Indonesian Catholics gather at a church for a Christmas Eve Mass in Surabaya. (Photo: Juni Kriswanto/AFP)
Just before Christmas, on Dec. 23, Indonesia’s President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo appointed six new cabinet ministers. What attracted the most attention from this event was the brief post-inauguration speech by the new minister of religion, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas. In his speech, Gus Yaqut, as he is commonly known, outlined his mission possible.
He stated that the first step in his mission is to make sure that religion is positioned as an inspiration, not an aspiration. Religion must no longer be used as a political tool in attempts to oppose the government or to seize power, nor for other purposes. Essentially, religion must promote the values of goodness and peace.
In support of this reconstruction of religion as a system of values, Gus Yaqut seeks to improve ukhuwah Islamiyah, a notion that stresses the importance of unity of all Muslims in carrying out their crucial task of peace building in the Muslim-majority nation.
More than that, Gus Yaqut is also determined to establish ukhuwah wathoniyah, — that is, unity of all Indonesians regardless of religious and ethnic differences. He explained why this is so important. Indonesia’s independence was achieved because of a collaborative struggle by all religions, not just the work of one single religion such as Islam.
Historically, there was no single fighter, and therefore there should be no single claim of one religion being more meritorious than other religions in the history of Indonesia’s independence from colonialism.
The reclaiming of ukhuwah wathoniyah is essential not just for acknowledging the role of other minority religions in the independence struggle but also for creating a sense of ownership of Indonesia. The country belongs to all.
Also strategic to Gus Yaqut is the idea of ukhuwah basyariyah, which refers to the cruciality of unity between all human beings. No other religion is more important than our universal humanity. We all belong to one humanity, an idea that is strongly advocated by the Dalai Lama, as discussed in the book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (2012).
Gus Yaqut’s brief speech outlining his ideas and commitment was timely and a relief to many in Indonesia, particularly Christians who were then preparing for Christmas. The minister’s speech gave a kind of assurance that the state would make sure that Christians should feel safe celebrating the commemoration of the birth of Jesus.
This year there were no reports of threats to churches during Christmas celebrations. Maybe it was because big gatherings were still not allowed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some churches and cathedrals were empty or at least half-full. Christians who gathered to celebrate Christmas this time seemed to feel relatively at ease and secure.
This public sense of security was perhaps partly due to the post-inauguration speech by Gus Yaqut, who emphasized the imperative of peace in the country and the world. Indeed, where there is mutual respect and inclusiveness there is peace, and where there is peace there is cooperation in the development of the country. These aspects — respect, inclusiveness, peace and cooperation — are all vital in the process of transforming Indonesia to become a prosperous nation economically and socially.
I have spent Christmas in several places in Indonesia throughout my life including and mostly in non-Muslim-majority regions such as Bali and the eastern province of Nusa Tenggara Timur. Unlike in times past, I noted, particularly over the last two or so decades, public safety during times of religious celebration such as Christmas is no longer being taken for granted.
All attendees were thoroughly checked before entering churches in case any dangerous objects were carried inside. Sometimes I wonder if the same level of inspection of one’s body and belongings was carried out on those entering other houses of worship.
There are always police or even the armed forces guarding churches during significant Christian holy days. While people may feel safe celebrating Christmas in the presence of armed police and the army, their very presence reflects the possibility and threat of violence.
At Christmas this year, it seemed the show of force by police and the armed forces was not needed precisely because the churches were half-full, if not empty, due to Covid-19, but also because the state had sent a strong message to anyone who may contemplate plans to disturb the security of worship.
The state is not alone in sending clear messages of respect and peace. There were also individuals who recorded messages of religious tolerance and spread them on social media.
Gus Miftah, for example, states that all religions are good. No religion should feel superior to others. He even used the analogy of Indonesia as a big home with six rooms — for Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucianists. All have their own rooms and must respect each other’s privacy. Where there is mutual respect, it can be guaranteed that no one is feeling threatened.
Further, Gus Miftah recited a story of his own experience witnessing Muslims and Christians helping and supporting each other in certain religious events such as Christmas and Eid al-Fitr. There was no sense of suspicion and threat amongst them.
Maybe they understand what it means to be religious without losing their humanity. What unites people of different faiths is universal humanity. To be religious is to be human, not the other way around.
To promote inclusiveness, respect and peace during Christmas, it may be necessary to consider placing more emphasis on the secular Jesus. The philosopher Julian Baggini, in his book The Godless Gospel, seeks to retrieve Jesus for the secular age. What really matters is Jesus’ teaching. Baggini tries to eliminate all miracles and the God-talk to arrive at the essence of Jesus’ message of morality, peace and justice.
This appeal to secular human values is important to keep Jesus (and Christmas) relevant for a world that is weary of dogma, as well as a way to create connectedness in societies that are increasingly becoming heterogenized.
Christmas is a message of peace, and all must feel safe celebrating it.
Justin Wejak studied philosophy in Indonesia, theology and anthropology in Australia, and currently teaches at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.