Come to me, all you that labor

Today is the Labor Day, celebrated almost universally throughout the world. I don’t know whether it is a coincidence, but Peter informed me that he was accompanying PRC workers to be baptized at Sentosa beach this morning. A highly symbolical day to baptize them, I guess.

I just finished reading Alan Jacobs‘ book Original Sin, and in one of the chapters he retold the story of slavery in the Southern states of America in the 19th century (and its relation with the belief of original sin at that time). One thing that I learnt from the book is that actually the Southern Christian leaders affirmed the co-humanity of the slaves, since they believed in monogeny, that human races come from a common lineage from Adam and Eve, and our sharing in original sin. Indeed, they even believed that the slaves had the same rights to read the Bible and so on. So they needed to defend slavery from other arguments, unlike some proponents of slavery who did argue for polygeny, that the human races are of different lineages (e.g., where did the wife of Cain come from?) and hence immediately legitimated slavery. For example, fear of economy collapse, or that actually the problem lied not with the system itself, but with the bad slaveowners which were to be differentiated with the good ones.

Fast-forward to Singapore in the 21st century, which is massively supported by a gigantic number of foreign workers (almost a quarter of its total population). I won’t immediately identify current practices as modern slavery, although you could argue for that. I just want to point out  some similarities between then and now.

Like the Southern Christian leaders, I believe the Church in Singapore also believe in co-humanity with the foreign workers. I just can’t imagine if there is one who still believes that the foreign workers are somewhat less human (if you happened to do so, I can’t say anything more but repent). I also believe that deep down in our gut most of us (since I believe some do not) feel something is wrong with the whole practice, although we might not know what the problem actually is (is it with the system itself or only with the instances?) and hence what the solution will be.

But, on the other hand, we also don’t want things to change so radically. So we need to make some justification for the practice. I’ll give you some examples of argument to justify the practice, all of which revolve around economic considerations (Mammon dies hard!). Will not the whole local economic system collapse if we stop the practice? And, by the way, isn’t it the natural thing to do, since it is built on the principle of supply and demand? We need workers, they supply it, why not?

Those who argue against the practice will have their own arguments. The whole system is corrupt, it’s just another form of slavery! It is exploitative! It treats the workers as mere interchangeable parts in this economy, what you need is what you get (by the way, sadly in some sense all of us are interchangeable parts in this machine called economy, all of us are just nuts and bolts and screws to run the machine; when you start to rust, beware).

OK, I might sound too gloomy here. I believe those who justify for and argue against the practice will have their says. What I want to highlight is, as the Church we can’t pretend that nothing happens. Something happens. We must have a sound engagement with the issue. Apathy might be the elephant in the room which we need to kick out from as soon as possible (ok, drag out).

And, most importantly, a loving engagement with the people themselves. I might speak in the tongues of angels (or demons?), but if I have no love, I am only a resounding gong (indeed, it is easy to write about this from a nice and comfy room). And you know the idiom in Indonesian: tong kosong nyaring bunyinya (an empty drum gives loud sound). To believe in structural change always starts with personal and communal involvement. The Roman Empire didn’t fall down because of abolition of slavery (again, I’m not implying that the word ‘slavery’ always means the same thing; it evolves, as well). It was ransacked by the Visigoths and the Vandals. But never did they know that in the midst of them, there was a community where the masters and the slaves could worship together in the name of their Messiah, and in so doing they implicitly had subverted the lordship claim of Caesar for centuries before the Visigoths and the Vandals did so (in a much different way). The church has to be the starting point where a complete integration between the locals and the foreign workers is actually possible, subverting the common perception that both of them need to be segregated in the name of national harmony, whatever it means.


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