“The homosexuals are on the march on this country. Please remember: homosexuals do not reproduce! They recruit! And, many of them are after my children and your children.”
-Jerry Falwell, August 1981
If am reading the signs correctly (at least, according to my Facebook feed), it seems that homosexuals — of the strident, morally-corrupting kind — are on the march in Singapore. This year’s Pink Dot rally gathered a historic crowd of 26,000; the recent decision by the National Library Board to remove and pulp ostensibly LGBT-themed children books, which might have been quietly acquiesced — or even supported — by a previous generation, was greeted with outrage, prompting a backlash from netizens and the local intelligentsia. Just as Falwell predicted for the U.S. thirty years ago, these omens are now proof that homosexuality has invaded our shores, requiring us to draw up battle lines, reject the LGBT agenda, and defend the family.
I am, of course, only kidding here — though at the same time, not really.
Writing as someone who has lived in the US for the last four years, I write this as a form of a plea to Singaporeans back home. Having closely observed American culture, I feel a bit like Hugh Jackman who, having witnessed the carnage that occurs in the future, must travel back in time to warn people against recklessly embracing the path of cultural conflict. In the case of the US, what first appeared to be a victory by the so-called “Moral Majority” in the 80’s quickly degenerated into an ugly contest between “pro-family” conservatives on one end and “pro-equality” liberals on the other, a contest that ripped the nation apart. A society divided like this is a society not worth emulating — especially on our tiny island.
I recognize, of course, that Singapore is fundamentally different from the United States. The changes that occurred in the U.S. over the last few decades are unlikely to unfold in a completely parallel manner. But the social fabric of Singapore is changing rapidly. A newer generation of Singaporeans are more educated and well-traveled than their parents, giving them more exposure to so-called “Western” ideas (In this case, the notion of sex and gender as a civil right). With specific regards to homosexuality, I should not be surprised that within the next ten years, as the younger generation discovers their political voice and an older one finds their norms eroding, legislation such as 377A will be overturned. So what happens then?
My message is the following: even if that happens, or if Singapore inevitably becomes engulfed in its own version of a culture war, Christians: This is not our fight. I’ve intentionally included the “Christian” prefix for this reason that my plea is directed specifically to a Christian audience (though all are welcome to read this too). Christian groups, for better or for worse, were responsible for some of the more ostensible efforts to push back against LGBT events, including Lawrence Khong’s much-publicized attempt at hosting a “pro-family” event at the Padang. As someone who belongs to the faith, I feel responsible not just for what happens in my own local church (which happens, right now, to be one based in Arlington MA), but for how the Church in Singapore presents herself on the public square. My opinion is that, as a church, we are neither to despair or rejoice if the NLB chooses to remove LGBT-themed children’s books, or if 377A is eventually annulled, simply because that is not the way of the Cross. Conflict against the world does not entail taking arms against our culture, especially with the methods of cultural warfare that modern evangelicals such as Falwell have utilized.
But what does it mean to engage in cultural warfare, exactly? Here, I pinpoint two distinctive trends.
The first trend is when you take on a mindset that narrowly and unambiguously interprets political events as either “victories” or “defeats” for the Church. It’s what happens when you open the Straits Times one morning and read that, because the NLB reaffirmed its decision to pulp the books, it’s something worth celebrating because it is unquestionable evidence that Singapore’s moral fiber is still intact — in simple terms, the Church has “won.” Or, it’s when you open the papers the next morning and find that, because the NLB has now reversed its decision to pulp the books, you feel a note of despair because another chunk of our moral battleground has been ceded to the enemy.
Let’s be clear: Singapore isn’t the New Jerusalem. Our battleground may occasionally pass through political space, but it doesn’t ultimately take place on it. This is very delicate position, but it’s precisely what Jesus meant when he prayed that we would be in the world, but not of it. The kingdom of God is not a theocratic program. In the larger scheme of things, it’s thus irrelevant what the laws of Singapore look like in 10 or 50 years’ time. What’s far more important is whether the Church, in 10 or 50 years’ time, is conforming to the Holy Spirit.
What this means for Christians is that our Facebook newsfeed, or the front page of the Straits Times, are not the places to go to see whether the kingdom of God is expanding. Since we’re claiming that this is ultimately about the family, why not start there? Parents — are you being faithful to each another in the vows you promised, and being godly role models for your children? Children — are you honoring your parents through obedience, love and respect? Outside of our own families, we should also be concerned about the spiritual health of our own congregations. Are our lives consistent with the message we preach? In the context of sexual purity, if we hold to the standards commanded by scripture, are also we willing to walk with those who wrestle with these problems, or shall we incur the guilt of the Pharisees (see Matthew 23:4)? Shifting our attention to the right place will help us avoid the trappings of cultural conflict.
A second trend of cultural warfare is the mindless use of politicized language (read: propaganda). Going back to the example of the United States, this is where both sides of the political spectrum are equally complicit: liberal and conservative, blue and red.
Consider the issue of abortion, for example. In making a decision about the legality of abortion, voters must choose between being “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Setting up a bifurcation between supporting “life” and “choice,” of course, is ridiculous. It implies, rather egregiously, that liberals who are not “pro-life” are individuals who do not value human life; and that conservatives who are not “pro-choice” are individuals who lack respect for women’s rights. This gravely misrepresents life-loving liberals and choice-respecting conservatives alike. In my opinion, “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are labels carefully-engineered to stir emotions, win votes, and empower demagogues.
This is why I cringed when I saw the response to Pink Dot event as labelled as a “pro-family” event. The choice of such a term alienates and falsely accuses the participants of the Pink Dot as individuals who are “anti-family.” Not only are these individuals already part of families of whom they are unlikely to be against; many of them have aspirations toward building families themselves. Now even if there are serious disagreements about what form the family takes, we should minimally recognize these aspirations as genuine and significant.
My basic point is here is that must be critical about our use of language. We must not demonize those whom we disagree with, even if they choose to demonize us as bigoted, narrow-minded, exclusivist, hypocritical, Jesus-loving freaks. In this light I would abandon using the label “pro-family” altogether. If the Church must proclaim her witness in the public square, she ought to be wise; her words must “be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6).
I should point out that abandoning cultural warfare does not mean eschewing all forms of resistance. Christians, I believe, are called to be radically counter-cultural, and sometimes this will mean having to vote or engaging in serious public activism. The question of when and how this should happen, however, is one where I think there is plenty of room for discernment within the Church. My prayer is that as Singapore continues to change and evolve, God would raise wise leaders who can navigate these difficult questions. This is where we have an upper hand: while secularism must ultimately rely on the democratic process for the deliberation of normative questions, the Church has been gifted the Holy Spirit, who will continue to reveal fresh prophecies and new insights from Scripture.
To conclude, we must not construe events like the NLB saga in terms of victory or defeat: it would be disastrous thing if Christians in Singapore follow the U.S. in embracing the Culture Wars. It is a path that leads only to estrangement and violence. Rather, for Christians, we must rally in prayer to see where the Spirit is leading us next in this next era of change. And while we do so, we ought to remember that Christ has come and won the most important victory: so why are we so anxious? Ultimately, there is only one kind of defeat and one kind of victory: when we fail to represent the life of Christ in our own lives, and when we grow in love for God and for our neighbor.