I am writing this while at the Lausanne Younger Leaders Gathering. This is a long conference (3–10 August). Those serving as mentors, like myself, had to come one day earlier. And days are long. I get up around 6.30 am. (My roommate, a brother from Pakistan gets up at 5.30.) And I usually get to sleep around midnight. But there have been highlights, one of which was the privilege to share the word at a combined Singapore-Malaysian worship service. (We had a friend from Brunei too.)
I remember when I was still studying at Regent College (Vancouver, BC) in the ’80s, I took part in two MSOS (Malaysia-Singapore Overseas Students) camps. One was held in Edmonton and the other in Vancouver. Perhaps we were far from home, but we were not that conscious of the fact that we were Malaysians or Singaporeans. We were just brothers and sisters far away from home.
Nowadays we are shaped by our national consciousness to a higher degree. There have been times when I have felt a bit awkward introducing myself as a Malaysian in a Christian group in Singapore and, sometimes, someone who will ask me whether I am a Singaporean yet. Vice-versa for Bernice when we are in groups in Malaysia though we have yet to encounter anyone asking if she has become a Malaysian.
Coming to this conference, where we have participants from over 160 countries, I was reminded that our primary identity is in Christ. These reminders have come from the talks and from the worship, where we sang in many languages. I will never forget the chorus of a song from Egypt, entitled “Salaam”.
Salaam, salaam, the peace of God to every race.
Salaam, salaam, the peace of God in every place.
The most powerful reminder of our oneness in Christ has come from the mentoring group I am leading. There are folks from Portugal, India, Lithuania, Brazil and the US. Oh yes, and a Malaysian. Interestingly, when the group consists of believers from many nations, we are less conscious of our national identities and more conscious of our identities as children of God, and that we relate to each other as brothers and sisters. We may have come from different nations but our primary identity is “child of God”.
Then the thought came: shouldn’t this be how brothers and sisters from Malaysia and Singapore view each other? Do we view each other as brother/sister first or do we view each other as Malaysian/Singaporean first?
We are called to seek the welfare of where God has put us and therefore we should love our countries and want to see them prosper and grow. But we must never forget that our primary loyalty is to Jesus and that should dictate how we view and treat our brothers and sisters from other countries. This doesn’t just apply to Malaysians and Singaporeans. There were side meetings at the conference of groups from India and Pakistan, Russia and the Ukraine, and other pairings with very difficult histories.
Such initiatives to build unity between Christians of different nationalities are never easy. But we need to take them seriously. Christ has made it clear that one sign that He is who He is, is the love shared among His followers.
I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:23 NIV)
The unity of God’s people is a key sign that Jesus is who He claims to be. This relational apologetic is particularly important in a world racked by conflict. This is a unity that also celebrates diversity. We are after all one body with many parts (1 Corinthians 12). But we are one. As Paul reminds us:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NIV)
We are so far removed from the time of the early church that we cannot fully appreciate the remarkable fact that the early church was a community of Jews and Gentiles. This was an impossible unity. It could only have been possible because God had come and had united them. Any gulf between Singaporeans and Malaysians is nothing compared to the distance between Jews and Gentiles in the time of the early church.
I go away from this conference with many important lessons. One key one is that we must take more seriously the need to show how Christians from different backgrounds, including different nationalities, reveal the reality of God by how we treat one another; by how we love one another.
When it came time for me to speak, my friend Dev Menon introduced me as a Malaysian-Singaporean “hybrid”. It felt good.
Image from www.franksonnenbergonline.com