Christmas Counterpoint on the Far Side of the World

Vexing religious issues, sometimes triggering savage cruelty, now figure weekly in world headlines. Indonesia (home to Bali’s refined culture and world-class beaches, the astonishing Borobudur temple complex, Java’s version of Angkor Wat, and a thousand natural wonders) has suffered its share of turmoil.  One winter, my wife, Mary Kay and I flew to visit our daughter and her family who lived in Djakarta while supporting post-tsunami recovery on the island of Sumatra.

        <https://ipl.econ.duke.edu/dthomas/STAR/Overview.pdf&gt;

Our daughter explained to us on Christmas Eve that yuletide brought heightened tensions in Indonesia when sectarian bombings and disturbances sometimes flared.  There would be a slight risk in attending Christmas services, she cautioned. But having made friends with unpredictability most of our working lives, we assured her that we were not afraid, and wanted to join them at their place of worship in a private school hall.

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Mosque on the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis of Djakarta. 
Photo credit: Matius Krisetya

The next morning, as we approached the school on a back street there was a smattering of police in evidence.  But beyond them, standing shoulder to shoulder around the school was a phalanx of young people decked out in matching orange shirts.  A bystander explained that they were Muslim faithful from a nearby mosque. Their imam, he said, wanted to ensure that when the Christians met they should do so in safety and without fear.  He called for volunteers from his congregation who would be willing to encircle the Christian meeting hall, placing themselves ‘in harm’s way’ to prevent any untoward incident.

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Borobudur, Java’s exquisite answer to Angkor Wat.  A 9th century Buddhist temple, largest in the world, and testament to the pervasive influence of Indian culture and spirituality, now a World Heritage Site.  Located between two prominent volcanoes, it has been blanketed – sometimes hidden – by ash and forest overgrowth.  Viewed from the air the structure resembles a giant mandala.  Photo credit: wikimedia commons

We met that morning to mark the coming of a Prince of Peace whose own birth was encircled by celebrants declaring a reign of kinship and blessing.  Our gathering, modest as it was in every other way, was made unforgettable by a carol of peace voiced not by us but by the choir in the street in matching orange shirts. It was a peaceable cordon of Muslim faithful, who by their silent witness preached the required Christmas sermon about what love asks of us:  

       “Greater love has no one than this,

      than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Here’s the question that came home with me from Djakarta in my luggage.  When was the last time at Ramadan, or in the wake of some eye-watering headline event, that I rallied neighbors to keep watch at the local masjid in my town?  Is this not the path to lighting again the Christmas lamps of kinship and humanity?  

 


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