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  • The Whitehatters

Ask Me Anything: Christianity

The middle-aged Christian lady stiffened ever so slightly, smile fixed, unmoving.

I didn’t mean to be provocative, but I guess some comments are tough to swallow no matter how gently put: “Well, my experience of Christianity is a little different. I’m of Indian origin. As much as the missionaries did some good work, the colonial experience was traumatic for us and that’s the experience I inherited.”

Actually, being Muslim, I wouldn’t dare float such thoughts to even some of my close Christian friends, let alone strangers. But the session on March 3 was called “Ask Me Anything about Christianity”. Anything. If I didn’t raise it there, where else could I air such views?

So I launched into the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the crusading zeal of colonialists. I finally ended with my question on how it was acceptable to have Christian clubs in universities called “Campus Crusaders”, or the thinly disguised “Campus Cru”. What if someone had started a “Campus Jihadists” group?

To her credit, she did not bat away my experiences or questioned my motives. She listened, hard as it was, I am sure, to be confronted with it. For that, I am very grateful.

It helped that the session started with a “value commitment”. The lead facilitator, Farid Hamid, got more than the 70 people in the room to share the values they wanted the discussions to be governed by. It was slow going at first but soon people were shouting out. “Courage! Because you need courage to share,” said a participant. “Trust!” shouted another. “Honesty, curiosity, listen actively, harmony,” said a few others in quick succession.

Farid wrote them all on a board and dubbed it the “value commitment” everyone was going to make. Then we split into groups of six to eight and the discussions began.

I can’t speak for the rest of the groups but the discussions in my group of seven were wide-ranging. One of the most interesting for me was the sheer variety of Christian experiences.

Like how some Sunday church services would remind one of rock concerts while others are more sombre and ritualistic. Or how some Christians speak in “tongues”, or glossolalia as it’s technically termed, where the faithful speaks out in an unknown language in a burst of religious fervour. To the observer it would sound gibberish. The practice, I soon realised, is not universally accepted by Christians.

The other discussion that was particularly interesting for me was the challenge converts face from their families and relatives. Particularly when faced with familial rituals that would be at odds with their newfound faith. Like the use of joss sticks and ancestral worship.

Responses to the challenge varied. One Christian man in my group just went through the motions out of respect for his elders, telling himself that God knows what’s in his heart and will understand. But another man did not participate (with the ancestral worship) at all.

You’d think in a session like this the toughest questions would come from the non-Christians. But the intra-faith diversity of the Christian community meant otherwise, as I found out in the question and answer segment later.

The segment was moderated by Farid with Pastor Chan Mei Ming from the Leng Kwang Baptist Church and Pastor Malcolm Tan of Covenant Community Methodist Church on the panel.

Like the discussions earlier, the questions asked were wide-ranging. Some asked about the various denominations in Christianity, others about the religious practices like fasting, and how the church should relate to society.

Theological questions were raised as well. For example, how God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were related in the Christian doctrine of Trinity. Another question was on where to draw the line when it came to literalism in interpreting the Bible.

There was also an interesting moment when the two pastors on stage interpreted a particular passage one way but another Christian member of the audience challenged that notion and claimed that he felt that he had an interpretation that was different from theirs. The panel members however did not indicate any disagreement with him on this matter.

My favourite question was raised by another Christian member of the audience. He asked how we could stop the influence of American extreme right wing politics from entering Singapore through the Christian churches. The questioner did not specify what exactly, but it was understood that certain Christian movements in the US were supportive of extreme right wing race-based politics.

The Methodist pastor said that while he was not anti-western, he was unequivocal about his stand on one issue: “I can assure you that we are loyal Singaporeans and do not want to be ‘running dogs’ of the so-called western imperialist agenda.”

His voice rose, words coloured with more emotion than at any other point in the session.

“Sometimes, today, Imperialism doesn’t come with guns. It comes with economic power and overwhelming cultural influence.”

Christianity came to our part of the world “under the baggage of colonialism and imperialism” he said. Since then Asian Christians have had “the great task” to show that they are “not running dogs” of the western neo-colonial agenda, today.

“So I’m proud of the fact that in Jakarta there is a cemetery there for all the nationalists who fought against the Dutch and you will see Muslim gravestones and you will also see crosses there as well. Indonesian Christians stood alongside Indonesian Muslims to fight against the Dutch colonial army after WWII.”

I was floored. Here was a Christian religious leader who recognised the burden of the colonial experience, similar to what my Muslim grandparents bore. The “baggage of imperialism” as he puts it.

Personally, the rise of President Trump in the US, along with the controversial and often bigoted rhetoric coloured with religious undertones there worried me. I feared it would reach our shores given the cultural influence of the US here.

While I have many close Christian friends who are against it as well, which I am thankful for, this was the first time I personally heard such strong sentiments from a Christian leader here.

Added the pastor: “We love our nation, we love our fellow citizens and we would want the church here to be a Singaporean church, faithful to the Gospel and to the reality and needs of our own local context. Hence, we seek to be a local church that is self-governing, self- supporting, and self-propagating, under God.”

I left the session with an answer I was not expecting. Clichéd as it sounds that was the first time in a long time that I really felt that being Singaporean united us even as we subscribe to different faiths. To that I say, amen.

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