Why Are We Building Million Dollar Churches?
Christian pastor and LGBT activist Miak Siew in the third of a series of interviews with publichouse.sg. Read Part I and Part II.
First published on publichouse.sg in October 2011
We bring you the final segment of our three-part interview with Reverend Miak Siew. He is an openly gay, fully ordained pastor, who is a leader at Free Community Church. In the first part of our interview, he spoke frankly about religion and sexuality and defended the need for the Christian community to accept all sexual orientations as a sign of true compassion and understanding of human nature. In part two, we looked at being gay in society, and what that means—in terms of stereotypes and prejudices, marriage and family.
But a person is not defined only by his or her sexuality, and to portray anyone only in those terms is to overlook the wealth of everything else that they are. After all, we don’t say the ‘heterosexual reverend/manager/teacher/chef/parent.’ So even though Rev. Miak stands up for LGBT rights very vocally, it is his views on non-sexuality related issues that we present here, in part three. And he has many.
With a strong sense of social justice and a deep empathy for the marginalised in this world, he had a lot to say about the scourges of capitalism and consumerism and spared no punches when it came to Christian churches that, in his view, have become too rich. “Christianity has been assimilated into the capitalist structure,” he states, calling this a “betrayal.”
“Why are we building million dollar shopping malls as a place of worship?” he asks rhetorically. “If Jesus were around he would flip over tables there and say ‘why are you selling things in my father’s house?’”
“These churches have twisted the teachings of the gospel, the teachings of abundant life,” he goes on without hesitation. “In the past people ate not to be hungry, and abundance meant to have enough. Today we eat to be full. If you read the Bible carefully, what did Jesus teach? That the rich man couldn’t enter heaven because he couldn’t sell all his belongings and follow Jesus; the man’s wealth was a stumbling block. Our attachment to things is a barrier to spiritual development. So when I came back to Singapore (after being in a seminary in California for three years, where he was ordained) and saw that society had become more affluent, I asked: what are we going to do next? Are we going to keep earning more money?”
Clearly he feels that the ‘prosperity gospel’—the notion that God will bless his believers with financial gain—is unsound and it’s widespread popularity, misguided. “My belief is that living your life right, in loving relationship with others, is following Jesus,” he explains. “But a lot of people in Christian churches aren’t doing that. They think that money is blessing from God. I don’t think so. I think we need to live out our life gently, in a loving way, with people.”
With compassion as the rule, Rev. Miak feels that the Christian thing to do is to give help wherever it is needed, simply because it is needed. “Sometimes it’s a person’s own fault they are left behind, but what does it matter? They are human beings. Have you been hungry before? Yes, you have. Have you been cold before? Yes, you have. Then you should know what to do,” he says, before quoting a well-known verse from the Bible. “‘When I was naked you clothed me, when I was out in the cold you sheltered me, when I was hungry you fed me, when I was in prison you visited me. What you do for the least of them you do for me.’ And that is the crux of Jesus’ teachings. This is the stuff that defines Christianity, and it should not apply to just Christians it should apply to all human beings.”
The call to action is clear. “All religions should be aiming to provide more resources for the poor,” he asserts. “We need to build up resources, and find ways to help. For youths in trouble, for instance, a lot of churches have great outreach programmes that offer things like after-hours tuition. But we need to do more. There’s not enough.”
I say to Rev. Miak that while these strong, liberal views are shared by some in society, they are still a minority voice, and asked if he felt that advocates, such as himself, were sometimes preaching to the choir. “In the past whoever controlled the education system and the media had the power,” he replies instantly. “But today kids are a lot smarter, read a lot more and ask a lot more questions—so we can put our ideas out there to compete with other ideas. Our brains are arranged in such a way that you just need a little bit of stimuli to get people thinking. The problem is once you start thinking, you’ll start thinking of a lot of things that you might not want to think about.”
And is that a problem? Not if thinking leads to dialogue and discussion, and means that we can learn to agree to disagree—a challenge for all, including those who declare themselves to be liberal and open minded. “We live out our lives as a society, as a community, and we need to build a society where we can strive together for something we have in common,” he says. “How do we work together? How do we eliminate poverty and violence? How do we make sure every child has the best opportunities that they can have—every child, not just those that are born to families that can provide for them? Part of it is to enter into dialogue and conversation and see where our common ground is and listen. Part of it is to be a different voice, look at things from a different angle and offer differ opinions.”
“Everyone wants to make the world a better place,” he continues. And with an energy that is passionate yet calm, he concludes, “I think religiously, it’s not just making the world a better place for me, but always and also for us and for all.” Amen.
“People are striving for money but are they happy? Will two million dollars do? Will five million dollars do? Will ten million dollars do? Or are we trying to fill that dissatisfaction with life with something that really doesn’t satisfy? At the end of the day, what will bring us joy in life is our relationships with other human beings, and how we love one another.”
In Singapore, in particular, he shares the growing sentiment that segments of society are getting weaker and left behind as our drive for economic success dominates so much of what happens here. “There’s a big thing happening in Singapore right now and I want to join in the voices to speak to the situation,” Rev. Miak states. “If you read the Hebrew bible, the prophets criticised the ruling class for oppressing the people in their countries. Similarly, we need to look at how we are treating people in our midst, like our foreign workers.”
“The other day someone said to me that the MRT stank because of all the foreign workers on the train. I was so outraged. Your shopping malls and condos are built, and your streets are cleaned, because of their sweat, and you have the audacity to say they smell and you don’t like squeezing in with them? Belittling them is as bad as insulting God, and I want to help people see that.”
And he openly calls on those in power to recognise this. “I ask the questions that our government should be asking. How we can afford to pay our prime minister and president millions and not be able to feed the poorest of the poor?” he protests. “I want to live in a country where can be proud of who I am and of how we live together as a society, where no one is left behind. There’s no way we can dismantle this capitalist machine, but can we ask more questions so we become more sensitive and become balanced.”
“Our leaders are not leading,” he says, his voice dropping. “and people are waking up to that. The last general elections and the presidential election are just the beginning. They have encouraged a lot of people to reflect on what they have been doing; political parties are already doing walkabouts in their constituencies even though it’s another five years before the next election. The hard work the Workers Party put in paid off and they need to continue. I have total respect for people who work hard on the ground and win, whether PAP or opposition. But I have no respect for people who run on certain advantages. I’m not criticising all PAP MPs, in fact I have deep respect for some of them, like Charles Chong, for reaching out and saying let’s work together, across party lines.” MP for Joo Chiat, Charles Chong, has spoken out eloquently for the repealment of Penal Code 377a, which criminalises homosexual sex in Singapore.