Death of A Halo: Of Kong Hee, CHC and Christianity

~ By Samuel Caleb Wee ~

Like many other Singaporeans, I was disappointed when I found out the full extent of the City Harvest Church financial misconduct case. Unlike many other Singaporeans, however, I found out about the details a good two years ago.

I won't go into detail about how I found out about the case, out of respect for the friend who shared it with me. The amount of time I've spend wrestling with my feelings on this issue, however, has given me a perspective I'd like to share, since this is a matter close to my heart.

My relationship with City Harvest Church is a complex one. I started attending the church in 2005, first as a cynical atheist, then gradually, through a process of intellectual and spiritual exploration, as a reluctant believer.

When I finally did come around in 2006, the teenaged me leaped into church involvement enthusiastically, surprising my family and friends. Several heated arguments ensued—at times charged with spite and vitriol. I remember feeling as how I imagine most CHC members must be feeling now: persecuted, misunderstood, disrespected for my choice of religion by people who were all too quick to jump to conclusions about the pastor I was so fiercely loyal to.

Nevertheless I started getting heavily involved in church, participating in church dramas, helping out with the cell group leadership. I gave out of my part-time income to the Building Fund, I tithed regularly while enthusiastically helping to organize evangelistic events for my cell group, obsessing every week about the headcount for the weekend service.

All the while I never really doubted the integrity and sincerity of the church. Pastor Kong, after all, seemed nothing if not authentic: his voice would rise with conviction when he preached, quavering with emotion when he was moved, and his eyes would regularly well up with tears during worship, ostensibly out of passion and pure emotion from God. What a guy, I thought.

Sometime around the end of 2007, though, I decided to end my active involvement in the church for reasons both personal and doctrinal: I had run into a spot of disagreement with my cell group leader and anyway I was starting to become increasingly uneasy with the principles espoused by the church. Nevertheless, I still believed that the management were sincere, though perhaps sincerely misguided.

Over the next three years I would find the church harder to shake than I imagined: people affiliated with the church would pop up in my life in some form or the other and over the next few years I found myself returning to the church for several services.

The straw that finally broke the camel's back came with the Christmas of '09, when I came across a flyer appealing for advertisers to fund the church Christmas drama. The flyer promised a target market of over 50,000 people, even as the church passionately preached to its congregation about the evangelistic need to break a record and expose 50,000 new friends to Christ.

I remember shaking my head with disbelief at how incredibly wrong it felt to me. I left the church for good then, though I still kept in contact with several close friends still attending.

A few months later in early 2010, the news broke that the management was being investigated for financial mismanagement. The response then was similar to now: the general reaction was one of derision and scorn, while CHC members rallied together in a kind of siege mentality, insistently defending their pastor and their church, pointing to all that the church had done for them as proof that there must had been some mistake and that the world didn't understand. It was Romans and Christians all over again, they insisted.

I found out the details a few months later, and kept them to myself until today. I remember feeling—not much at all at first, actually. Hurt was a dominant emotion, after a while. Betrayal was another. Anger—anger clouded my vision for the longest time. Anger at hypocrisy, at deceit, at the exploitation of so many good-hearted people.

After a while the anger faded, replaced by a sort of hardened skepticism. I justified it to myself by separating the church from God—the institution is not the religion, I told myself, and when friends asked about my faith I would jokingly say that I was a fan of the Man, though I wasn't in the fan club. Still, there were moments when my skepticism bordered on cynicism. I had come full-circle, I thought, until then the news exploded all over Facebook today, and I realised that the anger was long gone. Instead all I had was sadness.

Sadness at the same old thing all over again: the derision from the general public. The defensiveness and embarrassed silence from some Christians. The disgust from others, the sneer. You are not part of us, they said. We are us. You are them. Away from us. Go.

And most painful for me, from the CHC members I knew, just a very raw version of desperation and hurt. Of passionate rallying bordering on pleading: the world doesn't understand, look at what he's given us, look at what he's done, don't you understand, we don't mind that he lied, you can't put a price on this, you can't take this from us. You can't.

And I wanted to shake everybody out of their knee-jerk reactions: the Christians who poured scorn upon the church, the non-Christians making a casual joke out of somebody else's misery, the CHC members in painful denial.

Because it has been this way for too long, really, I think. And it's time to acknowledge the truth.

Listen, please, CHC members: This is not a matter of the world trying to persecute you. There is no devil trying to turn hearts against the church, there is no anti-CHC agenda, there is no media witch hunt out to crucify Kong Hee for crimes he didn't commit.

His crimes were serious: financial fraud, the misuse of donated monies, the appropriation of organizational funds into a personal bank account. This is a simple matter of a man who might have started out with pure intentions but then got greedy and then got scared and tried to hide the matter from the light of day, because he knew that the matter could not stand the light of day.

It's okay to admit that Kong Hee made a mistake. It's painful but important. It doesn't discount that fact that he might have helped many other people, that CHC has helped the poorest of the poor, the handicapped and the mentally retarded and the depressed, yes.

It does not take away from all the good that he did. But the good does not outweigh the mistake either. The mistake exists, and it cannot be ignored or swept under a carpet.

Michelangelo's 'Fall from Grace' 1508-1512

Listen: The man is not the church, and the church is not God. God exists apart from City Harvest Church, and it is possible for City Harvest Church to fall short, just as it is possible for Kong Hee to fall short. All have fallen short. All have fallen.

Forgiveness is present, but before there can be forgiveness there needs to be acceptance and acknowledgement of the mistake. Repeatedly, desperately trumpeting the various good things that Kong Hee has done just makes you look like you're trying to justify his deeds.

Does this mean we, the non-CHC members, have the right to mock, or laugh, or pour scorn upon the church then? Does this mean we have the right to vindictiveness, to snark, to derision?

Only in a version of Christianity, I think, where we are pure and sinless as well, which is no version of Christianity I know, or humanity, for that matter. Yes, perhaps God is a God of justice as well as love, perhaps he is a God of righteousness and fairness as well.

And justice is big and justice is tough, but justice is not what we're thinking of when we draw a line in the sand and call them Them and say we are Us.

We were called to be so much more than this, you know. We were called to be salt. To be light. To bring grace and healing and mercy and forgiveness and love, oh love, love your neighbour as yourself, he said.

All the other Christians too vindictive to stop and find love for the church members who hurt too much to stop and admit the one they loved made a mistake, that this was not excusable, that faith was spilled and broken and a crime was committed.

Perhaps it's okay now that the lowest is here. Perhaps now we see that the good pastor wasn't perfect and that he was a sinner too, just like all of us.

Perhaps it's okay to admit we're not perfect to a world in front of which we often pretend to be. Perhaps this is a chance to turn our focus inwards and get our own house in order before we attempt to convert 50,000 non-believers.

Perhaps now we can forgive, and perhaps the death of this halo came at the right time.

TOC thanks Samuel for allowing us to reproduce his Facebook note. The original note can be found on his Facebook page.