Posts by Peter Eng

Success in a Spirit-Directed Life

 

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Surviving Storms in a Spirit-Directed Life

 

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A New Mind

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Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

                         (Paul to the Roman Christians. Romans 12:1-2)

Are you a child of your generation?

We will interact with our generation. There is no denying it. We can affirm what our generation tells us or we can think differently. Neither is good or bad. It all depends on whether we are affirming the right or wrong thing.

The Word of God calls us to think of our body “in view of God’s mercy.” He has clothed us with health, strength, goodness, and beauty. In view of our good bodies, instead of the broken body we deserve because of our sin, we ought to offer our body to God as a living sacrifice. That is worship. Because our body with its appetites dictates to our mind what to think.

The world has a pattern of thinking that is body-appetite driven. To live with the wisdom of God requires us to think above the way the world thinks. “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world.” Conformity is easy. Do you have the courage and mental fortitude to think as God thinks rather than follow the ways of the world? In our own strength we will conform.

We all start at a bad place – conformity to the world. This is why we need to make our minds new again. To renew it as though it were new from God’s hand. This will transform our life. We will “be transformed by the renewing of our mind.”

When the Holy Spirit transforms your mind, you will see the good and perfect will of God. From there, you will test God’s will, and you will approve it, because you will see it is true, and it stands the test of truth.

Life is not about a compromise of views. For the child of God, it is the transforming of lives through the renewing of our mind. To conform to God’s mind is to be delivered from the corruption of our generation.

“Let God be true and every human being a liar.”
(Romans 3:4)

Pastor Peter Eng

 

Speaking to the Government in a Spirit-Directed Life

 

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(Yahoo News) K Shanmugam answers queries on Section 377A by church leaders at briefing: CLICK

 

Penal Code 377A and the Kingdom of God

 

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God’s Hand in a Spirit-Directed Life

 

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Social Justice or Kingdom Righteousness? Part 4

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In response to feedback that this series is a little dense for many, we will unpack the content so it is more accessible.

We are discussing what our Prime Minister considers the “fundamental reason” why the lease on the land has to be 99 years (and not longer or freehold). The reason is moral. If the land is not redistributed after 99 years, Singapore will have a landed and a landless class and this will surely lead to social unrest. Therefore the state has to take possession of the land to redistribute and rejuvenate it.  

The morality of the land distribution by the government begins with how the government has land to lease.

Land acquisition, improvement, and redistribution

Soon after Singapore became independent, the government passed the Land Acquisition Act (1966). This law gives the government power to acquire private land by compulsion for public development; and the amount of compensation is also determined by the government.  In 1949, the state owned 31% of the land, but by 1985, the state owned 76.2% of Singapore. (https://bit.ly/2wXOEnt).

The acquisition of private land is not unique to Singapore. Many countries do it because private owners can block public development. Private owners can be selfish, or they can demand exorbitant compensation, or use their ownership as blackmail against development.  The acquisition of private land is called “eminent domain” in the US, “compulsory purchase” in the UK, NZ and Ireland, etc. They all mean the same thing: the mandatory acquisition of land from an unwilling private seller because the interest of the state must take precedence over the interest of an individual.

This is different from private acquisition of land. In Singapore, private acquisition is determined by the willing sale of 80% of the share owners of the property. Most people think this is eminently just, even though some may be extremely disgruntled by the collective decision, or suffer from the sale. The principle is that a significant majority should have the power to change the status quo because they are acting in their interest.

However, we need to be careful and not give a government unbridled power to acquire land where no such majority is required. In the Bible, we have a case of an unwilling seller and the king’s forced acquisition of land.

King Ahab wanted Naboth’s beautiful vineyard, but Naboth did not want to sell. This troubled Ahab so his wife created false charges against Naboth and had him stoned to death. His vineyard was confiscated. God sent Ahab a message through Elijah the prophet, Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it.  Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’” (1 Kings 21:18-19)

The king cannot acquire private property for personal gain. And the unjust use of law to deprive a person of his property and his life is an abomination in the eyes of God.

Let’s take the story of Naboth’s vineyard in a different direction. Let’s say Jezebel declared Naboth’s vineyard must be acquired for public good and he was not killed, but simply removed from his land. After the land was acquired, it was never used for public good. If that were the case, the evil may not be as heinous, but few will argue that it is acceptable.

I like to suggest two criteria that justify government land acquisition. (1) It is done for the public good; and (2) there should be fair compensation for the land that is acquired. The government must conscientiously demonstrate in every instance that the land it acquires is truly done for the public good.  People who are concerned with justice in society need to be the watchdog over the government and hold the government accountable. The acquisition of land for public good must be real and not a pretext.

Let’s consider a purely theoretical situation. Let’s say you own a piece of prime freehold land, but there is something about you the government does not like. The government acquires your land for “public good” and compensates you with (1) a piece of leasehold land that is not prime and (2) a paltry cash payment not enough to rebuild what you lose on the land. This course of action is fundamentally unjust even though it is done for the public good.

But there is more. Twenty years later, the land the government acquired from you is left fallow and no public good has come from the land you lost. Now it is clear that there is no kingdom righteousness with this acquisition. How can people hold the government accountable for every piece of land that is acquired?

The Christian community in Singapore is largely non-adversarial towards the government.  That is a good thing. We are not called to be contra-culture and we do not have a political agenda. But we do have an agenda of righteousness; of justice in society. In this regard, the Christian community in Singapore appears to be too pliant. We seem to accept government decisions and actions without question. This is where we have room to improve. We must be aware that no government is perfect, no matter how good that government may be. The people need to hold the government accountable. While this is true in all areas, it is certainly true in the matter of land acquisition. The Christian must want a righteousness in land acquisition that brings blessings to a nation, a kingdom righteousness that Jesus taught.

Hence, the moral references to land acquired for HDB housing are that (1) it is land acquired for the public good and (2) it is land that the government has paid fair compensation. On the second condition, we may be justified to ask if the government had paid fair compensation. But there is another side to poor compensation. If the land is acquired through a token sum from private persons, is the land sold to the public also based on a token sum?

The land the government acquires has to be improved. That costs money. When we finally get our HDB flat there are many costs in addition to the land acquisition cost. Let’s say the land costs $1million and all the improvements including the building of 100 flats costs $9million. This adds up to $10million. As a non-profit public housing entity, the HDB should then sell the units at cost, which is $100,000 each. This would justify land acquisition at the token sum of $1million.

Did the government charge us cost for the HDB flats? We don’t know because the public is denied access to such information. The issue of the lease renewal also renews this question. Are we paying cost? Many doubt it. I think it is healthier for the Singapore government to hold itself accountable to its people on the real cost of HDB flats and how the cost is broken down.

Solving the Problem of the 99 year HDB lease

I disclaim all cleverness or ability to think better than people whose paygrade I will never attain.  But what I want to explore with you are situations that are already in operation and ask if these are better moral and practical considerations to the problem of the 99 year HDB lease.

  1. Why can’t HDB flats privatize like HUDC and become private estates?

HUDC flats were privatized and they function like other private housing estates. The privatization of the HUDC has been overwhelmingly successful in that the land can be sold to private developers at market price. If the owners refuse to sell, the building gets older and eventually the lease runs out. So it is in their best interest to sell at some point before the lease runs out or the building becomes unmanageable. The government still makes money charging the premium differential for renewing of the lease to 99 years but is free from the duty of managing the housing.

The proposed VERS program is a type of a government guarantee that housing that is not desirable to the private market can be redeemed by the government. But as in all government acquisitions, the owner is left with no option. If we are made to pay for the land again, then it is unjust. Development costs must be paid, but the land is already paid by the citizens of this country and it would be unjust to make the citizens pay again.

  1. Do freehold properties create a class divided society?

Singapore has freehold properties. Do these properties get passed down in perpetuity? I think there are not many freehold properties owned by more than three generations; we don’t need to speak of perpetuity.

Let’s look at freehold condominiums. Do they create class societies through perpetual ownership? History does not bear it out. Further, the wear and tear on a building does not allow perpetual ownership. I am not entirely convinced of the argumentation that we will have a class-divided society unless the government takes back the land. I think it is good that we take steps to preempt a class-divided society, but we can ask if taking back the people’s land is the best way to do so.

 [To continue …]

Pastor Peter Eng

 

God’s Protection in a Spirit-Directed Life

 

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Social Justice or Kingdom Righteousness? Part 3

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HDB 99 Year Lease And Social Justice

The Prime Minister of Singapore recently unveiled the government’s plan concerning the 99 year lease for HDB flats. Singaporeans don’t use the label “social justice” in our deliberation, and that is just as well. The label does not shed light. But the way the 99 year lease is handled is a typical case concerning social justice.

The Prime Minister gave two reasons why the 99 year lease must stay. The first reason is the need to redistribute land to ensure social equality. The second is the practical consideration that buildings do not last beyond 99 years.

The Second Reason

We will discuss the second reason first. It is true that buildings do not last beyond 99 years. HDB flats, like other buildings, need rejuvenation after around 30 years. Things wear out and have to be repaired, and as social needs change, utilization of ancillary land or common spaces also change. While it is true that land rejuvenation has to happen, the question is why 99 years and not a lease that matches the actual longevity of the 30 years of a building?

All land in communist China is state-owned. The leases for residential land used to be 20-30 years. With the liberalization of the command economy, the leases were revised upward, up to 70 years. This led to a boom in construction and the appreciation of property prices. Homes can now become an asset that protects against inflation, and can be passed on to the next generation.

You would ordinarily expect capital decay over the duration of the lease. Long leases, when new, have an expiration in the far horizon, and that allows the land to appreciate (if the conditions are right). The long lease allows temporary appreciation, but the decay of capital becomes more aggressive as the lease draws to the end. In all cases, the lessee (private entity) returns the land to the lessor (the state).

In Singapore, private leases from the state for 99 years can be redeveloped and the lease can be rejuvenated back to 99 years through the payment of a premium differential. But that option does not appear to be available to the owners of HDB flats, that is, until the recent announcement of a Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme for HDB flats. This will not happen for another 20 years. It does, however, give an option to the HDB owner hitherto not known. The HDB flat owners will have the option to sell the remaining lease back to HDB which will get the lease back to 99 years. The price may be attractive (like in private collective sale) or it may not be attractive (since there is no competitive offer for the land).

The Bible and the Year of Jubilee

Let’s look at God’s heart on the matter of land distribution and leases. This can be found in the God’s assertion to Israel that all land belongs to him and it is his to give as he chooses. He chose the twelve land parcels for the twelve tribes (Levites get none and the sons of Joseph get two allotments). The land is subsequently further divided among the tribes, and this constitutes the permanent land owners.

In the Jewish calendar, there is to be a Jubilee year every 50 years. In the year of Jubilee, the land that is sold will be returned to the original owner according to his tribe. The way it works is that if a man sells his land for whatever reason, usually because of poverty, that land is really a lease, and that lease is to end with the year of Jubilee. So if it is only one year to the Jubilee, that land is leased for 1 year. If it is 49 years to the Jubilee, the land is leased for 49 years. The basic rule is that the lease will terminate on the year of Jubilee, and the land reverts to the original owner or his heir. A type of “reversionary right” to the land. This system prevents systemic poverty as the children of debt ridden parents have a chance to start afresh when they regain their ancestral land.

The First Reason

The land reversion based on a maximum of a 49 year lease in the Bible, to prevent intergenerational poverty, is somewhat expressed in the first reason why HDB leases expire at 99 years. The Prime Minister said,

“There is one fundamental reason why HDB leases are for 99 years. And that is, we need to be fair to future generations. … After that (99 years), the flat comes back to the state, the Government redevelops the land, and builds new flats for future generations. This is the only way to recycle the land, to ensure that all our descendants can buy new BTO flats of their own.

“If instead the Government sold you the flat on freehold … , sooner or later we would run out of land to build new flats for future generations.”

“The owners would pass down the flat to some of their descendants …. Those not lucky enough to inherit a property, they would get nothing. So our society would be split into property owners and those who cannot afford a property. That would be most unequal, and socially divisive.”

He is not wrong to say that a 99 year lease is a very long time. The biblical lease is half that time. He is also right to say that if the property is handed down in perpetuity and all the land is bought up, we create two classes in society, those who own land and those who don’t. And those who don’t own land will live in perpetual poverty.

Analysis

Even though the Prime Minister did not use the term “social justice” (for which I am glad), he is right in that there must be a way of equitable distribution of a nation’s assets. Unless we do so, there will be poverty and there will be a landed and a landless class. This will lead to the oppression of the poor and perhaps eventually an uprising of the poor landless people against the rich landed people.

There is one fundamental difference between the biblical Jubilee and state owned land sold on leases. It is the question of who holds the reversionary right to the land. In the case of Singapore, it is the state. In the case of Israel, it is the ancestral holding, that is private ownership. The entity that holds the reversionary right to the land is the true owner of wealth and has the real power. In a communist / socialist system, the land is owned by the state leased out to different entities for various durations. The Singapore government identified itself as a democratic-socialist government. The state acquisition of land and the leasing of land to entities is typical of a socialist government. It can be argued that this has to be done because of the real scarcity of land in Singapore. But it is primarily done as a matter of socialist principle. At the same time, Singapore is not completely socialist in that there are properties that are “freehold” or “fee simple.” We will not have a landed versus a landless class. But we do have a freehold vs a leasehold class.

I am not suggesting that the Jubilee system can be implemented in our day and age. And if there is a way to do it, I don’t know how. The main difference is that if the land that comes to the end of its lease is taken as true state land (owned by the people), the new lease of the land ought to reflect that. That is to say, if the land is sold, the proceeds go to the people. Alternatively, the land is developed (at a cost) but the land itself is free because it belongs to the people.

The Singapore government has not been forthcoming in how the cost of HDB flats are calculated, so we don’t know if the HDB pays for the land it develops (land that belongs to the people); or that HDB gets the land free (since it is for the citizens and the land belongs to the citizens). If the land is free for public housing, then the government would be rightly treating the land as owned by the people but managed by the government. If its citizens are made to pay for land they own (via the state), then there should be a justification for it.

The reversion of land for redistribution after a term of lease is consistent with the biblical principle of the reversion of land to prevent intergenerational poverty. The Bible is silent of who owns the land outside of the land of Israel, but the Bible is clear that God is the creator of the heaven and earth, and therefore the rightful owner. There will be a great reversion of land globally. When Jesus returns to claim the world for himself, he will assert himself as the creator-owner of the world. There will be a redistribution of land to the children of the king, who are the resurrected, and who live in the resurrected body in the new heaven and the new earth.

Before the realization of the great reversion of the earth to God, we can support the principle of land reversion to prevent intergenerational poverty. However, that begs the question, “To whom should the land revert before it reverts to God the creator?” The answer is left to us to determine. Every society will have its own set of circumstances and there should be open and careful deliberation on what actions will result in generations with opportunities to prosper regardless of what previous generations had done.

 [To continue …]

Pastor Peter Eng

 

Social Justice or Kingdom Righteousness? Part 2

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The Spirit of the Age

I recall with shame how foolish we all were. Even though I did not personally engage in it, I gave it tacit support. In the 70s, ideas of socialism and communism had gained strong intellectual traction in the public domain. Christians joined the spirit of the age, saying that the first socialist/communist manifestation is found in the Bible. Jesus tells the parable of three sets of workers who work different lengths of time in a day and they are all paid the same, much to the chagrin of those who work longer (Matthew 20:1-16). This seems to be a case of equal outcome to unequal input, supporting both communism and social justice. In another instance, we have needy people in the church and others with great wealth. The rich sold their property to feed the poor (Acts 2:44-45) – apparently, a communist ideal.

Is this the real meaning of Matthew 20 and Acts 2?

Acts 2:44-45 speaks of people putting money into a common pool to feed the poor. It is voluntary giving. Social justice strongly advocates the role and duty of the government to redistribute wealth, usually not without coercion. There is no similarity between the voluntary help to the needy and the coerced redistribution of wealth. The communist giver is motivated by fear and not love, and the communist recipient receives the redistributed wealth as a greedy entitlement with no gratitude.

Immediately following the statement that people sold their property to feed the poor, we are told, the believers “broke bread in their homes and ate together …” (Acts 2:46) This would be impossible if all their homes were sold. Acts 2:44-45 is a general and expansive statement celebrating the sacrificial giving of some in the community, not an absolute statement. It is not a prescription for action, nor is it an ideal for our perpetual emulation.

Not long after this event, there arose a couple who wanted the praise of man among the believers. They sold their property and claimed to have given all the proceeds to the Apostles to distribute. Peter’s rhetorical question in response to them is instructive, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). The church never claimed an individual’s wealth. Private ownership was never discouraged.

We see this phenomenon again later in the book of Acts. When King Agrippa I persecuted the Christians by beheading James and throwing Peter into prison, the believers gathered in the home of Mary to pray for Peter. When God delivered Peter from prison, he went to Mary’s home to look for the other disciples. From the description we have, it was a big house with an outer courtyard and she had at least one servant employed in the household (Acts 12:12-17). If all the believers sold their homes, how did Mary come by this substantial home so soon after giving away everything?

The parable of equal reward in Matthew 20:1-16 has a context. Peter had asked Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27). Jesus replied at three levels. First, the twelve will be as prominent in the Kingdom of God as the twelve patriarchs (19:28). Second, all who make sacrifices will be rewarded many times over (19:29). Third, “But many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.” (19:30). Jesus then tells the parable of equal reward and repeats the same apothegm “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (20:16). This forms the literary inclusio on the third group that will get a reward. The first two groups do not get equal reward, only the third group gets equal reward. This dispels the myth of citing this text as proof for equal outcomes.

Next we ask what is with the third group that they get equal reward. Who or what is Jesus referring to?

The literary inclusio “the last will be first and the first will be last” tells us two things about the third group. The first is that there will be a reversal of sequence of reward for this group. The second is that there is equal reward.

Jesus is talking about who enters the kingdom of heaven. The Jews who first hear the Good News of the kingdom will enter last while the Gentiles who hear it last will enter first. The reward of inclusion in the kingdom of heaven is a generous reward. A denarius for a day’s work for a laborer was generous. But it was even more generous pay for an hour’s work. This is the meaning of God’s grace. A person who enters God’s kingdom one hour before he dies is saved no less than a person who lives for God his whole life. There is a reward that is both generous and common to all.

In the parable, the equal reward of eternal life is never based on the goodness of the unemployed men incapable of providing for themselves or their family, it is the gracious provision of the generous employer who gives meaningful and gainful employment. In the whole story of Jesus, there is an even greater imbalance of unequal input that produces the same outcome of eternal life. Jesus the sinless Lamb of God dies to procure our salvation. What more unequal input is there? But the outcome of equal reward of eternal life is all of grace.

The current Christian infatuation with social justice is similar to the Christian infatuation with communism in the decades past. We are children of our time. But the Word of God calls us to a wisdom that lifts us up in courageous thought that rises above the shifting opinions of the world.

I don’t want to muddle through social justice as I did communism. I don’t want to approach social justice with a desire to justify it or to castigate it. I need to know social justice on its own terms and not baptize it with Christian thinking. With that in mind, my first realization is that social justice has a different moral referent from Scripture.

The Referent

Why is something good or bad? Social Justice is a moral expression of humanism. “Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively….” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism, 18 Aug 2018). In humanism, we humans decide what is right or wrong, and right or wrong depends on whether it benefits humans. Social justice as an expression of humanism emphasizes equal outcome, diversity, and the creation of supportive environments (as noted earlier).

In contrast, the Judeo-Christian morality draws from monotheism. Monotheism is the belief there is only one God the creator of all things who determines right and wrong. Right and wrong issues from God’s character and God’s commands. God’s commands are consistent with his character even if some commands relate only to human life (e.g. marriage). The end
result of justice in society is that it brings glory to God. In contrast to humanism, the good that is accomplished is not what satisfies human wants, but what brings glory to God. God is glorified in us, when we are satisfied in him. So ironically, human satisfaction is to be found in God, not in any human self-actualization collectively or individually.

Tom Holland (British author, not the actor of Spiderman) is an atheist who authored several prominent books. He held the typical humanist view that Christianity created a huge blot against the progress of human goodness ushered in by the Greeks and the Romans. The triumph of Christianity brought in superstition, the crusades, the inquisitors and, eventually, dour puritans. But in 2016, this scholar of classical studies wrote an article that shocked his peers. “Why I was wrong about Christianity” a candid admission of his mistaken view. “It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.” (https://goo.gl/2Py6UW)

Holland’s realization helps us understand humanism and social justice (the moral system based on humanism.)

Humanism argues that the moral goodness in the world today arose on the back of the Renaissance, which is a rebirth of the Greco-Roman worldview. Tom Holland came to the realization that the Greco-Roman world was brutal and their moral philosophy does not resemble what he holds to be right and wrong. His humanistic moral values are ultimately traceable to Christianity, to Jesus and to Paul.

Humanism takes what the Bible affirms about human values and human rights and elevates this good and make it the ultimate good. This is why humanism looks so much like Christianity, and seems to agree so much with Christian morals. Humanism is an imitation of Christianity, humanism is not the legacy of the Greco-Roman world but the illegitimate child of Christian morality. In that sense, Holland is right to trace the morals of humanism back to Jesus and Paul.

Idolatry is to take a good and turn it into the ultimate good. Humanism is the idolatry of taking humans, God’s good creation, and turning it into the ultimate good. Humanism is the sin of rebellion against God as God. It is when we are enticed by the whisper of the serpent, “You will be like God knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5). Ironically, when we believe that lie, we lose our discernment of good and evil.

 [To continue …]

Pastor Peter Eng