Peter Rowan’s proclaiming the peacemaker and seeking reconciliation

Peter Rowan’s proclaiming the peacemaker and seeking reconciliation

In June 2006, an Irishman Peter Rowan got the last of 3,042 questionnaires completed by Christians in 17 Protestant churches in Malaysia.

The questionnaire, with 18 questions, was designed to explore respondents’ attitudes to the church’s role in society.

Months later, he finished analysing the responses. He made several interesting discoveries.

I will list just four.

Only one third of Malaysian Christians were sure they would NOT emigrate to another country if given the chance.

Only half agreed their primary identity was ‘Body of Christ’ – the remainder chose race, nationality, language, denomination and politics.

Only half agreed their churches were reconciled communities. Two thirds of them felt Christians should take a more active role in politics.[1]

The survey was part of Rowan’s effort to answer the question of what churches should emphasise in a nation filled with racial tension, in which identity is so defined by ethnicity, and where Christians are a small minority.

To ensure academic rigour, Rowan did the work under the supervision of a university in the United Kingdom, as a PhD thesis.

After it was accepted by the university, Rowan had it published by Regnum Press UK as a book, in 2012.

It was entitled “Proclaiming the Peacemaker: The Malaysian Church as an Agent of Reconciliation in a Multicultural Society.”

In the same year, an Asian edition was issued by Glad Sounds in Malaysia. Both editions had tables, graphs, the full questionnaire and extensive footnotes and bibliography. The book is now out of print; happily, a Kindle version is available.

Regnum has just released an abridged version, with the title “Seeking Reconciliation: The Peacemaking Witness of the Church in Malaysia.” This version has about 90 pages of fairly large size font compared to the earlier book which had about 270 pages. (I understand Regnum would be glad for a local publisher to produce an Asian edition.)

The new version has a slightly revised foreword by Vinoth Ramachandra and retains the descriptive chapter titles: Introduction, (1) the theology of reconciliation and its importance in the theology of mission, (2) the socio-historical context of the church in Malaysia[2], (3) the socio-political context of Malaysia as reflected in the findings of a survey on attitudes of Malaysian Christians to the church’s role in Malaysian society, (4) seven key areas identified and explored, (5) identity and ethos of peacemaking; and conclusions and recommendations.

Three things make Rowan’s work particularly appealing.

First, it is the work of a person who grew up in Northern Ireland, a strife-torn society where Protestant Christians who engaged in evangelistic mission chose, for decades, to be at enmity with their Catholic neighbours.

Second, it is deeply rooted in the scriptures and draws on Christian reflections over 20 centuries – especially about the traumas of World War II and in apartheid-era South Africa – as well as sociological theory and method.

Third, it is sensitive both to the colonialism which shaped Malaysian society and to what Malaysian Christian thinkers have said over several decades.
The book is written in the peaceable tone which Rowan encourages. His writing is peppered with rich quotations from other authors.

To give a flavour of what Rowan himself has written, I offer five passages (from the abridged version) which I find particularly insightful:
“In the midst of the brokenness and suffering of the world, the church exists as a community of reconciliation, pointing back to the unique reconciling work of God in Christ on the cross, and pointing forward, by its work and witness, to the ultimate reconciliation of all things.” (page 18).

“Islam was actually motivated and aided in its spread and penetration [in South-East Asia] by the arrival of corrupt western Christian powers from Europe. Any thought that those European powers might have encouraged the growth of Christianity must reckon with the stark arrival of the Portuguese, who swarmed into Asia in a spirit of open brigandage. … Christianity became associated with western political domination and economic exploitation. Islam, by contrast, came to represent a rallying-point in the resistance to colonialism.” (page 28)

“The level of current involvement of Malaysian churches in peacemaking and reconciliation initiatives is low and sporadic. This may be an indication that within many churches there is inadequate teaching about reconciliation and its social implications, and may mirror the fact that congregations themselves are not integrated communities, raising the question: Can the church sustain on the outside what it does not practice on the inside?” (page 44)

“The church has an important role to play in nation-building, and this requires that Christians be prepared to stay rather than emigrate. Christians must be careful not to slip into despair, cynicism and apathy. They should not abandon the land of their birth.” (page 54)

“By and large, Malaysian Christians struggle to articulate an historically rooted Christian identity, partly due to the relatively high percentage of first and second-generation Christians in Malaysia. For many in this category, following Christ entails rejecting the past in order to embrace what is new in Christ. Among such believers the need for historical rooted has not yet been ignited. Secondly, the absence of a strong Christian identity with historical roots may also be the result of Malaysian Christians having succumbed to the influence of the dominant non-Christian community which promotes the idea that Christianity has little or no roots in Asia. Thirdly, there is little in the contemporary Malaysian service of worship to provide a sense of history in terms of liturgy, statements or the singing of psalms or older hymns to link the congregation with the people of God through the ages.” (page 66)

Malaysia – a country in two parts separated by a two-hour flight across the South China Sea and riven by arguments over the role of Islam in governance – is a nation in which ethnic and religious identity defines life.

What role do Christians and churches have in nation-building? How are baptismal vows translated into loyalty to the nation and to good citizenship? Peter Rowan challenges us to think about these things and points us to Christian resources which can help us on the journey.

The abridged version can be read in half a day. I warmly recommend both versions.

[1] The churches were spread across denominations as follows: 41% Methodist, 32% SIB, 15% Presbyterian and 11% Pentecostal. The predominant language used in the churches was as follows: 60% English, 27% Chinese, 13% Malay. Participation was about equal between gender and between East and West Malaysia. 85% of respondents were in the age range 20-65 years.

[2] This chapter, even in the 2019 version, does not take notice of numerous street protests organized by Bersih 2.0 which many lay and ordained Christians participated in. (The leadership of Bersih 2.0 has routinely included Christians). It also does not take notice of the abduction of Pastor Raymond Koh in 2017.

Rama Ramanathan is an activist for Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Leaders Online.

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