Paper: Javanese Orthodox Christians and the downscaling of custom, by Stephen Headley

Javanese Orthodox Christians &  the downscaling of custom 

International Conference on Christianity and the State in Asia: Complicity and Conflict

(Asian Research Institute, Singapore, 10 – 12 January, 2007)

 Stephen C. Headley (CNRS/ EHESS, Paris)

(draft 29.XII. 2006)

 In the middle of the XXth century Hannah Arendt, among others, claimed that the notion of authority in this modern age was out of date, null and void. She argued that  authority was a hollow concept because it was authorized by a relation with a metaphysical beyond, a transcendent elsewhere where both religion and tradition, the divine and the ancient converged. This supposition of desuetude is, of course, the result of that crisis that occurred in the XVIth and XVIIth centuries when Luther overturned tradition and Hobbes revoked religion. Hierarchy henceforth came to mean domination because there was no longer any other vision than the horizontal one of society. For Max  Weber authority was recuperated by political power.

The great achievement of the enlightenment was the ushering of God off center stage and the creation of a new totality, society, over whom the state was ordained to reign. However in countries where religion is an important part of an overall circulation of values within society, hierarchy is still with us and the relation between the emperor and the priest (Dagron 1996) is still, non obstant the enlightenment, a reality. The relation of the part to the whole in a religious cosmology is to enable this world (dunia) to continue to receive the blessing of the Creator.

For a whole to be a whole, it must encompass its parts and so in Europe after the enlightenment religion was increasingly simply part of that larger social whole. In an island like Java where the neologism for society (masyarakat) only appeared in the 1920’s in their lexicon one can hardly say that society represents the whole. Whether Muslim or Christian, Allah is the nominative for God and is addressed as the totality. In Indonesia the experience of a contemporary Muslim teacher (kyai) like Abdur Rahman Wahid, Indonesia’s ex-president, shows that  the authority of a religious teacher cannot be directly translated into the political sphere. But the figure of Abdur Rahman Wahid also illustrates something else which I take as my starting point for this paper. These Javanese Muslim leaders show that while power can be grasped, conquered politically, authority can only be given to you, in this case by those Muslims who respect a common often unspoken hierarchy of values.

In Indonesia the interests of the state and Islam rarely coincide, due to  the “normalisation” of religion under Pancasila (the five principles summarizing the spirit of the Indonesian Republic). Now since the fall of Soeharto in May 1998 even this faith in Pancasila is openly denied, as is much of the nation state’s ideological underpinnings. As the group Yappika pointed out (Jakarta Post 8.IX.06), even the banner law of the Reform era, the law on regional autonomy, rather than reducing the corruption and centralism of Jakarta-based politicians, has hardly produced a kind of administration, albeit regional,  that is the mirror image of the nation’s capital.  Following the 1997-98 monetary crisis(krismon), the sectarian violence promoted by the various laskars (militias) and the imposition of shari’a through vigilante violence has forced those who believe in peaceful community co-existence to shift their focus to the lowest local level. If living together (bersamaan) was to continue, and since the state was unlikely to provide any help on a day to day basis, the local communities were thrown back on their own resources which were primarily those of social solidarity. Certainly when the conflicts are as enduring as is indicated by the continuing appeal of the Darul Islam movement (1950’s onwards) in some parts of Java, one is dealing with a political agenda that is transmitted culturally, a form of alternative nationalism.

The situation in Java, no matter how culturally specific and difficult, cannot be an exception to the globalization of contacts between different Christianities. Even in much larger states with “strong” governments like China, speaking the truth to power is only possible if one practices a receptive listening and clear communication with those with whom one disagrees locally, your immediate neighbors. Politics of identity will continue to be manipulated by the state’s representatives, but advocacy work and contextual theologies will also continue to search beyond the self and the closed community by inventing and re-adapting styles of justice and peace struggles that have proved successful in other parts of the world[1].

In the twenty first century Prof. Mbiti (cf. P. Jenkins The Next Christendom. 2003:2) shows why the centers of Christianity will no longer be Geneva, Rome , Athens, Paris, London or New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Adaba and Manila. Samuel Kobia (general secretary of the WCC) recently pointed out in a speech to the Shanghai Christian Council (16.XI.06), the churches gravitating around these centers will have to articulate the relationship of self-understanding (ecclesiastical) with self representation (ecclesiological)and that  among a variety of religious bodies. It is not only Christian and Muslims that are misinformed about each other, but also Christians faced with other Christians. In 1990 there were 313 million Christians in Asia, in 2025 there will be 460 million.

The distinction between society and church will gain in importance those Christian and  Muslim  institutions of meaning[2] show their ability to mobilize people in and around the local parishes and mesjids. I am not sure that small is beautiful ipso facto, but in the ecology of local social coherence I have studied, these local religious communities wield an authority much greater that the corresponding civil institutions. Despite their limited power and in some instances flagrant false semblance, the local religious capital of  these believers is an important dimension of the  public sphere and not merely private beleif. It will surprise no one that the French Republican ideal that only the individual stripped bare of his religious and cultural particularities can accede to the totality represented by the society of the state doesn’t hold in Asia.

After its deep freeze during the Soeharto regime, in the 1990’s Javanese custom (adat) experienced a centrifugal triangulation  during which broke apart into “religion” (agama) , ethnicity (sukuisme) and “clanism” (kekeluargaan). After the renewal of Islam that took  place during the 1980’s, adat also provided a way to rediscover a certain inclusivism already exemplified by major currents in the Nahdlatul Ulama. These two developments both favoured tolerance and mutual acceptance between religions. Complicity with the Soeharto apparatus as well as its opposite, direct  conflict, were surpassed in the ideals of the reformasi movement after May 1998, yet this construction of a certain inter-religious civility was not based on the ideology of imported secular pluralism as promoted for instance by the Yogyakarta Institut DIAN/ Interfidei. Although elsewhere in central Sulawasi , southern Kalimantan and the Ambon different kinds of reconciliation movements managed to slow the massacres, in central Java a collective effort occurred to “raise the canopy of heaven” to such a height that praxis of religion could not be manipulated towards faith-based voting. Non obstant the terrorism propagated by the  Ngruki pesantrèn under Ba’ashir, this certainly represented a new kind of internal conversion cutting across stereotyped religious “belongings”. It brought the Javanese Christians  together with Muslims not on the basis of religion strictly-speaking, but on the basis of the capacity of encompassment provided by their common Javanese culture and its adat. The Jakarta based Ministry of Religion, in this instance, proved itself largely irrelevant to the requirements of inter-religious dialogue.

Because we are dealing with questions of social scale, it is interesting to  turn to what is perhaps Asia’s smallest church. The Javanese Orthodox with some ten parishes, a micro-minority in an ocean of Javanese Muslims. To answer understand its fit into Javanese society, we will explore this Orthodox example from its inception. The creation of a Javanese Orthodox church in 1990 was the result of a purely indigenous process of conversion; no foreign missionaries were involved. Although this new church was accepted canonically into the Greek Ecumenical Patriarcate (Constantinople), it maintained a very “insular” Indonesian cultural outlook while becoming part of the universal Orthodox liturgical and theological tradition. If initially this seemed to bypass the issue of globalisation, it did not solve the issue of its insertion into the “Christian” department of the Ministry of Religion in Jakarta. Eventually the Javanese Orthodox church was taken in under the umbrella of the Indonesian Protestant Churches. Although in fact these Orthodox were much closer to the Catholics dogmatically, the Roman church proved more exclusive. Some ten years later this nascent Javanese church  experienced the impact of the international divisions of the Orthodox who are members of some twenty different Patriarchates each representing a separate cultural and linguistic entity (Syrian, Greek Russian, etc.). This occurred when the first Russian Orthodox parish was opened in Jakarta by a Toraja priest trained in Belgorod (south-east Russia). Since then other Orthodox bishops have appeared on the scene ordaining their own priest from amongst the Indonesian candidates. This plurality of “jurisdictions” has weakened everyone.

Despite the last hundred years of state terror (colonial, Japanese, the military dictatorship of Soeharto, 1996-1998[3]) and the disintegration of social order since May 1998, the Javanese have been seeking to re-deploy their own profoundly communitarian social ethos. The exploitation of the so-called Pancasila ideology as a social/religious ethic by the Soeharto dictatorship to create a civil religion standing over and above the monotheisms of Islam and Christianity turned out to be a kind of secularization and was disavowed by the Indonesian population during the recent Reformation period (1998-2001). Today Pancasila is making a come-back in Indonesian inter-fidei forums[4]. Even if this approach is quite ambiguous, there is no doubt that this society is seeking to rediscover its common ethos. The basic ethos of Javanese culture is still capable of devaluating or strengthening confessional norms.

Western individualism as experienced in Java since independence (1949) seems to Javanese to create more problems than solutions[5]. Social responsibility has decreased. Individualist values have had an ‘atomizing’ impact on the social mores of the Javanese due to their social definition of a person and their ‘personal’ implication in society’s networks.. This does not mean that families are always close knit, but that this intimacy is a constant dimension on personal expression and behavior as well as providing a social safety net. It also means that procedures of consensus and mechanisms of communal integration are highly valued. Christianity, whatever the denomination, is judged by this criterion.

Orthodoxy, this latecomer to Indonesian Christianity, can hardly pretend to grow to a size rivalling that of the Protestants and Catholics in central Java. The best analytical approach focuses on the trade off between the localisation of a specifically Orthodox type of holism (what the Slavophiles called conciliarity or sobornost) and the revival of local Javanese adat in the last years of the Soeharto dictatorship

One cannot expect a distinctive Indonesian Orthodox theology from a church founded just seventeen years ago. Furthermore, since the Orthodox Church, the church of the seven councils, is united by one theology, it is to be expected that any variations in that theology will be found in its cultural expression more than in its dogmatic content. In order to describe the conversion of a small number of Indonesians, mostly Javanese, to Jesus Christ and their entering the Orthodox Church (Metropolia of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia; Ecumenical Patriarchate) we need to listen to their witness, and to situate it in the context of the Orthodox in Asia[6]. We also need to understand something of the cultural milieu in which their journey took place. It is a truism to say that peoples experience Christ in their own way. I have become sufficiently familiar with the island of Java in Indonesia over the last thirty-five years to willingly admit how much lies outside of my understanding. Certain kinds of questions don’t bear asking and finding people able to formulate certain issues is often difficult.

1. The relation between custom and religion in Java[7]

The guards sent by the Pharisees to capture Christ, on returning empty-handed, said “Never man spake like this man (John 7:45). During his last supper with his disciples, Christ says that one can only approach the Father through Christ. Likewise His voice is unique for the Javanese Orthodox. In a country where religious practice is so important, and religious pluralism is hierarchized (ie Islam claims pride of place), the distinctiveness of Christ’s voice becomes critical. It is unique among the monotheisms in its vision of love as sacrifice. He incarnates a revelation that creates the space for their communion with God as creator. Personal evaluation of the quality and of the value of words of Christ has been, to my knowledge, the initial step of most individual conversion. Afterwards the involvement with the Orthodox spiritual fraternity across the island seems more important. In Java one’s close friends, who are also in the process of deepening their faith in God (addressed as Allah) provide the “culture of conversion” in which one’s own faith ferments and matures. This was especially the case during the founding of new parishes. In Java the first one (Sumber, Surakarta, central Java) dates from 1990[8].

The parish structure in Java is “downstream” from the religious practice which the believer carries out with his family and friends. Just as in Russia where para-, or extra-church religious activities identify full fifty percent of the some eighty million Orthodox[9], so also in Java religiosity begins well outside the parish precincts. In a society like the Javanese, everyone believes in God. The content of their faith and the praxis of prayer differentiate one from other believers. An example: like the Javanese Protestants, Javanese Orthodox always bring their Bibles to church with them to read the words of Christ as they hear them preached. On the other hand unlike the Protestants, they expect from their priests a sermon that is not exclusively based on scripture, but one that also shows how the Church has experienced and understood the Word of God. To this extent it is a church / community specific exegesis. The Javanese who convert from Islam are practicing an personal evaluation of their new faith. They are especially sensitive to the uninterrupted apostolic succession in the Christian umat (community). It is the purity of faith and doctrine that the Orthodox church proposes which carries conviction. This unity of the faith down through the centuries around the unique person of the Messiah consolidates the Word of God, the sacred text of His teachings and their transmission across the continents.

Given the very visible divisions between Protestant and Catholic churches in Java, for the majority of the local population who are Muslims, the Orthodox represent a totally nameless numerical minority. Islam is the majority faith in Indonesia and benefits from an immense prestige, comparisons between it and Christianity are unavoidable. To defend themselves the Orthodox do not only define themselves as Javanese, as we will show below, but certain stress that their faith is also from the Middle East, Antiochian (ie the Patriarchate in Damascus). The common geographical Middle Eastern origin of the faith of Orthodox Christians and Muslims is valued since ninety per cent of modern Javanese religious terminology is of Arabic origin. For theological debate Arabic terms, if not Arabic language is prevalent[10].

For all their capacities of assimilation acquired through  the cosmopolitan location of this archipelago (the great maritime route from India to China), Javanese society, religiously speaking, is very Java-centric. In this context  Islam was the last pre-colonial religion and the first monotheistic religion to de domesticated in Indonesia[11]. When  Indonesian “eastern” Christians stress their Middle Eastern, as opposed to the Greek or Russian origin of their faith, they are claiming that Aramaic / Syrian / Antiochian Christianity comes from the same region that fostered Islam . This is one way to dissociates one from the colonial period of mission that brought the two forms of western Christianity. Although all the Orthodox priests have all been trained in Greek Orthodox seminaries, and their bishop, Metropolitan Nikitas, is of Greek extraction,  the Middle Eastern strain of Javanese Orthodoxy has an affinity even if they remain have no direct experience  of a real Antiochian expression of faith. Behind this lies another more important fact. Javanese Orthodox are looking for a total manner of living the Christian life is what, not just parishes or a “church”. Orthodoxy is not supposed to be a part-time religion, expressed in part time values.

As was said above, recently, while Javanese have scaled down their dimensions of the society in their search for social harmony, but they are still seeking a socio-cosmic whole. Before the twentieth century, a whole Javanese kingdom was often the unity in which social harmony was expressed. Now the Javanese only hope that social harmony may be achieved in local residential communities[12]. It is no longer expected that this ethos will be shared by the entire population (one hundred million plus) living on Java. Likewise Orthodox parishes are too few and far between to be able to feel as if they are “the Church” and challenge widely accepted Javanese custom. At best they can discourage behavior that is incompatible with fundamental Christian beliefs. In all other respects they attempt to express the Christian message in those positive cultural forms that are dearest to them. What I am suggesting here is that just as in the eighteenth century “politicologues” in Europe, when the whole question of transcendence in Java was politicized, today as Indonesian republic’s struggle to be the whole turns out to be undecisive, Javanese religious communities are in a position to down-scale the whole to the scale of their membership of while still maintaining the pretension to appeal to a transcendent horizon of meaning. The state’s long term efforts  in relativising such efforts by claiming that Pancasila is the umbrella under which all monotheisms are sheltered is less and less of a threat .

2. The transcendent interface between Orthodox and Javanese praxis

Neighborhoods are primordial. While the Christian Savior (juru slamet) is the Lord of heaven, but their community is a terrestrial and  territorial one, based on where their house/church stands[13]. In their neighbors are unlikely to be other Orthodox, but their are other Christians. One’s neighbors expect friendliness, intimacy and mutual help (guyub) as opposed to business relations (tembaya), based on pecuniary interest. They are also implicated in the normal cycle of  customary life rituals, from childhood, the founding of a family by marriage  through to death, most of these being observed according to Javanese custom by all Muslims, Christians and polytheists, but with confessional adaptations. The Javanese style marriage will be celebrated alongside a “Javanese” marriage for a Muslim couple, while the Christians will incorporate many traditions from this Javanese adat (custom) alongside their sacrament, modifying them to incorporate the Christian perspectives. Almost every Javanese Orthodox couple can show you elaborate photograph albums of their ritual vigil (lenggah midodarèni), bath (siraman : adusan), and wedding dressing which precede the large reception that it is usual to hold. The Christian marriage rite is sandwiched in between. Nothing tells us to which the greatest importance is attributed.

In the ambiguous interface between religion and custom, one finds Puritan movements among both Christians (especially Protestants, i.e. Pentecostals, etc.) and Muslims (Muhammadiyah) who refuse the continuation of traditional Javanese customs in these religious contexts. Even if this is theologically justified, it is understood by many Javanese as a disavowal of the inclusive dimension of their society. Exclusiveness, denying the local social network, is even considered by some Christians to deny the universality of the kingdom of God as expressed in the Javanese sense of fraternity. Let me explain by using an example.

A proposal in marriage (lamaran/ tembugan) to the family of the eventual fiancée involves asking the male members of that family for the hand of a daughter. This is couched in an elevated rhetoric which knows no religious distinctions; it is simply “high” Javanese. In February 2001 I attended one of these proposal ceremonies. Both fiancés were Orthodox, but nothing distinguished the formal dialogue from a Muslim proposal. Only eventually does the ritual of engagement as practiced by the Orthodox Church and the subsequent wedding sacrament carries an obvious Christian cachet. Such is the strength of Javanese culture. Later, after the birth of a child the first rituals are usually not baptism which takes place when the child is several months old, but the calendric rituals which take place according to the Javanese understanding of the cycle of conception and are held at home. This calendar possesses a five day and a seven day week and a two hundred and ten day year. These rituals take place in the home of the baby’s parents which serves as a place of worship on many occasions. The mother will wait till her fortieth day to be churched, but will have already ritually buried the placenta (one of the baby’s four invisible guardian). This recalls the macro-cosmic origin of the protective spirit (the placenta) one of four elder and younger “siblings” that accompany the fetus into the lower world.

A final example of the cohesiveness of local social meshing favoring inclusiveness: at Lebaran, the end of the great Muslim fast of Ramadhan, a vast cycle of reconciliation, forgiveness ceremonies are held (halal bihalal) that involve all the networks of society both vertical and horizontal in a multitude of evening gatherings. Some are exclusively Muslim or some Christian, while others are for all the residents of the same hamlet or factory or school. If you are invited and every one is,  it is difficult not to accept. And who would want to refuse this harmony with people you see every day? Maintaining harmony above and beyond of the nuclear family is given a high priority [14]. In this effort religious beliefs are an aid and only become an obstacle when manipulated by politicians who recruit fanatical groups for their own ends[15]. Orthodox differ little from other Christians in their participation in and  their accommodation of religion and custom. Regardless of their religious affiliation, most people feel that the one enhances the other.

All these examples of conforming one’s rite de passage to Javanese custom (adat) are felt to confirm macrocosmic correspondences to our microcosmic world. This set of persuasive and pervasive homologies unites society to the cosmos. This is possible because there is a hierarchy of being stretching from Allah, the Creator, to the lowest form of created biological life. Society is woven together by this great chain of being. What justifies, for instance, praying at one’s father’s grave when facing an important decision or leaving on a long trip for a Christian, is not polytheistic spirit cults, but the knowledge that one’s father’s soul still lives and this provides a link with the cosmos. Protestant Christianity has shown that when one exits cosmology, one eliminates eschatology. The Javanese generally share a believe in an all-pervasive Providence which is relayed by the hierarchy of spirits somewhat resembling that of Pseudo-Dionysios[16]. Although spirit cults and black magic are still practiced by the Javanese, these are personal options, and are separate, individual efforts to play on the cosmology. Custom has been severely eroded by the instrumentalizing of ethnicity, kinship and religion in political movements, but so far adat still commands spontaneous respect from the Javanese because one participates in the flow of life which carries on throughout the cosmos and which is harmonized by Providence.

3. The « whole »:  networks of family, social confidence and cosmology

Since the Javanese do not separate out nature and society as we do, neither is their understanding of the relation between state and society the same as the European one. The sphere of Javanese custom embraces kinship relations and integrates them so that they correspond with other relationships in society and nature at large. This is done in order to reinforce them by a socio-cosmic harmony. Through micro-macro correspondences, one conceives of the world as a whole. For the Javanese this wholeness is a value of the same importance as the oneness of God for monotheists. This is the model of the totality of life for the Javanese; in it all relations between persons and Allah (God) are integrated. It is a social “given”, as we have just tried to show above. What is not fully elaborated is a standard of articulation between Christian Orthodox practice and this “Javanëity” (kejawèn). This is currently elaborated by each family on the basis of its criteria of intimacy (kakraban): intimacy is to be sought between a person and God, between a family and its neighbors, between the living and the dead. The Orthodox liturgical practice can integrate much of this adat-based Javanese vision once they “baptize” it. Orthodox eucharistic theology envisages the person not as an ontology, but through a theology of relationships. A person is, and exists, only when in communion with God in His Incarnate Word[17]. Since we are created by God, our relationship with Him (through his image in which we are created) makes such communion possible. The pastoral work of the Orthodox priest in Java consists in making this theology explicit and giving the Orthodox families the necessary criteria for evaluating their ancestral vision of the world around them, the means to articulate their custom with their religion.  The identifications and distinctions between Javanese values and Christian ones are critical and cannot be accomplished without such personal family-based evaluation. General moralizations do not really help as they tend to “throw out the baby (the faith) with the bath water (i.e. eventual syncretism)”.

What to do? Javanese do not want to detach themselves from their own culture. They have joined the Orthodox church to participate in the communion of the Trinity and not to become less Javanese. Javanese culture over the centuries has shown an extraordinary ability to adapt and absorb[18]. Religion is based in that temple (dalem) which is one’s house. Therein lies, for the Javanese, the depository of these accumulated traditions. This is visually obvious in the palace of princes and discreetly present in the rice granary of peasant houses[19] Indeed the house remains an “inside” temple for rituals concerning birth, circumcision, marriage and death[20]. This site of key rituals shapes the Javanese notion of person[21] (Headley 1996). How a person is, say born and buried, how people of different religious adherence pray together on these occasions[22] is clearly an expression of the social morphology into which the participants with varied religious commitments are integrated. Is there a fundamental incompatibility?

The milieu of Christ’s preaching in Judea and Galilee does not seem so foreign to the Javanese. Both their experience in Java with paganism and sectarianism, as well as their understanding of an unequivocal commitment to follow Christ, is quite congruent with the social picture given by the Gospels of first century Palestine. In brief not everything about Javanese society challenges or compromises Christianity. An example: after the last day of the Muslim fast of Ramadhan one asks forgiveness on one’s knees (sumungkem) of every one in one’s family and neighbors, Muslims and non-Muslims. In a somewhat similar way, but at the beginning of their fast, Orthodox Christians enter the fifty day great Paschal by reaching out to their entire entourage on Forgiveness Sunday asking for mutual forgiveness. Through ascetic practices (fasting, alms, and prolonged prayer) they will try to prepare for their feast or feasts, Easter. The reconciliation they are seeking is readily understandable to their non-Christian neighbors. This is a society that, despite the violence that has sapped it, knows the meaning of truth and reconciliation, both on the social-politcal level, but also on the religious level.

If an Orthodox asking for mutual forgiveness at the beginning of the fast does not seem out of place to a Muslim, nor will other Javanese question the importance of repentance and forgiveness as the articulation of religion and the social life of the extended family. The real danger lies elsewhere. The political instrumentalisation of ethnicity and religion by political parties based in the capital of Jakarta or, since decentralization, in the provincial capitals, tends to tear apart the fabric of Javanese custom and create a climate where violence is used to “purify society” of those whose sins (maksiat) “offend our religious values”. Abolishing transcendence excludes the possibility of mediation.

By spreading a climate of fear, this politicized jihad  spread a climate of fear serving the interests of ambitious political factions, but they have also driven Muslims and Christians together in inter-faith networks that defend local religious tolerance. For instance, several times the Orthodox church in the western suburbs of Sumber in Surakarta was threatened with being burned down and these networks were activated to protect it with alnight guards to dissuade the arsonists. It may seem that has nothing to do with the relationship of religion and family. Even the Indonesian constitution enshrines the ideology of community based on the model of the family as the principle (azaz, literally foundation) for community life.

The link between religion and family resides in the fact that the extended (not the nuclear) family is the trope for society. The religious values invested in the one spill over to the other. The individual is not imagined over against a larger society of anonymous individuals, but as a member of a family. The extended family is deemed to function as a prism of society[23]. When harmony breaks down in this kind of polity, it is considered a trial coming from God and the “family” must put itself in question. This is done most clearly by communal prayer, nowadays often expressed in interfidei assemblies. In order to reintegrate the members of society and to prevent the triangular tearing apart of custom by factors of ethnicity and religion, the family model is primordial. It is here that the territorially-based parish[24] and the territorially-based neighborhood look alike. They would seem to function on the same model, the extended family. In the diagram below (fig. 1), we can see that economic and political forces breaking up the earlier unity of custom.. The norms of social behavior as ordained by custom used to apply simultaneously to all facets of society such that religion was inseparable from kinship and being Javanese. This unity, once broken up gives rise to separate categories as shown below.

4. Re-assembling the whole through individual evaluation and faith

By presenting its vertical of transcendence Christianity can help reverse this trend and consolidate a pan-Javanese custom by appealing to values of the ancestors and self sacrifice that animate local neighbor networks. Religion, as long as it resists recuperation by politicians, has an indispensable role to play in Javanese society today. Although in Sulawesi and the Moluccas where Christians have succumbed to provocation, this has been difficult to accomplish recently. In Java so far, Christianity has managed to stay out of local or Jakartan sponsored strategies of violence. The protection of the city of Yogyakarta in May 1998 is the best known example. Although, depending on the area of Java, Christians are only 5-15 % of the population, the different Christian churches there are trying to speak the truth and practice the beatitudes. Islam is subject to much more nefarious pressures. In Java leaving aside the laskar, certain political parties, like the PAN, have occasionally deliberately used their Puritan tendencies to separate themselves out “from all the others”. This has awakened Indonesians to the realization that religion must remain religion, uniting (re-ligo) everyone. The Javanese beliefs based on the trope of the family underpins any reconstruction of social confidence in society after thirty five years of state-sponsored violence. The Javanese belief in the socio-cosmic roots of brotherhood and togetherness defends, not the equality of individuals, but the belonging of every person to the larger society which is seen as a ensemble with its own checks and balances. The rapprochement of this whole with monotheism cannot be made through any “civil religion”. This was tried by Soeharto’s dictatorship and only resulted in cynicism and selfishness.

It is important to qualify all that what just said above by a reservation. In a society like Java with its own hierarchy of values, personal, as opposed to individualistic, evaluation and verification of them is indispensable. This becomes doubly important when one is a Christian Partcipating in a  pseudo-holism involving the amorphous body of Javanese traditions, can only reinforce individual for community in the modern sense of that word is only the collective transcription of modern individualism transcribed onto the social sphere. The Javanese  ethos of rasa (meaning) provides the individual with a praxis of personal subjectivity. One doesn’t take on board all that is Javanese, but only those elements of tradition which correspond to what you feel in your bathin (interiority). One seeks “satisfaction” ( marem), an authentic fit with them. If one feels at peace and at one with a belief, with real feeling (again, rasa), then one commits oneself to it. There is no Javanese word for conversion other than “entering”  Islam[25], but marem indicates this kind of deep personal approval. Pentecostals stress conversion (konversi), but the Javanese seek out this private “adequation” between inner response to an outward call. It is not by chance that Javanese personal prayer is usually sotto voce. That is where one can hear one’s inner feelings (bathin) and respond or not to the exteriors of religious praxis.

On another level, Islam has introduced Java to the dialectics of dogmatic expression and theological debate. The highly integrated structure of Orthodox dogmatics appeals to some Javanese because it is expressed so completely in the liturgies of the Church. In spite of the fact that the entire hymnographic cycle of the Eastern Christian liturgy has yet to be translated into Indonesian, there exists among the faithful recognition that in following the full cycle of church services one  hears a complete running commentary on the economy of salvation and its expression in Holy Scripture. The religious background of those who join the Orthodox Church varies, influencing the behavior of these neophytes. Javanese who were members of the Calvinist (the Javanese Dutch Reform church or GKJ), have a their solid knowledge of scripture, and need a clear and coherent doctrinal expositions of every aspect of the faith. One of the Orthodox priests (they are all Indonesians) has been at work on this task of exegesis  since the 1980’s. He began by writing a Javanese language exposition of the Nicene creed[26]. He continued with a rigorous exposition of the Orthodox faith[27] and more recently has published a book on biblical dogmatic theology[28]. His approach is always scriptural. His preaching and his writing  clear and rigorous . This was largely reasonable for the interest of university students around Surakarta in the Orthodox faith.

Of course peasants who were Muslim, don’t take to doctrine as seriously as converts from amongst the university students, but, because of their capacity for good relationships with the priest and parishioners, they are often extremely well integrated into the parishes. As with any neophyte, the awareness of their new faith will fade if they are not given proper pastoral care. There can also be difficulties due to mixed marriages or in a overwhelming Muslim extended family[29]. The ability to defend one’s convictions is usually not on the basis of the fact that they are my convictions (i.e. individualism), but because I belong to such and such a parish or belong to such and such a prayer group. While personal evaluation is well developed, it is also true the phenomenon of successive sincerities, due to group pressure, is common. Javanese will often have been part of several religious bodies during the course of their lifetimes. This also can be due to genuine changes of conviction. Withdrawal (mundur) from young Orthodox parishes is not uncommon after several years if the convert is trying to articulate their new faith in conjunction with other earlier commitments to family, or if they are, as many were, empoverished by the Indonesian economic collapse of 1997. Catechism and Bible study groups can stabilize people in these fragile moments, but even a Bible study group requires a certain level of homogeneity. These often operate without the presence of the priest, and if the commitment of those with a strong background in the Bible is not a mature and pedagogical one, then other members may becomer “stalled” (mandheg) , they may become discouraged. The quality of the participation of the neophyte and the level of the care by the parish priest and the active parishioners is indispensable in a cultural milieu like Java where the expression of the faith is deeply communitarian. Exploits of solitary quest for the true faith are unusual. What is more typical is the neophyte’s visiting many parishes in an effort to learn from each one something of the fullness of the church he/she has joined.

5.  Liturgical Cosmology:  an alternative to a national  pseudo-holism of the state

Up till this point we have given more of the sociology of the Javanese Orthodox experience than its theology. That was done because, as I have stressed repeatedly, faith in Christ Jesus is experienced in one’s inner heart (hati nurani) as a personal belonging and group participation in Church, the New Israel. The Javanese Orthodox Christian is best observed when he participates in the divine offices of his faith. Prayer in Southeast Asia is polyvalent, able to address a multitude of kinds of beings[30]. There can be no ambiguity however about the destination of prayer during the divine liturgy (Eucharist). Seated barefoot, head covered as in the mosque if they are women, looking at the iconostasis and singing the eucharistic canon in unison, the Javanese know they are waiting to enter the Kingdom of God through holy communion. Here lies the horizon of inclusion through transcendence. Confession is an integral part of the preparation[31] as are fasting and vigil services the night before the Eucharist. The pattern for all of these services is night of Easter [32].

The most common rite in Javanese religious practice, the slametan (“meal for well-being”) is also a rite of commensality, but as Beatty (1999) has shown both Adam and Vishnu can be addressed through participation in this meal. During the office of the Orthodox Church the ikons, the hymography and the whole world are seen and heard to praise the Lord’s holy resurrection. The cosmos turns towards its Lord and addressed its Maker singing of his light and truth. The symbol of completion is the Nicene creed without which no liturgy can be celebrated. The hymn of hymns is the great Doxology with which Matins ends as the Divine Liturgy begins. Without doctrinal purity, it is said, there could have been no extension of the Church of Lord to these tropical islands. Without the doxological dimension, there could be no celebration of the Holy Trinity[33].

Nor is baptism confused with “normal” Javanese purification rites, called ruwatan[34], for ruwatan can be repeated and are not indelible. Baptism does resemble Javanese exorcisms in as much as the mantra of the latter are taken from an old Javanese creation myth. The renewal of a person’s destiny is a new creation obtained by the recitation of the narrative of the first creation. This parallels the cosmological dimension of Christian baptism, except that here the communion of the saints is refashioned through communion with Holy Trinity.

The cosmological dimension of salvation for the Javanese is the opposite of an individual vision of one person’s salvation. If Christ becomes all in all, this Christian monotheism reifies their autochthonous intuition that one must conceive of the world as one. In the twenty-first century the Javanese desire for orientation inside the integrated whole will only be accomplished through a  re-structuring of its religious tradition. It is not the state’s Pancasila vision of the totality which permits a vision of  the whole, it is Allah that unifies the universe.

Ancestral Javanese religion (agama leluhur) is thus abandoned by certain Indonesians to join the Orthodox church where they find the universality of the experience of church fathers in their faith. In a certain sense they do not experience any estrangement from their culture. For them, the faith as a “gift from another” which is the literal translation of the Greek word for tradition; (parάdosis), conforms to their own mind set. They expect tradition to transmit fundamental forms and values with which each person can evaluate his/her life and the world around them. This indeed provides them with a ladder of ascent. What is totally new is the person of Christ, bending down towards them from the highest rung on the ladder that penetrates heaven, beckoning them upwards. And as they climb together they are in the company of the whole cosmos that is responding to the Word of God made Man.


Under what circumstances do these Orthodox Christian values converge with,  or diverge from the state’s agenda? Given their insignificant number the question might be judged meaningless, but if we consider Christians in general in the city of Surakarta[35], we realise that their lexicon of religious experience is differentiated in part by the same strata as that of their Muslims counterparts. Both complicity and conflict exists and I defended here the thesis that the tensions turn on the social morphology the state is promoting. The Indonesian variant of separation of church and state is the normalisation of religion under the higher umbrella ( payung) state authority. Because of  the disgrace of the state, the state as an institution of meaning is no longer operative. If it is a pseudo-holism that articulates  religious globalisation and politics then there can only be pseudo collaboration between state and church, the latter trying to stay out harm’s way as the former imposes itself through violence. In the long run, what it means to be Christian in a globalised Asia will be partially defined by the social and political position Christianity occupies micro-regionally. And of course, this will vary rapidly through time.

Even in China after fifty years of Communist rule,  the limits to the control from above exercised on tightly-knit local communities are now becoming apparent.. In central Java, as I have been able to observe it, the sources of useful collaboration between the church and state are much more likely to be found locally on the level of the villages (kalurahan) and city-wide networks where face to face, adat-structured human relationships provide a bridge to escape the evaluative indifference of the more politicised urban milieu. Unlike regional autonomy, the phenomena of fruitful inter-religious collaboration which I have observed in the city of Surakarta were invariably related to the immediate possibility of having a real impact on social life and this could only be done at the grass roots level. In a word in Java, it is because religion is non-modern that it has authority. This prestige is generated locally in local Muslim mesjid and schools (pesantrèn) and Catholic parish compounds kapastoran  and not at the level of the state. As the promise of democracy fades that of custom protected communities increases.

As sketched out in the arguments presented above, I found that  there are four values  that maintain the unity, however precarious, of Javanese culture, now challenged by the disunity provoked by outside interference via state and politics.

– The relation between custom and religion.

– The relation between family and religion.

– Individual evaluations of faith

– Cosmology as expressed in ritual exchanges between the living and the dead,

between the natural world of plants and the social world of men.


[1] – The recent (24-25.X.06) Japanese-Korean dialogue on an Asian Theology of Reconciliation  in Kyoto dealt with the historic Korean Japanese antagonism. They searched for a transnational Asian theology (Donghak or eastern learning ) which could indigenize the criticism of the alliance of Christianity and nationalism that sustains this mutual intolerance (Ecumenical news Intl. 29.XI.06)

[2]– Cf. Vincent Descombes’ critique of the notion of the collective individual in chapter 14 of his , Les Institutions du Sens, Paris : Editions du Minuit, 1996.

[3] – Cf. Violence in Indonesia, edited by Ingrid Wessel and Georgie Wimhöfer. Abera, Hamburg, 2000.

[4] – ie First joint congress of religious leaders held in Jakarta August 22-24, cf. Jakarta Post editorial September 2, 2006.

[5] – The study of the ideology of individualism first developed by Louis Dumont for comparative Indian social morphology. It has recently been used to study South Asian Islam by Ayesha Jalal in Self and Sovereignty . Individual and Community in South Asian Islam since 1850. OUP, Delhi, 2001. For a study of  Javanese Islam  from the perspective of the introduction of individualism cf. S. C.  Headley  Durga’s Mosque. Cosmology, Conversion and Community in central Javanese Islam. Singapore ISEAS, 2004.

[6] – cf. Stephen C. Headley, « Orthodoxies Asiatiques » pp.242-60 in Contacts. Revue Française de l’Orthodoxie , no. 191, 3rd. trimestre, 2000.

[7] – The Indonesian world for custom, adat, is borrowed from Arabic.  Parts of this paper appeared in Studia Missionalia, Pontifica Università Gregoriana (2001) vol.50: 217-234.

[8] – cf. Stephen C. Headley, 1990 « Naissance d’une Eglise Orthodoxe en Indonésie », 19 pp. Supplément au Service Orthodoxe de Presse no. 152, novembre, 1990.

[9] – Cf. Inna Naletova,  Pilgrims: A Way to Belong: A Socio-religious Portrait of the Russian Pilgrims and Pilgrimages. Boston University PhD April, 2006

[10] – Cf. P. J. Zoetmulder, Pantheism and Monism in Javanese Suluk literature. Islamic and Indian mysticism in an Indonesian setting ; 1935 (Dutch edition) / 1994 KITLV Press, Leiden.

[11] – A supposed Nestorian community on the west coast of Sumatra (Barus), has not been confirmed by the recent archeological work their. Cf. Claude Guillot, Histoire de Barus. Le Site de Loba Tua, vol. I. Cahiers d’Archipel no. 30, Paris 1998.

[12] – Tu Weiming, « La quête du sens : la religion en République populaire de Chine » p.150 in Peter Burger, Le réenchantement du monde,  Paris, Bayard, 2001. describes a parallel situation where the emergence of an esthetic and ethos common to the religious practice of different Taoist, Buddhist, Confuscian and Christian Chinese is possible when centered on the values of peace, harmony, equilibrium, sympathy , uprightness and communion.

[13] – Koentjariningrat, Javanese Culture. Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1979.

[14] – Unlike what A. Giddons (The Transformation of Intimacy. Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Polity Press, Cambridge, U.K., 1992) has described for Western Europe where a “democratization” of sexual mores makes intimacy more and more a question of experimentation, in Java the combat it not so much for maintaining matrimonial purity, although this can be problematic of course, but for maintaining family harmony.

[15] – Cf. Jakarta Pos 25.VI.01 ; article by Asip A. Hasani.

[16] – Cf. La Hiérarchie Célestes, Sources Chrétiennes no. 58, Editions du Cerf, Paris 1958. The fact that the notion of emanation is present in the Muslim cosmographies which derive from Neo-Platonic sources makes them seem closer to a Christian vision such as that of Pseudo-Dionysios. However if, in the past, the naturalistic Javanese cosmologies were suspected of animism, by both Muslim and Christians, it seems to me that they nonetheless introduce a dimension of divine guidance that is much closer to a Christian vision than a secularized Western vision where the cosmos is emptied of praeter-natural power but also of the Godhead that guides them. Cf. Stephen C. Headley, “Combining Javanese Cosmogonies and Muslim Cosmographies in the Manikmaya”, pp. 280-300, Indonesia and the Malay World , vol. 28, #82, 2000, London

[17] – Cf. J. Zizioulas, Being as Communion. St. Vladimir’s Press, Crestwood, 1985.

[18] – Cf. Zainuddin Fananie, Restruturisasi Budaya Jawa. Perspektif KGPAA MNI. (The Restructuring of Javanese Culture. The Perspective of KGPAA Mankunagaran I). Muhammadiyah University Press, Surakarta, 2000. & Azyumardi Azra, Jaringan Ulama. Timur Tengah dan Kepulauan Nusantara. Abad XVII dan XVIII. (The Network of the Ulama. The Middle East and Nusantaran Archipelago in the XVII and XVIII centuries) Mizan, Bandung, 1994.

[19] – Cf. « The Body as a House in Javanese Society », dans De la Hutte au Palais  sociétés “à maison” en Asie du sud-est insulaire, Editions du CNRS, Paris, pp. 133-152. 1987; « Le lit-grenier et la déesse de la fécondité, rites nuptiaux ? », Dialogue, le Lit, n° 82, (1983) Paris, pp. 77-86.

[20] – Even Christian rituals can contain appropriate Javanese calendric feast like the commemoration of the deceased. At death thee are immediately three commemorations: the burial, ninth hour; and the tahlilan prayers on 7th day with a rice cone (tumpeng) and the Surat Yaasin. In the case of the Orthodox this last is replaced by the Panykhide (requiem) service. On the influence of Javanese prayer on the Muslim counterparts, cf. Stephen C. Headley “Sembah/Salat. The Javanisation of Islamic Prayer; the Islamisation of Javanese prayer” pp. 169-212 in Stephen C. Headley et David Parkin (editors), Islamic prayer across the Indian Ocean. Inside and Outside the Mosque. Curzon Press, U. K. 2000.

[21] – Cf. Vers une anthropologie de la prière: études ethnolinguistiques javanaises. (textes réunis par Stephen C. Headley). Publications Universitaires de Provence, Aix-en-Provence. 355 pp., 1996; & Stephen C. Headley “Notes sur les Types de Soignants à Java”, pp. 225-250 in Soigner au Pluriel coordonné par Jean Benoit. Harmattan, Paris, 1996.

[22] -Andrew Beatty, Varieties of Javanese Religion. An Anthropological Account. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999.

[23] – About a failed proposal in marriage, there exists a Javanese adage « to lose an affine is to gain a sibling” (tuna sanak bathi kadang. Here one sees how say in after failed request for a daughter in marriage, society converts the former fiancée into a sibling; intimacy is entirely not lost between the former couple, but becomes that of a brother for a sister and vice versa.

[24] – For the relation between territorial and trans- territorial parishes cf. ch. 4 in Y. B. Mangunwijaya, Gereja Diaspora. Canisius, Yogyakarta, 1999.

[25] – Otherwise the Arab word for convert, is muallaf, or mualap.

[26]Pistawa Nikaya Winerdi (private edition, 238 pp.;1984)

[27]Apa dan Bagaimana Iman Orthodoks (private edition, 198 pp., 1989) This may be partially the same texts as the one published in 1997 under the title of Inilah Iman Kristen Orthodox (Sumber, Solo).

[28]Aqidah Iman Kristen Rasuliah. Yayasan Orthodox Injili, 203 pp., ?2000.

[29] – Cf. Stephen C. Headley, “Afterword: The Mirror in the Mosque.” pp.213-238 in Islamic prayer across the Indian Ocean. Inside and Outside the Mosque, edited by  Stephen C. Headley and David Parkin. Curzon Press, U.K. 2000.  and “The Islamisation of central Java: the role of Muslim lineages in Kalisoso” pp.52-82 in Studia Islamika, vol.4, no.21997, Jakarta.

[30] – Cf. Anthropologie de la prière: rites oraux en Asie du Sud-Est. textes réunis par Stephen C. Headley. L’Homme  no. 132, vol.XXIV.4; oct.- déc. 1994.

[31] – For instance Kembali Kepada Allah (Return to God) by Constance Tarasar (translated by Cornelius Reismartono) is used to prépare children for confession

[32] – Cf. Daniel Bambang Dwi B,. Inilah Paskah. Ajaran Keselamatan Dalam Perayaan Paskah Gereja Orthodox (This is the Ressurection. The teaching of Salvation in the Celebration of Pascha in the Orthodox Church.). 108 pp., Solo, 1996.

[33] – To enter the Church one has to be freed from the man / woman one had once been by that washing called baptism. The event of baptism is considered of great importance and is celebrated in the pool built directly into the floor of the church, as in churches in Greece. This permits total immersion and the service is immediately followed by holy Communion such that the celebration of baptism is felt to be where “we are all to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature in the fullness of Christ himself.” (Ephesians 4:13) The theme of growing in all ways into Christ (Ephesians 4:15) is clearly distinguished by Christians from the Muslim topos of insan kamil (the perfect man); its difference lies in the fact that baptism is explicitly a liberation from mortality and from death (Romans 5:12).

[34]  – Cf. Stephen C. Headley, From Cosmogony to Exorcism is a Javanese Genesis.  The  Spilt Seed. Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001.

[35] – Cf. Ahmad N. Permata, “Muslim dan Kristen di Surakarta”. Magister 2005, UIN Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta.