Easter recently came and went and so, with contrition on my mind, I took myself along to the Easter Sunday service of the Jakarta International Baptist Church.
The service itself took place on the top floor of the Dharmawangsa City Walk shopping plaza. Now, I realise that Jesus himself had rather strong opinions about mixing commerce with religious faith, the money changers incident being rather indicative of his general stand point on laissez-faire capitalism.
In Indonesia however, there are extenuating reasons why a church has to cower up on the top floor of a mall, and these reasons are perhaps most graphically embodied by the 150 kg bombs
that were recently found under a West Java church. Indonesia’s Christians know which way the wind is blowing, that’s for sure.
And so I strolled into the plaza and into the JIBC service and was immediately confronted by a big banner proclaiming, “He is risen,” which seemed to be directly addressed to my own sense of incredulity at finding myself up at such an early hour on a Sunday morning. There was also a banner outside advertising wedding packages for Rp.63 million. By all means be joined together in holy matrimony in the sight of the Lord, but for a small fee obviously.
Marx theorised that religion reinforces the social classes thrown up by capitalism, stupefying the poor and oppressed, and discouraging them from fighting for a better home in this world, what with them having heaven to look forward to. Down at the JIBC however, the ranks of the faithful seemed to be drawn mainly from society’s upper strata and the AA advertising demographic. There were plenty of American expatriates on hand, and a smattering of Indonesian Christians.
Indeed, the whole scene was somewhat redolent of one of the US mega-churches, only with a slightly more scaled-back ambience rather less reminiscent of a World Wrestling Federation bout than that of those noisy US prayer smackdowns. The service got underway and we were all encouraged to shake hands and introduce ourselves to our immediate neighbours. The worshippers closest to me all seemed to be eminently decent and friendly people, amiable to a tee and eager to chat.
After this however, the pastor opened up familiar vistas onto lakes of fire, rains of hot coals, sulphur and eternal damnation. Well, this was a Baptist
Church after all, although I thought that they might have toned down the brimstone side of things just a touch for Easter Sunday. Clearly though the war on sin can’t take even a momentary ceasefire, lest Satan himself rise up and claim the Earth for his own.
The familiar sense of disjunction that I usually feel between the 21st-century, suburban affability of a congregation, and the often unforgiving language of those time-honoured religious platitudes, was thrown into sharp relief in this Baptist context, however I managed to stay my sense of foreboding long enough to stick Rp.50,000 in the collection tray.
Well, the service may have gone without a hitch, but in the larger scheme of things, the travails of the country’s faithful minorities continue unabated in Indonesia. The Ahmadiyah, an Islamic (religious) sect that has rubbed along peacefully with the majority in the country for many decades now (in fact, Indonesia’s national anthem was penned by an Ahmadi) have been persecuted to the brink of extinction and Christians here, as noted above, have been reduced to hiding in modern retail cathedrals next to fast-food restaurants.
The president has finally come out and addressed the radical threat that stalks the nation like a 200-foot-high, laser-beam-eyed animatronic model of a fundamentalist preacher, Abu Bakar Bashir, but is it all a case of too little too late? Indonesia’s post-reformasi elections have been fair, but somewhat hollow in terms of reforming the country’s corruption riddled body politic. If these elections have shown anything however, it is that the population roundly rejects the attack on secular society by those who seek to establish a more Islamic Sharia based social order, as Islamic parties have fared poorly in three elections now.
Islamic politics may have failed at the ballot box however its supporters are now seeking to further their goals via more invidious practices. In West Java, to pick out one particularly striking example, cases of violence linked to radicalism increased by a whopping 30% last year, seemingly encouraged by the ambivalent attitude to radical fundamentalism shown by the government. Will the tide turn against fundamentalist fervour here in the wake of Osama’s death and the seemingly non-fundamentalist Arab uprisings? Or will (religious) things get worse before they can get better?