Photo illustration by: Ferganata I. Riatmoko
On 22 September 2020, the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies in cooperation with the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America held an online seminar (public theology webinar) entitled ‘Ignore, Resist or Engage?: Global Responses to Religious Nationalism’. There were three speakers for this webinar. The first speaker was Dr. Sathianathan Clarke, the Bishop Sundo Kim Chair in World Christianity and Professor of Theology, Culture, and Mission at Wesley Theological Seminary. Dr. Clarke previously taught at United Theological College in Bangalore, India and as visiting faculty at Harvard University Divinity School. The second speaker was Dr. Dicky Sofjan, lecturer and core doctoral faculty at ICRS. The third speaker was Angela Denker, a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist who wrote the book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump. The moderator of this webinar was Rev. Dr Sivin Kit, Program Executive for Public Theology and Interreligious Relations, Department for Theology, Mission and Justice of the Lutheran World Federation.
Dr. Sathianathan Clarke spoke from the Indian context, where the phenomenon of religious nationalism has become extraordinarily strong in recent years. Clarke said that the issue of religious nationalism is becoming increasingly worrisome. Religious nationalism combines with the political forces that control the life of the state down to the level of reconstituting the court, and legitimizes violence by the majority toward religious minorities. Clarke argues that the role of interreligious engagement must be renewed in a critical context like this. Interreligious relations and dialogue are no longer enough to just meet and pray together, but we must fight for justice and the rights of life for all groups. Clarke also emphasized that interreligious groups should no longer be merely a pious elite group but who do not act when there is discrimination and even violence against minority groups. All religious groups must work together to strive for the right to live a decent and just life in the context of the common world for every human being and, especially, for victims of religious nationalism.
Meanwhile, Dr. Dicky Sofjan, as the second speaker, explained that in the Indonesian context, the issue of religious nationalism take different forms than that of India. According to Sofjan, the problem in Indonesia is not solely religious nationalism, but the strengthening of the transnational religious movement that wants to introduce new state ideologies into Indonesia. Sojan finds that this kind of movement is not limited to Indonesia, but exists in several other Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Sofjan also added that this transnational religious movement does not only come from Islamic groups, even though Islam is one of the largest as it concerns these types of movements.
Furthermore, Sofjan argues that Indonesia is fortunate, because in the midst of the challenges of the Islamic transnational religious movement that brings new values and ideology, Indonesia is quite capable of surviving because Indonesia has at least two important safeguards unique to its context. First, national life in Indonesia is built on the principles of appreciation against diversity, known as Bhinneka Tunggal Ika and Pancasila, in which the values of divinity, humanity, nationalism, democracy and social justice are prioritized. Sofjan quoted President Soekarno, Indonesia's first president and formulator of Pancasila, who said, “[I]f an Indonesian embraces Hinduism he should not become an Indian. If he embraces Islam he should not become an Arab,” meaning that all are free to embrace the religion but still maintain their Indonesian identity and love of diversity. Second, Indonesia has moderate religious organizations that support the ideological values of the nation. From the Islamic side, for example, there are large organizations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, which existed before Indonesia declared independence. These organizations, together with similar organizations from other religions, work together to maintain the integrity of Indonesia with all the nobility of its national values. These two religious organizations have further strengthened their influence in society by providing services to the community through the establishment of schools, universities, and hospitals. However, Sofjan also finds that apart from struggling with the transnational religious movement, other challenges that Indonesia now faces related to religious life are the use of religion for political interests, which, in many cases, also come at the expense of minority groups, the privatization of religion through religious institutions, and, lastly, the development of digital technology which presents both challenges and opportunities in the management of religious life.
The last speaker, Angela Denker, argues that from the perspective of American Christians (Lutheran), religious nationalism and violence motivated by it continues to grow in America. Through her research and book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, Denker found that the largest denomination of Christianity in the US, the Southern Baptist Convention, is closely related with the Republican Party. A source of concern with the rise of religious nationalism is the distortion of the gospel, wherein religion is used to gain political power and influence. Other problems related to religious nationalism in the US can be seen from the life of the community at the grassroots level, where idolatrous attitudes are apparent in people’s reverence for the flag, national anthem, and even military activity, in which the sacrifice of military members is equated with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Another issue that must also be acknowledged is that increasing racism is also closely linked to Christianity in America. For Denker, the context of problems like this is extremely worrisome and requires cooperation from various parties in order that all these problems can be resolved.