil society in China.

Reexamining the theological separation between creation and salvation, Notto R. Thelle underlines that the crisis during the sixteenth century has left its traces on Lutheran theology. Discussing Lutheran perspectives on other faiths, he pleads for exploring more deeply the Trinitarian structure of God’s engagement with this world. Thelle suggests that the isolation of creation and salvation as two separate aspects of God’s ongoing creative presence in the world constitutes a potential problem. In the final part, he invites the reader to imagine a Christian mandala of “God in Christ,” thus imagining the deep relationality between Christ and the entire cosmos and creating an openness to the wisdom and experiences of other religions.

Kristin Johnston Largen proposes a robust and dynamic understanding of the Holy Spirit as a lens through which Christians can engage with contemporary understandings of “spirituality.” Spirituality, often used broadly to indicate some level of religious commitment or awareness, at the same time establishes a distance from any organized religion, particularly any specific church. In addition, many cultures around the world have a vibrant understanding of “spirits.” Johnston Largen emphasizes that a Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit is necessarily Trinitarian, informed by the criterion that Christ came so that all may have life, life abundant. Taking the Trinitarian character of the Holy Spirit seriously implies discovering that the Holy Spirit can be troubling, unsettle cherished assumptions and lead to tangible experiences of love.

The second section of the book focuses on contemporary realities in Hong Kong. Kung Lap-yan discusses the identity and self-understanding of the people in Hong Kong after the experience of the Umbrella Movement. During the 2014 protests, the people of Hong Kong expressed relatively strong political consciousness and will. Kung underlines that the people of Hong Kong recognize that a democratic government is necessary for a fair and just society, stresses the new sense of belonging in Hong Kong and highlights the significance of “localism” with its distinct dimensions in this context. In the final part, Kung focuses on Christian identity in Hong Kong and advocates for linking two core aspects of ecumenism: universality and particularity.

Tracing the demographic expansion of South Asian Muslim ethnic minorities and socio-political transformations, Ho Wai-yip discusses the spatial politics of building new mosques and the development of Madrasah for the Muslim community in post-colonial Hong Kong. He explores the challenges faced by Muslim students and Hong Kong educators and analyzes how ethnic Muslim students and their parents perceive the importance of Madrasah education in terms of Islamic piety, moral education and family honor.

Mok Kie Man Bryan argues that since Hong Kong is surrounded by a handful of nuclear plants in southern Guangdong, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan should be a convincing argument for discussing the implications of the use of nuclear power and the underlying anthropological assumptions. The accident in Japan uncovered the fallibility and fragility of the human technological order. In the light of Gordon Kaufman’s Christology, which regards the story of Jesus as the norm of human creativity, Mok argues that Jesus Christ is the most powerful symbol for Christians to dispel the perilous myth that human beings are capable of domesticating the unpredictability involved in the nuclear industry. Human creativity must be qualified and transvalued by this symbol in order to help create a more humane world.

The third section of the book engages with religious plurality in India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Myanmar. Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar examines the shape Christian engagement in the public space should take in the current Indian context of aggressive religious nationalism pursued by fundamentalist groups such as the Hindutva. Deriving impetus from subaltern studies he argues that an authentic and appropriate method would be one that grants epistemological privilege to the perceptions and perspectives of the margins. The contentious issue of conversions in India, in particular of such marginalized communities as the Dalits and Adivasis, is used as a case study. Rajkumar advocates for the reshaping of Christian engagement “from the ground up” through an epistemological shift, which embraces the agendas and agency of the margins and takes on an ek-centric shape (or an other-centered shape). Thus, the Christian engagement in the public space can be reinvented as an engagement of and for life and can recover the promise of promoting peace, fostering freedom and upholding human dignity and integrity in India today.

Fernando Sihotang provides insights into Indonesia’s long-standing experience with religious plurality and underscores the importance of a stable constitutional framework for embracing religious diversity. He shows how the concept of Pancasila helped to envisage and build an independent Indonesia. The socio-political changes following the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 provided new opportunities for realizing freedom in the country, but also brought challenges to democracy. Sihotang points to problematic sharia-based local regulations and refers to examples of strong interreligious solidarity. He proposes that the understanding of communion that strengthens relationship-building and trust across communities be deepened.

Arata Miyamoto describes the contemporary religious landscape in Japan and identifies changes in religious practice in recent decades. This includes religiously motivated public activities in disaster relief and volunteer activities in the social and environmental fields. Considering the complex context of religious life in Japan, Miyamoto discusses the Lutheran legacy and develops an ecumenical understanding of missio Dei and underlines the importance of moving beyond a closed denominational mind. In exploring the relational character of mission, he suggests embracing an understanding of cohabitation that reinforces relationships within this shared world.

Sivin Kit reviews the events and the public discourses around the “Allah” controversy from 2007–2015 in Malaysia, where people struggle to reclaim the public space as they challenge divisive ethno-religious centric discourses. Kit reflects on the implications of the public debate for interreligious relations and points out that the public discourses critical of the government appeal to the principle of justice and solidarity not only for Christians but for all Malaysian citizens. In addition to reaffirming constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, Christian leaders and likeminded Muslim voices point to the significance of reimagining solidarity in a religiously diverse society.

Saw Hlaing Bwa describes the role of religion in the public space in Myanmar, emphasizing that Buddhism plays a crucial role in the public life of the country and its political establishment. At the same time, Myanmar is a pluralistic country in which also other religions like Christianity, Hinduism and Islam coexist. While officially relations among religious communities are referred to as being harmonious, conflicts of interest exist. Recently, religiously motivated conflicts have escalated and Bwa provides insights into the Christian and Buddhist tradition to demonstrate how resources from within these communities can help to transform conflict and develop a constructive relationship between religious communities through interfaith dialogue.



Anselm K. Min

There are three things I would like to cover in this essay: the historical and social constitution of public space; central features of the tensions and conflicts inherent in the public space of a pluralist society; and the multiplicity of challenges facing different religions in Asia. I shall briefly outline the first two since these merely constitute the background for the third part on which I would like to focus.


What do we mean by “public” space, and how does it come into being? We distinguish between “public” and “private” space, between “public” and “private” interest. What makes some things a matter of the public sphere and some things a matter of the private sphere? If two people simply exchange letters as friends, the content of the letters should remain private. However, if those two friends happen to be conspiring either to throw bombs at people gathered in an Olympic stadium or to bribe an official in order to garner special government favors, the content of their letters is a matter of public interest. Today’s public is not the same as the public two hundred years ago; their common interest and consciousness of that common interest would be rather different. What constitutes the public and what constitutes the private have been central concerns of political thought since ancient times, and remain highly controversial because our deepest social interests are at stake.

In my following remarks on the historical constitution of public space I shall rely on what may be called a “dialectical” theory of society developed by such thinkers as Hegel, Marx and Dewey. Human beings are not only thinkers and believers; they are above all agents or those who have to act. We are because we act, not primarily because we think. When we act, however, our actions have consequences, some of which affect only those directly involved in the transaction and others that affect those beyond the immediate agents. Among the latter are some whose scope and extent are so extensive and lasting so as to need control or management by promotion or prohibition. This is the birth of the public, which “consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.”1 We call “officials” those who are set apart to represent, protect and promote this interest of the public or public interest. The republic or res publica refers to the totality of things that belong to the public such as public buildings, public funds, the various offices authorized to act for the public and the very authority to make and enforce laws. When the public is “organized by means of officials and material agencies to care for the extensive and enduring indirect consequences of transactions between persons,”2 we call them the “people.” Through this organization the public becomes a political state. In the following, I shall present the dialectical-ontological origin of the state, not its historical or empirical origin, which, however, presupposes the ontological.

All the components of the public and its organization into a state are thoroughly historical in the sense that they are always changing through different times and places. How extensive and lasting the consequences of human action will be depends on the historical circumstances of action, the state of technology, economic development, the self-consciousness of a people and the degree of social interdependence. Fighting a personal enemy with one’s fists in an agrarian society is one thing; doing the same with machine guns in a modern city is quite another. The failure of a country bank in the nineteenth century is one thing; the failure of Lehman Brothers in the early twenty-first century altogether something else. Likewise, the birth of a public is thoroughly historical because it depends on the common recognition by a significant number of members of society that certain practices—slavery, the unlimited private funding of elections and the abuse of the state’s power to enhance one’s family interests, for instance—have extensive and lasting consequences that need prohibition and control by means of new policies, laws and structures, and on whether a significant number of citizens are willing to organize themselves into an active political group. This, in turn, depends on the level of education and self-consciousness of the people, the degree of solidarity they feel with one another and the chances of success should they get organized for social change, usually against resistance of the old public with vested interests in existing political conditions and structures. All these are historically variable. The same historicity applies to the kind of officials to be selected, the nature of new laws and structures to be instituted and the very form of government such as monarchy, parliamentary democracy, presidential system, that needs to be established in order to serve the genuine public interest of the nation and not private, partisan interests.

There is no “best” structure or state in the abstract apart from the consideration of actual historical conditions. As Dewey says,

the only statement which can be made is a purely formal one: the state is the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members. But what the public may be, what the officials are, how adequately they perform their functions, are things we have to go to history to discover.3

The formation of the state and public space is a thoroughly historical, experimental process involving trial and error, discovery and making and remaking, always in need of vigilant scrutiny and careful investigation. What matters is how to make the process less blind, less accidental and more intelligent, precisely in the service of the ever-changing demand of the genuine public interest or the common good of society.

What we have to avoid is to reify and absolutize a particular ideology—whether capitalism or socialism—without considering the changing demands of history. Such reification of an ideology is precisely the tactic of particular interests to justify their hold on power under the pretense of ensuring the general good of the people. A shared critique of ideologies will be an essential part of progressive social change. The question should not be whether an institution is capitalist or socialist or in line with some other ideology but whether that institution really serves the pressing needs of the public under changing circumstances. This also requires an ongoing social analysis of the consequences of so many individual and group agents acting in the common space—especially in an increasingly interdependent society—with regard to their impact on the common good. To be highlighted here is the imperative not to reify the state as an entity in itself apart from the people it is meant to embody and serve: the state is simply the way in which we organize ourselves in order to do together for one another what we cannot do by ourselves as individuals. Strictly speaking, it is not the state that protects our human rights, for example, but we in our organized solidarity use the means of the state to protect our human rights which we cannot do as individuals.4

These considerations should show that the public is not something that is simply given but something that comes into being when issues arise that have an extensive and enduring impact on society and that cannot be handled, except through the collective effort of society as a whole, i.e., politically. The public is the historical result of a complex social dialectic and depends on the scope and significance of issues; public issues will vary from society to society and from age to age, even within the same society. Any discussion of the public thus requires an analysis of the historical stage and conditions facing a particular society and the issues impacting that society as a whole. What is public and what is private cannot be discussed in an historical vacuum.


What are some of the basic issues and challenges facing this dialectic of public space in the age of globalization? Globalization is the most significant phenomenon of the twenty-first century, and debates as to its ultimate significance have been ongoing for two decades. What is incontrovertible is that it now constitutes the context of all contexts for all significant human projects—individual or collective—as well as being the unavoidable horizon for all significant human thought. It is a complex process with economic and environmental aspects, political and military aspects, religious and cultural aspects and, finally, the human aspect, the production of over two hundred million migrant workers all over the world. I cannot go into each of these aspects here5 but shall only speak from the theological perspective, which I define as the perspective of human dignity in its transcendence, and human solidarity as the historical condition of its realization. Dignity is due to all human beings because they are created in the image of God and destined for the life of communion with the Triune God. There is no human dignity without human solidarity because we cannot produce the historical, economic, political and cultural conditions that will protect and promote human dignity, except in collaboration and solidarity with one another. There is no human solidarity without the integrity of human dignity because only a mode of collaboration in solidarity that serves human dignity can preserve its moral justification. Any violation of human dignity results in the rejection of human solidarity, as any disruption of human solidarity results in the violation of human dignity. From this theological perspective, my chief concern is the impact of globalization on human dignity and human solidarity. What does globalization do to promote or destroy human dignity and human solidarity, and how?

From this perspective it is essential to focus on the potential of globalization for creating tensions and disruptions in the human community of nations, the chief source of violations of human dignity and human solidarity. In this regard it is crucial to note that globalization is a process that brings different nations, classes, ethnic groups, religions and cultures together in a common political space, and compels them to find a mode of living together with a minimum of justice and peace. Globalization produces a twofold antithetical dialectic—a pluralizing dialectic and a unifying dialectic—and requires both a pluralist sensitivity to the other and a sufficient unifying sense of solidarity among these others to make it possible for them to live together in the common space of one country, one region and one world. This twofold requirement is subject to the constant test of how to achieve a just and peaceful compromise on all issues that generate different publics and divide groups with their often stark pluralism of interests. Globalization is not an innocent process of mere differentiation but the painful process of adjusting and reconciling often irreconcilable differences. It is not merely an economic process that makes the entire world an integrated system of increasingly interconnected and interdependent actions, policies and rules, but a comprehensive process involving all major dimensions of human existence—political, military, economic, environmental, religious and cultural. Globalization not only brings regions, nations and cultures together in a common space but also all dimensions of human life as such.

Most importantly, in a world where the agents are unequal in power, the process of global interdependence necessarily involves mutual conflicts. It generates the struggle for the hegemonic power to dominate and the will to resist that domination—a struggle all the more intense, dangerous and “risky” for all because it is fought with all the technological and economic resources available.6 The relation among nations is still ruled by the laws of the jungle, whereas in domestic relations we have with some success replaced the state of nature with the rule of law. This sort of global struggle for power in its economic, political and cultural forms is now increasingly reflected in the politics of different regions and nations of the world, including Asia.

It is the peculiarity of the state that whenever it does something, it does it in the name of the national, public, or common interest of the citizens; even the most corrupt government appeals to this interest for obvious reasons. It also does it with all the resources at its disposal: the power to make laws, monetary and fiscal power and the power to investigate, penalize tax, even kill its own people and go to war against other nations. It also always does it legally and therefore with justice because its own positive law is what constitutes justice. Because of the sheer magnitude of the material, financial, legal and moral resources invested in the state, the state has always been the arena of contending interest groups or publics.

In general, we can say that domestic struggles for power center around three issues. The first issue is the specification of the public interest to be pursued—not the theoretical but the practical definition of what is to the public interest to be pursued by the state in particular cases. Any policy adopted, say regarding tax rates, will make important differences in the way it benefits or harms different groups. The second issue is how political power is produced, distributed and consumed and with what consequences on different publics or constituencies. Is this process purely arbitrary, depending on the accidents of birth and status and monopolized by a certain privileged group, or is it determined in a process that is open to all in a way that is not just theoretically but also practically equal? The third issue is how to protect the integrity of the state as the ultimate guardian of the public interest, its powers, its resources and its moral ideals against the perennial temptation of private interests to exploit and monopolize them to the detriment of everyone else. This temptation seems to grow in direct proportion to the powers and resources at stake in a particular legislation and policy. The very preservation of our common humanity is at stake in how successful we are in effectively promoting the public interest. This struggle between public and private interests constitutes the political dialectic of all modern societies.


What, then, are the challenges facing religions in humanizing the often brutal struggles and conflicts in the public spaces of Asia and promoting human dignity and human solidarity? I would like to highlight six of those challenges. These are challenges because they require significant and costly changes on the part of religions.

The first challenge to Asian religions is to overcome their common reluctance, bar a few exceptions, to be involved in critical politics in the sense of encouraging the faithful to participate in the struggle to produce political changes that will remove repressive laws and institutions—the “structures of sin—and to promote institutions that will better serve the common good of the people and to appreciate political action as the most effective contemporary form of practicing compassion, humaneness or charity.

Asian religions, like religions anywhere else, have always been involved in politics. Majority religions have been involved on the side of the status quo and the privileged, while minority religions have borne the brunt of discrimination, exclusion and often outright persecution. Today we need a different kind of political involvement, a self-conscious, self-critical involvement in the promotion of the public interest against all the “furies” (Marx) of private interests, so powerfully and ideologically manipulating the powers and resources of the state in their own interest, and exploiting and depriving the public of their resources, their moral ideals and their dignity and solidarity which the state is charged with protecting. This is what I would call critical politics, to be firmly distinguished from partisan politics, politics as power struggle, politics as the art of manipulation, all of which are politics of nihilism.

What prevents Asian religions from a positive engagement in critical politics is their mistaken distinction between what is religious and what is worldly, their tendency to confine the practice of compassion, humaneness and charity to the private realm of individual relations, and their consequent reluctance to accept the political in the sense of critical politics as the most effective means of practicing those properly religious virtues in contemporary society. They do not realize that what I can do as an individual to help my neighbor is heavily limited. I can give some of my money to the poor, even provide a scholarship to those too poor to go to school, go to the hospital to visit the sick, feel sorry for those sold into slavery as in the old days, or protest the injustice of an administrative decision. What the state can do, however, assuming it is properly organized and equipped, is vastly more. The state can provide public education, public health, social security and physical safety to everyone, abolish slavery and ensure equal treatment of all through just laws. It can eliminate poverty as such so that there will be no poor who have to beg for bare subsistence and in the process suffer all the humiliations and indignities from fellow human beings. I cannot do any one of these things by myself alone. The state can do all of these on the national scale, as many nations are already doing. This is why I call the state the most effective means of practicing charity, compassion and humaneness. Only a government can admit and provide the basic needs of some 1.1 million refugees, as Germany did in 2015. No individual or group of individuals can do that by themselves. One might also say that the ultimate purpose of charity to the poor is precisely to eliminate the poor as such and thereby also the need to help the poor.

I do not deny that by the same token the state can be the most effective means of doing evil, as all the state-induced human disasters of the twentieth century attest to. This, however, is no argument for the abolition of the state as such but only for its constant, watchful improvement and humanization.

It is crucial to remember that it is not really the state as something independent of us as citizens that is doing all these things, as many of us tend to think; it is we ourselves who are doing those things to one another through the state, the official, institutional expression of our interdependence and solidarity. We are doing for one another through the state what we cannot do by our own isolated individual effort. When we practice charity through the state, we do not have the luxury of knowing what particular individuals we are helping. But, the purpose of charity is not to give ourselves the satisfaction of having done something for the neighbor but to help the neighbor for their own sake so they can stand on their own feet with a sense of dignity, without being beholden and indebted to someone else. Furthermore, the neighbor in need we are helping here is ultimately not someone simply out there but ourselves in our own need, which we cannot fulfil by our own effort, but only through interdependence and cooperation. Through the state we eliminate the very need to help poor individuals—the highest act of charity—and convert that charity into an act of our solidarity as human beings. In helping secure the basic human rights of all by creating a just government at the service of the public good we help one another secure our human dignity and, in the process, confirm our solidarity as human beings, regardless of our parochial identities as members of a particular class, region, status, religion and culture. We reach beyond ourselves to join the universal human family in the dignity we all share and in their solidarity that promotes that dignity.

In recent decades the debate on the role of religion in politics has largely been centered on the question of whether a religion may legitimately try to impose its own views on the public of how religions should enter the political debates, of whether religions may use their own confessional language and beliefs or should learn to put the content of their arguments in a language that is persuasive and intelligible to the public in general, regardless of their religious affiliation. I cannot go into all of these issues. What is clear is that religions should meditate deeply on their own teachings regarding how we should behave towards one another and also learn to translate profoundly religious messages into terms that are intelligible and persuasive to the public as a whole. A religious group has as much right to join the public debate from its own perspective as any other secular group. At issue is not the legitimacy and right of every social group to express its views in the public square, but whether such expressions are intelligible and persuasive enough to move the public and produce a policy and legislative consensus. It would be a matter of political prudence to learn to express one’s deepest spiritual convictions in terms that can also win the assent of the public.

It is the specific contribution of religions to share the fruit of their respective reflections on the ultimate meaning and authenticity of human life and to serve as institutional sources of critical discernment, capable of seeing through the many illusions, self-deceptions and sheer vanities underlying the prevailing assumptions and fashionable ideas of an entire society, especially under the dominance of capitalist materialism. Providing this sort of fundamental critique of society, of its many idols and self-evident truths, may be the most important contribution of religions to the dialectic of public space in contemporary societies.7

Once we accept the political as something properly religious, as a way of practicing charity, compassion and humaneness, a second challenge follows, namely that of cultivating civic virtues as properly religious virtues. Civic virtues are virtues of citizens as citizens, who recognize that their dignity as a human being can be maintained and promoted only through interdependence and cooperation, properly organized and institutionalized in the state. They are therefore in solidarity with other citizens in their shared concern for human dignity and their shared responsibility for creating state structures worthy of that dignity. The primary virtue of the citizen is this sense of solidarity with other citizens in creating the common conditions for preserving and promoting human dignity.

In the following I shall mention five aspects of this civic virtue of solidarity. The first is commitment to the public household and the public interest over and against private interests of groups with parochial identities, based on class, status, origin, religion, region, ethnicity and other marks of identity. The central problem in most Asian countries is also the lack of this sense of the public whose integrity must be respected and the all too great willingness of social groups to exploit the organs and resources of the state in their own special interests. This leads to all sorts of government corruption and lamentable abuses of public power for the benefit of their identity groups, especially their families and clans.8

The second aspect of the civic virtue is the sense of shared responsibility for the destiny of the community and the willingness to contribute one’s share to that destiny, not only by paying one’s fair share of taxes and observing all legitimate laws, but also by educating oneself on the emerging issues of the day, by going to the polls on voting days to exercise one’s rights and responsibilities and by cultivating critical habits of thought capable of seeing through ideological deceptions of so much political rhetoric.9 Asians are grossly deficient in this area because they tend to be either too family oriented to see the relevance of politics, too hierarchically minded to see themselves as responsible political agents, too other worldly to see any sacred value in politics, too moralistic to see politics as anything other than dirty, compromising and demeaning, too fatalistic to see any hope of change through political means or too privately oriented to take seriously the imperative of larger loyalties beyond the individual and familial.

The third aspect of the civic virtue of solidarity is the culture of egalitarian consciousness. To recognize other citizens as my equals or other groups as equals of my group in the matter of basic human dignity, human rights and participation in the determination of the community’s common destiny is a most difficult demand of democracy and requires the overcoming of many habits rather endemic to Asian culture such as sexism, authoritarianism and the hierarchical sense of status, class and privilege. Egalitarianism is not something to be dismissed as a purely political idea; it is a virtue that requires the spiritual asceticism of genuine humility and self-emptying. It is the virtue of humility in its most universal, political application. Most importantly, it is the recognition of the fundamental ontological equality of all creatures as created by God out of nothing, of the equality of our own origin in nonbeing and of the equality of indebtedness to God for the gift of existence and all that implies.

The fourth aspect of civic virtue is pluralist sensibility. The state today consists of citizens from many different backgrounds and many different systems of identity and cannot operate on a stable basis without respect and appreciation of difference. Unlike traditional societies, today’s modern and postmodern societies are societies of mutual strangers who do not belong to the same system of tribal, conventional, regional or religious identity. A willingness to accept these strangers as fellow citizens and to dialogue with them about the future of the community they share is an essential requirement of the citizen. In this regard, democracy again demands the difficult asceticism of denying ourselves along with our tribal selfishness and accepting those who are different into a solidarity of others.

The fifth and last aspect I would like to highlight is the culture of dialogue. Dialogue is the democratic alternative to violence, whether the violence of force or the violence of authority. Democracy seeks to resolve public issues not on the basis of force, wealth, position or some other extrinsic ground but on the basis of the intrinsic merit of ideas, for which public dialogue is essential. The culture of dialogue is a challenge to our inherent intellectual arrogance and dogmatism. Again, this culture of dialogue poses quite a difficulty and challenge for Asians, who are so used to the culture of authoritarian solutions.10