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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Part 1 - Church and Religious Conflict: Some Experiences of Theological Reflection during Years of Riots in Maluku


Conflict is not a new experience within inter-religious relationship in our world. Throughout the history of humanity we have seen and experienced how religions play a vital role, explicitly or implicitly, in many international conflicts in various parts of the world. Such conflict often emerges from a particular interpretation of holy texts: people claim that the texts are revealed by God and, thus, unquestionably contain authoritative truth. Some religions explicitly legitimize their existence by referring to a ‘revelation’. As Van de Beek wrote,

‘If a religion confesses that God is known by revelation, then such a religion is to a high extent open for contesting … if God reveals Himself, then He posits Himself into your life. Faith is not based on a reasonable conclusion, but is related to the Person, who calls on you.’[2]

It probably triggers and increases the rage that occurs from conflict and combines with other factors such as politics, economic situations, cultural identity, and territorial boundaries.

The twenty-first century has brought new challenges to humankind. The attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, are a horrible tragedy.[3] In my point of view, ‘horrible’ not only because American or global citizens were killed or because it destroyed the symbols of the Superpower’s military and economic power, but precisely because the United States was facing unknown enemies. Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism in Europe and the Soviet Union, the US has presented itself as the sole superpower in the world. No rival countries could equal it. So who are our enemies? The USA needed an enemy; so they created a war target and determined that the target was terrorism worldwide. It is not surprising if figures such as Osama bin Ladin – a prior partner in Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union – become portraits of terrorism’s designers and leaders.[4] Bin Ladin’s belief in Islam permeated the whole of his existence. When he changed enemies (from the Soviet Union to the US), it is not surprising that his hostility gained an Islamic focus. Ontologically it is impossible to separate someone from their religious beliefs. Religious values and patterns construct one’s life and the resulting perspectives are deep rooted in his/her existence.[5] People are encouraged to surrender their whole life to their faith without questioning their decision. In dealing with the most ultimate concerns, religion provides the most basic meaning of human life. It may even be the predominant decision making factor in choosing one’s actions. I think this applies to the USA as well.

In response, Indonesia held an ambiguous position and there was a collective anxiety within the country.[6] Most people argued that a ‘holy war between Islam and Christianity began. For Muslims (in particular) the USA is a symbol of satanic power whose passion is to subdue or destroy Islam. Indonesian Christians demonstrated various responses and, ironically, tended not to speak about the situation. Of course, this minor concern for such a horrendous problem caused the Christians to appear as though they were implicitly supporting the stigmatization of Islam as a religion to be identified with terrorism.

However we knew from other events that religion can shift from a belief system into an ideology where religion is used as a dreadful weapon to strike hard at and to destroy others. Now I invite you to turn the focus to Maluku archipelago in Eastern Indonesia. They are small islands that have been changed over (at least) the last four years. They have become killing fields and this happened before 9-11 by people who called themselves Muslim and Christian.

Muslim-Christian Bloodbath: An Overview from Christian Perspective

It is impossible to describe the conflict in Maluku, either politically or sociologically, in this paper. I am convinced that you have the commonsense and critical scrutiny for the further disposition of this.[7] The conflict that has persisted for approximately four years scored a black note in our nation’s history of religion and widely broke down the construction of civil society in Indonesia. We lost the ideology to build a common life in the nation state.[8] To better understand the impact of this violence is not to merely count the number of victims but also to discern how deeply the children and youth were psychologically scarred in both the Muslim and Christian communities.[9] They have recorded each moment and have hidden a ‘time bomb’ in their minds and souls that will remain for a very long time. Further, they internalized that to be religious is not any different that to be a ‘faith gangster’ in terms of encountering other believers. I predict that, in the future, the time bombs are going to powerfully blow up in the form of civil violence that will become a daily occurrence in society. If we ignore this now, we may find that it will be characteristic of our society later.

So far, I believe that the churches in Maluku have performed their particular theological tasks by preaching the bible and offering Christian education. But challenges and limits still occur, mainly in contextualization of the Bible’s kerygma in the particular cultural context of indigenous people in Maluku.[10] Historically, long periods of colonialism in Maluku’s archipelago showed that colonial policies, including Christian missions, eliminated cultural patterns or the customary laws that were based on native worldviews and arranged socio-cosmic interrelationships. The colonializer replaced these standing patterns and laws with the values that were strange to the indigenous people and did not allow the native people to either approve or deny the new values. With this colonialization there has been a combining manifold of values. Particularly, ‘violence values’ from both cultures have combined and dominated our theological mindset. Colonialism and Christianity paired and provided superiority, triumphalistic values that exploited our natural sources. Local culture formed a tribal mentality and diminished other communities through opposition based on tradition. For those of us who grew up in it, this theology legitimized our actions of underestimating or terminating others who were not in our in-group. As Dieter Bartels, an anthropologist who titled his paper, ‘Your God is No Longer Mine,’[11] says that it is true that Maluku’s people have been alienating each other and are segregated by various interests. I suppose this includes religion’s incompetence in reconstructing a theological perspective within a pluralistic society such as Indonesia. Christians hold a view that as Christians we are really different from the others who have decided not to be a Christian (in spite of the fact that we are culturally descended from the same ancestors). Thus we think we are more civilized than other ‘pagans’ because we adopted Christian-Western values. Our brothers and sisters who have other religions are considered secondary to us and appear inferior.

[continue to part 2]

[1] This article was published in Dirk van Keulen and Martien E. Brinkman (eds.), Christian Faith and Violence 1. Studies in Reformed Theology. Uitgeverij Meinema – Zoetermeer 2005.

[2] A. van de Beek, ‘Living Theology. Core Themes of Systematic Theology’, Paper presented in Persetia Summer Course, 2003, Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia.

[3] See L.H. Subianto, ‘Indonesia and the Issue of Terrorism. In Quest of a Better Understanding’ in: Kultur. The Indonesian Journal for Muslim Cultures 2/1 (2002), 115.

[4] See J.L. Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the name of Islam, Oxford, 2002. Esposito widely explores some of the roots of the emergence of fanatic, anti-American spirit.

[5] For advanced discussion about the meaning of religion, see D.L. Pals, Seven Theories of Religion, New York, 1996; W. Matthews, World Religions, Minneapolis, 1995.

[6] See L.H. Subianto, ‘Indonesia and the Issue of Terrorism. In Quest of a Better Understanding’ in: Kultur. The Indonesian Journal for Muslim Cultures 2/1 (2002), 114.

[7] There are prominent books that represented several perspectives from different angles. Most of them in the Indonesian edition show how Indonesian people view these conflicts. For instance, N. Mahmada, et al., Luka Maluku. Militer Terlibat [The Hurt of Maluku. Military Involvements], Jakarta 2000; J. Nanere (ed.), Halmahera Berdarah [The Bloody Halmahera], Ambon 2000; I. Kleden and J. Jularnan (eds.), Perspektif Integrasi Baru. Timur dan Barat di Indonesia [New Perspective of Integration: East and West in Indonesia], Jakarta 2000; T. Kampschulte, Situasi HAM di Indonesia. Kebebasan Beragama dan Aksi Kekerasan [Human Rights Situation in Indonesia. Religious Freedom and Violence Act], Aachen 2000.

[8] For more a historical and theological analysis, see John Titaley, ‘The Pancasila of Indonesia. A Lost Ideal?’ in: E.A.J.G. Van der Borght, D. van Keulen and M.E. Brinkman (eds.), Faith and Ethnicity. Vol. 1, Zoetermeer 2002, 37-102.

[9] Culturally in the case of Central Maluku, its society is divided into two opposed clan groups: Patasiwa (group of 9) and Patalima (group of 5). In later times these groups have been affiliating with two religions (Patalima-Islam and Patasiwa-Christian).

[10] At the time, contextualization was an estrangement terminology in theological discourses despite what the missionaries had done through their missionary journeys in some of the regions of Indonesia.

[11] D. Bartels, ‘Your God is No Longer Mine. Moslem-Christian Fratricide in the Central Moluccas (Indonesia) after a Half-Millenium of Tolerant Coexistence and Ethnic Unity’ in: www.maluku.org.

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One Earth, Many Faces

One Earth, Many Faces