Influencers of Spiritual Formation (5)
Being Christian in an Islam dominant country
The relationship of Christianity to Islam as the dominant religion in society is an important influencers on how the spiritual formation of Christians in that country develops. This is a unique situation in Malaysia which the West will not have experienced before. How do Christians in Malaysia relate and exist in a society that has no Christian or even post-Christian heritage?
Post-independent Malaysia accepted Islam as the official religion while the Constitution guarantees religious freedom for those who are non-Muslim. In recent years however, there are attempts to “Islamise” the education system, restrict religious activities of all religions other than Islam, limiting the availability of land for other religions to build places of worship and to bury their dead, and the attempt to impose Syariah laws on non-Muslim. Christians are specially targeted in apostasy laws in which it is illegal to try to convert a Muslim. Ng Kam Weng, director of Kairos Research Centre in Malaysia, appeals, “It is timely to be reminded that our founding fathers came together in a spirit of social contract which resulted in religious liberty being enshrined into the Constitution.” (Ng 1998, 82).
Only a small group of Christians are acting visibly to defend their right to religious freedom under Article 11 of the Malaysian Constitution. These concerned Christians tend to negotiate with the government for their religious freedom under umbrella church organisations or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). No churches in Malaysia are directly involved in any negotiation with the government or any official religious department. Though the government has been promising religious tolerance and every-one's right to choose their religions as given under the country’s Constitution, overzealous religious officials at the ground levels are practicing the opposite.
How does the Malaysian Presbyterian churches respond to this? Again by withdrawing into a religious ghettos with minimal interactions with Muslims. Only when the government encroach on their religious rights do they protest and fight for them. Otherwise they remain within their religious circles. They have no Muslims friends, only Christian ones. What developed is a much individualised spirituality within the confines of the communities of faith.
In an unpublished paper, I wrote,
“There is no church involvement with the surrounding communities. The church is wary of government and the Islamisation efforts of the government in schools. Members are also wary of materialist influences from an affluence lifestyle. They feel marginalised in the economic and educational opportunities in the country. There is no political involvement. Life is often fragmented between workplace and church… The reason for this withdrawal from society may be fear of involvement and drawing attention to themselves in a society that is hostile to Christianity. It may also due to the Malaysia Presbyterian tradition. Roxborough wrote, “the focus for many congregations is essentially that of their own life.... denominational expressions of ‘social concerns’ are limited.” (Roxborogh 1992, 102)
Sang Kancil, (Malay word for) the mousedeer is a small defenseless animal in a jungle full of predators. It survives by blending into the background, remaining motionless and hoping that the predators will leave it alone. It makes no attempt to change its surroundings. This is the theology that has evolved over the years as the [this particular] church seeks to true to its calling and be relevant in its socio-political-economic climate. There was no conscious effort to create this (Sang Kancil) theology.”(Tang 1999)
The response of the Malaysian Christians has been either to barricade themselves into religious ghettos, live in a state of denial assuming that everything is well, or to migrate to other countries. Essentially they choose to live in a culture of fear, where their Christian formative experiences exclude a God who calls them and will protect them.
Roxborogh, J. (1992). The Presbyterian Church. Christianity in Malaysia: A Denominational History. K. H. L. Robert Hunt, John Roxborogh. Kuala Lumpur, Pelanduk Publishers (M) Sdn Bhd: 75-106.
Tang, A. (1999). Sang Kancil Theology: The Search for a Contextualised Theology in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, Malaysia Bible Seminari.