Nation Building — A Scriptural Perspective

My father was truly old-school. “Why do priests have to bring up politics during their homilies?” It was more an accusation than a question to which he sought an answer. I would shake my head in frustration and tell him that his generation just didn’t get how politics and the pulpit were inter-connected. I was in for a rude awakening.

Years later, while reflecting on the Scripture verse in the Daily Missal on the day of my father’s passing, I realised that the sweeping judgement I had accorded my parents’ generation was completely false!

‘But life to me is not a thing to waste words on, provided that when I finish my race I have carried out the mission the Lord Jesus gave me – and that was to bear witness to the Good News of God’s grace’ (Acts 20:24).

I had based my careless opinion of his generation on what they said and not on the way they lived their lives. Theirs were lives that bore witness, not so much by the opinions they articulated, but by the way they actually lived. My father was intensely patriotic and willing to lay down his life for his country. As a police officer, he had a single-minded pursuit to wipe out vice – from smuggled goods at the Thai-Perlis border to the gambling dens and brothels of Kuala Lumpur. His refusal to take bribes earned him many ‘blackmarks’ from his superiors. He was posted to the jungles of Sarawak and spent hellish months fighting the communists. He would lead his battalion waist-deep through the Rejang River, where they would walk for miles carrying their heavy weapons above their heads. He would see some of his finest men die at the hands of the communists. Yet, through it all, he remained strongly driven.

Indeed, this was a generation of nation-builders in the true sense of the term. They quietly worked to form our national identity and to give our country its moral fibre, perhaps without even recognising it for what it was - nation-building.

The tendency today is toward nation-eroding. In our pro-secular modern outlook, we tear people down with our criticism, we forward gossip without even checking the authenticity of its sources, we malign our leaders even when they attempt to act in our best interests, and we belittle every effort by the government to grow the economy. It seems we are no longer in the business of building up.

pharisees question jesusCertainly, we are ‘obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel’ (CCC 2242). It is not easy for us to be nation-builders in a country where social justice is equated with race-based affirmative action policies. Such policies have resulted in a painfully inequitable distribution of the nation’s wealth and resources to the non-Malay ethnic communities. Ironically, these are also the same communities that work hard to contribute to the country’s GDP.

As articulated in the Catechism, our faith requires us to stand up against such social injustice, inequality and dishonesty. Are we then not justified in indulging in ‘nation-eroding’? Specifically, how do we Catholics deal with this anomaly? The answer lies in Sacred Scripture.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” – Matthew 22:21

In the time of Jesus, the Israelites were under an oppressive regime, much like in some parts of the world today. In wanting to trap Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians asked Him a loaded question, whether it is right to pay taxes to the Roman power that occupied their land. If He answered ‘Yes’, He would be labelled a traitor to His people, and if He answered ‘No’ He would be charged with treason against Caesar. (Later, in His trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus was falsely accused of forbidding people to pay taxes to Caesar, cf Luke 23:2).

Jesus does not answer with a simple yes or no. Instead, He moves everyone’s attention to a higher level of reflection and transforms it into an application for us to decide for ourselves, for our own time. Whose image is on the coin and whose inscription? It is Caesar’s image and Caesar’s inscription. So “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). We are told His enemies went away speechless! More significantly, the framework is now set for how we should think about our faith and the state.

This is arguably one of the least understood of Jesus’ teachings. Many believe He was making a distinction between the secular and the sacred – on the one hand relating to Caesar and matters of this world, and on the other relating to God and matters of God’s world. Yet, as we examine the exchange between Jesus and His opponents it becomes clear that we cannot really be looking at two distinct domains – one pertaining to God and the other not pertaining to God. That is not believable. As one theologian puts it, Jesus’ argument does not separate, it accumulates.

Firstly, it accumulates because government authority comes from God. As citizens, it is our duty to work with the civil authorities to build up society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. We have a co-responsibility with the governing authorities for the common good (CCC 2239-40). St. Paul himself tells the Christians in Rome that there is no authority except that which God has established. It is God who raises up kings and nations and through them provides a system of infrastructure for us. And it is this system that provides us with everything we need to live comfortably. Just as we benefit from secular society, so we should support the infrastructure of society. Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees and Herodians that they participate in this societal infrastructure by giving back to Caesar.

Similarly, we too need to support the good work that is already being done in our country - in economic development and transformational economic policies, in regional economic alliances and representation on international bodies, in maintaining the security of our country, in the affordable medical care provided by government hospitals to its citizens, in attempts to root out endemic corruption at all levels of government institutions, and much more. In his book Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Charles Chaput goes so far as to give us an imperative - that we should serve the nation by living our Catholic beliefs in the political realm. Rendering unto Caesar, he says, is our Catholic political vocation!

Secondly, Jesus’ argument encompasses God’s way of thinking. The Bible says that the Lord used the Babylonians to punish the stubborn disobedience of the people of Judah. But when the time of exile was completed, God moved the heart of the pagan Persian king, Cyrus, to allow the Israelites to return home. Perhaps less desirable governments exist for a reason – so that people may choose to do great things for God. But how does one go about doing great things for God? Let’s take our inspiration from the wise wizard in Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Burdened with the pervasive evil that was destroying the land, the wizard says, “Some believe that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.” Indeed, it is the weak that overcome the mighty. Simply put, the zeal of our faith should be displayed in the faithful undertaking of our everyday deeds in the workplace, at home, and in our communities.

The more faithfully we serve God, the more truly we serve the nation. In fact, love and service of one’s country is rooted in one of the three great theological virtues - Charity. It’s no wonder that Christ makes this the greatest commandment of all. For charity is the virtue ‘by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God’ (CCC 1822). Such powerfully uplifting words to live by. Those everyday deeds, when strongly motivated by charity, will have consequences for us that stretch across eternity.

While on the subject of God’s way of thinking, it is intriguing to note that Christians, by virtue of their baptism, have a spiritual ancestry that goes all the way back to the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. Another way of looking at this is that we have the spiritual DNA of God’s first nation builders! The Bible actually contains a blueprint for nation-building, given by God to Moses thousands of years ago. This blueprint remains incredibly relevant to us in the 21st century.

What was God’s process for nation-building? The new nation of Israel was firstly founded on God’s laws - the Ten Commandments. This was a fundamental first step. Then came civil and health laws, given to prevent disease and promote health. Some of these laws were thousands of years ahead of their time. Conservation laws were given long before there were any environmental concerns.

Next came the selection and training of leaders for good governance. The Bible clearly lists the qualities of character that God looks for in leaders. Abraham was chosen as the founding father of the nation of Israel for his responsiveness to God’s instructions. Abraham ‘obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions’ (Genesis 26:5). Moses was highly educated, raised by the Egyptian royals and was a general in Pharaoh’s army. Yet God chose him not for his leadership qualities in the Egyptian empire, but because he was humble and teachable. ‘Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth’ (Numbers 12:3). David was God’s choice as Israel’s king because of his deep desire and love for God’s law. The prophet Samuel said this of David, ‘For the LORD has sought out a man after His own be the leader of His people’ (1 Samuel 13:14). These are the qualities that God looks for in a country’s potential leaders.

{Moses was highly educated, raised by the Egyptian royals and was a general in Pharaoh’s army. Yet God chose him not for his leadership qualities in the Egyptian empire, but because he was humble and teachable.

A third major step in God's process of nation building was to establish an educational system built on fundamental truths and values. The biblical model for education stands in stark contrast to modern educational methods. Moses repeatedly emphasised the parents' role in teaching children. Parents were to teach their children about the laws of God. Their ‘learning outcomes’ were to grow in wisdom (Proverbs 4:7), to gain useful knowledge to serve others (Matthew 20:26– 28) and to develop the mind and character of God (Philippians 2:5–11). Imagine if we promoted these as the curriculum for our schools today!

Considering these Biblical instructions, it is not surprising that nations that veer significantly away from this model will eventually fail. This was the fate of communism, Nazism, fascism and may even be the fate of certain capitalist societies that are seeking to replace God with atheism and agnosticism.

fresco of stjohnchrysostomLastly, Jesus’ argument accumulates because He speaks of two images of authorities, one incomparably superior to the other. This is the crux of the story. The image of the emperor Tiberius Caesar and the image of God. When Jesus says “give to God what is God’s” He is willing us to take on the image of the one in whose likeness we were made. From the beginning of creation, our value as human beings, is rooted as being God’s image-bearers. Jesus is the one who shows us what we were meant to be. ‘He is the radiance of God’s glory, the stamp of God’s very being’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). How elevating it is to know that our destiny is ultimately to image Christ as perfectly as He images God!

Thus we need to develop the mind and character of God. A good place to start would be to form a strong and genuinely Catholic conscience, guided by the Spirit of truth. Our conscience will convict us to feel the burden of the future of our nation. After all, we are the vine-dressers who work in the Lord’s vineyard, day in and day out. We are His trustworthy stewards and we should feel this burden in the same way that Jesus did. He took compassion on the crowds when He saw that they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Harassed and helpless? Nothing has changed in two thousand years. St. John Chrysostom emphatically tells us, “Christian! You are responsible for the world!” In truth, we are the salt of the earth, and if the world loses its flavour, who should we blame?

The instruction to ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God’ invites us to live wholeheartedly as participants in our society, and to emulate the generation of our Catholic parents whose lives and deeds were rooted in Christ. We are on a mission from God! As this beloved nation of ours turns 60, we need to dust off God’s ‘Nation-Building 101’ and keep to the model that was given to us – His fundamental laws, the election of good leaders, and the educating of our children in biblical truths and values. In doing so we will reflect a sharper image of the invisible God on the Malaysian society.

“Christian! You are responsible for the world!” – St. John Chrysostom

Angeline Chelliah is a lecturer in Economics for the Edinburgh Business School. She is a parishioner of the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Petaling Jaya. This article was originally published by CANews - August edition. For suscription, please email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.