29 January 2014
On turning the other cheek
By Eugene Yapp and Debbie Loh
AS the Allah controversy escalates with provocative banners and petrol bombs, the view that Christians should "turn the other cheek" by giving up the use of the word has entered the fray. Proponents of this view include both Muslims and Christians.
There have been a few well-meaning believers who have written to NECF with the suggestion that national Christian leaders adopt this stance to stave off further discord. Some attach articles written in the online media that expound this view, asking for our opinion or proposing that we change our position. For the record, NECF takes a united stand with the Christian Federation of Malaysia, which includes the Roman Catholic Church and the Council of Churches Malaysia, that our Malaysian Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and the right of every religious group to manage its own affairs, which includes the right to choose words and language in the practice of one's faith.
An opinion piece titled "Turning the other cheek on the 'Allah' issue" by a Professor Dr Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi on Malaysiakini made the rounds recently. A gentle and firm rebuttal, "Solution to escalating 'Allah' row" by Patricia A Martinez, a Catholic, also went viral.
Among the points Martinez makes are that Christians have already long been turning the other cheek by not retaliating against demonstrations by Muslim right-wing groups, Selangor Umno roadshows that instigate anti-Christian feelings, threats to burn the Alkitab, false accusations, and harassment and demonization of Father Lawrence Andrew. She also highlights that it is a mistake in referring to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr as examples of "turning the other cheek" because they persistently stood against injustice, albeit using peaceful and non-violent means. Gandhi and King Jr model for us today the meaning of civil disobedience by refusing to submit to unjust laws.
She makes other noteworthy points and her rebuttal is worth a read. In summary, she states, "So, do note, Christians did not start this 'Allah' issue."
Still, there are believers who feel that the national Christian bodies are defending their position based on "ego" and a failure to recognise the bigger stakes, i.e. racial and inter-faith harmony.
To cease using the word for such reasons is fallacious, for citing Jesus' call to "turn the other cheek" in the context of the Allah controversy is, to say it respectfully but plainly, misplaced.
A look at the text where that verse is found in Matthew 5: 38-39 sees Jesus first making a reference to Old Testament law on personal injuries, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'," (v 38) before continuing with the famously misunderstood "turn the other cheek".
There is a difference Jesus is pointing out here - that while the Mosaic law (Exodus 21: 23-24) allowed for personal retribution, albeit with limitations to ensure the punishment fit the crime, Christ's fulfillment of the law demands that we give up our right to seek personal revenge.
This is not the same as doing nothing or being passive in the face of evil and injustice. For Jesus' own example saw him confronting evil and greed (against the traders in the temple) and he regularly confronted the Pharisees on their false and hypocritical piety. From Paul's life too, we see that he knew the law as a Roman citizen and demanded fair treatment from the Roman authorities as such.
The Allah controversy, on the other hand, must be recognized, amongst other reasons, as a political problem, engineered to play into the "Ketuanan Melayu" framework that has come to define Malaysia's politics, policies and personal morals.
The Bible teaches that following Christ wholeheartedly involves denying one's self and taking up one's cross. Life as Christians when confronting the might of the state will involve conflict and a challenge to our comfort zones. Such a posture is not motivated by ego or a failure to recognise the bigger stakes, but is about standing for truth and walking in righteousness. In effect, it is not so much a pandering to ego but a surrendering of our very sense of safety and security as we stand for truth and righteousness.
And the truths in the Allah controversy are these:
The larger picture is the common good of all citizens, that genuine freedom of religion and expression may be enjoyed by all in this nation of many faiths.
There are historical, textual and linguistic precedents that justify the use of "Allah" by non-Muslims (see CFM's statement on When, Why and How Christians Use the Word Allah, 16 May 2013). The different understandings on conception of God between Islam and Christianity is a separate issue that should not be treated as part of this controversy, for the historical fact remains that both religions have shared roots that provide the context for the mutual use of "Allah", with Christianity predating Islam.
The BM-speaking bumiputera church, which is more than 60% of Christians in Malaysia, deem this word essential and integral to the practice of their faith. They have made their stand in various ways that they will continue using the word. It would be a betrayal to refuse to stand in solidarity with them and this has grave implications for the unity of the collective Malaysian Church.
Let us turn the other cheek by not responding in like manner to the acts and words of violence thrown against the Church, for vengeance is the Lord's. And let us quietly go about our faith, loving and doing good works to all as we resist unjust laws and hold fast to the truth.