My friend Dr. Justin Tse (PhD in geography of religion) and his group of friends have been discussing the topic of public versus private sphere for a while. I think my posts on Tiananmen Square and the pro-family rally have generated enough discussions for me to blog a bit on this issue of geographical spheres. The real issue is geography, not public theology. When I read some of the postings by people who advocate public theology (of a certain kind), they tend to be obsessed with EVERYTHING being public. That’s a simplistic view of geography. Remember, “public,” is a geographical term.
The first lesson we should learn is that our public witness as Christians is about impact. No matter what you intend by your public posture, the impact is the best measurement of effectiveness. This goes for both the left and the right. Most people think that I’m criticizing the right; I’m not. I’m criticizing the naive view of how the public works. The naive view is this, “As long as the intent is good, the impact will also be good.” Utter rubbish! If the impact of the public witness is that people see the gay issue or social work more than they see the message and person of Jesus, then, dare I say, it is already a lost cause? The only way to judge impact is to look to public reaction. The effectiveness of Christian public witness, or as Jesus called it, a city on a hill, is judged by the court of public opinion. When people don’t begin talking about Jesus when we talk about our faith, we’ve lost completely. Whatever our intended message is, the impacted recipients have not received it. If you think that it’s a matter of lousy communication, think again; it’s lousy geography.
The second lesson we should learn is that there’re limitations to what the word “public” actually means because it does not define what kind of public we’re talking about. For example, the church is not a private sphere. It has a public role. I’m going to sound simplistic here, but the church’s public role is to witness for its Lord. That’s the church’s most public role. The church also has its own public WITHIN its local institution. For example, certain issues on what each denomination believe to be “biblical” about various issues can be debated within these local institutions. Church discipline can be a good example, but if it is not done right and the law of the land is violated, the smaller public of the local congregation will immediately be exposed to the greater public of the society. This sphere of the church’s congregational public is tricky. If it begins to intrude on the societal public, it can start to blur the line between the church and state (and I think this is not necessarily advantageous).
The third lesson we should learn is that the church ought to understand where its limits are. Every posture of the church with every issue should be done with geography in mind. The lack of geographical sophistication will continue to expose the church to unnecessary risks, the greatest of which is the public loss of witness. Events such as 518 and other such pro-family (with possibly other agenda) rallies both in Asia and in the US are the typical intrusion of the local church institution into the public sphere. Its impact has proven to be more harm than good. Those same standards about family or sexuality or social work would work just fine WITHIN the local congregation, but when they’re postured in the same way in the society, they have the opposite effect. Know your limits.
The fourth lesson we should learn is that the practice of piety is dependent on our understanding of geographical spheres. One issue Tiananmen commemoration is forgiveness. Activist turned Christian Chai Ling has stated publicly that she forgives those who oppressed her, but then continued to say that she would hope that there’d be greater forgiveness in China’s society. All this sounds so wonderful and Christian, except there’s one small problem. She’s confused her personal piety with the government’s public responsibility. You can’t forgive people who haven’t even had the slightest hint of remorse. She said that she would forgive Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, the two chief engineers and butchers of the event. Well, neither men had asked you for your forgiveness, Chai Ling. The problem is not Chai Ling’s alone. It is pandemic in the evangelical church. Again, when she said that she would wish for China to be a forgiving society, she’s talking in the abstract about a system. I dare say that if we study the history of China, the problem does not lie in the individual oppressors but with the entire system (much like ALL incomplete and human political systems). You can’t “forgive” a system! That’s what places like the Hague is for. This is what the Nazi trials are for. Systems need other systems to hold them responsible. Our tiny corner of holy huddle just won’t do the trick to contain such great evils. Even if we say we forgive and love the enemies, it doesn’t follow that we can allow the enemy to continue killing and harming others. If we allow the evildoers to do what they want, that isn’t really love; that’s stupidity. The publicness of political systems is about justice and responsibility. Sure, a person may CHOOSE to forgive in her private piety, but s/he may fail to reckon with the greater issue, accountability. This is why I feel a sense of disdain towards many church leaders who fail to grasp the seriousness of events like 64. The church’s public responsibility is to stand alongside of justice and not to settle on a private piety of silent or in the case of Chai Ling, vocal forgiveness.
People typically ask me whether the idea I espouse is biblical or not. I think someone no less than the Apostle Paul had understood the geographical issue perfectly in 1 Corinthians 6. He distinguished settling problems within the church so that the problem doesn’t have to spill out into the public court. Thus, geography is theological. Rather, perhaps, let me put it in reverse: theology is geographical. Thus, before we do another rally or some other public act related to social justice, we’d better think geographically before calling anything GOOD public theology.