Towards a Theology of Citizenship as a Central Challenge in Asia

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By Anselm Kyongsuk Min

Anselm K. Min, a Korean, holds a Ph.D in Philosophy from Fordham University and in Theology from Vanderbilt University. He is Professor of Religion and Theology at the School of Religion of Claremont Graduate University, California. His publications include: Korean Christianity 2000: Beyond Authoritarianism and Ecclesiocentrism, Benedict Press, Seoul, 2000, and Solidarity of Others in a Divided World: A Postmodern Theology After Postmodernism, T & T Clark International 2000. His forthcoming book is Pathways to God: an Encounter between Aquinas and Recent Theologies.

Despite significant differences among Asian countries, there does exist an even more significant commonality among them—the pressure of transition from premodern, traditional culture to (post)modern, secular culture. In different ways and under different cultural circumstances all Asian nations face the contradictions between the still dominant premodern, tribal sense of identity limited to the clan, tribe, religion, ethnic group, region, and/or religion, and the postmodern realities that require transcendence of such tribalism1 into a broader sense of identity in an increasingly interdependent world. All the nations are now undergoing the pangs of a transition to a more mature civil society in a continuing process of nation-building against the many inherited sources of division. In this essay I intend to present an outline of an Asian theology of transtribal solidarity and citizenship as its political expression against this context. I’ll first describe the general historical situation of Asian nations and the contradictions and challenges of the transition from traditional to (post)modern culture that they all face as perhaps the central context for all Asian theologies. Second, I’ll analyze the challenge of nation-building as the most fundamental challenge facing Asian countries. Third, I’ll discuss the demands of citizenship and the chief civic virtue, "solidarity of others," as the most appropriate response to the challenge. Fourth and last, I’ll present the theological dimension of citizenship and solidarity and the possible resources from the Christian and indigenous traditions for the making of an authentically Asian theology of solidarity.

From Premodern to Postmodern Culture

The most important common fact concerning Asian nations is that, with the exceptions of Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia, they are poor or desperately poor nations suffering all the consequences of poverty, such as starvation, poor health, illiteracy, serious class division, intense competitive struggle for survival leading to tribal, ethnic, and religious conflicts, and governmental repression to counter such conflicts. As of the year 2000, the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of North Korea was $1,000, Cambodia $1,300, Nepal $1,360, Myanmar $1,500, Bangladesh $1,570, Laos $1,700, Vietnam $1,950, India $2,200, Indonesia $2,900, Sri Lanka $3,250, China $3,600, the Philippines $3,800, Thailand $6,700, compared with Malaysia at $10,300, South Korea at $16,100, Taiwan at $17,400, Japan at $24,900, Singapore at $26,500.2 In addition to poverty, most Asian countries also suffer serious class divisions, while large middle classes have been rising in the more prosperous ones.

Likewise, common to all Asian nations regardless of their relative poverty is the ancient heritage of patriarchy and exclusion of women from public life sanctioned by centuries of religious, cultural, and legal restrictions. Although much progress has been made in this regard in many countries in recent decades, and although there are incipient women’s movements in most of them, the road to genuine social equality for women remains a long and painful one.

In addition to economic and gender contradictions, these countries also suffer other kinds of internal division, often abetted by economic division, such as linguistic, regional, religious, and ethnic conflicts. China has 56 ethnic groups within its border with all the potential of conflicts should the country become more liberalized. Bangladesh suffers the tension between its Muslim majority (83%) and Hindu minority (16%), as does India in the region of Kashmir, in addition to the tensions caused by some 1,652 dialects spoken within the subcontinent. Indonesia has more than 583 dialects, and constant tension between many different ethnic groups as well as between the Muslim majority and the tiny Christian minority. Malaysia is a nation of many ethnic groups including indigenous tribes, Chinese and Indian settlers, and many religious groups including Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Sri Lanka has been suffering a bloody civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Tamil Hindu minority since 1983. India continues to suffer the shame of a most entrenched caste system as well as the scandal of oppression of an untouchable class, the dalits, placed outside of all castes, and a long record of discrimination against the tribal peoples, as Japan suffers a long history of mistreatment of its Korean minority. In addition to its endemic regionalism, Korea faces the daunting task of achieving reunification while also integrating the two unequal economies of North and South. The tensions derived from economic, ethnic, and/or religious conflicts between different groups pervade most Asian nations, sometimes flaring up in open conflicts and bloody repressions as in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Kashmir, most often simply waiting to be inflamed and exploited as in China and Myanmar. A good measure of social peace is the frequency of armed conflicts. It is noteworthy that out of 40 armed conflicts in the world killing at least 1,000 people in the year 2000, 14 took place in Asia, with 17 in Africa, 2 in Europe, 2 in the Americas, and 5 in the Middle East (Time Almanac2002:715).

One measure of the corruption and instability of a society is its willingness to accept bribes. It is revealing to note that in the 2002 Transparency International Corruption Index measuring the propensity of a country to accept bribes as perceived by business people, risk analysts, and the general public, out of the 91 countries measured, with the exceptions of Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan, all other Asian countries were found to have serious cases of corruption, Malaysia ranking 34th in order of least corruption, South Korea 43rd, China 59th, Thailand 64st, India 73rd, the Philippines 78th, Vietnam 87th, Indonesia 96th, and Bangladesh, the most corrupt, 102nd (Time Almanac 2003:715). According to the 1999 Bribe Payers’ Index measuring 19 exporting countries whose companies are likely to pay bribes to senior public officials overseas, it is also remarkable that China ranked 1st in order of willingness, South Korea 2nd, Taiwan 3rd, Malaysia 5th, Japan 6th, and Singapore 9th, where among the Western nations, Italy ranked 4th, France 7th, Spain 8th, the United States 10th followed by Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, Australia, and Sweden, the least willing to pay bribes (Time Almanac 2002:715).

The preceding statistics say a great deal about the challenges facing Asian countries. Most countries face the challenge of eliminating poverty and some of its consequences such as starvation, sickness, epidemic, illiteracy, and conflicts between tribes, ethnic groups, and religions. The more prosperous ones still face the challenge of resolving social inequities inherited from centuries of discrimination and exclusion based on gender, region, tribal origin, status, ethnicity, and religion. In addition, they are also beginning to face the challenge of bourgeoisification common to the industrialized nations, commercialization and trivialization of all aspects of life, rising materialism, erosion of tradition, a sense of normlessness, and the ever present specter of layoff in a rapidly changing and always insecure economy. China already reports a shocking annual suicide rate of 200,000! (Ni 2001:A14).

Without the development of a mature civil society, the main burden of responding to these multiple crises necessarily and naturally falls on the state, but the state is only as good as the people it governs, only as efficient as the culture it reflects. The corruption index cited above reveals how rampant is the abuse of the public power of the state in most Asian countries. All too often the state is no more than a pawn in the hands of some particular interest, which may be a clan, a tribe, an ethnic group, an aristocracy, a religion, a regionally based interest, or some combination of these.

Instead of resolving national crises brought on by social conflicts in the common interest of the nation as a whole by addressing the grievances of the group excluded from that interest, the state only exacerbates them by intervening, with the full power of the state, on the side of the particular interest in power.

The basic challenge common to most Asian countries, then, is how to bring all the divisive internal factions together and mobilize them in the service of a relatively prosperous economy that can meet the basic needs of its people, an efficient and fair government that can promote such an economy, credibly reconcile competing social interests, and respond to the ever present social crises in the interest of the common good always with a preferential concern for the marginalized, and a developed sector of civil society that can freely engage in a national debate and dialogue on important issues with maturity and responsibility. The challenge is how to build a sense of a political community that goes beyond the traditional boundaries of clan, tribe, status, class, region, and religion, a community with which each citizen and group can identify themselves, in which different groups feel responsible for resolving disputes and solving problems through joint action and dialogue, and whose destiny, therefore, each can regard as its own. It is the challenge of how to develop with one another a sense of a common political destiny larger than the fate of each individual and group. In short, the overriding common challenge in all Asia is how to build a self-conscious political unity out of the many traditional sources of division, a modern nation out of the many "tribes" who have only known feudal loyalties to a clan, an ethnic group, a region, a religion, a class, a king, but none to a larger political community that embraces but also transcends these premodern boundaries of identity. What these Asian countries are facing is the task of nation-building faced by Western nations three centuries ago. The challenge of e pluribus unum also applies to Asian nations.

In appearance at least, these countries have been operating as unified nations at least since their liberation and independence from colonial powers in the mid-20th century. All of them now have centralized governments which bear the primary responsibility for the fate of the nation as a whole. Along with this appearance, however, there also have coexisted all the tribal institutions and tribal ways of thinking, whose particularism inevitably counteracts the universalism of the state, often more than ready to exploit the organs and resources of the state for its own private interest, as witnessed in the corruption of public officials, rigging of elections, abuse of governmental power, bending and violating of laws for private benefits so endemic to so many Asian countries. The secret of the countless political difficulties facing most Asian nations lies precisely in the contradiction between the normative universalism of the state as the all-embracing political community and the instinctive particularism of the countless groups, tribal, ethnic, regional, religious, etc. It is the contradiction between the reality of the modern world that has made our individual, tribal fortunes so interdependent and requires that we think and act in terms of a more comprehensive political community than our own tribes, and the still surviving feudal habits and institutions that lock us up in our premodern loyalties and keep us from thinking and acting with larger, more universal loyalties. In this work of nation-building, forging a sense of a community of destiny larger than our tribes, and motivating their adherents to commit themselves to the political praxis of working for that community, religions—Confucianism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity—did make important contributions, especially during the period of independence movements in many Asian countries. On the whole, however, the record of contribution made by these religions to the political praxis of nation building cannot be considered impressive. Generally other-worldly and politically conservative, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity did not see much urgency in awakening political consciousness in their adherents, as the religions themselves, with their own other-worldly loyalties, had much consciousness-raising to do. As a this-worldly religion, Confucianism did emphasize public service as the vocation of the educated class, but as an aristocratic ideology, it also excluded the rest of the people from that vocation. Shintoism was perhaps most influential in unifying Japan into one nation out of its countless divisive feudal loyalties, but it was also guilty of nurturing a nationalism that was sadly imperialistic towards other nations.

Nation-Building as Central Challenge in Asia

There are at least three considerations why nation building is a fundamental issue central to all other issues in Asia. First, because of growing interdependence no tribe, clan, island, ethnic group, region, or religion within a country is sufficient unto itself in solving the basic problems of social life such as production of adequate material goods and services, provision of appropriate levels of education, establishment and enforcement of justice and peace among different groups, protection against foreign invasion, and encouragement of cultural creativity. No particular group, however based or defined, can by itself alleviate poverty, establish law and order, settle intergroup disputes, and respond to the proliferating and complexifying needs of the community. An essential precondition for the solution of these problems is the recognition of mutual dependence among different groups and the organization of that interdependence into a state conscious of itself as the official agency responsible for the fate of all the groups as a community of destiny and committed to the common good that contains but also transcends all separate interests. The birth of a "modern" national state in Europe and North America in the late 18th century was not purely accidental.

Today, however, we should perhaps speak of a "postmodern" state. No state is self-sufficient but remains essentially vulnerable to the globalizing impact of information, production, and military technologies whose pollution—cultural and physical—crosses all artificial boundaries. Likewise, internally, experience of oppress-ion and heightened self-consciousness force all political communities to be sensitive to the Other as Other in its many and unpredictable forms existing within their borders, to transcend the ethnic, religious, and cultural differences, and to establish themselves as "secular" states that disestablish such differences. A postmodern state must learn to accommodate all sorts of diversity in this century of "difference."

Modern or postmodern, it is still the state as the self-conscious organization of our different modes of interdependence that remains the primary agent for the solution of our common economic, political, and cultural problems. This is the essential "political" dimension of our modern and postmodern existence in the world: our dependence on the state as the primary agent for all our fundamental problems of social existence, and all the ethical obligations that follow from such dependence for doing our share in both contributing to the state as our common destiny and keeping a vigilant watch over its performance should it betray its mission as the steward of the common good of all.

Second, nation building is the central challenge because in the modern and postmodern world human beings suffer more at the hands of one another than at the hands of nature, and because the state causes the lion’s share of such artificial suffering through its own failures and ill-motivated atrocities, it remains the only agent capable of preventing or protecting against such suffering. Human suffering may be caused either naturally, e.g., through drought, famine, earthquakes, snowstorms, and hurricanes, or artificially, e.g., through human agents. Artificial suffering in turn may be caused by private individuals and groups, e.g., organized crimes, robberies, anti-social business practices, industrial pollution of the environment. It can also be caused by public, official agencies of the state, e.g., wars, genocides, legal enforcements of slavery, discrimination, and oppression, operation of concentration and forced labor camps, inefficient economic planning, failure to take care of the common good at the appropriate time in appropriate ways in matters of politics, economics, and culture.

Any review of the political history of the 20th century should make clear the sheer enormity of human suffering caused by the public, organized powers of the state. Consider, first, all the wars and the hundreds of millions of human beings killed, maimed, raped, displaced, made jobless, in addition to all the losses of property: the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, World War II, the 200,000 "comfort women" drafted into the sexual service of the Japanese Imperial Army in East Asia during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the many civil wars in Angola, Rwanda, and many other African countries, the many wars between Israel and Arab nations, the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the 40 armed conflicts in the world in the year 2000 alone, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider, secondly, all the discriminations, exclusions, and persecutions—legally enforced with the full power of the state—of women all over the world, Armenians and Jews murdered in the millions, African Americans and other ethnic minorities in the United States, Korean residents in Japan, Blacks in apartheid South Africa, Catholics in Northern Island, Palestinians in Israel, Hindus in Sri Lanka, Muslims in India, "prisoners of conscience" and victims of state terrorism in many repressive regimes in Latin America and elsewhere, the ethnic, religious, and other minorities in all parts of the world, the tens of millions of dissenters perishing in Siberian forced labor camps. Consider, third, all the human suffering caused by failure of governments to take appropriate steps at the appropriate time and/or misdirected and inefficient governmental policies, from the Great Depression of 1929 in the United States to the great economic stagnation of the Soviet Union through many decades, the perennial neglect of the poor majority in Latin America, and the massive environmental pollution in all the industrialized nations to the national bankruptcy of Argentina in late 2001.

The conclusion from organized crime, inept policies, and sins of omission on the part of governments, of course, is not that we should do away with governments but that we should try harder to keep them from such abuses and neglects by keeping them oriented to policies that will promote the common good. The only alternative to bad government is good government. The only question is how to truly democratize the government, how to create a mature and responsible civil society so as to watch the government for any exploitation of its resources by private interests, and how to encourage and nurture efficient public service by talented and committed public servants. Nation building in the sense of the construction and maintenance of a (post)modern state both committed to the public interest and efficient in promoting it, thus remains central wherever and whenever large-scale human suffering is an issue. The government is there either as the cause of that suffering or as the savior from that suffering who alone can either prevent or relieve it. This involvement of the government, the organ of the common good, in any large-scale human suffering is the inevitable "political" dimension of all social crises and disasters.

Third, in the broad sense of constructing, maintaining, and nurturing a postmodern state as the primary agent for our interdependent common destiny, nation-building is also central to all other issues. Asian theologians of the first generation were concerned with the issues of technology (Kosuke Koyama), interreligious dialogue and pluralism (Stanley J. Samartha), liberation of the oppressed and theological retrieval of indigenous traditions (Minjong Theology and C. S. Song), and problems of Asian poverty and Asian religiosity (Aloysius Pieris) [Min 1996:22-48]. Catholic theologians and bishops, through the instrumentality of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) have highlighted the "triple dialogue" with the Asian poor, Asian religions, and Asian cultures.3 To these problems a new generation of Asian theologians have been adding the problems of ecology and feminism. I have no doubt that all of these issues are important issues, each in its own way. These problems, however, are problems of agendas, not problems of agents, to use an important distinction. Problems as agendas refer to the series of problems to be solved, such as relief of the poor, indigenization of worship, dialogue with other religions, and protection of the environment. Problems as agents refer to the problems of who will actually solve these problems as agendas, how they can be educated to recognize them as problems in the first place and mobilized to support certain ways of solving them. In this sense the problem of agents is not one among other problems or on the same level as the problem of agendas but the very condition for the recognition and solution of all problems of agendas. The problem of agents is fundamental and central to all problems of agendas, which would only remain on the agenda until and unless we find agents educated and motivated enough to act on them. The problems highlighted by Asian theologians and bishops are more problems of agendas than problems of agents, while nation-building addresses precisely the problem of agents, i.e., how to build a state both committed to and efficient in solving the many problems of agenda.

First of all, many of the problems mentioned are directly political issues. The liberation of the poor, protection of the environment, women’s status, hazards of technology—these are issues that can only be solved politically, i.e., by the intervention of the state that should be efficient enough to create an economy that will also benefit the poor and just enough to create a welfare system that would meet everyone’s basic human needs, make and enforce laws that prohibit pollution of the air and discrimination against women, and make education and information available about the potential of technology. Unless the state, the primary agent, is motivated and equipped enough to deal with these problems, these will remain unsolved. Furthermore, other issues, such as indigenization of theology, interreligious dialogue, and pluralism, each important and urgent in its own right, are at least indirectly political in the sense that they are geared in their intention or consequence towards removing the oppressive, alienating differences between Christianity and Asian religions and cultures and thus contribute to social peace and political solidarity as citizens of the same nation. They are also indirectly political in the sense that those issues would be irrelevant abstractions unless the dialogue among religions includes a dialogue about oppression and injustice done to one group by another and takes the political form of pressuring the government to reduce such oppression and injustice. When one majority religion is actively involved, through the instrumentality of the state, in the oppression of a minority religion, as in many Asian countries, interreligious dialogue becomes generally impossible, while any dialogue that abstracts from the issue of injustice becomes irrelevant.4

Postmodern Citizenship as a Task and Challenge

The problem of agency, however, does not end with the state. Although it remains true that the state or government is the primary agent, it is also crucial not to reify or absolutize the primary agency of the state into a thing with its own reality independent of the citizens. The state is the self-conscious recognition, organization, and objectification of our interdependence as citizens. As separated individuals we cannot produce the material goods and services we need, nor ensure that our ability to think, decide, and worship in our own ways will be guaranteed, nor protect our individual and collective existence against domestic and foreign threats. What we cannot do as separated individuals, however, we can do together, as united individuals. We can together create an economy, an educational system, a system of internal and external security, and guarantee basic human rights for one another. In full recognition of our interdependence in securing these basic conditions of life, then, we organize and objectify our manifold interdependence or solidarity into institutions, laws, and policies, which constitute the state. The state, then, is not a thing in its own right, but simply us, the people as organized in certain objective ways.

Essential to this ontological and ethical conception of the state, which, it must be noted, is a far cry from the modern mechanistic Western theory of possessive individualism, is the idea of solidarity or interdependence that the state is meant to recognize, objectify, and concretize. As members of the state we are no longer individuals but citizens interdependent with one another in all our differences and therefore sharing a common political destiny with one another. As citizens we form a community of destiny in our political existence. In mutual solidarity and out of loyalty to a common destiny we not only claim our rights but also accept our responsibilities for one another in our mutual dependence and therefore for the community called the state, the institutionalized form of that dependence. As citizens we live the dialectic of solidarity and difference, of solidarity insofar as we are dependent on one another, of difference insofar as we are so as individuals and groups with different backgrounds and interests, and the dialectic of solidarity and difference insofar as solidarity and difference will test and challenge each other, difference challenging solidarity to broaden its scope, solidarity challenging difference to remain harmonious with solidarity. The state is the organized political form of this "solidarity of others" in all its dialectic.5

As the self-conscious organization of our solidarity with one another, then, the primary agency of the state cannot be separated from the agency of the citizens themselves, whom I would call ultimate agents. What the government can and will do as the primary agent only reflects what the citizens can and will do as ultimate agents. The government is only as good as the citizens, only as efficient as the citizens will allow it to be. It is up to the citizens, through their democratic vigilance and enlightenment, to keep the government on its toes, doing what it is supposed to do as the guardian and steward of the common good, to keep it from oppression at home and from imperialism abroad, as it is up to the citizens, through their collective laziness and ignorance, to allow the government to separate itself from the will of the people it is meant to serve and become a tool of a dominant interest exploiting the organs and resources of the common good. This is why, sorry to say, behind every oppressive regime there is always the people themselves who are passive, ignorant, generally fatalistic, and indifferent enough to breed or at least allow such a regime. Corruption of politicians reflects the culture of the people all too willing to take bribery as a way of life. A people who do not mind selling their votes to paying candidates cannot complain about campaign irregularities. A people who are themselves sectarian and regionalistic deserve a regime also sectarian and regionalistic in its policies. A people who are authoritarian and hierarchical in their thinking call for an authoritarian regime. In the final analysis, people get the kind of government they deserve. What Plato said many years ago remains true: "Constitutions cannot come out of stocks and stones; they must result from the preponderance of certain characters which draw the rest of the community in their wake" (Republic, VIII, 544). This, I am afraid, describes the prevailing situation in most Asian countries.

This is where some hard sayings are due about Asian cultures in general. In recent decades since the liberation from colonialism, Asian intellectuals, including Asian theologians, have been blaming all the ills of Asian societies on colonial legacies and neo-colonial policies. Asian theologians have been busy criticizing Western Christianity for its theological colonialism, blaming the problem of massive poverty on oppressive governments and Western exploitation, or worrying about the problem of the environment as a task for the government, or concerned over the issues of indigenization and interreligious dialogue. One thing they have in common is the failure to ask what is really the central question of all, the political question of what kinds of people and culture Asians have been, such that they have allowed political and theological colonialism, poverty of the majority, oppressive governments, pollution of the environment, and sectarian conflicts to persist.

It is the height of hypocrisy to put all the blame on colonialism and imperialism, although the evils these have perpetrated are not to be forgotten, still less condoned. Depending on the culture and kind of people they are, countries vary in their response to colonialism, from the quick, impotent surrender to foreign domination as in 19th century Korea to the timely, resourceful assimilation of Western culture and resistance to Western imperialism as in 19th century Japan to the massive non-violent resistance as in 20th century India. It is sheer hypocrisy to put the blame only on the corrupt politicians for the wrongs of a society without also blaming the long ingrained habits of thinking and doing of the people, that is, the culture itself that breeds such politicians. It is one-sided to mourn over religious conflicts flaring up in many Asian countries without blaming the very culture of sectarianism so deeply embedded in the character of the people themselves. It is likewise one-sided to blame the industries and the government for the problems of environmental pollution without also blaming the citizenry that do not mind tolerating such industries and government. Without denying the importance of all the traditional causes of Asian "backwardness," it is time for Asian theologians to put the lion’s share of the blame where it belongs, on the kinds of people and culture Asians have been, their long-ingrained habits of thought and feudal loyalties now in blatant contradiction with the increasingly interdependent realities of the (post)modern world in which they find themselves. It is imperative that Asian theologians break their silence on this matter, however painful it may be to put the blame on something so deep within us, on who we are as peoples. If we find it humiliating to hear this from non-Asians, especially Westerners, we should be realistic enough to say it first. We have to face the truth about ourselves.

Any reform of the government as the primary agent, then, calls for the reform of the people themselves as the ultimate agent. Are the citizens themselves enlightened enough on the issues and motivated enough to act on them? Do they share a sense of mutual dependence and solidarity, enlightened and strong enough to pressure their own governments to solve the problem of massive poverty and discrimination against women, repel exploitative private interests, practice justice and fairness to all groups, to move decisively on the environmental issue, resist the imperialist temptation regarding other nations, and find appropriate collective self-defense against the homogenizing, commercializing, and trivializing tendencies of globalization? The problems as agendas depend on the central problem of agency, the primary agency of the government as guardian of the common good and the ultimate agency of the citizens as the watchdog and protector of the government in its necessary legitimate functions. The problems remain only problems until and unless the ultimate and primary agents are enlightened enough to become aware of the problems as problems and motivated enough to act on them in all their urgency.

The central issue, therefore, comes down to whether the citizens are enlightened and motivated enough to act on their political responsibilities, which in turn demands a reflection on the necessary qualities of citizenship. What is a citizen as a citizen? What are the citizens to be enlightened and motivated about? We may begin here with a fundamental characteristic of citizenship from which all other characteristics or qualities of citizenship may be derived. The fundamental characteristic of citizenship is that which constitutes citizenship as citizenship in the modern world, which is the sense of mutual dependence or solidarity with one another in our very differences or "solidarity of others" in producing the basic conditions of life. From this base of solidarity we may go on to derive and discuss five essential qualities of the (post)modern citizen: sense of the public household as distinct from the private, political self-consciousness, egalitarianism, pluralist sensibility, and culture of dialogue.

The first quality of the citizen is a sense of the public household as distinct from the private. Traditional, premodern societies are closed systems of identity based on gender, class, status, origin, religion, region, etc. Modern democratic societies, on the other hand, are based on a larger, more comprehensive system of identity that contains but also transcends the traditional criteria of identity. One is increasingly a member of a democracy, a citizen, simply because one is a human being of that nation meeting a minimum legal requirement, not because one is male, rich, aristocrat, Buddhist, or a resident of a certain province. A democracy consists of citizens who are other and different in their origin and background yet interdependent enough to join together and form a common political entity. The interest or good they jointly pursue is called the public interest or common good, the powers entrusted with the pursuit of such interest is called public authorities, and the property that belongs to all is called public property. The citizen, then, is one committed and loyal to this realm of the public as opposed to the private realm. One’s sense of solidarity is concretized in the respect for the public realm, the res publica, in the readiness to keep its integrity against all private greed, and certainly in the self-discipline to resist the temptation to exploit public authorities and resources for the purpose of aggrandizing the interest of one’s own class, gender, status, religion, region, or ideology. The citizen is one committed to the integrity of the public and knows how to sharply distinguish it from the private. Such commitment is the political expression of solidarity of others. I dare say that I am not wrong in saying that most ills in Asian countries derive from the exploitation of the public powers of the state for private interest of varying kinds under the continuing influence of feudal loyalties and habits of thinking. (One must add here, however, that feudal loyalties are not the only source of the corruption of the public realm; private, capitalist greed is another, in fact, the main source of such corruption in many Western countries.)

The second quality of the citizen is political self-consciousness as the ultimate agent for the future of the community. The citizen is not a "subject" of a kingdom or a "serf" in a feudal manor but the ultimate agent responsible, in solidarity with others, for the common destiny of all and therefore willing to both educate oneself on the relevant issues facing the political community and commit oneself to the praxis that will contribute to their resolution in the common interest. Citizens are willing to learn to analyze emerging social issues from the perspective of the common good, in terms of their potential of contributing to or harming the common good, with a preferential option for the marginalized members of society who have been excluded from the common good and whose inclusion in the common good is, therefore, more urgent than the promotion of the interest of any other group. They take their voting responsibilities seriously and prepare themselves to exercise those responsibilities intelligently. As conditions permit, they are willing to participate in the various political activities of civil society. In no case do they look down on politics as unworthy. In the sense of the praxis of the common good and all that such praxis entails, politics is noble and indeed obligatory for all citizens of a democracy.

It must be admitted that Asian societies have largely failed in promoting this sense of political self-consciousness among the people. Asians are either too family-oriented to see anything relevant in the operation of the government so far away, or too hierarchically oriented to see themselves as responsible political agents, or too other-worldly to see any religious value in the secular activity of politics, or too puritanical to consider politics anything other than dirty, compromising, and demeaning, or too powerless and fatalistic to see any hope in political praxis.

The third quality of citizenship is egalitarian consciousness. The assumption of democracy is the equality of all human beings in their dignity and in their political expression "before the law." Differences in origin, gender, status, region, religion, and wealth make no difference as far as the basic rights and responsibilities of the citizen are concerned. All are equally liable to the benefits defined by law, as all are equally liable to its penalties should they violate it. Citizenship means more than "one person, one vote." It means readiness to live on equal terms with everyone else, without pleading privilege, regarding others as worthy as oneself. It means disciplining or "emptying oneself" enough to renounce all authoritarianism, patriarchy, hierarchical thinking, sense of inherited superiority, and sense of privileged status. It is not difficult to imagine what kind of challenge such renunciation poses to most Asian societies with all their burdens of classism, patriarchy, hierarchy, authoritarianism, and hereditary privilege.

The fourth quality of citizenship is pluralist sensibility. The modern state is not an assemblage of people who share a single system of identity, whether it be class, gender, status, region, religion, or lifestyle. It consists of citizens who come from different systems of identity yet try to live together in one common political space across the traditional boundaries of identity. A fundamental respect for difference and a sensibility to that difference, therefore, are compelling requirements for social justice and social peace. (Post)modern citizens have the challenging task of forging a sense of solidarity, a sense of a "we" out of this inter-action among the different, a solidarity larger than any respective system of identity will allow, a genuine "solidarity of others," which in turn imposes on every system of identity the task of transcending itself in solidarity and community in all matters concerning theres publica. It is also quite evident that this pluralist sensibility will remain quite a challenge in most Asian societies, as these are traditionally built on limited interaction among different systems of identity.

The fifth and last quality of citizenship I would like to mention is a culture of dialogue. While dictatorships, monarchies, and feudalism are predicated on the use of violence—the violence of force or the violence of imposed authority—democracies are predicated on the use of dialogue as a way of coming to an agreement. Deciding on things involving the public household through the process of discussion, debate, or argument in public space is the democratic way, the way of dialogue that hears all sides of an issue and attend only to the intrinsic merit of an idea, obviating, at least in principle, the intrusion of force, wealth, position, and other extrinsic factors, in the determination of the final decision. Dialogue requires patience with the process, pluralist sensibility to different perspectives, egalitarian consciousness, and solidarity with those who are different. Dialogue does not just happen; it must be cultivated and developed into a culture of dialogue, a way of life. Again, because Asian cultures have been authoritarian, a culture of dialogue will be both challenging and compelling.

Solidarity of Others in the Triune God

Citizenship is the political expression of our solidarity of others. There are many dimensions to this solidarity of others I have been invoking. There is, first of all, the ontological dimension in the sense that all things, including human beings, are created as mutually dependent beings in an essentially interconnected universe. Nothing can exist by itself without depending on things other than itself. A constitutive dependence on others and relation to them is an essential part of a being’s identity. A constitutive relation to one another is not accidental but essential to one’s own integrity. This constitutive mutual dependence and solidarity is as true of human beings as of things in nature. The mutual solidarity among human beings is itself part of the cosmic solidarity of all creation. Human beings are intrinsically dependent on nature for food, air, the climate, all the raw materials of human needs, the evolutionary process, sense of beauty, even symbols of God. We depend on one another for our material needs, medical care, growth in knowledge of ourselves and the world, recognition and protection of basic rights, the pursuit of transcendent meaning in the world of arts, religion, philosophy, and culture in general. We depend on one another for all the basic conditions of life and more.

There is also the historical dimension to human solidarity. Our basic ontological solidarity becomes concrete in history as it assumes not only different forms in different cultures but also increasingly complex and increasingly comprehensive forms bringing different human groups, clans, tribes, societies, nations, cultures, even continents together into common space to mutually interact and grow there. History is precisely the process whereby human interdependence grows more complex and more comprehensive, from relative isolation to greater and greater mutual dependence for more and more things, until today we can speak literally of one unified world where we do depend on one another across the oceans and continents for practically everything we need.

There is also the ethical dimension to solidarity. The process of bringing more and more people together into the circle of mutual dependence also means the increasing potential of good and evil. We are mutually dependent, but some are more dependent than others, and there is always the temptation to exploit others’ dependence on us to our advantage and gain. As Jon Sobrino aptly points out, in a world that is not only "differentiated" but also deeply "divided," "the life of some partly depends on the death of others, and vice versa" (Sobrino and Pico 1985:9-10). Our mutual dependence, therefore, raises all the ethical issues of power and justice as an essential part of all human relations. It provides the basic context of all other virtues and vices, love and hate, kindness and cruelty, generosity and greed, loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice, temperance and indulgence, prudence and stupidity. It also sets the basic condition for all group relations, war and peace, association and isolation, cooperation and competition. The essential ethical challenge is whether we are willing to recognize our mutual ontological dependence as our common human destiny and treat one another in ways that express this solidarity. The ethical perspective is that of solidarity as human beings, not just as citizens of a nation, and will remain, therefore, a constant check of narrow nationalism as well as a challenge to ever more comprehensive, more universal solidarity as human beings.

There is also the political dimension to solidarity. We ordinarily organize our mutual dependence on a geographical basis and form states and nations. Within the state we express our solidarity in laws, institutions, and policies. Citizenship is the essential political expression of human solidarity. As nations become more and more interdependent, citizenship will be under constant pressure to expand its human solidarity across national boundaries. How, for example, should Koreans treat the many foreign workers in Korea who come from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Pakistan? As the political expression of solidarity, citizenship is more than a particular political act, like going to the polls. It implies a culture of solidarity, an ethical virtue of self-control, self-giving, and self-commitment in relation to our fellow citizens, and an ideal social order that should regulate our laws and policies. Given the role of the state and its potential for both good and evil, the civic virtue of solidarity will also be the most effective contemporary way of practicing charity to one another. It is more effective to work to establish a social safety net than to mourn over an individual’s misfortune, to stop the state from going to war than to send donations to orphanages, to lobby for an effective public school than to lament the lack of skills on the part of the jobless, to prevent proliferation of chemical dumps than to take pity on those found with cancer all too many years later. There is, finally, the theological dimension to solidarity. We are not created and redeemed by God as isolated entities or as souls but as concrete totalities of soul and body, individual identity and social relations, historical destiny and transcendent hope, as totalities of all the constitutive and historical relations that express our solidarity with one another. We are created in the image of God precisely as totalities of these relationships (Moltmann 1985:215-48). We are not concretely redeemed unless these relationships are also redeemed. The great traditional Christian symbols of the "People of God," the "Body of Christ," and the "communion of saints" indicates the eschatological goals to which we are all called precisely in our mutual solidarity as human beings. The "new heaven" and "new earth" symbolize the great cosmic solidarity of all creation finally saved from death and futility and reconciled and recreated for eternal life. The "new earth" will be populated by "a great multitude...from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues" (Rev. 7:9).

At the origin and goal of this creation, redemption, and recreation of solidarity is the triune God, the primordial Solidarity of divine Others, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who create, redeem, and recreate all things in their solidarity so as to bring them into the communion of the Father and the Son in the power and movement of the Holy Spirit. Regardless of all the distinctions, conventional and natural, all human beings share equality and solidarity in their theological destiny as entities summoned into being from nothingness by the triune God with the ultimate vocation of sharing in the eternal communion of the three divine persons. And this theological destiny is our noblest possible destiny as well as our most profound identity. We may be different from one another, but in the triune God we are not strangers to one another. Theologically, we enjoy a solidarity that far transcends all our empirical differences. Our ontological, historical, ethical, and political solidarities are modes of participating in the communion of the triune God.6

This solidarity of others in the triune God is also central to the Bible. We may just mention the liberation trajectory of the Bible that highlights the notion of God as liberator, an eschatological vision of justice, equality, and cosmic peace, and God’s and Jesus’ preferential solidarity with the marginalized others of history, such as in the Exodus, Amos, Isaiah, Joel (2:28-29), Luke (1:47-55; 4:18-19), Matthew (25), Galatians (3:28), etc. We may also retrieve such central biblical notions of God as the creator of all things of which human beings are only stewards, not masters, the creation of all things and all humanity in mutual dependence and solidarity, the necessity of sharing the riches of God’s creation, the illegitimacy of any monopoly of power and wealth, and reverence for the cosmos as sacrament of divine presence.

The tradition of modern Catholic social doctrine from the Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII to the Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II to the Sollicitudo Rei Socialis of John Paul II and Economic Justice for All, the Pastoral Letter of the US Catholic Bishops is especially rich with theological reflections on human dignity, basic human rights, the common good, and the role of the government. In particular, the idea of solidarity has been a dominant motif in the social teachings of Pope John Paul II. According to the pope we live today in a world of "radical interdependence" "linked together by a common destiny, which is to be constructed together" with a growing "need for a solidarity which will take up interdependence and transfer it to the moral plane" (John Paul II, #26).14 The virtue of solidarity derives from the recognition of inter-dependence as a moral category and provides the moral antidote to the many "structures of sin" embodying the desire for profit and the thirst for power, a commitment to the common good because "we are all really responsible for all" (#38), with "the option or love of preference for the poor" (#42). Stressing that "interdependence must be transformed into solidarity, based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all," the pope proposes solidarity as the path to peace, both domestic and international, which requires that "the world’s leaders come to recognize that interdependence in itself demands the abandonment of the politics of blocs, the sacrifice of all forms of economic, military or political imperialism, and the transformation of mutual distrust intocollaboration," which he calls "precisely the act proper to solidarity" (#38-9). Based on the trinitarian model of the communion and unity of the human race, solidarity is the providentially assigned means to counteract the structures of sin in the world. It is the concretization of the "soul" of the Church’s vocation to be the "sacrament of unity" with God and among human beings (#40).

An Asian Christian theology of solidarity, however, will also turn to Asian religious and political sources for insights and motivations that will inspire us to transcend our parochialism and enter the great solidarity of the human family. It will seek to retrieve any insights from the scriptures of various Asian religions into the unity of humanity, equality of all human beings, harmony with nature, patriotism, the virtue of public service, the value of the common good, and anything that will stretch our visions and sympathies beyond our narrow tribal confines. The sources to be retrieved will be different from nation to nation as religions differ in each nation. Let me just enumerate, without discussion, several possibilities of contribution from various Asian religions.

From the Buddhist sources we may take two fundamental ideas, the idea of the Buddha-nature inherent in all human beings that confers equality on all, and the theory of co-dependent origination by virtue of which we are not isolated substances but thoroughly interdependent entities. The Confucian tradition provides the idea of the nation as a family in which all are sisters and brothers and the respect for public service and the integrity of public office required of the scholar-official. From the Chondogyo tradition of Korea we can retrieve the idea of the immanence of the divine in the human that leads to the idea of the equality of all human beings beyond conventional distinctions and the religious imperative of serving the human as the divine, the commitment to the preservation of national integrity against foreign powers through the organized power of the minjoong, and the utopian will to radical social renewal.

From Hinduism, the idea of the identity of Brahman and Atman, the universal and individual self, properly appropriated, may expand our vision to see our ultimate unity in God. The idea that the ultimate reality is undifferentiated and that differences we see are phenomenal and psychological, again properly integrated, may inspire us to relativize some of the human distinctions—such as status, power, education, wealth, etc.,—which we tend to absolutize and, by absolutizing, turn into sources of contention and struggle. Certainly these ideas served as powerful sources for Gandhi’s doctrine of the unity of all life, his praxis of non-violence, and his plea for a broad spirit of tolerance for difference. The idea that the ultimate reality is beyond all human attributes—nirguna Brahman—is quite congenial with the Christian tradition of negative theology and should together pose a permanent corrective to our especially Christian propensity to absolutize particular dogmatic formulations. The constant reminder that the world is maya, a deceptive appearance, and that human beings are in the state of avidya, a primordial ignorance, should challenge us to regard all our perceptions, judgments, and perspectives with a large dose of critical suspicion and reduce the divisiveness of dogmatism and intolerance.

In its own quiet way Daoism also presents a number of profound insights into the solidarity of all things. The many teachings emphasizing the unity of all things, human and natural, in the Dao and the immanence of Dao in all things should encourage both living in harmony and in tune with nature, with ecological simplicity, without anthropocentric hubris, without seeking to dominate nature, and living in harmony with fellow human beings, without aggressive self-assertiveness, acting without acting (wu wei), seeing in differences not absolute dichotomies but relativity and complementarity of contraries. In its own way Daoism presents many in-sights into the ontological interdependence of all things at the deepest level as well as into the sources of alienation and division between humanity and nature and between human beings themselves that can fruitfully be integrated into a distinctively Asian theology of solidarity.

This theological dimension is important not only for the sake of theology but also for the sake of the integrity of human solidarity as such. Without this transcendent theological dimension human solidarity as object of citizenship tends to end at the border of the nation of which one is a citizen. It may ignore the humanity of those with different nationalities even though we are in solidarity with them as well ontologically, historically, ethically, theologically, and now increasingly politically. By placing human solidarity in the cosmic and divine context, the most comprehensive and most profound context there can be, theology both reinforces the meaning of solidarity by endowing it with a divine meaning and challenges it to open up to other human beings in the great cosmic solidarity of all creation. Whether theology should reinforce national solidarity or challenge it to transcend itself will depend on the nation at issue. If it is a question of a small nation still struggling to find its identity out of its many feudal divisions, often against the threats of powerful nations, the stress should be on reinforcing nationalism, at least provisionally. If it is a question of an already powerful nation trying to dominate other nations, the stress should be on challenging such nationalism, which is in fact another name for imperialism.7


1. I note at the outset that I use "tribe" and "tribalism" in the metaphorical, not literal, sense of the term, as a way of referring to closed and narrow perspectives and loyalties; I certainly have no intention to denigrate either the tribal and indigenous peoples in India, North and South America, Africa, and elsewhere or the tribal theologies based on their experiences. See Longchar and Davis 1999. I do not believe that using the term in the metaphorical sense is necessarily an expression of Western colonialism, any more than is the use of "clannishness," "feudalism," "nationalism," and "ethnocentrism."

2. These statistics are taken from Time Almanac 2003 (Boston: Time, Inc., 2002), 718-719.

3. The pastoral concerns of Asian Catholicism of the last thirty years is excellently captured in the three volumes of For All the Peoples of Asia, Vol. I edited by Gaudencio Rosales and C. G. Arevalo (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992; Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian Publications, 1992); Vol. II edited by Franz-Josef Eilers (Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian Publications, 1997); Vol. III edited by Franz-Josef Eilers (Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian Publications, 2002).

4. It is remarkable that typical works of Asian theology of the last decade—such as Amaladoss 1990; Abraham 1990; Sugirtharajah 1993 and 1994; Longchar and Davis 1999; and Park 1998—are concerned with the issues of pluralism, interreligious dialogue, inculturation, retrieval of indigenous sources, and stories of suffering and resistance, but none with the compelling issue of education of the people in citizenship and civic consciousness. They concentrate on the issue of (religious) agendas and wholly neglect the (political) task of forming the agents themselves. This is also quite true of the discussions during the 1998 Special Assembly of the Catholic Synod of Bishops for Asia and the theological commentaries on them, which discuss everything from how to proclaim Jesus as the only savior in Asia to the problems of social justice to the triple dialogue with non-Christian religions, traditional cultures, and the poor and marginalized of society in an almost exhaustive listing of agendas, but discusses nothing about the problem of educating and motivating the agents themselves, whether lay Christians or citizens. See Phan 2002.

5. For this conception of the state as a community of interdependence, see Min 1989:104-10 and Dewey 1985:12-36.

6. On the theology of the "Body of Christ" and the role of the Holy Spirit in bringing about solidarity and communion, see Min 1998:239-54, and 2001:416-443. I provide a fuller discussion of a theology of solidarity in Min 2004.

7. For a theology of solidarity as the essence of citizenship in the specific context of Korea, see Min 2002:11-35.



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