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Church survival and complicity

broken glass
Gurdwara Sahib Sentul was stoned and had a glass
door damaged (Stock pic source: morguefile.com)

THIS is not another commentary on “Allah” and its usage, nor is it about the attacks against churches, a Catholic school and a Sikh gurdwara after the issue spiralled out of control. It is instead about the private dilemma the Malaysian Church faces in publicly responding to the government’s act of stripping non-Muslims, especially Christians, of their rights.

Calling for calm, praying for the nation and retaliating with forgiveness are all “givens” in a Christian response. And these must continue. But is the Malaysian Church’s instinct for survival getting in the way of holding government leaders accountable?

After all, the Church is dealing with a government that gives RM500,000 as compensation to a fire-gutted church but at the same time disregards minority rights by infringing on religious freedom. This same government also applies double-standards in allowing demonstrations without a permit. The government’s duplicity continues when it first urges Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians to drop the word “Allah“, and tells state Islamic councils to appeal the High Court’s ruling on The Herald, but then calls for inter-faith dialogue.

As if to paper over these inconsistencies, another arm of government is apparently despatched to do damage control. One of the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s most senior members, race-based MCA, comes to the rescue by offering the use of its party headquarters to the burnt church.

Within this political context then, isn’t Metro Tabernacle Church’s acceptance of the government funds and the use of Wisma MCA discomfiting?

Difficult reality


Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (public domain / Wiki commons)
This commentary is not meant to single out Metro Tabernacle or to criticise it. Nor is this meant to tell the church what it should or should not have done. The incident merely provides a timely platform to assess the Malaysian churches’ situation as a minority group that has a spiritual mandate to stand against injustice.

The reality is undoubtedly difficult. Could Metro Tabernacle, or any other church in a similar situation, have turned down the compensation money? After all, providing funds for houses of worship of all faiths is part of the government’s duty. Especially since all Malaysians — Muslims and non-Muslims — pay taxes, allocations should be fairly made for all places of worship, not just favouring one faith over another.

Metro Tabernacle lay leader and spokesperson Peter Yeow told The Nut Graph the church welcomed assistance from any quarter, including politicians across the spectrum. As to using MCA’s hall, it was a logical and practical solution to the emergency, he added.

“We have a large congregation and this involves parking and other logistics. We were in the process of renting another hall and other churches had also offered us their premises but we would be inconveniencing them. So we accepted when MCA made the offer as their hall was immediately available,” Yeow said in a phone interview.

On Sunday, 10 Jan 2010, when the church held its first worship service at MCA after the arson attack, senior pastor Rev Ong Sek Leang took pains to stress that the church was apolitical. Attending the service were politicians from both sides of the divide. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon was the highest-ranking Barisan Nasional leader. There were also lower-ranking leaders from the MCA and the DAP present.

Demanding accountability

Being apolitical, however, is not the same as not participating in changing political culture. And the BN government must be given a clear message, and not just once every five years, that its system of communal politics must end. It cannot do one thing to appease one ethnic or religious group at the expense of other groups, and then conduct damage control by utilising its race-based parties.


A clear sign of the government’s sincerity?

The government’s move to placate Christians as a reaction to the arson attacks must be seen for what it is — communal politics employed with the usual divide-and-conquer strategy. It would be nice to think that the compensation and offer of a BN party’s premises to Metro Tabernacle are acts of kindness — a “sign of the government’s sincerity”, to quote Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

But should we be so naïve when it comes to any political party, no matter whether they are from the BN or from Pakatan Rakyat? After all, every single political party in Malaysia is already preparing for the next general election.

Furthermore, piecemeal assistance like this is a knee-jerk reaction and a public relations diversion from what should have been the government’s priorities in the first place. Firstly, ensuring safety to targeted groups instead of telling churches to hire their own security guards; secondly and to go back even further, allowing genuine inter-faith dialogue based on historical facts about the use of “Allah”. Instead, the government unilaterally gazetted the 1986 ban on this and three other words for non-Muslims, and then played both sides with Muslims and Christians.

Non-violent resistance


The Malaysian church has long preferred to not drag issues
out into the open
The Malaysian Church has long preferred its dealings with the government to be private because of its minority position in a Muslim-majority country. Appeals on the Christian community’s behalf have always been conveyed behind closed doors rather than having issues dragged out into the open. From the leaders’ perspective, it is a matter of survival.

By preferring secret negotiations, might the Church have had an unwitting role in perpetuating communal politics and its inherent injustices, including on the Christian community?

For as much as Church leaders call on congregations to pray for the nation’s leaders, they must also hold politicians publicly accountable. Clearer messages apart from the ballot box must be sent if communal politics is to stop. Private talks may ensure temporary survival but do not dismantle an unjust system, this is what The Herald’s suit in open court over “Allah” has exposed.

How should the Church make its stand? Jesus wasn’t specific on the details, but he definitely didn’t mean passive submission when he said Christians should “turn the other cheek“. Rather, he consistently resisted and defied the undemocratic and unjust Jewish religious order of his day. The Church must not lose sight of what that teaching really means not just today, but every day. favicon


Deborah Loh is a pastor’s kid.

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21 Responses to “Church survival and complicity”

  1. Joel says:

    Interesting perspective you’ve shown me, Deborah. I’ve certainly not thought of the current issues in this way. And I agree with what you’re saying, that for a one-off end to this struggle, confrontation and standing our ground is needed. Which brings us to the next question, are we ready to do that? Who will make the first stand? Bearing in mind it will most likely attract resistance (hopefully not violent) like Jesus did in His time.

  2. I think, Deborah, that your usage of the word ‘Church’ needs to bear in mind that there is a massive difference between the Protestant understanding and the Catholic understanding, as well as the Syrian Orthodox understanding (who are a minority, but present and long-established in this country).

    Your article initially didn’t make sense to me because I’m not a Protestant.

  3. faith04 says:

    Persecution by rulers is nothing new to Church, People of God.

    History has shown that Church, under the guidance of The Holy Spirit, continues to grow upon bloodshed of Christian martyrs. They could suppress the Church, killed the Christians, but they can’t destroy Christ because he is the Son of God, King of Kings & is seated at the right hand of The Father.

  4. Matthew says:

    Hi,

    Just early this month also about the same time as the happenings, my friends and i were rallying emails over the issue of prayers and action – [trying to find a balance] which tipped over towards prayer. Your article simply reminds me of one of my friends who’s got the same spirit as yours; very inspiring and to many – including myself, ambitiously challenging.

    I can’t help but notice the nick by which you address yourself – “a pastor’s kid” – so i was also wondering, are you in contact with other pastor’s kids around and mustered their opinions too?

  5. ab rahim ibrahim says:

    Dear Deborah,
    The only thing I can say is ‘Birds of The Same Feather Flock Together’. There is no clear definition of fair and just. Interpretations depend on which side you are on. Every human [being] will safeguard their own interest, be it individuals, race or religion. Honestly, I, being a Malay Muslim, view your comment as being one sided, and you can’t blame me for this, and I am pretty sure you will not agree with my comment here. So, where will the case end? We have to learn and be contented with what we have unless your right is totally (100%) being taken away from you. Have a nice day.

  6. Jason Kay says:

    Dear Deborah,

    A most spirited way to wake Malaysian Christians from their slumber. But allow me to throw this little article into the mix: “What happened to the 12 disciples of Jesus?” found at http://www.ichthus.info/Disciples/intro.html

    Jason Kay
    who started attending Sunday School at 8

  7. dr death says:

    Is your cartoon implying that the government is hypocritical? What do you expect the government to do? NOT offer any compensation? If the government does not offer any compensation, I would believe even more that the government is biased. The government did the right thing in offering compensation.

  8. Xavier Gomez says:

    Valid insights and reflections Deborah. In a recent incident, a senior reporter and his assistant from a major Islam magazine entered a Catholic church to spy on its congregation. They partook of the holy communion, spit it out and photos published in their magazine. When such attacks are brought to the authorities, a vociferous attempt is made to convey that such actions are condemned and the perpetrators will be dealt under the law.

    To date, no specific action has been taken on both these individuals, a scenario applicable with all of the earlier attacks. In light of this, I do not have much confidence in the current pronouncements made by Umno leaders and the government. If the lesson from other countries is to be a gauge, such attacks are often a test by attackers as to how far they can go against Christians or others they target. And case studies also show that they escalate when a firm stand from victims against atrocities are absent.

    There seems to be a leap among some to be in an apologetic mood (as if having churches burnt is something they should blame themselves or something else). But does not the Bible call us to be truthful, to seek God with all our heart and not to condone evil or to make excuses for it? In John’s gospel there is a pivotal question Jesus asks Annas: “But if I spoke the truth why did you strike me?”(John 18:23b).

    Jesus’ response to the false testimonies and the religious and political powerbrokers was not forgiveness. In the four accounts recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we see the encounter between fabricated lies and the truth. The centrality of the issue is often that the church is called to face falsehood, fabrication and malice against it and ask, “Why did you strike me?” The issue of forgiveness does not invalidate personal or corporate responsibility. It does not sanction premeditated bloodlust or malice against God or his people. Are these merely isolated incidents by a few extremists as we hear from those in authority, or are these a well-conceived plot engineered in high place and driven by malice?

    The temptation to arbitrarily spiritualise such premeditated acts in the name of forgiveness may actually impose greater peril on the church. That, in current circumstances, is like collecting compliments for foxes that devour children. May the church exercise wisdom by not evaluating its enemies from a purely centripetal perspective, but from one that takes into consideration the historic background, socio-political motivation, and the source and links to where it comes from.

    The only reason for the church to become victims again is for it to assume that its enemies are on the same page as they are. I am of the view that Metro Tabernacle was too quick to accept the money from the government. Accepting money from foxes in the name of goodwill can be likened to feeding them. The church needs to take a stand and be unapologetically the church. This is no time to pander to “turnspeak” from a goverment that speaks one way with Muslims and indirectly instigates them, while placating non-Muslims for their own political and religious benefit. Christians should not validate such deception in the name of love or forgiveness.

  9. kamal says:

    I can sort of understand your argument Deborah, but I have to say I disagree with what it implies. I agree there is much that the government, in pushing for the exclusivity of the word Allah, needs to address. After all, it is a government for all, but I think we need more information on the perpetrators to actually lay blame anywhere. Taking money and assistance from the government is not hypocrisy or “giving in” on either part. The government may have advocated a position that marginalised a segment of the population, but that doesn’t mean it encourages violence. Similarly, those who protested should have a right to register their interests, and because violence occurred, we should not be quick to assume they are correlated. We are, after all, in a democracy, and not everyone is going to agree with everyone else. But we should all agree that violence is undemocratic.

    In a situation like this, people who feel the government has not adequately represented their interests have several means at their disposal. Casting their vote in the next election is one. Another has been all the prayers offered in churches across the country. And another, like what you and a lot of other people have done, is to write, to make clear our dissatisfaction.

    These actions are all powerful mediums (never underestimate the power of prayer when it comes to politics) and in a democracy we have power … You are right, we don’t have to wait every five years, but while we sort out local elections, the only way I see to address the injustice has clearly been taken. There has been solidarity, not along religious or ethnic lines but along like minded citizens who see injustice and double talk. Again, I don’t think the Christians per se are the only ones to feel offended, it should be said all right-minded Malaysians should feel offended. An attack on any Malaysian is an injustice to all.

    Let’s not help in turning this into what it is not. But asking for Christian voices to be a strong lobby voice is simply in my opinion falling into the trap of ‘special rights’ groups brought together by an exclusive identity. That is the tune Umno plays to and Muslims form the majority. I disagree with these sorts of politics because it doesn’t address common themes. And it does not serve the interests of the rest of us. We should all instead try to work to get support against splintering into interest groups based on exclusivity and promote inclusive interests – such as freedom of worship, rights to free worship in a safe and secure environment, etc. The attack against churches is an attack against freedom to practice religion.

    Similarly while protests against a temple being relocated into a neighbourhood reflects poorly on the people there, and registering ones views through protests itself is a democratic right, I feel the manner in which it was done was a transgression against common interests. I am not sure of the outcome, but if the temple was not relocated to where it was supposed to go, I feel this is sending out the wrong message. The state government should see the larger picture. Plus the use of any animal, particularly one that is sacred to another faith, to me is an affront to the freedom of religion we have. Some might even say that using the cow head in the way that it was done was symbolic violence. And Muslims like any other religious groups that experience religious discrimination understand the pain and effects belittling one’s faith can have on the faithful. It is about time that we realise these are our common themes.

  10. Framk Tang says:

    My sister-in-law told me her church is somewhere along the Federal Highway in Petaling Jaya. I drove to this particular place and after driving around the area for about an hour I admit I could not find the church. It is rather embarrassing as I have been staying around the area for more than 20 years.
    Later when I told her of my failure to locate her church, she personally took me to her church which is the spot I have been rounding for an hour. The reason I could find this church is that this church do not have a cross. I have expected all churches to have a cross. I have observed that most of the churches are operating in shoplots. I wonder why ?

  11. People, I don’t think Deborah is talking about the Church being persecuted ala St. Peter upside-down. I think she is talking about whether Christians in general should be more vocal and outspoken against unjust governance in general, not only when it benefits us as a group or if there are short term goals to be won.

    Putting aside the theologically and historically flawed statements about Jesus being a political rebel and the strongly Protestant understanding of the word ‘Church’, it’s a very sensible and practical call. You can’t expect to dodge through loopholes in the system forever.

    Anyone who has been in the administrative side of running a Church knows a lot about the legal issues in this country. Most churches avoid confronting unjust government practices, and simply try to work around them. This doesn’t change anything because the unjust government practice is still there. Take for example, the 50 words banned in Malacca. Is it oppressive and stupid? Yes. Did any denomination oppose it when it was set in place? Assuming they heard about it — no. Most Church leaders, I imagine, simply crossed their fingers and hoped no one would implement it.

    The thing is, Deborah tried to argue this by appealing to spirituality and theology. This is wrong, and probably why she is getting very spiritual, theological responses in return. The issue is practical, and very relevant when you start being involved or witness how a church is organized and run. As a church, you don’t want to topple governments. That’s really, really, not your job. However, you do spend your time worrying about laws cooked up and implemented by the government. In most cases, the common response is to keep quiet and work around it.

    Even if this grants survival, it facilitates systematic oppression. Sometimes it gets back and hits you ala Allah, sometimes it doesn’t.

    The bigger question at hand is not so much whether Christians are doing enough to fight systematic oppression — obviously, by some responses here, some people are quite desiring of a dramatic, St. Peter-style exit! — but whether all Malaysians, regardless of race or religion, are able to recognize systematic oppression and address them. The seeming complicity of churches, who represent a small percentage of (very often) middle class society, is not the problem, it’s the symptom of a problem.

  12. SC says:

    Kudos! Very timely article indeed, Deborah. You hit the nail on the head. The Christian community has been battling with fears within and without. It is time we get involved, we cannot hide behind the 4 walls anymore if we want to be salt and light, to carry out the mandate given to us. In the midst of recent attacks, one church I knew is asking for her members to search within (which is good in itself), but like what you said, where is the call to address the injustice and call for accountablity? Jesus, in my humble opinion is definitely political, but non-partisan. Should not His followers follow suit?

  13. Ng Kok Kee says:

    Thank you. I am sure your dad and mum is very proud of you. I am alerting my friends and colleagues to your essay.

  14. Richard says:

    Dear Deborah, I think you have made a very good point, and agree with you, and it is always important that the church stands for justice, and not merely self-protection.

    Ab. rahim: Of course this is one-sided because it is from one point of view. But what is important is that both sides must begin to understand the point of view of the other side.
    When Muslim authorities try to ban certain words from being used by non-Muslims, be they Christians or others, they are actually interfering in how others conduct their worship. However, they have no authority over non-Muslims’ religious practice!

  15. JC says:

    Well written, well said, I support you! Deborah for PM! :D

  16. Chong says:

    Dear Deborah,

    Good piece as usual. However, I would like to point out that one of the main problems why churches (and not Church) in Malaysia find it difficult to participate in the political process as an institution is that it is divided along denominational lines and completed by regional differences between Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak.

    Further, the community’s apolitical stance has its roots in history which goes back to the colonial era where churches have refrained from entering the political fray for obvious reasons.

    In addition, one must remember the 13 May 1969 incident, which made the community retreat further from political participation (but not as individuals).

    However, I would like to point out that in the run-up to the last G.E. and after, individual Christians have taken the initiative to participate in the political process.

    Participation as a community would require time to happen because of the community itself is not monolithic but diverse.

  17. Alan Tan says:

    Churches are not allowed to have free-standing crosses here. Courtesy of our government; again, a precaution against misleading Muslims into the fold. Also, churches tend to abound in industrial and commercial lots because they are not granted permission to build.

    I agree with the writer. One has to fight this. It is simply not right. Granting Christians their right to worship and identity is not going to hurt Muslims. Otherwise, all religious houses would have been denied the right to flags, symbols, idols, et al. If the Malaysian Muslim can be so easily misled in his or her faith, then perhaps he/she is doomed to extinction.

  18. pete says:

    You earthlings can write all you want, but it remains that the Christian God is alive and watching what is happening to His people. Rest assured He will protect His flock and bring much judgement on those who hurt them.

  19. dominik says:

    For the Shah Alam Catholic church, it took them more than 10 years to finally get a site to build their church on. Then there were conditions before it was allowed to be built, [such as having to be built] in an industrial area. They were not even allowed to have a CROSS outside the building. Why? Isn’t this another way of suppressing Christianity in Malaysia? Do you mean having the cross outside the building will convince the non-Christians to become Christians? Isn’t it very shallow thinking? In the good old days, churches, temples and mosques were built near one another and there were no complaints. Why now? I feel certain people have been brainwashed …

    Also a note to the Muslims: Christianity is not a Western religion. Jesus Christ was a Jew from the region of the Arab countries.

  20. Ellese A says:

    I wish we have more people like this writer. We should incite hatred and instigate people to rile more often so that we have a peaceful nation. We should not emphatise, and everyone should push their own agenda to the max. Heck with other peoples’ feelings and sensitivities. Let’s create racial and religious strife. Come, let’s follow the writer. Urge and instigate people to create instability.

  21. I apologize for the overtly Christian nature of this comment, and TNG does not need to publicize this comment, but my last approved comment had edits that changed the meaning of what I said. I also apologize if the confusion was caused by my not mentioning my denomination. I’m actually a former Protestant studying to become Eastern Orthodox. Since it is such a small denomination in Malaysia, it didn’t make sense for me to talk about it.

    There is a theological difference when Christians use the big ‘C’ Church and the small ‘c’ church. When Protestants use ‘Church’, they mean the same thing as the Islamic term ‘ummah’ (the universal body of believers). When Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox use ‘Church’, they refer to the institution, particularly the institution of priesthood. The only Protestant denomination that uses the term ‘Church’ in the same way that the Catholics and Orthodox use are the Anglicans. Everywhere else, whenever it is capitalized, it simply denotes a ‘kata nama khas’ (eg. United Church of Canada, Council of Churches Malaysia), but not the theological concept.

    There are many reasons for this, but the main reason for this lies in the importance of a ritual found authentically only in the Catholic, Orthodox, and arguably the Anglican denomination: the selection of the lineage of priests, a ritual that Catholics and Orthodox believe goes back to first circle of disciples. Catholics and Orthodox believe that not only does the institution of priesthood serve as successors to the disciples, they also have the correct methods of interpreting Scripture, which is based on historical consensus (tradition). Therefore leadership belongs to the priesthood. Protestants generally do not believe in the priesthood system and believe in Sola Scriptura (by the holy books alone), and thus do not believe that tradition is a source of teaching.

    So, you can go to church (a building or a community), but whether you see yourself as part of the Church depends on your theological stripes. In my last comment, there were times when I did not capitalize the ‘churches’ but they were capitalized by the editor. I was referring specifically to leaders of Christian congregations or communities, regardless of denomination.

    By capitalizing the ‘C’ in places where I did not, the meaning of my sentence changed. From a Protestant perspective, it made no sense, and from a Catholic perspective, it made it seem as if I was criticizing the leadership of the Catholic Church in Malaysia. I meant neither. As someone converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, I cannot agree with Deborah’s interpretation of Jesus’s role as a political rebel, or that the Church has a ‘spiritual mandate against injustice’ in the way she speaks of. However, I do believe that it is important for individuals, regardless of belief system, to understand and to recognize unfair practices in governance.

    So sorry about all this fussiness! I like TNG’s comment policies, I just felt that this edit changed my intended meaning. Thank you very much for continuing to publish diverse views from all backgrounds, regardless of race, sexuality, religion, or level of sanity.


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