Saturday, April 09, 2016

Singapore Church History: War, ecumenism and the emergence of a new world order

The coming of World War 2 was disastrous for Singapore. The British severely under-estimated the might of the Japanese army. The invading Japanese hoarde swept down south through French Indo-China and down through Malaya, rapidly penetrating British-held territory. Within days, the Japanese army had arrived just across the Straits of Singapore in the Malayan state of Johore, forcing the British to blow up the causeway linking Singapore to the rest of Malaya, and preparing for the worst. The worst came as the Japanese crossed the straits under cover of night and proceeded with their invasion. After desperate pitch battles, the British finally surrendered on February 15, 1942. The next 3 years were a time of darkness under the self-proclaimed "liberators."

The Japanese were cruel, wicked masters. Knowing that the Chinese had supported China against the Japanese invaders, the Japanese engaged in a system of terror, picking people off at random for mass killings, and committing various atrocities against the majority Chinese inhabitants of Singapore. Seeing a pregnant woman, they would rip open the mother's womb, toss the baby into the air, and impale it on their bayonets, killing both mother and child in a most gruesome manner. Hardly a family exists which did not have a relative missing, gunned down in mass graves, tortured to death or just killed by the Japanese.

It wasn't any better for Prisoners of War, which basically includes many Europeans who could not flee in time from the Japanese, if they weren't sent to work on the Death Railway in Thailand which is almost a sure death sentence that is. The European church leaders, those who remained, by and large were caught as Prisoners of War and interned at Changi gaol (p. 190).

Church activities were generally respected and tolerated, although watched (p. 189). Fear and uncertainty clouded the environment. In this environment, the fist stirrings of ecumenism came into being, with the creation of a proposed albeit short-lived Federation of Christian Churches (p. 191)

It was during those times among the main denominations that the need to transfer leadership unto locals was pressed unto the European church leaders, instead of treating them as church plants indefinitely (p. 201). This led to the formation of Trinity Theological College in 1948 with the "initial support of the Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian Churches" (p. 202). The ecumenical impulse, found all around the world with the cry "dogma divides, service units" (p. 203) resulted in the formation of national councils of churches in various countries. The Malayan Church Council was formed in 1948 to serve as uniting all churches in Malaya and Singapore (p. 219), while the National Council of Churches of Singapore was formed after Singapore's split from Malaysia in 1965.

War is a severe type of trial, and it tests the churches and Christians. Indigenous Christians in their trials began to wonder if their prior differences were worth dividing over. Why should they conform to Western denominational differences, especially if said Western denominations don't even believe their distinctives anyway (like for example Reformed Theology in the Westminster Confession of Faith). Is what divides Christians the fault of foreigners, who impose their distant doctrinal disputes onto the inhabitants of an unsuspecting populace who have no ball in the fight? Lastly, the zeitgeist around the world after the war was one of independence from colonial masters, with the Europeans tired of maintaining their empires anyway. Around the world, the first inkling of the rejection of Western thought was put forward forcefully, and with it the impetus to de-Westernize the church and her theology. The West's slightly patronizing tone towards her "children" didn't exactly help matters also.

The Singapore churches were spared the worst of such anti-imperialism, although liberals moved headlong into so-called "Third World theologies." But the very fact that these questions arise show the poverty of theological understanding throughout the world, not to mention on ecclesiology. It speaks volumes that after more than a hundred years of church planting, most church plants are bereft of basic theological understanding.

The sad fact is that things have not improved much since the independence of Singapore. Singapore Christianity is just as intellectually pathetic and theologically ignorant now as then. Sadly, few learn from history and history repeats itself, all over again.

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