Healing A Divided Nation
By Chris Chong
"National reconciliation" was the buzzword for a short time after the latest general election. But it lost meaning quickly under a cloud of racial rhetoric by figures in authority and certain media. As Christians, we are called to the ministry of reconciliation, not just for the spiritual salvation of people, but in building the common good for all citizens. Chris Chong writes about the road less travelled in reconciliation - that of inter-faith dialogue.
EARLY this year, Malaysians were outraged by a video which showed a speaker shouting down a university student at a forum with the now infamous phrase "Listen, listen, listen".
This video demonstrated an ugly truth about ourselves: We are indeed a nation divided. We are divided along racial and religious lines which have led us, particularly in the past few years, to start shouting "listen, listen" without attempting to truly listen to those who are different from us.
Listen, if I may be permitted to use the word, we are divided because we have built walls that insulate us from those who are different from us. We built those walls so that we can remain comfortable as to who we are. Those walls insulate us from listening to what others have to say about us and also about themselves. To listen to others is an uncomfortable exercise. It's uncomfortable because it forces us to re-examine the picture we have of ourselves. It forces us to face the fact that we are part of the problem as to why the nation is divided.
Let me now shift the "we" as a nation to "we" as a community of faith, i.e. Christians.
In this time when walls are being built, we are called to the ministry of reconciliation. Although the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) and NECF have been involved in this ministry at the national level, more can be done particularly at the community level. The local church needs to be involved in this ministry in their communities.
It could be argued that the local churches are involved in this ministry through outreach which focuses not only on meeting spiritual needs but also physical needs. And through its outreach ministry, the church becomes an agent of reconciliation between God and man. For most Christians, the practice of reconciliation is often limited to salvation.
However, there is another dimension to reconciliation. Reconciliation is also about engaging with people of other faiths. We live in a country that is multi-religious, and are familiar with the challenges that this poses. Yet, somehow we don't engage fellow citizens enough on a religious and cultural level to seek common ground. Is it because we build walls around ourselves due to our fears and ignorance of those who are different from us? Perhaps we need to rethink our theology with regards to reconciliation as not just being merely about salvation but also one that seeks to advance the common good.
Indeed, seeking the common good is biblical. For example, in Genesis, we observe that all people, made in the image of God, are endowed with dignity. Preserving this dignity entails a pursuit of the common good. This includes things like the freedom of worship, the right to life, to be treated equally under the law, to justice and other democratic values which enable all persons to live with dignity and flourish to their full potential.
Do we care enough about the common good or are we at risk of insulating ourselves behind our walls? Now, more than ever, we need to create spaces for people from different faiths to come together to share a conversation on common challenges. We each, whatever our religion, struggle with being faithful to one's faith and with being a citizen of Malaysia. Through such conversations, we can learn much from one another and start the process of tearing down the walls that separate us.
Such conversations are crucial as they lead not only to mutual understanding but also to finding the common good which binds us together as a nation. No doubt such conversations are difficult to begin because it requires an openness and humility to learn from those who are so different from us. It also requires willingness to take the first step to initiate such conversations at a time when walls surround us.
And the second is like it:
'Love your neighbor as yourself.'
As Christians, the task of listening is made more challenging because it forces us to examine ourselves in the light of Christ's commandment to "love our neighbour" (Matthew 22:39). For how can we love our neighbour if we are ignorant as to how they define themselves in terms of their religious and/or racial identity? How is love possible if we do not understand their fears and hopes?
Yet, we are called to this ministry of reconciliation because we are reconciled with God and with each other (2 Corinthians 5: 17-19). And as Malaysians, we live at a juncture of our nation's history where reconciliation is urgently needed. This then is the challenge which confronts us today.
Note: Chris Chong is a member of Friends in Conversation, a Christian interfaith group. He teaches at a private university.