A Church witnessing faith and charity in a Muslim country

Rev. P. John M. Prior

      Islam in Indonesia

      Indonesia, with a population of some 241 million, has the largest Muslim community in the world. With a significant Christian minority of almost 9% and with over 350 distinct cultural domains, Indonesia is among the more pluralistic of societies, both religiously and culturally.

       Islam carne to Southeast Asia peacefully in the 12th century via traders and pilgrim saints who carne from Persia and South Asia rather than directly from the Arabian peninsular. Both the peaceful origin of Islam and the absorbent nature of Southeast Asian cultures have led to open, wide-ranging Muslim cultures, in particular on the island of Java. Some of the smaller Muslim societies on other islands are more rigid; however periodic attempts at Arabisation have met with little success.

       Islam and Christianity

      The ongoing dialogue over the centuries between the Islamic faith and Indonesian cultures parallels the similar dialogue that has been taking place since the 19th century between the Catholic faith and Indonesian cultures. Similarity of experience encourages dialogue in life, action and faith.

    While mainstream Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, studiously ignored Islam until the past half-century, relations were marked by neighbourly tolerance. The impact of rapid social change with the globalisation of the economy and of communications has weakened this tolerant stance.

     When the global market economy was welcomed by the local elite, which for thirty years was controlled by the Suharto military regime (1966-1 998), so social disruption, mass displacement and rapid urbanisation led to communal violence. The most common initial cause of social clashes was economic and political, yet ethnic and religious issues easily took over. During the 1990s prior to the collapse of the 30-year corrupt Suharto regime, a few hundred places of worship in Java were burnt down. These incidents were usually instigated by elements in the army. Evangelicals and Pentecostals suffered most. Unlike the mainstream Churches, these denominations proselytise aggressively. For Catholics and ecumenical Protestants, mission is not a question of proselytism but of witness.

       Two divergent tendencies

     Two cultural trends are mutating our traditionally tolerant religious culture. The first is a creeping secularist tendency driven by modernity and postmodernity, particularly among those who wield power. The second trend Is the more exclusivist ethno-religious sub-culture arising among those threatened by rapid change. These tendencies are present among both Muslims and Christians. 
       Creeping Secularism

       While Islam and Christianity maintain a public role in each sphere of Indonesian life, it is also true that religion is decreasingly present in an increasing number of sectors. Secular values such as competition, social standing and consumerism are making inroads. The urban elite find that they can fully function in a modem environment without reference to God. Religion is relegated to cultural expression.

       Brittle Boundaries

       Meanwhile, those battered, and thus threatened, by rapid social change, the vulnerable poor and the marginalised who feel unable to build up solidarity across religious and cultural boundaries, these tend to pull up the drawbridge and batten down the hatchers. This leads to a ghetto mentality, where religion is reduced to ritual and community identity, and when provoked, leads to militancy and violence.

       As a minority, Indonesian Christians have little possibility of pressuring either the government or the wider society. Those Christians who feel threatened by the majority tend to retreat into our churches, into warm charismatic, insular communities, and so reduced to a socially irrelevant ghetto.

       Witnessing Faith and Charity

       Our response to both the practical agnostic sub-culture among the elite and the exclusivist ethno-religious sub-cultures of the vulnerable is similar, namely to nurture within family networks (base communities) and inter-faith networks (human rights NGOs etc.) and also in our parishes and dioceses, a culture of dialogue, a witnessing to Christ in the daily dialogue of life, action and faith.

       Our witness to charity and faith flow into each other forming but a single whole. Our faith motivates, directs and informs our life commitment: compassionate justice inspires prayer, Liturgy is imbued with life. We witness always and everywhere in dialogue.

       Witnessing Charity

       The dialogue of life and action is witnessed first and foremost in the family. With some success our families form a contrast culture of transparent honesty in the face of systemic corruption, a culture of forgiveness where retaliation is the norm, and a culture of quiet courage where fear and suspicion have been sown. This witness can be costly, depriving the honest of advancement in their careers, on occasion severely limiting the family income which impacts upon the education of children. In this constant, persevering witness to charity in the face of enormous social pressure we encounter the face of Christ. Only a living faith can sustain such long term fidelity. Base communities and evangelical movements are a vital support.

      Inter-faith networks are integral to this witnessing, for the dialogue of faith and charity belong together. When we work with Muslims, both communities opening up to issues of social justice, forgiveness, goodness, honesty and compassion, we witness to the Jesus of the Gospels.

       Consequently actively witnessing to charity while working for social justice is our answer to both the secularising cultural trend of the urban elite and the encapsulating cultural trend of the poor.

       Witnessing Faith

      The quiet courage and transparent honesty of Christians in a society invaded by the consumerist values of the rapacious, inevitably leads others to ask: how Is this constancy possible and why do our Christians not simply “go with the flow”? Such questions open up an opportunity to speak of Christ and be heard. Perhaps this is the most important occasion for articulating our faith, that is, when we know each other, work together and trust each other sufficiently to probe the faith of the other.

        Two Mass Islamic Movements

       In the past the Muslim majority carne face to face with Christ through cultural osmosis, through simply living as good neighbours. Many Javanese Catholics from the villages and among the urban lower middle-class feel closer culturally to Muslims of the traditionalist and village-based Nadlatul Ulama (NU) movement (which is over 50 million strong!) than with Catholics from among the elite or with many Protestant Christians. A common cultural heritage and a common struggle for compassionate justice bring us together. As religion has become politicised, so this no longer works automatically. Today we have consciously and systematically to intensify communication with Muslims at all levels of society and together create a culture of compassionate justice, inspired by each of our living faith traditions. Bringing out what is most noble in the Islamic and Christian traditions is often called “mutual conversion”.

       Aside from Nadlatul Ulama, the other large mainstream movement in Indonesian Islam is the modernist, more scripturalistic Muhammadiah (with a mere 20 million members!). Muhammadiah has a nationwide network of educational institutions from kindergarten to university. While Muhammadiah has a reputation among some of being more hard-line than Nadlatul Ulama, in fact an ongoing dialogue between its leaders and Catholìc intellectuals has long been taking place. The two largest Muslim State Universities (UIN) in Jakarta and Yogyakarta are ecumenical in character. More hard-line Muslims are found in the secular universities rather than in the more open-minded Muslim State universities.

       We have a small, but strong Catholic intellectual community which has been and remains very influential in all spheres of the media, in academic circles, in literature and the arts. To my mind this is the heart of inculturation, where gospel values cross-fertilise with contemporary mainstream culture way beyond the narrow confines of our minority ecclesial community.

        A Fundamental Stance

       In witnessing faith and charity in a Muslim society, Indonesians do not use terms like “reciprocity”. “Reciprocity” derives from the language of diplomatic and trade negotiations. “Reciprocity” is not a gospel value, for human dignity and identity are not negotiable. We witness transparently and unashamedly to human dignity in the light of our biblical faith. The greater the social pressure and harassment, the more we are able to witness to the power of the cross. The greater the pressure we have to bear, the greater the need for Muslims to see that we do not count the cost, that the Gospel demands all that we have, all that we are. In words borrowed from Wilfred Owen, “with truths that lie too deep for taint ... (we) pour our spirit without stint.”

        By way of conclusion

       Our answer to both practical agnosticism and fanatical ethno-religious movements is not proselytism which only exacerbates social tension, but authentic witness in faith and charity in order that Muslims see Christ’s love and justice, goodness and beauty in our persons and within our communities.