I am a Malaysian. I live in a religiously pluralistic society. To give round figures on the current religious constituency of the country, approximately 60 percent of the population of Malaysia are Muslims, 20 percent are Buddhists, nine percent are Christians, six percent are Hindus and another two percent are Taoists plus a few more other groups. In the recent 14th General Election, religious and ethnic affinities were set aside for the common good of clean and fair elections. When one newly elected minister was asked how he felt to be chosen into a major position of the government as a Chinese, he replied he was Malaysian first! Plurality was laid aside for loyalty to country and to vote in accordance to conscience for a new government.
The election results were both surprising and expected. The ruling party not getting the majority vote was not heard of. That was a surprise and perhaps a shock to some. The coalition has been in power since independence from Britain in 1957. It was predictable at the same time, because the outrage of many citizens of Malaysia, regardless of race or religion, was fueled after the exposure of the multi-billion-dollar-scandal-corruption of 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the Former Prime Minister Najib Razak. The nationals recognized that the nation’s wealth was plundered in millions of money by the leader(s) whom they trusted. This information gave the background of the most recent political event in Malaysia as it pertains to religious and ethnic plurality. The conclusion is “… the view on the idea of “plural” is innate from the very beginning in Malaysian history.”
It is About Mission
But this paper is not about politics but about mission. Religious pluralism does challenge the existence of Christian mission. It is like an age old phrase known to many who want to accept the value of having many religions being the same in essence, “All paths lead to the same destination.” In an article by Keith Johnson he used this phrase as a question for the title of his article, Do All Paths Lead to the Same Destination? As a teacher of comparative religions, I have used this article to make my students think about arguments from both sides. Johnson ends his article with some points to ponder which relate to tolerance, sincerity and objectivity. In the case of tolerance, he says it is not equal with truthfulness. Is it truthful to say that all paths lead to the same destination? Next, belief about something is different from what the real situation. A person can be very sincere and adamant about his or her belief but sincerity behind does not automatically make the belief true. Finally, are people objective of their beliefs? There are at least five ways in religious traditions that can be objectively evaluated: “logical consistency, adequate factual support, experiential relevance, consistency with other fields of knowledge and moral factors”, as pointed out by Johnson.
Taking Malaysia as a case study, I will suggest some ways on how Christian mission may continue to work in a multi-religious context. As Göran Collste wrote, “One of the reasons Malaysia makes a good case study for the possibility in religious pluralism is that its background intertwines with its foreground.”
BACKGROUND ON MALAYSIA
Religious-Racial History of Malaysia (Part 1)
Malaysia is a meeting place for different peoples in world trading. It is also a breeding ground for different religions to grow. Article 153 in the Malaysian Constitution stipulates the importance of Malaysia being a pluralistic society whereby it explains the rights and responsibilities of religious communities living together. Tracing back to 3 B.C. Hinduism and Buddhism were already in the Peninsula of Malaya and was well established by 1 A.D. but disappeared again by the 14th century. This was also the period when Islam spread and stayed in the present-day Malaysia. As history would also show that the sword and the cross came together with the Portuguese wanting to colonize Malacca, a southern state of Malaysia. Sikhism was a much later addition to the religious mix.
It was in the 17th century towards the 18th century, when more people from other races came to Malaysia due to an economic boom brought about by the British through the East India Company. The British did not employ the Malays but let them do their own existing work of farming and fishing. The British mined gold and tin. They grew different favored crops such as tapioca, pepper and coffee. In 1877 rubber was introduced. This became a lucrative source of income to Malaysia. The British welcomed Chinese to work in the mines. Chinese were once the majority race in Singapore, Penang, Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. Tin-mining later became a Chinese enterprise. By the 1930s the census showed that Chinese made up 64% of the country. Indians from India, another British colony, came over to work in rubber plantations as tappers. Sri Lankans were brought in by the British to do administrative work.
Another social phenomenon was that many of these migrant workers stayed. Eventually, they became citizens of the country, while also maintaining their own cultures. This multi-culturalism came about due to these conditions outlined above of the British colonization and capital gains.
In the beginning, after gaining independence from the British, the Malays wanted to ensure that they would retain political power in the midst of a multi-racial milieu. As described by Anthony Milner, “their attitudes were much like “that of the average European.” The first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in particular was convinced that religion had no place in politics. State and religion should be separate, while allowing Islamic laws to play a role in Malay personal life”. Established also was a unique rotating monarchy where the nine sultans take turns in being the ceremonial leader for a five year-period, for each king to rule. In this scenario, race and religion, were two elements prominent in the formulation of the Malaysian constitution. The obvious dominant race and religion were Malays and Islam.
Religious-Racial History of Malaysia (Part 2)
It was in 1969 when I had just started going to primary school at Standard One, for children aged seven. It started out as a normal day at school. I had to attend the first session, which meant an early start and school was over by noon. But before we could reach noontime there was a school bell to signify we could go home. Most of us were confused as to what to do. I remembered that many of us were waiting at the school entrance. Then my sister who was in secondary school not too far away, came over to get me and together with my friend and her sister we made our way back to our respective homes. Later our father told us that he had been over to our schools to look for us to take us home. The date was May 13, 1969.
Indeed, this was a dark time in Malaysian history because of racial pluralism going awry. “The May 13th Crisis” was the start of racial riots caused by the majority political win by the opposition party who were Chinese. The mainly Chinese supporters unfortunately were insensitive and gloated over their victory by telling Malays to go back to their villages. They claimed Kuala Lumpur to be in the hands of the Chinese. It took nearly two years to regain stability.
Steps Towards Racial Harmony
There were several strategies carried out in order to regain racial harmony. The first was to establish a high level of religious tolerance between the different adherents of religions and an assurance of religious freedom. Various departments were set-up under the government to address specific Islamic concerns. Three states in Malaysia had decided to have Friday as the official weekly day off rather than Sunday, as the majority of the residents there are Muslims. All religions are given public holidays to celebrate religious festivals. The government even organized celebratory events regardless of which religious festival it is. This was to encourage each religion and race to celebrate diversity. All religions were allowed to have representative organizations in government committees such as the Council of Churches, Hindu Sangam and many more that could speak on behalf of their members. They were also allowed to have inter-faith dialogues that addressed areas of common interest.
Even after these steps were taken, there have been some flare ups. It was on December 10, 2007, a ban was imposed on the Malay language column of The Catholic Herald because they used the word Allah as the Malay word for “God”. This lead to a two-year court case which resulted to the court’s decision that the Herald’s use of Allah was not illegal and that the Archbishop as publisher of The Catholic Herald is entitled to use the term Allah and finally the word Allah is not an exclusive Islamic term.
This court ruling set off several violent reactions from various religious groups. Three churches in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya were bombed on January 8, 2010 at night and another church in Petaling Jaya on January 9. The next day, three more churches and a mosque were also attacked. This spread to other states in Malaysia where two churches in Negri Sembilan, one church in Johore, one Sikh temple in Kuala Lumpur and one mosque in Sarawak were attacked between January 11-16.
The Assemblies of God Church, Metro Tabernacle, pastored by the General Superintendent of the movement, Rev. Ong Sek Leang, was badly burned. Former Prime Minister Najib condemned the attack, gave a command for increased security for all places of worship and for citizens of Malaysia to have unity. The Former Prime Minister paid a personal visit to the said church. He promised a grant of RM500,000 to pay for its reconstruction. An additional RM 100,000 was donated by an Islamic bank. In July of the next year, two Malay brothers who were arrested, convicted and faced a jail sentence of 20 years of imprisonment.
The issue of religious freedom affected cases of conversion from Islam to another religion or even the so-called cults within Islam. One particular case that received media attention was the conversion of Azalina Jailani who changed her name to Lina Joy. The courts would not allow her to change the status of her religion in her identity card from Muslim to Christian as this was against the constitution which states to be Malay is to be Muslim. She could only change her name in the identity card. She could not marry her Christian fiancée unless she left the country which she finally did.
In 2002, there was an announcement by the government administration under Dr. Mahathir Mohamed that “Malaysia has fulfilled its requirements of an Islamic State” and this was understood that Malaysia was now an Islamic country. This news was received negatively by non-Muslims. Leaders from their ranks responded that this was unconstitutional. Although the constitution stated that Islam was the official religion of the country, this did not make Malaysia an Islamic state. The government quickly responded that it was just semantics and this did not change the legal rights of the citizens.
So we begin with religious tolerance in Malaysia. Religious pluralism can be seen as either descriptive or prescriptive. By this I mean that we can merely be describing a situation that it is varied, multiplexed and with different types of religions; or we can be prescribing that it is the general condition but can still be changed. I choose to describe and prescribe positive changes in attitude towards Christianity that I think can cause effectiveness and help in presenting the gospel in a sensitive way to a religiously pluralistic society like Malaysia. Prior to tackling these tasks one by one then integrating the whole, the discussion starts with two definitions. The first definition is religious pluralism itself and the second is to define an underlying factor which is worldviews of people of different religions including the Christian worldview.
Definition of Religious Pluralism
Daniel Levine, a trends expert, corporate consultant and keynote speaker, defines religious pluralism as a game with rules and regulations that is played by religious groups who are participating in society. Within these groups those who are activists, media people and really anyone, produces the plurality or diversity. In a sense everyone is propagating their own religions to others not in their group through various means including media. However, in order to keep the game fair everyone must play by the rules and should not commit any fouls.
How else has the term religious pluralism been used? According to the Muslim scholar, Mohamed Fauzi Yaacob there are various usages of the term religious pluralism. He says that religious pluralism is the fact of many religions co-existing alongside each other in peace. Another way of seeing religious pluralism is a joining of people with varying religions to dialogue and to understand one another but without trying to force the other to believe in their religious doctrines. The last sense of religious pluralism is the dogmatic presentation of one’s own religion as true while the others are all false. This final understanding of the word religious pluralism is what causes tensions. Yaacob in his descriptions suggests that religious pluralism can be harmonious, tolerant or antagonistic depending on the situation, perhaps even all existing at the same time.
Definition of WorldView
The top concern to religious tolerance is about a person’s worldview. This deals with the deep-seated attitudes of people. Jerry Solomon in his article entitled World View has selected three definitions for worldview,
James Sire asserts that “A worldview is a set of presuppositions (or assumptions) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously) about the basic makeup of our world.” Phillips and Brown state that “A worldview is, first of all, an explanation and interpretation of the world and second, an application of this view to life. In simpler terms, our worldview is a view of the world and a view for the world.” Walsh and Middleton provide what we think is the most succinct and understandable explanation: “A worldview provides a model of the world which guides its adherents in the world.”
The first definition indicates that there is no such thing as a blank page. All persons have some preconceived ideas. The second definition infers that world views help a person make sense of it all. Finally, if we take the last definition to encompass the others, it should follow that if a person’s world view truly guides, then it should also be rational, not consisting of contradictory beliefs; it should be consistently upheld by all observable evidence; it should be giving a believable explanation of reality; and finally it should give a solid basis for life.
There are also common components of worldviews. Fundamentally, a worldview claims something exists; the world is seen through a rational mindset and has a sense of predictability. Within this worldview are absolutes – this may be God, love, power – which are infinite reference points that a person is aiming towards. Definitely if a world view is logical, then no two totally opposite statements can be truth, so if they are opposite, each person will side one or the other. Finally, in all worldviews there is that element of faith where we can believe in something even though there is no absolute certainty.
Christian World View
According to James Orr, a church historian, Christians cannot pick and choose what they like from the Bible to believe in, instead he wrote,
He who with his whole heart believes in Jesus as the Son of God is thereby committed to much else besides. He is committed to a view of God, to a view of man, to a view of sin, to a view of Redemption, to a view of the purpose of God in creation and history, to a view of human destiny, found only in Christianity. This forms a ‘Weltanschauung,’ or ‘Christian view of the world,’ which stands in marked contrast with theories wrought out from a purely philosophical or scientific standpoint.
So there is such a thing as a Christian world view. Orr also added that Christianity is not in conflict with natural sciences and general morality. This approach leans on the confessional, logical, practical and spiritual aspects of Christian doctrine.
Real Situation of Religious Tolerance in Malaysia
Not to belabor the point but Christianity builds faith of Christians on the fact that our doctrines are logical and consistent. Many theologians are also philosophers. They believe that truth is logically consistent and they value this because it is a characteristic of truth. Although consistency is no guarantee for truth but at some point falsehood will be exposed if it is not the truth. Christianity always must present the truth but in a sensitive and tolerant way.
Has there been a decline in religious tolerance in Malaysia? According to Rita Camilleri,
In spite of the earlier periods of relative harmony, reports in the last few years have signaled the decline of religious tolerance, and with it the curtailing of religious freedoms and “Islam” tightening on what is considered acceptable conduct by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For some, this unfolding situation indicates a lack of tolerance of the religious other that has reached crisis point, manifested, for instance, in the desecration of the sacred places of people of other faiths.
The mention of this at this point is to paint a real picture of Malaysia and not just a rosy one.
Theological Views on Engagement
In a pluralistic country like Malaysia with people of different belief systems, it is easier to be religiously tolerant of one another rather than to pick any fights with each other. Due to historical movements it came about that Malaysia became so diverse. The Malays are here due to trading. Chinese are present because of tin-mining. Indians came over to tap rubber trees in the estates. From these major reasons, different and larger ethnic groups spread throughout the country to make their own way in life after migrating from their own countries. There were those who already populated the land called the Aboriginal people or Orang Asli in Bahasa Malaysia. The Orang Asli have been mainly animists but there have been conversions among them to Islam and Christianity.
In the Constitution of Malaysia, there is a clause about the practice of religious freedom. However, there is another clause that states; “to be Malay is to be Muslim” which then negates the possibility of freedom of religion for a Malay to be anything but Muslim. From the Christian stand point, I submit two theological views which were contributed by a Methodist Bishop Emeritus Hwa Yung and Reformed theologian Kam Weng Ng. Yung calls Malaysian Christians to prayer and social holiness instead of immediately doing evangelism and mission, with the pre-occupation of only “saving souls” and not looking at the bigger picture to meet the needs of the Church. Besides which, it is not a soul that is saved but a whole person. Holistic approach to mission includes many aspects of human life. Also, being prayerful and holy should not substitute evangelism and mission but actually they are part of the tasks.
The emphasis that Ng makes is on “principled pluralism” which is Christian engagement in societal matters for the common good. They have both been involved in a Christian initiative called the Kairos Dialogue Network for Christian-Muslim engagement that has produced a document welcoming Malaysian Christians to participate in and for the common good. I do not have any issue working towards a common good except to be cautious that this does not muscle out mission with respect to evangelism.
Freedom to Choose
The starting point of religious freedom is respect for each other’s freedom of choice. Are we looking at religious freedom and pluralism just from within and above as suggested by Yung and Ng or should we also approach the issue from below and from the outside? By “below” and “outside”, we mean theological reflections that are grounded and expressed explicitly in conversations with people and about realities from the grassroots and outside the church. This has been seen in the participation by Christians in rallies for clean and fair elections which flowed into exercising rights as citizens to vote. In religious matters, Christians should be represented in inter-faith dialogues. In more everyday life situations, Christians are to be a witness and testimony to their neighbors. I believe that all four approaches from inside, outside, above and below should all work together to ensure religious freedom and even freedom of speech.
Enticing Alternatives: Pluralism and Inclusivism
There are enticing alternative approaches to religious pluralism. To this end, I am conservative in my stand in opposing “pluralism” as proposed by John Hick, who was a professor at Claremont Graduate School in California, who wrote God and the Universe of Faiths and “inclusivism” proposed by Karl Rahner, a Roman Catholic theologian.
Hick basically believed that Christianity was not the final way to God and that religion was evolutionary. He believed that earlier religions were succeeded by higher religions. Hick saw God as the center of religion. Those following Hick can easily support religious tolerance. It could also let some Christians off the hook to do evangelism or Christian mission with the expressed purpose of bringing a person to confession of faith in Christ. Indeed, religions are not the same and thus their truth claims are not alike either.
Inclusivism is even more subtle than pluralism. It is believing that the same God is in all religions to save all through Christ. This could be an answer to the age old question what about those who have never heard of Christ? Rahner still held to the belief that salvation was only through Christ and God wants all people to be saved. This view gave room for “…the concept of the anonymous Christian by which is understood an adherent of a particular religion whom God saves through Christ, but who personally neither knows the Christ of the Bible nor has converted to Biblical Christianity.” This is clearly not what the Bible says.
Jesus Says “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
This leaves only exclusivism on the table for Christians. There is no salvation outside of Christ. Christ is unique and is above all other claims to truth as He is the Truth. The exclusivist view is the biblical view. But moderate exclusivism gives room for all religions to have some truth as all truth is God’s truth. This also allows for dialogue with other religions. This does not mean compromise. The truth claim that “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life” excludes that anyone else can be this.
Proselytization: There is a Difference
There is a difference with evangelization and proselytization. This is a way of contrasting the two:
- Evangelization goes out to others and listens to them; proselytization excludes others and simply talks at them.
- Evangelization is a proclamation of Jesus, allowing people to have an encounter with Christ; proselytization is proud and convinced that it has all the answers.
- Evangelization trusts in the Holy Spirit as the true evangelist, as the one who makes converts; proselytization believes it is up to us, to the force of our arguments and persuasive power.
The main point is that the tactic of evangelization is love and respect whereas proselytization can be force and fear.
Not Forcing Just Presenting Truth
One of the newly elected Malaysian Christian Member of the Parliament, Hannah Yeoh, was accused by a university lecturer Dr. Kamarul Zaman Yusoff that through her own biography Becoming Hannah she was proselytizing. He claimed that she was breaking two laws under Section 4(1)(a) of the Enactment of Controls and Sanctions (Expansion of non-Islamic Religions) of Selangor 1988 by trying to incite Muslims to become a member of a non-Islamic religion and Section 298 (A)(1) of the Penal Code for trying to disrupt the country’s harmony by using religion. She countered this through a report against him stating that he was slandering her and her political party. I do not believe that Yeoh was proselytizing but rather evangelizing using her testimony as a Christian. She was not forcing anyone to read her testimony. It was out there for them to choose and to judge for themselves. There was no disruption of harmony.
I have been describing and prescribing that Christian Mission can function in Religious Pluralistic Societies using Malaysia as a case study, indicating ways of positive reception can be encouraged. In so doing perhaps I may have been carried away by the excitement of being an insider and telling the story of Malaysian Christians from that angle. I felt I had to provide adequate background and foreground pictures of the country before independence from the British in 1957 up to recent events of the May 10, 2018, 14thgeneral election results for the country.
Since this is a case study, it is then to stir up thinking, opinions and standpoints from readers. It is not to give answers and strategies to be used in every circumstance of religious pluralism. Instead it can allow for some Christians sanctified dreaming of being able to maneuver in relatively unchartered waters where there are some possibilities in the midst of challenges.
The uniqueness of Malaysia is that several major religions exist here. However, there is a dominant religion that has strong political clout. This situation may also come into play. However, I mention this to highlight that Islam is very much in focus in this paper due to the situation in Malaysia. Yet the intent was also not to do a comparative religion study pointing out similarities and differences of religions in this paper.
This paper presents the case for religious tolerance but also standing for religious freedom. True freedom includes being able to give testimony of the Truth, faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, without fear. Which leads to being able to evangelize, not forcing others to believe but wanting to share the good news with our neighbors. There are some questions for the participants of the forum to start the ball rolling. You may have other questions too.
Points to Ponder
- Is religious tolerance compromise? Give reasons for your answers.
- What do you do in a situation when it is against the law of the country to evangelize?
- When asked point blank, “Are you saying my religion is a lie?” how do you handle this situation?
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Dr. Teresa Chai joined the Asia Pacific Theological Seminary in 2013, serving first as faculty and Book Review Editor for the Journal of Pentecostal Studies and now as the Academic Dean. She obtained her MA in Intercultural Studies (1991) and PhD (2003) from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God Malaysia since 1995.