Today is the Feast of the Nativity in the old Orthodox Christian calendar and last night I attended an Orthodox Liturgy celebrating Christmas at the Holy Trinity Orthodox church in Solo, Central Java. For me this has been a very special journey because I’ve returned to Indonesia, for the first time since the Bali Bombings of October 2002. This time I’ve come to celebrate with Indonesian brothers and sisters in Christ.
So far this hasn’t been a difficult journey for me, far from it. I’m already accustomed to the sensational black and white representations of Indonesia in the mass media, particularly in Australia. Now I have a much deeper sense of the true character of this country and it’s people. Although a country with the world’s largest Islamic population, Indonesia shares little with the versions of Islam so frequently represented in the Western media.
The nature of the contemporary nation state, Indonesia, seeking to assert its statehood in an archipelagic setting, draws from both geographic and cultural influences. It has developed a diverse and syncretic set of cultural practices. The porosity of its borders has allowed frequent influences from abroad beginning with the earliest Melanesian settlement of Nusantara, at the dawn of human civilisation , and has continued until the present era of globalization and the emergence of rapid economic growth and development in the Asia Pacific region.
Modern Indonesia was born on 17 August 1945 after more than 350 years of Dutch colonialism. Early on it’s essentially syncretic nature encouraged the assumption of a set of principles known as the Pacasila, as the basis for the Indonesian Constitution. These can be translated accordingly
Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa
Belief in the one and only God
Kemanusiaan Yang Adil dan Beradab
Just and civilized humanity
The unity of Indonesia
Kerakyatan Yang Dipimpin oleh Hikmat Kebijaksanaan, Dalam Permusyawaratan Perwakilan
Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives
Keadilan Sosial bagi seluruh Rakyat Indonesia
Social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia
Such a set of guiding principles are both a secular recognition and an expression of Indonesia’s long history of syncretism and tolerance. For the most part, bearing in mind that Indonesia’s population is more than 230 million spread through at least 900 are permanently inhabited islands, divided into 33 Provinces and Special Regions with hundreds of regional languages Indonesia’s ethos is one to inclusiveness and cooperation. Perhaps nowhere is this better expressed than in the tradition of Gotong Royong, the notion of a society based on mutual cooperation. Certainly, despite the existence of corruption, collusion and nepotism, processes that are widely critiqued in modern Indonesia, it’s a remarkably harmonious society, given it’s diversity.
One of the clearest expressions of tolerance in Indonesia is in the area of religious tolerance. Belief in the one and only God is widely accepted, although as in any society there are groups that are inclined to reject common wisdom and insist that they worship the one and only true God. Such groups have long been present in Indonesia and are by no means a new phenomenon. Such unfortunate elements have brought much suffering to Indonesia.
Indonesia is not perfect and just as other countries like the United Kingdom and the USA have suffered from forms of extremism perpetrated by vocal and at times cruel minorities, so Indonesia faces similar challenges, but the core of Indonesian society is pluralistic and accepting of the other. Seeing the overwhelming scenes of love and compassion that followed the Bali Bombings of October 2002, left me with no doubt about this.
The Origins of Indic Religions in Indonesia
It’s been said that in Indonesia God comes from the mountain and religion comes from the sea. The primal religions of Indonesia were all well established when those of a more modern form began to percolate through Nusantara. The Indic religions of Hinduism and Buddhism were the first to win converts and begin developing Empires along the archipelago. They often existed side by side and sometimes they fought, at times one vanquishing the other. Finally they reached a reapproachment and this is chronicled in the remarkable work from the 14th century, the Sutasoma. It is from this work that Indonesia’s national slogan Binneka Tunggal Ika has been taken. Translated in means the two are one, Shiva and Buddha. It’s modern translation of Unity in Diversity reapplies the basic principle in the context of the modern nation state.
The Spread of Orthodox Christianity
The following is directly quoted from The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in Indonesia an Orthodox Facebook site.
During the 7th century and during the greater parts of the Sriwijaya-Majapahit periods (9th-14th centuries), Eastern Church of the Assyrian tradition arrived, followed later by the Non-Chalcedonian (Armenian). Christianity was in Indonesia before Islam came to the Archipelago. However, the Christians disappeared from the Indonesian landscape and its historical record.
From that early period until today, not one written record of Christianity survives, yet oral tradition preserved the names of three local bishops: Mar Yaballah, Mar Abdisho and Mar Denha. Most Indonesians do not know of these tenuous but deep Christian roots, and it should be stressed that it was Eastern Christianity that arrived to the island first.
There are now two jurisdictions of Eastern Orthodox in Indonesia, under Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and Moscow Patriarchate.
It’s not surprising that Orthodoxy leaves no written record. These early forms of Orthodox Christianity were introduced by Monks and were not spread, as Islam later was, in the context of trade. There is scant record of the Sriwijaya empire either. For a long time it was almost completely forgotten, and was only brought to light in 1918 by Çoedès.
Much has been written about the manner in which Islam, frequently from the Sufi tradition, subsequently entered Indonesia. It’s spread was largely through ports and initially quite separate from the established Hindu-Buddhist traditions. Often it’s spread was under the patronage of a Shah Bandar, rather than the patronage of traditional rulers.
In Indonesia the earliest historical periods are more difficult to study. The historian Hasanuddin cites white ants and water as one of the historian’s greatest enemies in attempting to unravel the history of the archipelago.
Today Orthodoxy is again becoming more prominent in Indonesia.
Last night I attended the Feast of the Nativity at the Holy Trinity Orthodox church, here in Solo. It was a wonderful event, much singing and rejoicing and of great pleasure was the participation of people from other Christian communities as well as members of the Buddhist and Hindus communities. All attended both the liturgy and the feast that followed.
One thing that really impressed me was the presence of the Choir from the Pantasuhan Wisma Kasih Kudus – the Holy Gift Orphanage. These children weren’t Orthodox, yet they were welcomed and happily participated in the festivities. There common bond is that almost all lost parents in the sectional violence that ripped through Maluku in 1997 in the dying days of the New Order regime. There are 71 children in the Protestant orphanage and a further 26 have moved on the tertiary education in various parts of Indonesia. Their presence was a true reminder of the gift of Christmas, the gift of a clear path to the development of goodwill and love amongst all humans.