Christians and Malaysia


The London based weekly journal The Economist has called the recent victory of the ruling party in Malaysia “a tawdry victory”. There is no doubt that the elections were not completely free and fair. After 50 years in power, the Barisan Nasional has engineered a strong gerrymander. There were serious allegations of vote-buying and irregularities like the permanent ink used to mark the fingers of those who have voted being easily washed off.

 

In addition Government policies favour ethnic Malays and, in Borneo, other indigenous groups.  People of Chinese and Indian origin are not so favoured. A strong whiff of racism pervades politics in Malaysia.

 

The disquiet of Malaysian Christians goes beyond the immediate problems of the election. They are concerned for example about non-Muslims being banned from using the word “Allah” to describe God. This controversy has been alive since at least 2007 when Christians were banned from using “Allah” in any publication, including the Bible. Catholic Christians took the Government to court, but failed to overturn the ban.

 

A fatwa issued in 2010 confirmed the ban and in January this year the Sultan of the State of Selangor strengthened it with threats of legal action against anyone who defied it or spoke out against it. Prime Minister Najid Abdul Razak supported the Sultan saying that their viewpoint protects harmony in a country with many religions.

 

Christians and Hindus in Malaysia argue that the word “Allah” does not belong just to Muslims. It is the normal Arab word for God, and Arab-speaking Christians in the Middle East have been using it probably for 1900 years. “Allah” entered Bahasa (the language spoken by Indonesians and Malays) more recently with both Christians and Muslims using it freely – until the last few years.

 

This ban, in a country with a secular constitution, obviously discriminates against non-Muslims, but it also restricts Christians in theological discussion about God.

 

Muslims appeal to Christians to use only the word “Tuhan” (which means “Master” or “Lord”) when speaking of God.

 

Bible translators, for example, are faced with two different words for God in the Old Testament: “Elohim” and “YHWH” (The Lord). In the New Testament “kyrios” and “theos” both refer to God. To be consistent in Malay Bibles, translators need two words to distinguish “God” and “Lord”.

 

The Malaysian Christians I know are not anti-Muslim, but they are worried by the way that this and other religious issues are used as a wedge between Muslims and Christians. They want rather to foster dialogue between the two faith communities.

 

Because of possible legal consequences, Christians in Malaysia are restrained in discussing these issues openly. Praise God that in Australia we have no such restriction. We can help our sisters and brothers by praying, and by expressing our opinions when we have the opportunity. If you know Malaysian Christians, you could tell them of your support and solidarity. They will value it.

 

Keeping alive the rumour of God


One of the few vestiges of “Establishment” in the Anglican Church of Australia is the authority of clergy to act as Commissioners for Declarations. [This authority is unlikely to be withdrawn as it is one of the requirements of Marriage Celebrants.] Several times a year fellow residents of our retirement village ask me to witness their signatures on legal documents. I am glad to oblige. I have even had a stamp made to save me from having to write by hand “The Reverend Edward Peter Witham, Registered Minister of Religion W-ZZZZ.

As a CD, my responsibility is to witness that people have correctly signed their documents. For that I need to know the form of the document – will, passport photo, statutory declaration, bank business, etc. – but not the content. However, most people when they come to sign want to share the background to the document. For my part, I assure them of confidentiality.

So people in the Village do know now that I am a priest – or at least, a handy person for witnessing their signature!

However, when we moved into this village five years ago, we decided we would downplay our faith. We had heard an anecdote about one of the village owners who apparently declared that a public area in the Village Centre would be ideal “for Bible Study or the like”. This remark evoked a strong reaction, almost outrage, among some people.

We thought that if there are people outraged by the thought of Bible study, being public Christians in the village could be counter-productive.

We have discovered the other church-goers in the Village, and we encourage one another in conversation and with cards at Easter and Christmas. We continue all our practice of Christianity outside the Village, both in church attendance and in our involvement in the Franciscan Third Order.

But I treat the Village as though it were a country where wearing distinctive religious garb is banned. I have only once worn my dog-collar in the Village or twice, if you count my performance as the Vicar in the murder mystery one year! I rarely advertise church events within the Village, and if I do, I do it discreetly.

Our stance of being so coy about our faith has been challenged. Once a colleague at church loaned us a DVD of a Passion Play performed in the gardens of Government House. We watched it in our house. When we returned the DVD to our friend, he asked why we had not had a public showing of it in the Village cinema. That was his idea of evangelism. I tried to explain that it might be seen, in our Village, not as an invitation to the Gospel but as an intrusion.

Inspired by Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, we just try to keep alive the idea of God in our village. The challenge in that is to evangelise simply by presence requires great holiness. If I am not steeped in prayer, and if my lifestyle lacks integrity and sacrifice, then keeping my Christianity quiet in our relatively benign environment may just be an excuse not to talk about Jesus Christ at all.

I am encouraged that people ask me to witness them signing legal documents, and in doing so, to witness something of their trials and difficulties, but, as Lent begins, I am conscious that I have to use my praying and my decisions to be more transparent to God and the Gospel. Brother Charles de Foucauld has set a very high standard!

Christians need more than tolerance


The Government intends to make no changes to the exemptions for religious organisations in employing people. Today the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace boasted that the Prime Minister told him that she will not change these exemptions. Hardly something to boast about: the idea that the churches have a right to discriminate is arrogant and disappointing.

Secular views on tolerance may seem closer to a genuine Christian position. Jeff Sparrow assumes that the exemption is essentially against homosexuals in religious schools and hospitals. This commentator notes, “What message does this legislative loophole send, other than that discrimination against gays and lesbians doesn’t matter as much as other forms of bigotry? It’s a statement that homophobia is still OK; that gays and lesbians can still be bullied and harassed, in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated in respect of anyone else.” (Jeff Sparrow, “Religious Freedom Beats Your Rights at Work”, http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4467310.html?WT.svl=theDrum, 16 January 2013.)

Many Christians have more sympathy for this than for Mr Wallace’s position. But for Christians it is essentially an empty position; a position which is nothing more than opposition to the ACL and groups like it.

I believe that churches should aspire to a higher standard than the community’s. Jesus included the unacceptable, the unclean and the immoral: the women who had had five relationships, the Roman centurion (and his ambiguously described ‘lad’), tax collectors and prostitutes. We should actively embrace many more people than a typical corporation.  Mr Wallace believes some people should be excluded. I cannot defend that view. But Mr Sparrow’s view that no-one should be excluded comes nowhere near the Gospel paradigm that everyone should be included.

St Francis embraces the leper

That there should be no discrimination is a secular standard, the best we can agree on in a diverse society. But the Church seeking to include every last person requires much more moral effort, and indeed, demands that we be receptive to much more of God’s grace.

We Christians should welcome any move to remove the exemptions for religious organisations. The church should be pleased in this case to submit to secular virtue.

Whether or not the law changes, Christian employers should choose to act according to higher standards and be as inclusive as possible. Of course, the specifics of each employment decision do not simply flow automatically from the principle of maximum inclusion; Christian employers must still wrestle with CVs and references to match the best person for each job. But I believe maximum inclusion is closer to the Gospel, and will be seen in our complex society as closer to the Gospel. We Christians are not merely tolerant, as the Government claims to be; we follow the Lord who is “loving unto every man and woman”. (Psalm 145:9)

Life After


Life after

I stand heart-still on bush-edge trail.
My height nothing next to bunched boughs
of sage green gums.  The great wedge-tail
eagle soars: all before it stoops, bows.

The eye zooms: the bird has stalled:
gravity forgot; upheld by thermal.
All potential at rest, just the air mauled
by fierce talons; wings held formal.

Then, straight down from pin-head highs
the eagle drops, wings tucked, a grey stone-streak.
The lizard struck and killed, in cold eye’s

wink.  Wings wide as Passion Week.
For all of us in God’s surprise
are taken alive in Christ’s dear beak.

The Parable


THE PARABLE

 

How sad the sower —
the thrower
of seed.
In bonding for ever
in life
is his need.
Yet the task
the Father asks
is to throw
Far from his heart
to death to part,
and perchance not grow.
It’s utter folly
to risk losing love
and throw life away.
Yet the melancholy
Jewish raconteur
enjoins you and me
to lose all,
and in the losing
not to know
if the prize is yours.

Ted Witham

 

 

 

Christ’s truth


The truth about Christ

 

They wanted a Christ to blaze out the Romans,
a warrior, a men amongst men, a giant.
A Christ to right all wrongs, to fight all omens,
To end all nightmares, ultimately defiant.

 

They wanted a Christ who was nice to people,
a yes-man, a crowd-pleaser, indiscriminately tolerant.
A Christ to suit the moment, a respectable sample,
To grace society, selectively competent.

 

They wanted a Christ who hated their foes,
on our side, a party man, with the vision of a tunnel.
A Christ to back our bias, who our way goes,
To be our justification, an upside-down funnel.

 

Jesus lives with an all-blazing love,
a heart saturated with God and endless understanding.
A cruel cross joining below with above,
To be our other side, our way to God’s landing.

 

© Ted Witham, 1998