A fine line for religious leaders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 3:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 11:30am

It is said that there are two topics that should never be raised in polite company, religion and politics. Religion, tradition has it, should be for sermons and politics for political speeches. Both can create such passions that discussion among people from different backgrounds could easily escalate to heated arguments, hurt feelings and even damaged relationships. Mixing the two, as has been done by the archbishop of the Anglican church in Hong Kong, the Most Reverend Paul Kwong, and prominent Catholic figure Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, is therefore bound to be controversial.

Kwong raised hackles in a Sunday sermon later posted on the church's website by advising pro-democracy advocates to keep quiet, just as "Jesus remained silent" as he faced crucifixion. With sarcasm, he said that some of the 511 protesters arrested for a sit-in on Chater Road after the July 1 rally who had complained about not being given food and having to queue for toilets should have taken their maids with them. The conservative preacher often turns to topical issues for his speeches, but the nature of his remarks prompted church officials to distance themselves from them and contend they were personal opinions. Given the political climate and Kwong's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference membership, perhaps no one should have been fazed.

Zen's campaigning last month for Occupy Central's referendum on political reform was less unexpected. He frequently speaks out in support of democracy and is no friend of Beijing. Throughout his term as cardinal of Hong Kong he criticised the government as he saw fit, especially on rights issues. Nor has Occupy Central been confined to top leaders of the various religious groups; a core member of the movement is Baptist minister Reverend Chu Yiu-ming.

Some people believe religion has no place in politics. The reality, though, especially in Hong Kong, is that the two are inseparable. Many schools are run by religious groups, as are health and welfare facilities like clinics, child care centres and homes for the elderly. Having a sense of the sacred is a natural part of living for many, and politics is how life is ordered.

Religion affects the way we think and act; it is as true for a devout member of a church as a politician. Preachers have the same right to vote and comment on political matters as any citizen; it is called free speech. But the prominence of religion means that there is a delicate balance to strike and church leaders have to be mindful of that with what they say and do.