Reflections

John Campbell-Nelson - Indonesia

I am enjoying a peaceful morning at home today, having excused myself from the Synod office in order to write a long-overdue newsletter.  Like many church offices, the Synod here in Kupang is a great place for conversations with friends, but not so good if you actually want to concentrate on something.  

Out my window I see my neighbors harvesting their rice crop, and in the paddy just in front of our house a widow is exercising her ancient right to glean the field.  According to tradition, rice has a soul just like you and me, and if you don't take care when harvesting and treat the rice with respect, its soul will leave and the rice will be infertile and tasteless.  I notice a difference between "modernized" young people and those who have been raised in a more traditional village environment by the way they handle the rice stalks, whether they joke and shout during the harvest or work in respectful silence.  In a sense, the widow as she gleans is doing a public service by making sure that every grain of rice is valued.  Or maybe that's just the preacher in me, romanticizing her poverty.  At any rate, it's clear that what people believe affects their behavior in very subtle ways.

John Campbell-Nelson - Indonesia

I am enjoying a peaceful morning at home today, having excused myself from the Synod office in order to write a long-overdue newsletter.  Like many church offices, the Synod here in Kupang is a great place for conversations with friends, but not so good if you actually want to concentrate on something.  

Out my window I see my neighbors harvesting their rice crop, and in the paddy just in front of our house a widow is exercising her ancient right to glean the field.  According to tradition, rice has a soul just like you and me, and if you don't take care when harvesting and treat the rice with respect, its soul will leave and the rice will be infertile and tasteless.  I notice a difference between "modernized" young people and those who have been raised in a more traditional village environment by the way they handle the rice stalks, whether they joke and shout during the harvest or work in respectful silence.  In a sense, the widow as she gleans is doing a public service by making sure that every grain of rice is valued.  Or maybe that's just the preacher in me, romanticizing her poverty.  At any rate, it's clear that what people believe affects their behavior in very subtle ways.

I had occasion to reflect on that at last month's quadrennial General Synod of the Protestant Church of Timor (GMIT).  It was beyond doubt the most rancorous and chaotic of the five General Synod meetings I have attended during our time in Timor.  At times the plenary sessions seemed more like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange than a church assembly, with people standing and shouting and waving their arms, and decisions made without anyone knowing exactly what they had decided.

Indeed the issues under consideration were potentially divisive: how to handle the pension fund, adoption of a new homegrown confession of faith, whether pastors should be allowed to run for public office, and of course the election of new Synod leadership. The quality of discussion was in many cases quite good (several provincial legislators who visited the assembly said they felt it was much better than what they see in the legislature).  But still, the overall impression was one of chaos, and I found myself wondering why and, in a more general way, wondering why democracy is so difficult here.

My interim answer goes like this:  traditional societies here had three ways of dealing with differences of opinion:  open consultation and consensus, closed negotiations among the elite, or warfare.  Thirty-two years of Suharto's dictatorship eliminated open conflict as an option, and co-opted the appearance of consultation and consensus as a way to legitimate decisions reached beforehand by negotiations among the elite.  As a result, everyone from the national legislature to village councils and church boards followed the same pattern of decision-making in their meetings:  an issue would be raised, a round of speeches would be made, and the moderator would then summarize the decision that was supposed to be made.  He (now "she" sometimes) would then raise the hammer and say "Agreed?"  If the "yes" response wasn't loud enough, he would wave the hammer and ask again, "AGREED??" until finally the yeses were loud enough to satisfy the appearance of democracy.  Bang!  Next item...  No one is ever asked if they don't agree. 

Under this system voting is avoided at all costs, because it appears to divide the assembly into "winners" and "losers".  The existence of losers leaves open the potential for conflict, and years of dictatorial suppression of dissent have left civil society groups with underdeveloped resources for dealing with conflict.  So they cling to the appearance of consensus, even when it is obvious to anyone who wasn't asleep that no such consensus exists.  Churches are especially susceptible to this make-believe, because we're supposed to be the "communion of saints."  The Synod meeting repeatedly tried to force consensus on a group that was too diverse and had far too many decisions to make in a short time.  As Karen later put it, GMIT has outgrown its models of decision-making.

That's my take on what happened at the Synod meeting, anyway.  It is of more than academic interest for me because I will be involved in programs of political education among the churches in several parts of Eastern Indonesia in the coming year-some of them in areas that were engulfed in communal violence after the fall of Suharto. 

I visited one of these areas, Maluku, right after the Synod meeting.  The church there is engaged in a peace-building program among Christian and Muslim villages who were burning houses, churches and mosques, and killing one another just five years ago.  Traveling with us was a Muslim friend who grew up in the area and knew everyone and their cousins.  After several days of conversations in both Muslim and Christian villages, and seeing the excitement and hope in the eyes of the mixed Christian and Muslim group of young people who were the "village motivators" in the peace-building program, I commented to him that it must take some kind of evil genius to get these people to kill one another.

He explained that what had appeared to the world as a Christian/Muslim conflict had very different local roots.  The transition from tribal government to "modern democracy" had been badly mishandled, and opened up a scramble for power in which religion became a convenient mask to hide the interests of the local elite.  The Indonesian military then got involved and turned the conflict into a project, in which the military came out the winner.  According to several community leaders I interviewed, they now control the clove and cocoa trade at the heart of the fabled "Spice Islands."  And incidentally, the area is rumored to have become a center for the production of methamphetamines.

So there are a lot of cultural and historical reasons why democracy is so difficult.  As I hope the US has learned in Iraq, you can't just charge into someone's country, hang a dictator, declare democracy, and go home.  In eastern Indonesia, at least, the churches are involved in what will be a long transition that has to be woven together at the local level.  And in the process, the churches will necessarily be transformed themselves.

On the home front, our houseful of Timorese students is slowly emptying.  Four have now graduated from college.  Of the four, one is doing his internship as a pastor in rural Timor, another is packing her bags to move to a remote village where she will be a junior high religion teacher, a third is applying for a job as a civil servant on the neighboring island of Rote, and the fourth is planning to be a farmer.  Three others are still in college.  Our biological children are also still in school:  Katie is doing a master's degree in agriculture at the University of Massachusetts, and Sam is in his last year at Earlham College in Indiana.  Karen is working for the first time with the provincial government, serving as Gender Advisor in an aid project sponsored by the Australian government.  The current mantra is "good governance, access to public services, and poverty alleviation."  Being a long-time grassroots person, she was (and is) skeptical about the effectiveness of Big Aid and Big Money, and it took a lot of consultation with local activist friends before she took the job on a provisional basis.  We'll see how long she lasts.

I continue in the Synod office for now, working with the church's theological commission and doing village training for church elders and deacons.  I am again teaching homiletics at the church's theological school after a four-year hiatus.  Karen and I are also team teaching "Religion and Modernity" which is fun.  We just watched Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, after which the students poured out all the salient features of the sociology of modernity that we had been lecturing them on for the past few weeks. 

We wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving.  Nothing is more necessary for the soul than to give thanks.

Peace,
John Campbell-Nelson

P.S. Below I have included a translation of the new Confession of Faith mentioned above.

Confession of Faith of the Protestant Church of Timor
(Adopted at the 31st General Synod, September 2007)

We believe in the God whom Jesus called Father
Who nurtures and cares for us like a Mother
God above us, who created the heavens and the earth,
Who created all things
To live in community and so to complete one another.
We believe in Jesus Christ, God among us
The light of the world, not only the light of the Church.
He is truly God and truly human,
Born like us from a woman,
One with us in suffering and in joy.
He unites us in fellowship with God,
With one another, and with all of creation.
He preached good news to the poor
And freedom to the captives,
He gave sight to the blind
And befriended those who were despised.
He forgave sinners and blessed the children,
And made both women and men the witnesses of his resurrection.
In Him the rule of God which gives us peace becomes a reality.
He was accused of blaspheming God
And leading the people astray.
He was arrested, judged, and tortured.
He suffered and was crucified for us,
He died and was buried like us.
God accepted His work
And raised Him from the dead.
He ascended to heaven as our defender
And will come again in power and glory.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, God within us.
The Holy Spirit is not the human spirit, but works with and through the human spirit.
The Spirit of Creation and the Spirit of Peace
Who gives new life to us,
Who causes us to grow in faith, love, and hope
For resurrection to a new heaven and a new earth.
The Spirit spoke to our ancestors and those who came before us,
And still speaks to us today.
The Spirit calls us into communion, witness, and worship
And equips us for service and stewardship.
We believe that through the Spirit,
God speaks to us in the Holy Scriptures.
The Word of God spoken in human words,
All of Scripture shows us the love of God in Christ.
We believe the church is the household of God,
Its doors are open to the world, to all of creation,
Open to all our neighbors, and open to the future.
Jesus Christ is the Centerpost of God's house.
In worship, we offer up our lives to God, leaving nothing out.
We believe the world is God's field and garden
Into which the church is sent to work for justice
And sow the seeds of Shalom.
We believe that Baptism and Holy Communion
Confirm us as God's own.
In Baptism we are received as members of God's family.
Holy Communion confirms that we are sisters and brothers in Christ,
Together with those who are poor and suffering.
Giving thanks to God,
We will follow Jesus,
Living in holiness and truth,
Serving one another,
Working in the world,
Faithful in prayer:
Come, Lord Jesus!
Amen.

John Campbell-Nelson is a missionary serving with the Evangelical Christian Church of Timor.  John serves as a professor.
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