Scribbling in the Sand: Notes on Malaysian Theology (1)

The year is 2011, and it’s quickly coming to an end.  John Roxborogh contributed some notes on Malaysian Theology, Asian Theology and Malaysian History way back in 1989. A lot of what he has written then is still relevant today. I will merely scribble some thoughts based on John’s ‘outsider’ (yet with ‘insider’ sensitivity) promptings.

I’ll limit myself to enter into dialogue with the two tasks John highlights and suggestions for the agenda for Malaysian theology today. Again I must remind the reader, I’m scribbling here for ordinary folk not academics!

First, we start with the two tasks of doing theology in Malaysia:

Task One: What items should be on the theological agenda because of the historical experience of Malaysia?  ie How does the context affect the content?

As of 2011 and in the light of so much that we have experienced in Malaysia especially since the 8 March 2008 12th General Elections, we simply need to confront the political head on. There’s no escaping this. Chris has already thrown in his  Notes on doing political theology in Malaysia.  We’re basically all on the same page.

This means we cannot shy away from reflecting theologically what kind of government is needed in our nation.  Caution here, I am not talking about a ‘Christian’ government, I’m simply talking about what kind of ‘government’ we Christians as citizens of Malaysia can support warts and all. Sure, there won’t be perfection, but it’s best we keep some ideals loud and clear.  Aim high . . . as much as possible?

Two issues come to mind.  One is ‘good governance’ (not ‘perfect’ governance).  Based on a simple quick comparison between some of the states currently governed by different coalitions right now we only have BN and PR, how are the states governed? Even in their imperfections, how are conflicts resolved?  How are citizens involved in the process? Where do the ‘civil servants’ fit in the equation? 

What is ‘good governance’? Well, here’s one decription by the UNESCAP with 8 characteristics:

It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.

A nice diagram to add icing to the cake we call want to eat.

These might be a little abstract at first sight.  Perhaps, I can try to contextualize it in the form of some questions:

Let’s pick three, on consensus oriented, accountability, responsive:

One thing we could do is to compare the general assemblies of UMNO and PAS as a point of entry.  How do the component parties work out the above three areas in the respective coalitions at all levels?

Now to think theologically, one could go back to perhaps a book like Daniel in the Old Testament, and draw inspiration on how Daniel and his friends played their parts in not just the history of the exiled Jews, but consider their wider contribution to the Babylonion ‘government’. This will take us a little further than Daniel and the lion’s den!

We will also need to reflect on what does it mean to be a ‘political’ subject, or a softer term will be ‘citizen’ of Malaysia.  If we’re somehow like Paul in the New Testament, a Roman citizen who appeals to the rule of law, and inverts the rulers on earth to submit to the Ruler above, there’s some pretty fruitful sources to draw from for reflection.  it’s not just quoting Romans 13 to silence any dissenting voice.  It’s seriously asking what does it mean to be a Christian AND a citizen of Malaysia?

Next, as part of the civil society, we as Christians individually, and as a church need to also look into how our faith informs and resources not just living together as neighbors, but also working together as partners for the common good, or better how we can collectively work for justice.

We must applaud and appreciate the good work of social relief that’s been traditionally the strength of the church in Malaysia.  But unfortunately, it won’t take a rocket scientist to somehow detect that doing care and relief work isn’t enough, especially when there are serious hindrances at a systemic level. And, while a ‘good government’ is a great help, ‘civil society’ as a corporate prophetic voice is needed, and in this we are not alone. 

Even in the midst of so much struggle Christians face due to pressures in the name of Islam, from the 3A controversies: Apostasy, ‘Allah’ and Alkitab. I’d appeal all of us to invite our fellow Muslim friends to draw from a truly ‘prophetic’ tradition where justice is the heart of the matter.  This is a theme Christians in Malaysia will do well to meditate on, live out and practice.

So for starters, I’d suggest theological reflection on the political and the civil is now high on the agenda. I have distinguished it from each other, even though both the political and civil are interrelated in a close bond.

We don’t do this because we are jumping on a bandwagon, and are infecting with too much Facebook activity. We pause, and ask deep down, what is also most valuable as Christians in Malaysia, and it’s likely we will also affirm it’s what we are made to be created in the image of God.  So, if what in society is a shattering of the divine image in pieces, it’s time for us to take notice and do something about it.  And that includes ‘doing theology’  too!

Task Two: What should be different about the form or presentation of theological statements when they are being expressed in Malaysia? ie How does the context affect not just the content but the form?

As an early adopter of the internet medium and new media, it’s natural for me to advocate what now has become the staple diet of any Malaysian who’s connected through a computer online.  But, even then it’s important for us not to get overexcited by technology and forget there are also a wide variety of forms besides tweeting, sharing links, maximizing the use of Facebook, and the good old blogging.

Recent more ‘embodied’ practices of ‘occupying’ space is one that not just a fad from the west. Before the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ craze now dominating the USA news (though slightly overtaken by Republican presidential candidate news), we only need to go back pre-2008.  Remember the lawyers walk for Justice at Putrajaya, the two BERSIH events, the scattered candle-light vigils. I’d like to argue that besides the ‘flood of words’ in cyberspace, it’s the flood of warm bodies who stand for a common cause that on one hand forms our own theological thinking, and on the other is our theologies in visible form. 

It’s shown first with our presence, but also with through the common experiences we share with others whether in the park or on the streets.  The question is more than whether some of these acts of protest will change the powers that be in the long run, it’s more of how it will change us, and the social-political imaginaries of those who witness these ‘embodied’ forms of expression.

But less we’re tempted to only focus on the news grabbing stuff, I’d want to encourage us that there are more ordinary places we can express our theological statements, such as “Give us this day our daily bread”, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”, etc. It’s as simple as showing up at the Parent teacher association (PTA) for our kids.  It’s helping a neighbour draft a legitimate complaint to a government department. It’s ‘conscientizing’ students we teach or people we meet at various levels.

Back to the internet and new media, I think there’s perhaps some scattered ‘theologizing’ through the blogs, and maybe twitter or Facebook.  But these are often in spurts.  We’ll need to work on something more sustainable. Some good old fashioned books will be nice🙂 A song or two fellow artists. There’s lots of talent with Multimedia out there too.

Lots of work ahead in different shapes and forms. The Malaysian sky is indeed the limit.

Posted on December 6, 2011, in Bible, Christianity, Islam, Malaysia, Media, Politics, Religion, Society, Theology. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Good one. On a slightly off-tangent note, does good governance apply to church governance too e.g. participatory, concensus oriented, inclusive, etc?

  2. how will you suggest that more sustainable theologizing be conducted?

    • Thanks Alex for asking the question. I think a lot has been done in the past at one level or another. e.g. Publications via books by individuals or compilations, and a Journal by the Malaysian Theological School Association. Of course, the process towards using ‘print’ goes back to as old as Gutenburg🙂

      While, we still need to do the above, perhaps we can complement it in the following manner to suite different goals and yet fit within the overall purpose of in your words ‘sustainable theologizing’.

      For starters, we here at FIC, “we” meaning a small handful of us trying to keep this blog going🙂 are happy to offer this platform for ‘critically reflective’ (short of academic) contributions from a Malaysian perspective. From a Malaysian perspective doesn’t necessarily mean one must be based in Malaysia (as I am currently not), but one that takes into account the conditions, the values, the struggles, the themes and the agenda that arises from the Malaysian experience and ongoing public discourse. A possible model we could adapt is http://theotherjournal.com/churchandpomo/ or heading towards http://irdialogue.org/

      For a more advanced and rigorous level, I think it’s best initiated by either those who are senior scholars or theological institutions. This will be more in the academic tradition of a peer-reviewed journal by fellow peers in the field of Malaysian Theology, but we do it online, and then publish on paper, the other way round. The model closest to it I can see now is http://postcolonialnetworks.com/

      At a more grass-root level, where things are closest to the ground, we can affirm significant contributions either via sermons, liturgies, songs, or statements, and so on. This could be done through this blog as well, but there may be other better avenues for a wider readership.

      So, in a more organized way we can approach it in these three ‘projects’, academic-peer-reviewed, middle level critical reflective, and a more popular on the ground level. Each requiring a different approach and expectation on the contributors, and yet with the over all purpose towards a ‘sustainable theologizing’ community to emerge.

      Now, there are some important areas to consider as well.
      1. Language – While I think the easiest to start based on our immediate contacts are English, I do think Bahasa Malaysia needs to be high on the priority for the projects mentioned above. Then there’s also Chinese and Tamil as two other key languages used in our churches. There are others in the Chinese speaking community I’m aware that would and perhaps are probably already working out something along what we are talking about but less from a ‘Malaysian’ perspective, but more from a Sino-theology perspective.
      2. Inter-confessional (some might want to use ‘ecumenical’ perspective) – I think we simply cannot ignore the Roman Catholic contribution especially in the light of the fact that together we only make up 10 % of the Malaysian population. But also, two high profile cases that have been shaping the Malaysian imagination is the Lina Joy Case, and the ‘Allah’ Controversy. The cases no doubt have had implications for the whole Christian community and I’d argue the whole nation, but the fact is that the Herald and the RC Church played an important role in these cases. Furthermore, others like Jojo Fung and Edmund Chia both have reflected on indigenous theology and dialogue.
      3. Standing on the shoulders of giants – Of course, I’m well aware of the many who have already worked on clearing a path for a vibrant theologizing environment in Malaysia, and I would suggest to reinvite them to reflect on ‘doing theology’ in Malaysia after March 8, 2008 as one possible theme. It would be clearly within the frame I have suggested in this post, i.e. doing theology that arises from and speaks to the political and the civil.

      More can be said, I’ll stick with 3 points. NO poem as I’m no poet. ROFL

  1. Pingback: Scribbling in the Sand: Notes on Malaysian Theology (2) « Friends in Conversation

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