The Invisibles

Written by: Joseph Koh (Photo by: Zann Lee)

Thoughts on social justice and the church

When I was travelling around Europe in 2013, I remember being struck by the number of beggars and homeless people sprawled on the streets — ragged clothing hanging onto frail bodies, lips quivering in the chill of winter. My heart sank whenever I noticed that they had a limb missing or that they had a child by the wayside; as I peered into their glassy eyes, I often found a deep despair. There were many times where I wished I could do something more “adequate” than handily dropping a dollar into the cap.

It made me wonder about the urban underclass in Singapore: the segment of the population that lay at the bottom rung of the class hierarchy. While beggars lining the walkways and emaciated children may not be a common sight in Singapore, relative poverty is still evident in a country better known for her economic progress and wealth. With steady surveillance patrols and an accessible ComCare Call hotline, the homeless are swiftly plucked from the streets, making poverty less glaring in our city.

As part of our social work module, a group of friends and I visited a block of HDB flats in Dover about a year ago. These flats were part of the Interim Rental Housing Policy Scheme, which aims to provide temporary shelter for families in financial hardship or those waiting for more permanent housing. When we visited the flats and spoke to the residents, poverty in Singapore became a clanging cymbal, leaving a ringing in my ear long after the visitations.

Most of them were working as cleaners and security guards, and had to take shifts so as to take care of their children when their partner was working. The homes were barely furnished: bed frames without mattresses, living rooms with no coffee table, naked walls without a family portrait.

The church is an agent of God’s mission to world, and this experience made me question whether we, as Christians, are playing an instrumental role in fighting for social justice in our worlds. I believe that a true church is a missional church. The ethos of a missional church transcends evangelism; it encompasses loving our neighbourhoods, advocating justice in our city, and engaging culture by integrating faith in our work.

James 1:27 speaks about this mandate, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” This verse makes it clear that every single Christian must be concerned about social justice, regardless of background or calling. The world “corrupt[s]” us when it convinces us that these people are not important. They are rendered invisible in society as they do not contribute to the economy and only “waste taxpayers’ money.”

Yet, God’s kingdom is upside-down (Matthew 20:26-27). Caring for society’s invisibles ought to be the daily life of the church — the poor, the orphans, the unwed mothers, the disabled, the aged. We need to make a concerted effort in establishing our churches as contrast societies, countering culture and showing others how human life can flourish in a compassionate city.

Caring for society’s invisibles may seem like a tall order for most of us. However, these are some things that we can all think about where social justice is concerned:

We need to check our privilege

Even before we start thinking about how we can personally champion social justice, there is a need to recognise and challenge our own privileges and complicities. We are all shaped by a gamut of blinders — cultural, linguistic, ethnic, individual, or familial. Often, we do not see things as others see them, yet we tend to assume that others see things as we see them. In the same way that we need to first “see the plank in our own eye” (Luke 6:42), it is imperative that we check our individual worldviews and prejudices.

We could stereotype someone based on their nationality or race, but this only serves to shut empathy from our lives. I have also heard from a few peers that they believe that any person stuck in poverty is purely due to their poor work ethic, but this ignores the perilous journeys that most of them have been on. Let us grip onto our worldviews lightly and give space for different perspectives to bloom in our minds.

In the checking of our privileges, I am convinced that we need to grasp the immense privilege we have in knowing Jesus personally — to know of a man who loved us so much that He willingly carried our crosses and bled for us. Jesus was flogged with a lead-tipped whip (Matthew 27:26), ravaged to such an extreme that “His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human” (Isaiah 52:14); He was unsparingly mocked and taunted (Matthew 27:29). Our saviour was “beaten so we could be whole,” and “whipped so we could be healed” (Isaiah 53:4).

If we truly understand our privilege of being vindicated from the punishment we deserve and that Jesus has bestowed upon us all the reward that He deserves, then we will passionately take the gospel into the forsaken alleys, squatters, and places scorned by society’s elite. We will be drawn to extend mercy to suffering people as Jesus suffered in our place.

We need to stop seeing ourselves as spiritual consumers, but as spiritual producers. 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren argue that it is today impossible to read the biblical narrative without incorporating the self and fulfilment of one’s destiny, goals, and needs. The individual self has been elevated in society, to the point that we can take on the mindset of a spiritual consumer when we go to church: Christianity should meet our emotional needs and this alone.

However, Christianity has never been interested in our “first world problems.” God calls us to a radically different vision — we are to be producers of ministry, whereby we avail ourselves for the sake of the world. In Mark 9:35, Jesus beseeches the twelve, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

We can often live in a comfortable Christian bubble: we attend church and cell group regularly; we only hang out with fellow believers; we consume the latest Hillsong album or Francis Chan book; we share how we have been changed from going on short-term mission trips.

As the uniqueness and singularity of the individual is increasingly prized in Singapore society, we can counter culture by looking outwards even though the world inexorably exhorts us to look inwards. We need to break out of our comfort zones, and pour time and effort into our neigbourhoods, choosing to actively advance the common good of our city.

We need to listen

When it comes to social justice, we can often spring into action, getting involved in the first project or issue that comes to mind. Instead of basing our actions on human experience and observation, we can ask God, “What are You up to in this neighbourhood?” As you invite Him into the conversation, I believe that He will reveal to you more about what breaks His heart in your locality.

Personally, God has been speaking to me about the sizeable Indian foreign talent who have recently moved into my estate. Singaporeans are not known to be the most friendly to newcomers, whereby we hastily steer ourselves away from foreigners. This seems to be the case in my neighbourhood — there is a lack of integration or even meaningful interaction in the estate. I feel compelled to play a part in repairing this distinct division. I’ve been keeping them in my prayers and I try to strike a conversation with them whenever we meet in the lift; someday I hope to do something on a larger scale.

In Proverbs 21:13, it says, “He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard.” As you tune into His whisper like sheep that recognise their guide’s voice, the Shepherd might show you an emerging or deep-seated “cry” among the needy in your vicinity. It could be an issue that has been missed out by welfare organisations or one that hasn’t yet found an efficacious solution. When we catch a clearer glimpse of God’s plan for a particular neighbourhood before getting involved, we partner effectively with the Holy Spirit.

Answering the call to a missional life will radiate a desire to care for the invisibles in society — persons who remain hidden even when the bright lights of the city shine on. The outcome of knowing Jesus Christ is Him using us as His hands and feet; the lamps we carry shall pierce through the darkness (Isaiah 58:10). May your life blaze like a bonfire, unflinchingly drawing the invisibles from the shadows; may you bask in wonder as the light of the gospel breaks into their hearts. God is already in mission, and we must join Him.

JOSEPH thinks that Nasi Lemak ought to be Singapore's national dish. He is passionate in discovering how faith can collide beautifully with urban culture, and believes in mentoring the next generation. He also wishes that a singular Singaporean accent will emerge in his lifetime. Follow him @firesandtimbers.


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