Sunday, 18 February 2018

The separation of powers in a megachurch.

After the City Harvest storm, there are surely some lessons to be learnt.

Prof Goh Yihan wrote an article recently about the separation of powers in the Straits Times.

He concluded with this reminder: "The CHC case may have highlighted the inadequacy of our CBT laws, but it also provides an important example of how the legislative and judicial powers are separate under our system. It is a demonstration of how our system, founded on separation of powers, works in practice."

That's one good lesson about how our representative democracy works.

So, that about clarifies the CHC saga. The CA ruling about 2 weeks ago had sealed the case (and the accused persons' fate) for good after a grueling seven years, and it also set right a 40-year overreaching of the law on corruption (Section 409).

But it was a decision that didn't sit well with many, including many parliamentarians. They felt that the accused persons, who were charged under a revised section, didn't reflect (or do justice to) the gravity of the offences committed.

Now, admittedly, there is a lacuna (gap) in the law, and the law minister, working together with various government bodies, will be busy bridging the gap in the months to come. 

This however left me thinking about churches as a whole, especially megachurches.

The latter is singled out because of the large amount of people's money involved and the number of lives that will be affected should pastors go rogue, or does things in bad faith.

The reality is that religion, where powers tend to concentrate at the top, is most vulnerable (and tempted) to take the (broad) road often travelled.

While there are clear lines of the separation of powers in our republic, can one say the same about churches, especially independent churches of certain size?

In its secular equivalent, Prof Goh wrote that our judiciary is not here to legislate or exercise legislative powers, that is, to make law. That is clearly the job of the legislature.

He said that there are good reasons for that.

"For one, legislation is usually wide-ranging in scope and effect, Courts, which deal only with the cases before them, may not be well equipped to carry out such wide-ranging reforms. Furthermore, whereas Parliament has the resources to consult with various stakeholders on the effect of legislation, the courts cannot do so..."

The third reason is an obvious one.

The MPs are elected into Parliament, and each represents the voice and concerns of the electorate, while the courts are appointed via the process of Parliament, and their accountability is therefore to the Parliament, where representative voices converge.

As such, there is a separation of powers between the judiciary, the legislature and the executive (that is, the cabinet at the driver's seat of government).

The main purpose is to prevent the concentration of powers on one arm of government. The theory is that powers equally distributed amongst the different arms of government keeps tyranny of one at bay.

History has taught us (though learning from it is another question altogether) that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.

The key words here are "tends to" and that tendency can be potentially destructive not so much because we allow (with eyes wide open) bad leaders to take the helm of government. But it is because of the tendency of good leaders becoming corrupt after they are elected into office by the lures of self-preservation and self-enrichment. 

And in such cases, power, when it becomes absolute, tends to become self-serving too.

This again brings me back to the megachurches.

Is there a separation of powers in the megachurches?

And is it even practical (achievable) since the popularity of some of these churches unavoidably draws their strength from charisma more than theology, personality more than doxology, and personal revelation more than time-tested methodology?

Inevitably, as CHC has shown, powers tend to concentrate at the leadership. This may just be the inescapable evolution of charisma, that is, the unfortunate corporate culmination of the cult of personality.

Honestly, is it even conceivable to think of Lakewood Church without Joel and Victoria Osteen, City Harvest Church without Kong Hee and Sun Ho, and New Creation Church without Joseph Purcell...oh, I mean, Joseph Prince (Purcell is the adviser to NCC. And yes, Prince is the face of NCC - not Purcell).

How do we even parcel out (or divide) powers from them when the reason the masses come in busload every Sunday and form queue that snakes to long distances is largely because of them? Is the concentration of power in their hands inevitable then (or a matter of time once their popularity spills over in numbers)?

While the people in a democracy can check the power of the government via the ballot boxes, who is to check the power of these megachurch pastors when they stand before thousands every Sunday to tell the masses that God has spoken to them about this and that?

For never should anyone underestimate the power of exclusive revelatory knowledge to persuade even the staunchest of hearts and the most rational of minds when mob instinct takes over, especially in the inflammatory minds of the obsequious worshippers.

Mind you, millions of dollars have been raised by the prosperity gospel (with the promising lure that we could as believers find prosperity ourselves). However, it does not seem apparent to many that the ones prospering are the preachers themselves, with private mansions, jets and a large financial reserve that lies idle under one's absolute control. Maybe, that's a theological necessity because you can't preach prosperity without yourself becoming prosperous?

How about hyper grace? 

It has itself drawn in tens of thousands of believers looking for an exclusive front-row seat with their creator. And because the doctrine calls for a heaven-already-on-earth reception where once you walk away from the altar call, you are deemed as righteous and as prosperous as God by vicarious association, you are therefore largely subscribing to a faith by agency resting upon a convenient walk towards a deluded destination. 

And then, we have the recent crossover debacle. It has essentially helped to bankroll an unimaginably excessive lifestyle all in the name of a subversive kind of evangelism known as "the cultural mandate".

The more than 600-page judgment of how criminally wrong the obsession has driven the leaders to unbelievable cover-ups and misappropriation in the name of their god would surely have convinced any rationally minded believer of the danger of the concentration of powers. But sadly, not all who hear (or see) want to believe what they hear or see.

Alas, the obsequious worshipper generally suppresses - via an act of confirmation bias - the "deliberately oxymoronic" ubiquitous hint.

These are clearly questionable theology. However, in the hands of one who embodies the cult of personality, with claims that God spoke directly to him and no one else, they can fabulously spin a spiritual yarn from a desiccated heap of heretic bones to the awe of the besotted crowd.

I guess if I end here, it would be quite a letdown. But I can't say that I have any solution for the concentration of powers in a megachurch. 

How do you even contain charisma that is set aflame by power untrammeled then?

Through a rotational system of leadership (every four years to cut off the hydra head of power?) like what the traditional/mainstream churches do? How about through a tight check-and-balance system comprising lay trustees and leaders sitting on the board like the revamped structure of CHC 2.0? (but wasn't the last board made up of lay leaders too before the usurpation by a vision took over by stealth and deception?) 

How about through the regular and impartial church audits by independent agents and consultants free from conflict of interests?

Or, through the voice of the Holy Spirit, which so many fallen leaders have ironically claimed guided and ring-fenced their powers, charisma and leadership only to find that the voice that the sheep hears is not always the voice of the Good Shepherd, but the black sheep themselves?

Alas, like the ghostly whispers in the Field of Dreams movie, which echoes hauntingly this refrain, "if you build it, they will come," so if you build it (a megachurch, that is), they will surely come.

And they will come in floodgates forming a raging kerosene river of conviction that catches a light of revelation from the pulpit with such ferocity that it can either be a force for good or a bane for destruction.  

Let me end with the sound advice of Joseph Prince in his book, Grace Revolution.

At page 112, he wrote: "So if someone comes to you and tells you that they are preaching the gospel, don't just swallow everything, hook, line and sinker."

Yet, history has shown that seldom are ideas from the pulpit, or from any rostrum for that matter, “swallowed” in carefully digested bite-size, in moderation, and with circumspection like the Berean Jews of Thessalonica would exercise (in Acts 17:11).

Most times, the gospel, whether right or wrong, sound or unsound, is taken in whole, without much reflection, especially concerning preaching about prosperity (as a promising hallmark of spirituality), grace that risks broadening the ambit of self-indulgence, and evangelism that threatens to lead to personal excesses.

I guess the fisher of man comes in all shapes and sizes and intent. And if he happens to pervert the gospel with a bait reassuring enough to a beguiled believer so as to hide the hook of self-enrichment and self-promotion, the fish will not only swallow it hook, line and sinker, but may even go further to justify that sharp pain at the side of its gills as a form of god-sent persecution in order to test one’s faith. Cheerz.

Ps: And JP - of all preachers - should know that by now.

City Harvest and the CBT gap.

There is something surely unprecedented about the news two weeks ago. 

It is like the society of ours has been pried open and every nook and cranny of it is being examined and defended. 

It comes in three, and they shall form my lessons here. 

First, it was reported that our law minister "stressed he was aware that many have expressed their dissatisfaction with the outcome of the (City Harvest) case. Netizens have said that the judges let off the rich, or that some judges were lenient because they were Christians." 

That's front page news. That's something you don't read everyday in Singapore. 

Ironically, this statement comes on the heels of the suspended sentence of the scion of Samsung and heir, Lee Jae Yong, 49. 

He was walking as a free man in the street after leaving Seoul Detention Centre. 

Lee was convicted for bribery and embezzlement and upon appeal, had his sentence halved to 2.5 years. 

The judges then shocked the nation by suspending it for 4 years. This means that if he commits any offence during the 4 years, he will be hauled back to Court to be reassessed and serve time. In the meantime, he is freed.

Standing in the frigid February air, he apologised for (as he said) "not showing my best side." 

Well, he may not have shown his best side, but the judiciary had definitely extended him their best side (or deal).

A National Assembly member Park Yong Jin from Mr Moon's party said: "It's truly disappointing. We confirmed once again that Samsung is above the law and the court."

Of course, let me set the record straight that what happened to Lee will not happen here with our judiciary. 

I do not see any parallel here because it took 150 pages of in-depth judgment written to great judicial flourish and exactitude to explain to all and sundry why the law shortfell, why no one took notice, why the gap has to be filled, and why injustice had and will continue if this is not done very soon. 

40 years of misapprehension and more than 16 cases (not counting many other unreported cases) being wrongly interpreted to the detriment of prison time served and potentially discriminate common employees and letting off to some extent the key-decision makers in companies and charities are just too much of a gap or lacuna for the society of right-thinking populace to bear. 

Second, Insight Editor Elgin Toh was reporting from Parliament and he observed that "the Government believes that the sentences are too low (for the City Harvest accused)."

It was nevertheless a quiet and calm "tai-Chi" session whereby the CA "agreed that there was no good policy reason to ignore the "heightened culpability" of directors (as compared to clerks and employees)."" 

Yet, the justices were "obliged to apply the law as they understood it." 

Bottom line: It is Parliament's problem, and it is just too bad that after 40 years, the case that woke the Courts to this peculiar oversight of Section 409 fell on no other cases (of much less ostentatiousness) than the City Harvest leaders. 

If it had been a lesser known case, not involving religion or any hint of religion, and not concerning millions of dollars where one of the accused happens to be living in a million-dollar mansion, the public outcry would have been so much less intense. 

Even Parliament added their voices of discontent when Elgin noted that "as the debate drew to a close, it was clear what was most curious about the case: Almost everyone thought the church leaders should be judged under heavier sentence limits - but they were not."

Finally, and my third lesson is an extract of a Q&A session in Parliament between MP Yee Chia Hsing and Mr Shanmugam. Here is what transpired as reported.

"MR YEE CHIA HSING (Chua Chu Kang GRC) noted that CHC founder Kong Hee's wife Ho Yeow Sun was a "key beneficiary" but had not been charged. He asked if penalties will be introduced such that the beneficiary of proceeds from a CBT case can also be charged.

Mr Shanmugam noted that a beneficiary who receives proceeds without the appropriate knowledge does not automatically become a criminal. "Supposing the person took the money and donated it to a charity, another charity. Does the recipient commit a criminal offence? I think we need to be careful," he said.""

I am a little nonplussed by the analogy that Shanmugam gave in Parliament. I know ultimately it is about a provable criminal intent with knowledge of the coverup activity. 

As such, it has little to do with that a person taking money from one charity and hands it over to another charity per se. But it has everything to do with a criminal intent and knowledge. Shanmugam was at least right on the first part. 

But the analogy misses the point of Sun Ho's central role in the entire legal fiasco that lasted for nearly a decade. 

Her husband was not just diverting building funds from CHC to give to another charity. He was practically handing millions over to fund the music career of his wife, allegedly chosen for a sacred evangelistic purpose. The conflict of interests is jarring to say the least. 

And Sun Ho was no charity, she was the brainchild of the entire misappropriation exercise that dragged the name of Christianity not only through unbeaten dark tracks involving a stretch of interpretation of what counts for evangelism and what doesn't, but she was, in the words of Justice Chan, literally synonymous with the Crossover project.

Not just a direct beneficiary, not just a founding pastor, not just his matrimonial partner, not just the original recipient of the Crossover vision, not just Crossover's frontman, not just the main and sole protagonist of those my-kids-will-turn-away-saying-shame-shame music videos, and not just the joint decider of how the funds were to be used to promote her career around the world (as her husband once paid her the highest tribute by addressing her as the "sun" in his life), Sun Ho appears to have also been kept in the loop of things as it progressed along the way before the law caught up with the accused persons. 

And this immediately reminded me of a Blackberry discussion between the leaders of CHC about a special audit in April 2010:- 

"Sun, (as in Sun Ho) one of the main reasons why I proposed the Special Audit is to buy us time to fill up the hole. We don't want all the issue to grow to the extend (sic) that the authorities step in BEFORE we fill up the hole. By appointing our auditors, it will be easier to talk and get things done. If the report turns out to be lacking in some areas, we will improve and change. They can help us. That's why to me, it is important to let the relevant authorities know that we initiate a special audit. They will at least not do anything till the report comes out. By then, the hole is filled."

So, if you separate and isolate all those factors I've listed for consideration, then one can safely say that Sun Ho was clearly keeping an arm's-length distance from the hole the accused persons were trying desperately to fill. 

But if you piece all those factors together, and scrutinise them in its proper context over the long period of criminal coverup, it boggles my mind for Sun Ho to stand unadulterated before the ordination crowd of thousands to lead CHC 2.0 in Nov 2015, and conveniently disclaim all responsibility and accountability with the resounding tagline: "It wasn't me". 

Let's set the record straight here. 

Sun Ho was not charged, and that was the Prosecutorial discretion enshrined in the legislature and I fully respect, submit and understand that.

Sun Ho was not charged, and by writing this, I am not advocating for that, at least not in this lifetime. That "Changi" ship has sailed. 

Nevertheless, the saga has costs too much, and the die has been cast last Thursday at the Apex Court. So, let's move on. 

But what I would expect at the very minimum from a leader is to take responsibility by taking up the leadership mantle, giving an account to the church (whether they want it or not), and apologising (if not for her direct part in it) for her "indirect" role because you can't spell Crossover without Sun Ho. 

Alas, maybe there is no use flogging a dead horse (pun unintended). 

I guess the hole will never be filled because not one leader at the current CHC 2.0 leadership has the moral courage to face the people, tell them what really went wrong, and then together, in one body of Christ, admit to their shortcomings, their failure, their oversight. 

Paradoxically, it is a church that is so eager to capture the market of lost souls, amass them in by the truckloads, hype them up with good music and bedazzling sermons from the most awe-inducing stage, and do charity by giving tirelessly.

However, when it comes to confronting oneself, allowing God's spirit to search their hearts for what had transpired in the Crossover, surrendering one's leadership flaws at the altar of true repentance, and holding oneself as the leader whom the people trust to the highest of accountability, there is a hole that many rather sheepishly walk on by - blissfully pretending that if you see, hear or speak no evil, the hole will fill itself up...eventually. Cheerz.