Years ago I spent the early winter evenings after school helping my mother with her Christmas cards. She always made her own, and I got the job of coloring in the green on the holly leaves and dotting the red berries, or gluing a bit of cotton on the tip of Santa’s hat. For her, it was Depression-era thrift that stayed with her well past the poverty that gave rise to it, but for me it was just fun and a good time with Mom. Today, I guess you’d call it Occupy Christmas.
I thought of her yesterday when I watched Karen and Tin (part of our Timorese family) making up a batch of Christmas treats for the kids in the neighborhood and finishing up some handmade Christmas gifts. It wasn’t just because of the Christmas handcrafts that I remembered Mom, but the fact that the preparations were for the Christmas celebration of a savings and loan co-op that my mother had an indirect hand in founding. Years ago she donated some “seed money”—literally for buying seeds—to some neighborhood women, and things just sort of evolved from there. The co-op now has more than 30 members, and they keep savings accounts for the education of their children and take out small loans to support equally small business efforts.
The main purpose of the co-op is really to prevent people from falling victim to loan sharks, who can charge as much as 100% interest per month. While the proliferation of banks and various commercial credit schemes (as well as our little co-op and many like it) has reduced the power of traditional moneylenders, the bigger problem is that credit has become the biggest growth industry in Indonesia. People who have barely emerged from a subsistence/barter economy into a cash economy are being lured into debt by easy credit at high rates of interest, and by increasing access to a wide range of consumer goods. On the other hand, it is pathetically easy to make money if you already have it. The end result is that while the local economy is slowly growing, economic inequality is growing much faster. This should sound familiar in the United States these days. Rest assured that we have no more idea how to deal with the problem in Indonesia than in the U.S.
The church here has also been transformed by the growth of the money/credit economy. Centralized payment of pastors’ salaries has helped rural pastors gain more adequate compensation, but at the cost of eroding their ties with local congregations. Where churches once paid much of their pastor’s salary with corn and cattle, they now have to turn everything into cash and send their apportionment to the Synod, which then pays the pastor’s salary at a standard rate. Unfortunately the standardized salary is higher than the income of most of the villagers served by the pastor—and thus the gap between rich and poor worms its way into church policy. In a similar way, churches can raise the money to cover their steeples with ceramic tiles while many in the congregation may be living with dirt floors.
Envelopes of cash and promises of patronage lure church leaders to support political candidates, and even play a role in election to church offices. It’s maybe too complicated to go into in a Christmas letter, but one of the challenges facing the churches in eastern Indonesia is how to deal with the impact of a changing economy. Now that they have a little money, they have to figure out how to avoid being corrupted by it.
I was thinking about all this while putting up the Christmas tree, the top of a cassowary, which is the only conifer we have to choose from. There are plenty of them growing wild along the river bank, and by just cutting off the top section we don’t kill the tree. Tonight the tree will be decorated as part of the local co-op’s Christmas worship, and my job will be to explain the origin and meaning of the Christmas tree.
Standing on a ladder trying to get the tree straight, I remembered Ba’i Noh, a Timorese shaman of sorts, who used to wrap up his prayers in a piece of cloth that he tied to the end of a bamboo pole. He would then climb a tall tree and tie the pole to the highest branch he could reach, so the bamboo extended like an antenna above the treetop. “Trees are bridges to heaven,” he said by way of explanation. Roots in the ground, branches in the sky.
Not unlike Ba’i Noh, I am going to tie an angel to the top of our tree. Maybe I can ask her to send along some prayers while she’s up there:
· for the farmers of Timor as they plant their crops, and for the many young people scattered far from their home villages in search of jobs
· for our church as it struggles to implement a new, more democratic church order even as traditional patriarchy and modern “money politics” work to subvert it
· for my students at the seminary, whose optimism and enthusiasm always give me hope for the future
· for the women of our co-op, that they may one day be free of debt
· for Katie and Sam, our children who are making their own way through the economic uncertainties of the US
Usually Ba’i Noh’s treetop prayers were very specific. He wanted it to rain, for example, and you would know whether the prayer was answered by whether it rained or not. In our case, I think I know what answer my angel is going to bring:
“Peace on Earth, Good Will to all People.”
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a New Year that truly brings something new and good to your lives,
P.S.: For those of you who are interested, I am appending a translation of “An Open Letter to the People” issued recently by a group of national religious leaders that includes our friend Andreas Yewangoe, who currently serves as Moderator of the Indonesian Communion of Churches. Some of the concerns about dysfunctional government remind me of what I read about the U.S. these days. This letter was a follow-up to an earlier letter of moral concern directed to the President. It was read in public on the steps of the national monument in Jakarta:
1. We interfaith religious leaders once again express our concern for the life of the nation. This time our concern is far more profound and fundamental.
2. For quite some time the President and other national leaders have stated that they are in the front line of the fight against corruption. But in reality political corruption remains rampant. The tentacles of corruption stretch from one end of our political system to the other, involving cabinet ministers, members of the legislature, law enforcement, political parties, and businesses.
3. The consequences are clear: A majority of the Indonesian people are finding it increasingly difficult to pay the costs of education, health care, and to meet their daily needs. A feeling of peace and security seems far away in face of a high level of human rights violations, violations of religious liberty, violence, destruction of the environment, and a basic failure in the rule of law.
4. It is impossible that the President of this country does not know about this corruption. And it is difficult for the people to understand why the President doesn’t know how to stop it.
5. We wish to state as religious leaders that we will continue to fulfill our religious responsibilities and to provide for the moral education of our people to the best of our abilities. However, in response to the state of leadership in Indonesia at present, we must say that we feel we have run out of words with which to express our sense of moral urgency. It is very difficult to find leadership committed to the key values needed to repair the life of this country. The principal cause is weak national leadership. As a result, not a single fundamental problem facing the nation has been dealt with adequately.
6. We are also aware that there are those who have blamed our expressions of concern as the cause of various incidents of violence and conflict. Such acts are far from the spirit of our moral concern.
7. We express our deep appreciation and respect for the people of this country who have worked hard, nurtured solidarity, and continue to seek creative ways to save this country. Finally, we call on the people to continue working together to bring an end to this situation in a constitutional way, founded on love of our country and our people, speaking with one voice in word and in deed.
– The statement is signed by eleven leaders representing Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians.
John Campbell-Nelson serves as a professor with the Evangelical Church of West Timor.