06 July 2006

Down with the NCCS!

The high fever stretched over the weekend, made a detour into a lung infection, finally diagnosed by SGH. With new medication, I can look forward to a fever-free week, with scattered wooziness and weird-tasting saliva as the only side effect. That, and reduced breathing capacity until some therapist gets my lungs working at 100% again.

To recap from the last instalment, one apparently Christian person complained to the police that pictures depicting Jesus on Char's site were presumably offensive to Christians.

Question: Does this warrant an investigation? Does this warrant the investigating officer to recommend to Char not just to take down the pictures, but shut down his blog?

Although the police and Wong Kan Seng have decided to investigate this case as if it were already a potentially seditious case, they have been expecting an official stand from the NCCS to cover their overreaction. When that was not forthcoming, the clown show over at the Straits Times did an article on Saturday 19 June trying to put the question to Religious Experts.

Why do the police, Wong and the Straits Times think a National Council of Churches is the appropriate body to answer the question: were the pictures really seditious?

Noting first that the clown show at the Straits Times apparently did not bother to show the interviewees the actual photos, nor were the interviewees interested to find out before issuing their replies to the clown show, of interest to us are two statements in that article:

4. From the chairman of Centre for Contemporary Islamic Studies, Ridzuan Wu: "images char posted were unlikely to cause a strong reaction... because Muslim societies have a stronger tradition of condemning blasphemy through legal action."

What is blasphemy in Muslim societies? Presumably any visual depiction of the prophets, humorous or not. We hope Ridzuan Wu is clear that this does not mean any visual depiction of Christ is therefore automatically blasphemous in a Christian context, but what he says is indeed true: these images, whatever they may be, are unlikely to cause any kind of strong reaction, any kind of mass reaction amongst Christians, even in Singapore.

5. To understand why, we must first take a look at the giant turd laid by Anglican Bishop John Chew, the vice president of the National Council of Churches: "We cannot say that just because the west has allowed these pictures to be freely available, we should accept them."

Setting aside for the moment the fact that this does not constitute an official statement from the NCCS, or the fact that the clown show at the Straits Times didn't bother to get clear in what capacity John Chew was speaking in, Bishop John Chew is clearly talking out of his arse when he cannot accept that... just because the west has allowed these pictures to be freely available, we should should accept them.

Historically, rival Christians have been making caricatures of their opponent's beliefs. That's part of a long Greek rhetorical tradition. Historically, under the signs of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, rival Christians have drawn very seditious pictures, for example, of popes being advised by devils, with 'idolatry' and 'superstition' on papal vestments. Christ himself has been caricatured in cartoons by Voltaire, Sade and others - who didn't get stoned by Christians or accused of sedition by the police, whose pictures sparked off no riots amongst Christians. That is Protestantism for you, and a history lesson for the shockingly ignorant Bishop John Chew.

Let us note therefore, that caricatures of Jesus Christ rivalling or (given that Voltaire drew some of them) even exceeding the cheekiness of the Char pics, do exist from post-Reformation periods onwards. Somewhere on the internets is an archive of them. Somewhere in real life is an exhibit of them. Nowhere in this reality - one that John Chew apparently does not partake of - are there riots or even morally, religiously insulted Christians. It is almost a Christian tradition already lah.

6. The National Council of Churches Singapore is...

Contrary to expectations, NCCS is not a religious high council of Protestant Churches in Singapore. Despite its posturing, the NCCS does not dictate ecclesiastical decisions on its member churches. Despite its official sounding name, NCCS does not function as a National Council of Christian Muftis. Despite its aura of officialness and representativeness, NCCS statements are non-binding on member churches, local pastors are not legally or religiously bound to agree with any of its statements.

What then is the NCCS? The body was set up in 1948. Since then, the organisation, far from representing all Protestants in Singapore, has suffered ups and downs, and has experienced a surge only in recent years. To put it bluntly, the NCCS has a temporarily high profile today thanks to its opportunism. These actions have catapulted it to the public eye, above and beyond its natural capacity -

Signing the declaration of religious harmony
Issuing a statement on homosexuality
Issuing a statement on the casino issue
Issuing a statement to back the banning of the Mohammed cartoons
Issuing a private and secret letter to the MDA on The Da Vinci Code

What is apparent: the National Council of Churches dares not do unpopular things. Its only activity is discursive and declamatory.

1. Any Protestant worth their salt will point out the absurdity of a Protestant organisation condemning caricatures of Christ.
2. There are a significant amount of liberal Christians and church leaders who are in opposition to the NCCS on the condemnation of Char's actions.
3. This significant, if minority opposition, is what keeps the NCCS from issuing any official statement on this matter.
4. Liberal Christians who were already annoyed at how the NCCS took it upon themselves to negotiate with MDA on a movie they didn't think amounted to much, will be even more annoyed and possibly outraged if the NCCS proceeds to condemn Char.

Charting the recent history of the NCCS through its statements, several propositions can be made:
1. An upward and accelerating sense of importance
2. An attempt - intentional or expected by the state by now - to serve as a National Council of Christian Muftis.
3. The impossibility of 2 points towards an eventual jumping of the shark by the organisation. Their letter to the MDA might just be that.

The NCCS should just give up and die.


Constantine said...

Christ has been parodied and cariacatured so many times it's hardly new or surprising. And really, Protestants (those in Singapore, especially) have no right to make any statement on images since they themselves have no idea what they believe about graphic depictions of Christ.

Offended as I am with the images, I respect the artist's right to express himself.

akikonomu said...

Definitely, since most of the perpetuators of parodies and caricatures of Christ in the past 300 years have hailed from the Protestant tradition.

As a liberal Christian (I believe in the tenets of Liberation Theology), I'm more offended by the growing rich-poor gap in Singapore, by the attempts of NCCS to become a National Council of Christian Muftis, than by these images.