~ By Howard Lee ~
The ongoing legal case on the five members of City Harvest Church created quite a stir in our community, partly because it rings a similar tone to earlier high profile cases of charities mingling with the law, such as the National Kidney Foundation, Youth Challenge and Ren Ci, but also because it has attracted a ground's up response from CHC's members.
Some of these responses found their way into the comments on TOC’s pages. A number are apparently from members of CHC, speaking out in support of the five, but there were also non-members lending support or seeking clarifications. Others were evidently less supportive, to the extent of deciding them guilty when judgment has yet to be passed, based on their perceived sincerity and actions of Kong and his compatriots.
I will not comment on these views, or those counter-accusing the media and the Commissioner of Charities for publishing the case as a guilty verdict, interesting though that might be. What I am keen to explore is the conversations that are going out for or against the five charged with financial misconduct.
At the core of it, we see members of CHC voicing their vote of confidence in Pastor Kong Hee and his team, asking why the government needed to interfere with CHC's activities when members have willingly donated to the church, and accepting that such donations will go towards funding the church's more secular-facing activities.
These voices, however, will not do much to silence the opposing voices, those who believe that CHC has manipulated its agenda among its members, to gain their support for activities that they do not see as having any evangelical content at all. The provocative music videos of Kong's wife, Sun Ho, rest squarely at the centre of these views.
A few – and perhaps too few – have pointed out that the charges levelled against CHC were based on the rule of law, and possibly policed and enforced more strictly, in the wake of the NKF saga.
The COC can be seen as doing its duty, applying the same principles, even if not the same measures, to regulate the charities it assumed under its charge. Some have drawn parallels between this incident and the clampdown on the Catholic Church during Operation Spectrum, but I believe that would achieve nothing more than stoke the flames of injustice, when in this case, justice has yet to run its full course. The injustice of the Internal Security Act needs to be addressed, but there is no current evident to suggest this is a factor against CHC.
At the very base, this case is about CHC toeing the legal line as it currently stands. It has nothing to do with what CHC supporters say are their collective trust in Kong and the other four to do with their money as their good faith sees fit. Their rationale is that, so long as the congregation approves it, and their leadership approves of it, they are free to do as they will.
In a religious setting, it is not hard to see why this can take place. Christians, both Catholic and Protestants (and I dare say any other religious group as well), view their leaders as chosen by God. Their words are effectively gospel, and to doubt that amounts to betrayal of the leaders and shakes the foundation upon which their own faith is built.
Is it a correct belief? No one else can really decide for the believer. But it is clear that while we can say church leaders determine the directions of moral conduct as they deem right to propose to their followers, they must in turn follow the real-world, secular framework that they exist and operate in.
This CHC case is about the laws of man, not the laws of God.
While the laws of God are mortally subjective – we follow by faith, but we will never know if they have been interpreted correctly by mortal leaders until we meet our maker – the laws of man are not. Kong and CHC know these laws and are bound to obey them. They need to suffer the earthly consequences if evidence convicts the five. That is an inescapable fact. No amount of good work, even if done in the glory of God, will change that.
But this is not to say that secular and moral laws will never meet. In no modern, open society, even the most secular ones, has religion not had an impact on the formation of the laws of man that bind their human populations. Neither has it been the case where the two positions do not contest for influence. The debates on issues like euthanasia, abortion and gay marriages are prominent examples.
From my woefully short religious education, I have gathered that living a God-centred life requires us to constantly evaluate and navigate the best path we need to take to exist in this world, while keeping our eyes on heaven. No simple feat, and even the best of us would have faltered. There are areas of alignment in the laws of God and man that we should follow and encourage, areas that are essentially harmless to follow, and areas of conflict that we should openly and actively seek to address and change.
When the CHC five made decisions with their church's finances, which of these three areas were they navigating in?
At some point in time, an argument should be made about how our charities sector is defined, and perhaps policies need to be revised. There is room to explore gaps between charities of service, where donors expect their donations to be put to use for the service of the disadvantaged, and charities of mission, where donors contribute to advance the interests of the organisation they belong to. This needs to addressed, but not for the case of CHC, and not today.
The writer is a Catholic.