Living in the Plural Context of Today by Limantina Sihaloho
Living in the Plural Context of Today
I was born in a Batak family 31 years ago in Urung Panei, Simalungun regency in North Sumatra. My father is from the Batak Toba clan and my mother from the Batak Simalungun clan. Both of them are Christians, Lutherans, although people in my village do not really know what Lutheran is. The majority of them know that they are Christians. They are Protestants and not Catholic. Since my parents are Christians, I was immediately baptised in my village church, “Gereja Kristen Protestan Simalungun”, when I was less than one year old.
During my childhood, none of my friends was Muslim. All were Christians, both Protestant (Lutheran) and Catholic. When I was in the first year of my high school I made friends with Muslim students, a Javanese girl and a Batak boy. During the class of Religion, Christians and Muslims were separated into different classes. None of us ever questioned why we had to be separated during the Religion class. I knew nothing about Islam except that they fasted during Ramadan. There was a mosque near my high school but I never went to that mosque and never thought of doing so. During my University years I moved into a house, where 12 female students, 10 Muslims and 2 Christians lived. It was a nice small community. We never discussed religion. I never wanted to do so and I think, they felt the same. During the Idul Fitri season, I wished them “Happy Idul Fitri!” During Christmas, I remember, some of them wished me “Merry Christmas”. Regularly, on a special day all of us would go to our landlord to say, “Happy Idul Fitri”. As a Christian, it was a special thing for me to find that those Muslim friends, who were my neighbours, always invited and included me. Looking back to the five years of my study I wished my lecturers who taught us Islam would have made us go and visit and talk with Muslims instead of just spending all of the semesters sitting inside the class.
The encounter of students from different organizations/movements (mainly Protestant, Catholic and Muslim) was quite intensive in the years before Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) was elected the fourth president of Indonesia. Students from any religious background came along together to fight against injustices. Students had the same concern and struggle, fighting the authoritarian and totalitarian regime of Soeharto, who had been in power for more than 30 years by 1998, building his extended-family empire around the country, monopolizing the economy, colonizing and controlling the mind of the civilians, killing any potential protester.
Students were able to set up a non-profit organization, Lintas Sara in 1999 to counter the interreligious conflicts and to promote the idea of dialogue especially among the young people.
Students set up a base-camp in front of Abdurrahman Wahid’s house at South Jakarta on December 1998. Abdurrahman Wahid had his Open House and we managed to participate. We asked his permission for we wanted to have our tent in front of his house. Gus Dur agreed. While having our base-camp in front of Abdurrahman Wahid’s house, we were also visiting many national leaders for audiences, sharing experiences and hopes for the near future of Indonesia amid the crisis and critical situation of the country. Many groups of students around the country were doing similar things.
During my study at Universitas Sanata Dharma I was also a member of a community named Komunitas Tikar Pandan, a community of young adults from different religious backgrounds in Yogyakarta. The majority of the members were those who were bored with the rigidity of her/his religious group. No wonder. We were and are the generation born during Soeharto’s totalitarian regime. For years, the Christian establishment or its Muslim equivalent or any other for that matter had to somehow cooperate with the regime. Not many people dared to say that Soeharto’s regime was a totalitarian regime during his time in power. It is only now that people can breathe and express what they feel they need to express.
We were young people protesting against the rigidity of our religious communities and Tikar Pandan became a community without too many regulations. There was a breath of fresh air. We had our regular meeting every Saturday night at Jl. Kuwera 14 in Yogyakarta. We shared our experiences and discovered together how religions are related to everything in life: economy, politics, gender, culture, language, identity, history, environment, etc. At the same time, we were enriching each other by sharing our personal stories, experiences and perspectives. Many in our group were talented musicians and their repertoire was Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian songs. We sang songs from Taizé promoting love, peace, inclusivism and tolerance.
More and more people got to know Tikar Pandan community. We were often invited to attend various meetings to share what we had been doing as the Tikar Pandan community. We formed a choir, which was often invited to sing at various events at the local, national and international level in Yogyakarta.
As a Christian who was born and grew up in a homogeneous Batak-Christian community in Batak Land, I did not have any negative direct encounter with Muslims. My meetings as a student with Muslims taught me more about Muslims. World events have made us understand that Muslims and Christians all through history have lived through many ups and downs. History has left us with a difficult and wounded relationship. The very relationship of today between Muslims and Christians is intrinsically related to the past and the scars in our hearts from generation to generation are quite deep and painful.
Neither Christians nor Muslims have enough knowledge about the other; Christians in general do not know what Islam really is and Muslims in general do not know what Christianity really is. We are all fed with the wrong food for our minds regarding other religions. Whether Muslims or Christians, we have somehow consumed the wrong food for our mind.
What can we do? I honestly can say and many of us do know that Muslim-Christian relations today are difficult to deal with. It would be fatal if we do not do our best to involve ourselves. The West needs to acknowledge the fall out of the era of colonialism in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Christianity brought by Europeans during the centuries of colonialism has been seen as a colonial religion, particularly in a country where Christians are in minority, such as in Indonesia. In Indonesia Christianity has been seen as a colonial component. Whom should we blame? Have Indonesian Christians not tried their best to communicate themselves to their Muslim neighbours? After all Christians were also participating in the fight against the colonial regime. Protestantism was the religion of the colonialists and our Muslim neighbours felt that Indonesian Christians were connected directly with the colonialists, sharing the same religion. Churches in Indonesia were supported financially by churches in the West in building schools, hospitals, etc. Even today, our Muslim neighbours continue unfortunately to wear the same lenses when looking at us Indonesian Christians, a group of people supported by the West. At the same time, Indonesian Christians have been programming far too few encounters with their neighbours, in particular the Muslims. We need to seek ways to heal the scars. We have to acknowledge that there is hatred. And that it has been there for a long time.
In some homogenous ethnic communities in Indonesia, we have been lucky that we are linked together by our culture (adat), long before the arrival of colonialism. Local culture still plays an important role in binding people together irrespective of their religious background. This is what I found among the Batak people. Batak culture (adat-Batak) is still something that keeps us together. Batak Christians know very well that they have to prepare special halal food for Batak Muslims. Since Batak Christians generally can eat all kinds of meat, they do not have a problem being guests of their Batak Muslim relatives. Europeans brought Christianity to Indonesia during the colonial time. Today Christians really need to do their own theology in the context of Indonesia and not in the context of a long gone Europe, as if we were still living two or three centuries ago. It is easy to say, but it is difficult to practice. In the blood of our theological heart some specific and dogmatic values have been socialized, from generation to generation, which makes most of our Christian thinking and acting a stranger amidst the plural context of today.
We really have to be more culturally and religiously sensitive in today’s plural world. One of the many things I get to learn from what has been happening in Aceh after the tsunami has to do with the sensitivity of Western people. You cannot act in Aceh, where the majority of its population is Muslim as if you were still in Europe or America. As one Batak saying goes, sidapot solup do naro: those who come into any (foreign) place have to adjust themselves into the local culture/adat. Newcomers have to learn and listen in order to be able to understand.
As visiting-scholar in Chicago I experienced how Christians and Muslims lived in a good relationship. In Littlefield Presbyterian Church, Muslims feel comfortable to join some specific services set up in a way that both Muslims and Christians feel included in the service. Muslims respect Jesus as one of God’s prophets. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is respected by Muslims. These are meeting-points for Christians and Muslims. The imam and pastor are key people in this encountering process. When I was there I asked myself, “Is it possible to have something like this in Indonesian churches? To have Muslims and Christians, pastor and imam at a Sunday service together?” I would love this kind of encounter. I am sure God is not going to get mad if we dare to put this into practice. I think God is happy and smiles. When I sing a Muslim religious song in Tikar Pandan community for example, or when I enter a mosque and participate in their Friday saalat (prayer), I do not think God is angry with me.
Every religion is connected directly with God. This understanding doesn’t diminish my Christianity and my faith to God through Jesus Christ. What I would like to see is that everyone practices her/his religion with love, justice, balance and peace.
Limantina Sihaloho graduated from Sanata Dharma University, Yogyakarta. She was a fellow at the Interfaith Service House, Council of the Parliament of World Religions, Chicago, U.S.A. She is now a lecturer at Abdi Sabda Theological Seminary, Medan, Indonesia.