Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Church and Its Accountability

 Some churches, such as this in Italy, are a real work of art. Contrary to 
what most of my friends think, I'm not such a bad photographer, am I?
The City Harvest trial in Singapore reveals astounding sums of money that the church seems to get quite easily from its members.  The trial tells us at least one thing - parishioners are always willing to give liberally to the church.  It's not uncommon for us to hear stories of people who sell their houses to give the entire proceeds to the church.  Notice that it's always the lay person who does this. You'll never find the clergy giving away all they have.

From my personal experience, mad people do have a strange fascination for religion.  I know someone (from a church group of course) who is a schizophrenic and he hallucinates ever so often. He asked me once if I had seen angels or heard the voice of God. I told him NO, NEVER!!! He said he saw angels all the time and God spoke to him regularly. I told him to take his medication which he would refuse to do because it made him drowsy and in a daze. He asked me how he could distinguish God's voice from the hallucination. I told him any time he heard anything in his head, it's got to be a hallucination. There's no such thing as "God's voice". He didn't believe me and continued to think he heard God speak all the time. It's sad but he's just the sort of person who might give everything he has to the church if his hallucination leads him in that direction.  And there are many opportunities for him to have hallucinations of this sort.  If he listens to a sermon on the importance of giving tithe to the church (which is not such a rare sermon in church), he may very well be led by the power of suggestion to hallucinate God's voice telling him to give everything he has.

I can't be sure but I think many churches are compassionate enough not to accept a large sum of money from someone of dubious sanity if they know where the money is from in the first place.   Usually, the church does not know.  A madman may put a lot of money into the offering bag and nobody will know where the money comes from.  I know most people think the government should not get involved with the church but I see the church as being in a position of great authority over its parishioners.  There are many believers who have surrendered their minds and wills to the church even though they may not care to admit it.  It's easy to see the reason for this.

Churches have taught their members from a very early age onwards that giving to the church equals giving to God.  Some churches are fond of quoting Malachi in order to frighten believers into accepting that not giving to the church is synonymous with robbing God.  The City Harvest case is highly revealing of the mentality of many Christians.  Many of its members continue to support the church leaders even after the arrest and trial (which is still ongoing) and although I can't be sure of this, I am inclined to think that there has been no reduction in the church's monetary collections every Sunday.

I know the church does not like Government scrutiny (no organisation does) but the church is not your normal organisation that should be allowed some autonomy.  The church wields such immense power over the thoughts and actions of its members that it would not be wrong to say that it owes a huge fiduciary duty to parishioners and there must be an accountability that far exceeds that owed by other establishments and institutions. 

I am saying all this as a Christian and an active church member.  I'm sure if Jesus were here, he who overturned the tables of commerce in the Temple at Jerusalem would say precisely the same thing about church accountability.  Anyone who opposes my call for greater accountability by churches cannot have honourable motives.  What reason can there be?  

I'm hoping the Government would step in and check on all churches and make them doubly accountable.  The people must be protected from unscrupulous leaders of organisations.  I have no doubt that many churches have at their helm noble clergymen.  I pass no judgment on the leaders of City Harvest because the trial is still ongoing and who knows?  They might very well be acquitted.  But I'm speaking generally about the great fiduciary duty that the church owes to members of the public.

You may say the fiduciary duty is owed only to church members but I disagree.  The fact is church membership is fluid and from statistics, it's clear that church memberships are increasing rapidly in Singapore.  Churches are allowed to proselytize freely and they are allowed to approach members of the pubic to lead them to full membership in the church.  Churches do this all the time.  Spreading the Gospel, as it is called, is one of the most important activities in the church and every Christian is duty-bound to preach to others.  Because of the constant approach the church makes to the general public in order to convert non-believers to the faith, ie sell its membership to them, the duty owed by the church should not be confined to church members alone but to the entire public just as a seller of contaminated food cannot claim that he does not pose a hazard to the public but only to his regular customers.

Since the public in general is exposed if there is any wrongdoing by a church, it behoves the government to examine the affairs of all churches with a fine toothcomb.   Churches that are innocent of any wrongdoing should welcome this.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Racism: easy to accuse, hard to defend

The Zimmerman trial made me wonder if Zimmerman's crime was in fact not being black.  If Zimmerman were black, his acquittal would not have attracted any comment and most of us outside  the US would not even have heard of the news.  But are people really interested in the facts revealed at the trial?  No, they're not.  All people in general bothered about was the fact that he wasn't black and he shot a black man and so the jury can't be right to acquit him.  That was all they cared about.  The rule of law doesn't apply to most people.  Nobody I've spoken to cared to read and examine the evidence adduced at the trial.  And yet they felt they were competent to make a judgment that Zimmerman ought to have been found guilty.

Much of the Western world has a huge collective guilt for their wrongdoings against blacks in the past and the guilt is understandable.   However, we must be very careful about claims of racism today.  Sometimes minority races use the world's angst about racism to their advantage and this is particularly bad if the person who happens to belong to the minority race is as powerful as Oprah Winfrey and the person accused of racism is a shop attendant.  Everyone has heard what Oprah Winfrey claims about having been at the receiving end of a racist discrimination at a shop in Zurich.  But have people wondered what the poor sales girl in the shop has to say in reply?  Do they even bother with what she has to say in response or what a nightmare such an accusation must have been for her?

The shop attendant denied having refused to show an expensive bag to Oprah when the latter asked for it.  She accused Oprah of having told a lie.  So it's her word against Oprah's and who can one believe?

Click here to read what the salesgirl has to say.

We should bear in mind that Oprah Winfrey was at that time promoting Lee Daniel's film, "The Butler" which is about the black civil rights movement and racism against blacks.  Is it not a wonderful coincidence that even in liberal Switzerland, racism is not dead and gone, as Oprah herself experienced in a shop in Zurich?

If it's a made-up story, surely the decent thing to do is not to mention the shop at all.  It's fine if you want to promote a film on racism to tell some imaginary story of racism which might very well take place in the real world.  But to name the shop would be quite unconscionable and besides, you might get a strong denial from the salesgirl in the shop.  The fact is Oprah didn't name the shop.  It's journalists who traced her steps and they were the ones who identified the shop in Zurich.  Oprah has since said she was sorry she even named the country where this incident is alleged to have taken place.  See this BBC report.

It would be wise for all of us to treat any accusation of racism with a bit of care.  It's something that triggers a strong emotional response.  It's easy to make an accusation of racism.   Once made, the impact on the accused is huge and devastating and at the same time, it's very hard to defend against such an accusation and even if the accused is totally innocent, he probably won't be believed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Beloved Mr Lee?

It does not take long for a blog writer to know what people online absolutely detest.  A simple praise of Singapore's government will usually attract a lot of negative comments, some of which are downright abusive.  The same goes with praising meritocracy and all the great values that Singapore is well known for.  Lee Kuan Yew is another target for some netizens and any post defending him or praising him or attacking his detractors is bound to unleash the indignation of online viewers.

But this is my blog and I will say what I like.  The truth is there are the irritating sycophants who praise everything connected to the ruling party.  I remember once a PAP MP posted on her Facebook page a link to a video that immediately garnered scores of "likes".  Subsequently, the MP re-posted the link to the video and apologised because the earlier link was an error.   Obviously, the "likes" came from her supporters who would blindly like anything she wrote.  But not everyone who praises the Singapore government or Lee Kuan Yew himself does so for such ignoble reasons.   If we are to be perfectly honest and objective, there is a lot to be praised in Singapore.  But all you have to do is to look around you on the internet and particularly in the various blogs and you are sure to see Lee Kuan Yew's detractors hard at work.

If you sit down and analyse carefully what each of them has to say, and you ask yourself what it is specifically that he is complaining about Mr Lee, you will find it hard to crystalize the vague negative comments into something concrete.

For an example, I will pick an article I just read.  The writer compares Mr Lee to Stevens, the butler in Ishiguro's novel, The Remains of the Day and suggests that Mr Lee, having "devoted his life to the concept of duty and responsibility", may have missed "the key to human warmth."  I take strong objection to the comparison of Mr Lee to Stevens the butler because Mr Lee is without doubt the opposite of Stevens in character and essence.  I recall the scene in which Lord Darlington dismisses two Jewish servants because they are Jews and Stevens, despite feeling the injustice of the action, complies with his employer's demand with unquestioning servility.  Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with Mr Lee's strength of character (especially when we cast our mind to the way he went about in his dealings with the late Tunku Abdul Rahman) will know immediately that Mr Lee will never behave the way Stevens does.  In such a circumstance, Mr Lee would have demanded the reinstatement of the servants or he would have left the service of Lord Darlington.

I have tried very hard to see if there might be in Mr Lee even a modicum of resemblance to Stevens but I can't for the world of me find any.  Why then did the writer choose a character from this novel to draw an analogy to Mr Lee?  My guess is he has probably just re-read the novel and was moved by it, as anyone would be (for it is an excellent novel and one that won Ishiguro the Booker Prize) and he thought the term "the key to human warmth" was just right to illustrate what he felt Mr Lee lacked and so, he ignored the huge differences between Stevens the butler and Mr Lee and lumped the two of them together in a comparison which is both invidious and laughable.

What is this "key to human warmth" that the writer thinks Mr Lee lacks so much so that although he "would dearly love to love Mr Lee", he finds it "so difficult - almost impossible even - to connect 'beloved' with Mr Lee"?

I should say at the outset that the rest of the world does not seem to find it difficult to love Mr Lee and to honour him.  Even a careful biographer must have lost count of the many awards of distinction and honours that have been bestowed on Mr Lee from schools and universities to Heads of State. 

The writer then turns to Mr Lee's latest book, One Man's View of the World and he says this:

The writer says very clearly that he wants to see "some inkling of [Mr Lee's] sentiments and frailties".  In the segment quoted by the writer himself, is there not enough humanity in it?  Mr Lee craves to see his wife in the hereafter but he realistically declares it probably won't happen.  But observe his humility.  He doesn't dismiss the idea of life after death as nonsense and pathetic (as some vociferous atheist writers do) or as childish wishful thinking (as Einstein did).  He merely says "I don't think I will".  He qualifies his statement with a modest assertion that it is only his thought.  He is not stating it as a definite fact as we Christians tend to do with an overconfidence that is sometimes ludicrous especially since it doesn't have the support of any evidence.  All Mr Lee does in the passage is to express his thoughts.  Mr Lee then goes on, quite legitimately, to expand on why he thinks that way and it is obvious to any reader that here is a man whose thoughts are perfectly rational.

After quoting that passage from Mr Lee's book, the writer of the article concludes disapprovingly that "logic is all or nothing to Mr Lee, even in the twilight of his years." 

What does the writer expect?  That Mr Lee in the twilight of his years should lose some of that wonderful logic of his?  That logic of Mr Lee's is the logic that brought us to where we are today in Singapore.  Thank God Mr Lee still has his logic in heaps!  Logic may not be an important commodity to the writer of the article and his own writing discloses his scant respect for it but I'm sure glad the former leader of this nation and the maker of policies that affect all of us is perfectly logical even at 90.

Some people want to see frailty in a man of 90.  To these people, an old man is more human if he displays some clear weakness so they can weep with him and offer him their sympathy.  A bit of dithering, a bit of doubt, some regrets for his past and a frantic search for an afterlife would, to these people, be clearer signs that he is indeed in possession of the "key to human warmth".

But Mr Lee is not one whom we can love the way we love a squishy teddy bear and neither is he a child we can smother with kisses.  Mr Lee is a pragmatic doer and he makes things work.  You can only love and respect him for the things he has done.  And as it is, there's a lot to love and respect him for without bothering about some fuzzy notion such as human warmth.

Friday, August 2, 2013

City Harvest on the English Language

I can't call him "Rev" because he's not been properly ordained.  Kong Hee is a self-appointed leader of his own set-up which he calls the City Harvest Church.  It won't be appropriate to call him Mr Kong Hee either because obviously, he would expect something more glorious.  "King" is the best title for him.  After all, there are many African tribesmen who insist on being called King because of their elevated position within their tribes.  For this post, I'm not in the mood to argue whether King Kong is rightly prosecuted for criminal breach of trust and misappropriating church money.  I'm not interested in discussing if he siphoned money from the church to help his wife Ho Sun realise her dream  of becoming a Hollywood star.  If you are interested in these boring matters, you may want to watch some of his wife's music videos and you can always search on youtube under "China Wine" and see her cavorting in revealing clothes as a geisha in a black men's bar.

King Kong has a way of attracting public attention.  Recently, in a sermon in his church, he said to his extremely compliant flock that he heard God crying and telling him, "My son, Kong, thank you. Thank you for going through this. I need you to go through this alone so that you and City Harvest Church can be the man and the ministry I call it to be. I'm so sorry, but you need to go through this by yourself to bring a change to your generation."

The video of this portion of his sermon went viral and it drew a barrage of angry comments from viewers.  Most people were outraged because they perceived King Kong's words as a presumptuous claim that God apologised to him.

You would have thought the right thing to do was to lie low and let the storm of protests die a natural death as it usually does if you would but let the fury rage over your head while you remain totally silent.  But no, that's not how King Kong and his merry men work for they, like God, move in a mysterious way.  A spokesman from City Harvest Church's Corporate Communications Department immediately emailed the Christian Post and this is what he wrote:

"As anyone with a basic education in the English language ought to be able to tell that the use of 'I'm so sorry' here is not in the context of an apology, but a word of comfort, for example, 'I'm so sorry about your mother's suffering,' or 'I'm so sorry you need to go through chemotherapy.' "

Now, I'm not interested if King Kong's words were irreverent when applied to Almighty God or if they were sacrilegious or even blasphemous.  These are deep matters for trained theologians to discuss in their tight collars.  Neither am I going to comment on the appropriateness of the response by the spokesman for King Kong.  As can be expected, his response triggered a tornado of negative comments from netizens.  But as to whether such a comment is appropriate or offensively arrogant is something the reader can decide for himself.

What I'm going to talk about is the grammar.  I have made it abundantly clear on a previous posting that I'm the last person on the planet who would point out another man's infraction of the rules of grammar.  These things don't bother me in the least.  But when someone purports to put on his papal hat and pontificate on what proper grammar should be or if he arrogates to himself the authority and right to put down other people on a point of grammar, it's only fair that he does the pontification or putting down (as the case may be) in flawless English.

Anyone with a basic education in the English language should know that the sentence made by King Kong's representative can only stand if either "as" or "that" in that sentence is deleted.  Since the spokesman obviously hasn't the benefit of a basic education in English, I will make myself clearer.  The sentence should either read "As anyone with a basic education in the English language ought to be able to tell, [that] the use of..."  or  "[As] Anyone with a basic education in the English language ought to be able to tell that the use of..."

What is interesting to me is this is an obvious case of City Harvest being hoist with its own petard. If the spokesman hadn't been so bitchy and had merely said "As anyone would know, the use of...", it is unlikely that he would have inserted "that" in the sentence, rendering it incorrect.  But because he lacks the Christian virtues of gentleness and humility, he haughtily added that caustic remark without realising that he is not equipped to handle a sentence that is longer than what a five-year-old would normally be adept at constructing and hence the bloomer.

A self-appointed grammarian is very much like a self-appointed pastor.  He must watch his step carefully.