The battle to represent God

On 31 Dec 2009, Judge Datuk Lau Bee Lan sided with Malaysia’s Catholic Church vs Malaysia Government, in a ruling stating that the word “Allah” is not exclusive to Islam and that the government’s Home Ministry is “not empowered” to ban non-Muslims from using the word. The Malaysian Government had confiscated more than 15,000 bibles from Indonesia because of the word “Allah”. The number of Christians in Malaysia is 9.1%, or 2,500,000 out of a population of 28 million. With the increasing Christian population, the Government has said that Christian usage of “Allah” would confuse Muslims and lead them away from their faith into Christianity.

The specific reasons for the judgment are very convincing:-

1. The word “Allah” is the correct Bahasa Malaysia word for “God” and in the Bahasa Malaysia translation of the Bible, “God” is translated as “Allah” and “Lord” is translated as “Tuhan”;

2. For 15 centuries, Christians and Muslims in Arabic-speaking countries have been using the word “Allah” in reference to the One God. The Catholic Church in Malaysia and Indonesia and the greater majority of other Christian denominations hold that “Allah” is the legitimate word for “God” in Bahasa Malaysia;

3. The Christian usage of the word “Allah” predates Islam being the name of God in the old Arabic Bible as well as in the modern Arabic Bible used by Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and other places in Asia, Africa, etc;

4. In Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, the word “Allah” has been used continuously in the printed edition of the Matthew’s Gospel in Malaysia in 1629, in the first complete Malay Bible in 1733 and in the second complete Malay Bible in 1879 until today in the Perjanjian Baru and the Alkitab;

5. In any event the word “Allah” has been used by Christians in all countries where the Arabic language is used as well as in Indonesian/Malay language without any problems and/or breach of public order/ and/or sensitivity to persons professing the religion of Islam in these countries;

In retaliation to the judgment, protests were held, and a number of churches were attacked, all minor except for Metro Tabernacle. I am reminded of the insistence by Christians that it is the people’s will to limit gay rights and ban gay marriages. Similarly, the ban on the use of “Allah” is also the “people’s will’. If Christians can insist on Gays being put to prison simply on account of majority will, there is no moral reason why the same could not happen to Christians. The Christian Right has often criticized what they called judicial activism. Similarly, others will argue that the judge in this case had no right to grant the right to use the word “Allah” to Christians. We have learnt from Proposition 8, that the majority opinion at the ballot even by a few percentage points can negate the basic rights of minorities. The sword cuts both ways.

The Rev Ong Sek Leang, General Superintendent of Assemblies of God, whose Metro Tabernacle Church was most badly affected has said “We have a congregation of about 1,700 who are godly and forgiving. It is a very sad day for Malaysia but a great day to know that most Malaysians do not think like that.” We are however reminded of the strong criticism against the first service of a gay affirmative church in Malaysia in Aug 2007. There are thousands of churches, yet they will not let gays have even one church of their own. “One of the reasons for the emotional reaction is because Christians do not want others to assume they condone such a thing,” said Rev Wong Kin Kong of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship. They have no hesitation to publically excommunicate gays as recently happened in the Baptist Church in Bukit Bintang in Jan 2009.

When we make grace cheap, others have the right to do likewise unto us. Christians have a right to use the Word “Allah” as part of their religious right as guaranteed by the constitution. When our own special rights are denied by religious groups, it should remind us to reflect on how we have not been much different, to deny gays their basic rights. We now find ourselves in a similar position of being persecuted, albeit, far less than that suffered by the gay community who is in hiding. Surely, it is a time for reflection and coming to God for repentance.

“Allah is only for us,” read posters carried by demonstrators earlier this month outside a mosque in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps “Allah is for all of us”. The Christian Post article “Christians Most Hit by Religious Freedom Violations in Indonesia” lamented that there were 93 instances of community intolerance of churches in 2009. This pail into insignificance compared to the hate crimes perpetuated by the church, led by the call for gays to be criminalized and be jailed by the Global Anglican South for which Singapore and Malaysia is a part of. When we exclude people and worst still put them in jails to be forgotten, others have a right to exclude us to use the name of God.

(Exo 20:7 NKJV) "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

As Christians we have used the name of God in vain to justify our anti-gay crusade. We now find ourselves having to explain our right to use the name of God, and conversely, to represent God. We are coming into a long season of trial and testing of our faith where there will be more tension and incidents as Christian numbers grow. Testing of faith, will refine our character, until we come to a point of grace, when we realized our brokenness of how we have sinned against the gay community and misrepresented the name of God. We can continue to insist on our rights and religious freedom in Malaysia, but they too will insist on their rights as the majority voice. It is now time for the church in Malaysia to humbly come in prayer with a contrite and a broken heart, and ask for forgiveness. We will not be able to represent God to the wider community in Malaysia if we cannot use the word “Allah”.

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