The verdict of the appeal will be out this coming Friday, 7 April. Leading the charge is Kong Hee who is the founder and former senior pastor of City Harvest Church (”CHC”). FYI, the trial took more than 3 years, lasted for 142 days and went through a grueling week of appeal last September (2016) before three High Court Justices.
Now, it’s coming to an end. Thank God. Barring any further appeal to Court of Appeal concerning an important issue in law, and with the leave of the appellate Court, this will be the last lap or marathon for the prosecution, the 6 accused, and CHC.
It has been a long, exhausting and rather embarrassing ride for the Church and Christianity as a whole. And the perception on megachurch leadership and their methodology of fund raising will forever be changed in the light of the case. Whether Kong Hee and his team succeed in the appeal or not, it will never be business as usual for them and those churches who aspire to be like them.
So, before the verdict is out, I would like to share 5 lessons (or lamentations) I have learnt from this whole troubling saga.
1) I applaud the Church for sticking with their leaders, in particular, Kong Hee and his wife, Sun Ho. While Kong Hee and family are currently travelling around Asia preaching the word and praying in haunting forest and over bottled oil, his members are frantically praying for deliverance from incarceration.
At my brother-in-law's wake last October (2016), I spoke to a church member from CHC and I was touched by his unshakeable commitment to the Church. Although I could detect a hint of regret and disappointment in his tone with the ways things were done (and he admitted that it could have been carried out with more transparency), yet when asked why he stayed on, he replied that we must not forget that the Church is bigger than one or two men. Her purpose goes beyond the leader's follies or shortcomings, and it is eternal.
2) The member is right. The Church (as a human organization) is indeed bigger than a few allegedly good men. It has been around for more than two thousand years, and will be around for as long as it takes before the perfect comes. Until that time comes, the Church is work in progress and her leadership (in particular) are made up of flawed individuals no different from any secular organization.
In fact, Kong Hee himself admitted that he runs his church the way the secular companies run theirs (when he was grilled at the trial about his wife's salary).
Alas, I am tempted to say that the leaders here should have set a better example than the leadership of the world, but that's wishful thinking on my part. That's religious triumphalism, and it is no doubt the prerogative of her members to think that way. But the reality of it is far from the ideals we believers would want or like to believe. This brings me to my third lamentation.
3) The world is misconceived if they think that the Church leaders, being called to be set apart from them, should be held to a higher moral (or spiritual) standard than the rest. Here’s reality check time. You see, this may work perfectly in theory. But when it comes to the practical side of things, the human factor keeps messing things up.
And if I get a dollar for every time I hear a church or lay leader exuding arrogance, entertaining lust, nurturing envy, covering up his mistakes, shifting blame, committing murder (in the heart), striving for self recognition, skirting responsibilities, spreading toxic rumors, backstabbing others, making excuses, and denying the sacrifices that bring about genuine repentance, I would have been a multi-millionaire by now (recall this is a lamentation).
So, like a mirror, the human leadership in the Church is the reflected image of the world's. They are exposed to the same temptation, struggling with the same demons, and coveting after fame, power and wealth in the same way the world pursues after them. And the bigger the size, the harder they fall.
4) My fourth lamentation here is further soured by a biting irony. It is the irony of religious righteousness, that is, an outward manifestation of invulnerability drawn from an inward rebellion to admit one's vulnerability.
Standing before thousands, the pastor behind the pulpit is subject to the same human challenges we all have to confront. It is the challenges of authenticity and accountability.
In the case of authenticity, the pastoral "squeaky clean" image always takes precedence over his personal iniquity. And because a pastor is entrenched in a position of trust and respect, and presumed to be ahead of the moral curve, he has to carry himself as such. He can't afford to reveal that chink in the armor or that crack in his character lest he looses that burnished image his members carry with them (in the ideal form) in their hearts and minds.
In the case of accountability, my lesson here is drawn from Kong Hee's leadership ever since his indictment in 2012. Clearly, he has admitted to suppression of information, misleading his leaders, auditors and members, throwing his confidante under the bus, squandering church funds to spend exclusively and lavishly on his wife and her music career, and living in a way that is incongruent to that which is expected of an under-shepherd of souls.
Yet, he remained untouchable (beyond blame and accountability) in the eyes of his members. His many Facebook travelogues show not remorse, but a man riding high on the adulation of thousands on social media and surfing on the waves of unremitting populism. Alas, God will not be mocked.
He has neither apologized for what he had done nor shown contrition (at least to those thousands who had left feeling betrayed, disillusioned). So, my friend/member at the wake may be right when he said that the purpose of the Church goes beyond one or two men. But at most times, the direction of the Church is kept from advancing because of the actions of one or two men.
For this reason, all Church leaders, if they are prepared to take up the mantle, have to be prepared at the same time to take up the responsibility too (for when you pick up one end of the stick, you also pick up the other end too). Thus far, Kong Hee has lifted one end of the mantle to much publicity, but he has conveniently left the other end grounded in obscurity or obliquity.
5) My last lesson is about theological legitimacy. The defence argued that the prosecution shouldn't have used the yardstick of the world to judge the Church. In other words, if the building fund were meant to build up the Church as a body of Christ, then investing the building funds in Sun Ho's Crossover Project as an alternative, albeit obtuse, form of evangelism is legally, if not morally, justified.
How can the world understand what the Church can or cannot do? Didn't God choose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and the weak things of the world to shame the strong? That’s Kong Hee’s theological legitimacy in a nutshell.
The prosecution however was not prepared to accept this argument. They argued that a crime is a crime. The Penal Code applies to everyone, and one cannot hide behind religion as a defence to or justification for what is, to them, a criminal offence. A misappropriation is a misappropriation is a misappropriation. It is absurd to excuse it on the ground that it is a holy misappropriation or a divine theft.
If you think about it, this is quite ironic because the Crossover Project is about using worldly method to advance a spiritual cause, and now, when one is faced with a criminal charge, Kong Hee however claims that the same worldly method is not the right yardstick to judge a spiritual cause. Go figure.
Alas, there is so many morally questionable minefields in this pastoral leadership that you must really love the man to the extreme to be able to accept him on stage to preach the gospel without even an iota of regret or remorse for what he has done almost singlehandedly to drag the Church through the bleeding trail. If anything, this is in my view a Stockholm syndrome on a divinely-orchestrated massive scale.
But that aside, my point here is best illustrated by the tale about a frog and a scorpion as I close. We are all familiar with how that tale ends. The scorpion pleaded with the frog to allow him to ride on his back to cross the river. Initially, the frog resisted knowing full well a scorpion's nature was to sting him. But the scorpion assured the frog that he will not sting him because that would mean drowning both of them.
The frog thought it makes sense and agreed to pillion the scorpion for the crossover. Alas, midstream, the inevitable happened. The scorpion stung the frog and both of them drowned.
If the frog represents Kong-Hee-style evangelism and the scorpion represents worldly methods, then Kong Hee should have known better. He should have come to his senses when Roland Poon raised the alarm bells (and not deepen the subterfuge). He should have reviewed the Crossover project when the excesses of China Wine and Kill Bill became increasingly more disingenuous to defend or justify. And he should have known better than to spend with careless abandonment the church donations he received on his wife, her expensive overseas accommodation, her first class flights, and her exorbitant salary.
In the appeal, Justice Chan in fact "questioned whether there may have been a cheaper way to evangelise." He asked: “When you say that the church members supported the Crossover Project (Sun Ho’s secular music career), maybe I don’t have any doubt that they would have. But, of course … the means to (evangelise) can be many."
Justice Chan wondered "whether the church’s evangelistic mission could have been carried out with less extravagance. “It can be Sun Ho singing, it could be engaging at a much cheaper cost, maybe a K-pop (concert), and Kong Hee can come to the concert and then preach."" (funny, the last time I checked, Jesus did not need K-pop-like props to support his preaching. He just relied on the force of his character and the devotion of his heart to transform souls).
Indeed, one could very well secure the same evangelistic result (if not more) with less extravagance. So, while it is justifiable, even admirable, in the context of Church leadership for one to be generous when it comes to personal sacrifices, how is it justifiable in the same context for one to be generous when it comes to personal indulgences? Especially when such indulgences are showered for an allegedly evangelistic purpose on one’s matrimonial partner with the people’s money? If she is trying to buy influences before she evangelises, well, Jesus did it the other way, He evangelised first and the influence since then has never waned till this day.
But more importantly, whether the appeal succeeds or fails, Kong Hee should have realised that the extravagance of the Crossover Project and its excesses run the risk of tilting the focus from the evangelization of the masses to the elevation of one - and I am not talking about Christ.
And here, one is compelled to ask: "Where's the Crossover Project now? Where’s the millions spent to launch it off? Why not continue with the funding?" If this is the authentic work of God, the calling from on high, shouldn't Kong Hee officially persist in her expansion into the world by continuing to apply worldly method, but this time, by way of soliciting funds with full and frank disclosure without the questionable bonds – regardless of the trial and appeal? (Alas, sometimes man’s works are ordained by God, but at other times, God’s works are ordained by man. The difference here is a question of authority and authenticity).
I guess this is a case of one bitten twice shy, or in the story of the frog and the scorpion, it is a case of once stung twice hung. And herein ends my five lessons (or lamentation). Cheerz.