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Learning to Live Beyond Indonesia’s Volatility

April 2, 2014

At times the natural world serves as an especially appropriate metaphor for the social world. Today I read an editorial in the Jakarta Globe entitled “Learning to Live with Indonesia’s Volatility” that gave a sobering picture of the devastation caused by the eruption of Mt. Kelud in eastern Java this past week. To date more than 100,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and although the eruption has ceased, dangerous ash continues to fall. I was aware of the volcano’s activity when I read about it in a newspaper. Nevertheless, when I read an editorial title, “Learning to Live with Indonesia’s Volatility”, my first thoughts were not of Mt. Kelud’s volatility, but of another extremely disturbing eruption of literally cinematic proportion. The BAFTA award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing” is a long film with English sub-titles shot in northern Sumatera, Indonesia. The film follows the story of Anwar Congo, a grandfather who loves to dance, a man recognized by many as a hero, a former gangster (preman from the English free man), and a perpetrator in the 1965-66 anti-Communist purges in which it is estimated at least a million people were slaughtered.

John and I had avoided watching it, partly because the story strikes close to work I have been doing for many years²helping to document the stories of women who survived the horrors of the 1965 violence. Having watched the film, we now join the many others talking about how compelling it is. It is. I give this film big praise for how it addresses (not resolves) a conundrum whose manifestations we face daily: Since the overthrow of Suharto and his “New Order” regime in 1998 and subsequent legal reforms, what happened? Why do endemic corruption and poverty, acts of terror and extortion, and social-cultural forms of exclusion and intolerance continue to hold so much sway? The film suggests the problem lies, in part, with the formation of what I call national schizophrenia. In 1965-66 crimes against humanity committed in Indonesia brought General Suharto to power for 32 years, yet those crimes continue to be celebrated as acts of heroism that stemmed the tide of ungodly communism. In the name of national and regional security, and the defense of religion (not to mention US and European economic interests in Indonesian oil and mineral resources), lies became a “master narrative” of Indonesia’s history.

The split between volatile violence and a public discourse that justifies and celebrates it is neither uniquely Indonesian, nor did it begin with the anti-communist killings of 1965-66 and the subsequent political and socio­cultural habits of intimidation and ostracism. However, the horrors of that era²backed by global actors whose geo-political interests aligned with the interests of local thugs²served to consolidate a delusional imagination that continues to hold sway. Publicly respectable figures engage in multiple forms of domestic violence; church members up and down the civil service chain engage in petty extortion that makes “the system” work well for those who pay bribes; church leaders, including pastors, actively promote opportunities for migrant laborers to work in Malaysia or Hong Kong, even though the reality is better described as human trafficking. We are caught in webs of delusion, thirsting for springs of life, eager for better news, good news.

This Lenten season we celebrate the efforts of JPIT, the Eastern Indonesian Women’s Network that conducts research on women, religion, and culture, to continue in its support of women survivors of the 1965 horrors, several of whose stories of suffering and ostracism were documented in JPIT’s 2012 publication, Memori­memori Terlarang [Forbidden Memories]. It was not possible for the researchers, many of them pastors and candidates for ministry, to stop engagement with their informants upon publication of the book. A small group of women survivors and JPIT members now gather and pray together once every two months. Those who have shared their stories with JPIT help to contest the master narrative of Indonesian history. The master narrative may be dominant, but it is not absolute; it does not control memory. These women and their personal narratives bring new meaning to Jesus’ words of institution: “Do this in remembrance of me.” A theology of remembrance requires new sacraments. It also requires bringing together victims and perpetrators around the same table.

After watching “The Act of Killing” for two and a half hours²John and I shaking our heads again and again, sometimes gasping, sometimes close to gagging²the moment in the film that caused me to cry out loud (“No, no, no!”), was the closing credits, white words rolling by on a black screen:

Co-directors: Anonymous (1 of 2); Producers: Anonymous (1 of 6); Cinematographers: Anonymous (1 of 3); Second Camera: Anonymous, Anonymous, Anonymous; Line Producers: Anonymous, Anonymous. On and on the list of anonymous Indonesians²Production Manager, Recording Engineer, Dance Coach, Makeup Artists, Gaffers, and more²scrolls by. Indonesians do not feel safe²still²to tell the truth about 1965.

Development of “The Act of Killing” began in 2005. It was released eight years later in 2013. The acts of killing re-enacted in the film mostly occurred almost 50 years ago. Anonymous is the film’s final testimony to the enduring dominance of the state’s master narrative and the lack of remorse by those who committed widespread crimes so systematically. Theologically we say they have neither confessed nor repented. So can there be redemption? Part of the answer to this question lies, I believe, in the words of the documentary’s anonymous (Indonesian) co-director:

Through the imaginations and recollections of the mass murderers
featured—men who supported, even created this corrupt structure—I understand, with particular clarity, how one of the devices of the old regime is still working so efficiently. It is the ‘projector’ that keeps playing, on an endless loop, a fiction film inside every Indonesian’s head. People like Anwar and his friends are the projectionists, showing a subtle but unavoidable form of propaganda, which creates the kind of fantasy through which Indonesians may live their lives and make sense of the world around them; a fantasy that makes them desensitized to the violence and impunity that define our society. This is the true legacy of the dictatorship: the erasure of our ability to imagine anything other.

An important question for us today in the Indonesian churches, and its institutions, is this: Does the Good News to which we bear witness help birth new imaginations? This is a matter of learning to live beyond Indonesia’s volatility that often lurks just below the surface of decorum. It is a matter of redemption.

God’s blessings and peace,

John and Karen Campbell-Nelson serve with the Evangelical Church of West Timor. John serves as a staff support for the Synod’s Theological Commission and Synod programs. Karen serves as a Professor.


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