CONVERSION AND PUBLIC CONVERSATION IN ASIA Christian Witness in Pluralistic Society: A Reflection from the Islamization of the Indonesian Public Life

The Latest controversies over the alleged defamation of the Quran by a Chinese born-again Christian Governor of Jakarta, Mr. Basuki Tjahaya Purnama/Ahok (now jailed since 2017 for 2 years), have to do with the growing intolerance toward minority in Indonesian society. For some Christians, this sentiment have made them hesitant and cautious to manifest their roles in the public.
Some suggest that this feelings of intolerance should be coined with the latest “conservative turn” of the global and Indonesian Muslims; while other say that the root of this intolerance is so deep in the history of encounter between Islam and Christianity—it is more about the respective feeling of being threatened—, and what we see now are the fruits of those memories. Along with it, what most Christians feel and see now on the public lives of Indonesians is a more visible presence and recognition of Islam. This visible presence is also a reflection of he long-standing process of the so-called “islamization” of the public life in Indonesia. Therefore Christians (globally, yet especially among Indonesians) now need to deal with it, and must take a clear position on the way the church present herself and does her mission.
In a larger setting, this kind of “illiberal” multireligious or pluralistic society is also a global trend in Asia. The overall situation of the global South, governments are giving preference to some religions over others. This manifests through a combination of support for one or more religions, sometimes through the creation of a system of recognition for one or more religions and giving benefits for different religions, while restrictions are placed on minority religions.
In Asia, to be more specific, 18 governments have placed a common restriction on the proselytizing process. In 14 states there are restrictions on building, or repairing places of worship. This restriction was rooted on the problem of conversion, which is seen as a threat for the religious identity of the majority in the state. This threat is also understood as a political problem of the state and government itself.
And in Asia, the restriction is related especially to the presence of Christianity in that continent.
Even if the government claims itself as communist (and endorses Buddhist monks to read the works of Marx and Lenin, like in Laos), it actively discriminates the Protestant churches. Even if the states have incorporated a Western liberal democracy (like Japan and South Korea), some rights of oversight (esp. to “sects”) and special act of protection were claimed by the government.
Most Muslim states in Asia –except Indonesia- have official religions. In Afghanistan, to protect Islam, there are penal code on blasphemy and conversion from Islam. In Malaysia, conversion is nearly impossible. In Indonesia, interfaith marriage is difficult, since it is seen as path of conversion to Christianity. In Sri Lanka and Thailand, it is the duty of the State or Kings to protect and uphold Buddhism. In India, the BJP political party campaigned to “re-convert” Indian citizens believed to have been “forcibly” converted away form Hinduism.
In Fiji (here the Christian reversed the restriction to others), Christian is the preferred religion of the state. Fiji constitute that “worship and reverence of God are the source of good government and leadership”. Or, in West-Papua (Indonesia), “Evangelical Province” was proclaimed by the local Parliament as reaction to the growing “Syariah Province” in some part of Indonesia.
In sub-Saharan Africa, as the survey reported, “it appears that in the 21st century, states with Muslim majorities, for the most part, seem unable to remain neutral with regard to religion…”, while this region has received “the significant level of missionary activities (both Christian and Muslim)”.
This is mostly the social feature of pluralistic society in the global South or Asian society. In this regard we are challenged to see and understand it in a clearer outlook when we want to reveal what pluralistic society is about. Indeed it is initially about the very background and nature of Asia which is rich in culture and belief -some people say this is due to Asian syncretic mentality-, but yet in contemporary setting the feature is “illiberal”, or weak commitment to pluralism, which has to do with the growing conservatism within the society at large.
Therefore we find today a kind of unique or “double” challenges to Christian mission: what is the meaning of Christian mission in the context of Asian plural society, which is exerting an uneasy reaction toward the presence of the church (and her mission), and yet having a limited (or illiberal) understanding of plural society.

A bit of the history of Christian presence and mission in Asia (Indonesia) should be reviewed here if we want to understand and rejuvenate Christian witness in pluralistic society. The churches in Asia, Indonesia specifically, are considered by some, as an insular community, where converts seemingly enjoy their communal isolation. Of course this communal and insular character has to do with the problem of the folk-church (Volkskirche) that has lingered for sometime in our Asian Christian community. What is pressing now is not so much of this ecclesiological issue as societal one, but the church of converts poses some issues today in Asian society at large.
Yet, this is not to be lamented. Conversion has in some cases leads to a fruitful theological process. It was not a process of uprooting the local people from their primal cultural roots, which many Asian theologians have blamed as legacy of some missionaries. Those processes of conversion will in some instances help the church to converse with its neighbors. This may also mean that the community will share the Christian faith without alienating them from their daily culture. Much can be expected.
We can even continue saying that the very identity of the Indonesian (or Asian) Christian lies within the process of that conversion from ‘heathenism to Christianity’. This journey was described as such by a Dutch missionary, A. B. Kruyt in his 1925 work entitled Von Heiden tot Christen. Another contemporary historian, Gerry van Klinken, agrees that the Indonesian Christian identity is the story of conversion:

The history of Christianity in Indonesia is often studied as a history of conversion—and rightly so…It enables them to move from marginality to responsibility. Simultaneously, it confirmed their homeless, migrant status.

The life of a Christian leader witnesses to this claim: conversion brought him into the public sphere. Todung Sutan Gunung Mulia Harahap (1896-1966) enjoyed a colonial education due to the missionaries’ endorsement and support. He went to the Netherlands and joined SCM, and was there exposed to a new modern ethos: the idea of being a progressive person. He encountered Hendrik Kraemer (the Dutch ecumenical missionary) who supported him to become the future leader of Indonesia. In 1919 he returned from the Netherlands as a teacher, and in 1922 he was appointed representative member of the Batak ethnic group to the National Council (Volksraad) of the colonial state. He published a weekly magazine, Zaman Baroe (New Era), which upheld his progressive ideas.
He believed that through a colonial institution (i.e.Volksraad), a modern, independent and democratic state could be founded. He believed in the colonial debt of honour, which is why he chose to co-operate while founding a Christian Political Party (1929). He was considered as one of the young leaders of the new independent nation. He became part of the growing Indonesian bourgeois and educated class, and through this platform he, as a Christian, was publicly recognized and accepted. This is an important part of the history of Christian conversion, which is why some anthropologists have claimed that conversion can also be said to be a conversion to modernity, through which a Christian could reach a significant public position in Asia.

Christian conversion was indeed having its public dimension and effect, since it has taken place in the midst of pluralistic society like Indonesia in which modernity is embraced along with traditional values; yet, it implicated a larger context, esp. the Islamic community. The tone was then changed toward a kind of religious rivalry. The “race between Islam and Christianity” produces a lot of social tension. The islamic reaction to the missionary movement was to promote an “anti-Christianization” (a name given to an anti-conversion movement), and an organisation called the Muhammadyah eventually emerged as a direct reaction to conversion. This organization endorsed the dakwah movement (in some places, they even named this dakwah organization as Zending Muhammadyah!) to tackle about church growth.
Conversion became a bad word and religious boundaries became more rigid. This is also linked to the expansion of Christianity in Indonesia as well as in Asia at large. The church’s growth is a real challenge to the social fabric here in Indonesia/Asia (where Muslims are the majority in number).
In the course of history, however, conversion to Christianity was getting more visible, and it was also in part a consequence of the global “war against communism” (1960s). Millions of people scattered desperately, looking for shelters from violence. It was estimated that around hundreds of thousands Indonesians died in such a chaotic event. However, in many parts of Indonesia, and in relation to such tragedy, millions of people asked the church to baptize them into Christianity.
Slowly, Bible studies in houses started to make its sign. Hundreds and thousands of people started to join and reflect regularly the Biblical text. They did it with a deep sense. They experienced a personal dignity through the new community that helped them to discern and come to terms with the harsh reality, and find what authentic faith means in the midst of plural society. The church is for them “…a free space in which converts joined to declare their autonomy from the local social order without presenting it with an openly political challenge”.

In today’s plural “illiberal” society, religious communities appear to be in a frontier position, and the race to win souls are rampant in Asian/Indonesian society. As a result, this brings religions into a feeling under threat and suspicion, and they tend to protect their flock, culturally and politically.
In this very moment, the church should review and renew her mission strategy, and my take in such reality is that we should carry out our Missio Dei by unlearning the conversion-like mission for a conversational kind of our Christian presence and witness. Only through this new way of doing mission we will help our Asian/Indonesian society to be more in line with pluralism. Islamization or Christianization will then not be seen as a threat to each other-, and room will be provided for the Gospel to be heard to a more open heart and mind!
Bevans-Schroeder put in the concluding paragraph of their study in Constant in Context: Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, 2004, p. 398) like this: “Only by preaching, serving, and witnessing the reign of God in bold and humble prophetic dialogue will the missionary Church be constant in today’s context”. Bevans noted a powerful speeches at the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference which was given by Indian churchman V. S. Azariah. He spoke of “a certain aloofness, a lack of mutual understanding and openness, a great lack of frank intercourse and friendliness . . . . Too often you promise us thrones in heaven, but will not offer us chairs in your drawing rooms.”

Mission as dialogue is ultimately about ministering out of real relationships, about making friends in the light of God’s generous love. Only if our ministry of presence is exerting such visibility, will our Christian witness be fruitful in the context of Asian plurality. We will also have a credible presence in such context, showing our commitment to pluralism as basic principle of our society.
Yet, to be prophetic in our mission is to share with the world the good news of God’s future, the good news of a gracious, gentle God, which we experience boldly in Christ. It is called prophetic since it is the way the church express their authentic encounter with the truth in the Name of Christ. Such truth can only be shared through a hospitable community who is willing to extend conversation with their neighbors.


Martin Lukito Sinaga
Dr. Martin Lukito Sinaga graduated from “The South East Asia Graduate School of Theology”. He was once a research scholar at the “Missionakademie” of the Hamburg University, Germany. He is now an adjunct lecturer at the Indonesian Jakarta Theological Seminary and working as staff to the “National Agency for Enculturation of the Pancasila Ideology”. He also edited a book, A Common Word: Buddhists and Christians Engage Structural Greed (Geneva: LWF, 2012).

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