Monday, March 21, 2011

Stamping of Malay Bible (AlKitab): How to approach the issue?

Some decry that the Bible is desecrated. Some obviously don't think so. While others, like me, have just started to think about the issue. No matter what one's perspective is, there are wider implications that follow.

There are already some good responses posted in the blogosphere by thoughtful Christians. I will just refer to four of them:

Wyngman (Alwyn):
"...the Home Ministry's stamp has nothing to do with desecration because the term hardly applies to the Christian Bible. It's never the document itself which was "sacred" but the Person, Love, Truth and Community spoken of within the pages of the book which is "of God" - HOW CAN BORING INK-STAMPS DESECRATE THAT??!!"

Revelation is Real (Tony):
"Personally, any stamp on the cover of the Bibles is not acceptable because the Bible is the Word of God and the Word of God is for all peoples of all nations. But living in a multi-religious country like Malaysia with Islam as the official religion (agama rasmi), it is something tolerable. [...] No, it is not desecration. No, it is not sacrilege."

Soo Inn:
"...the matter is first and foremost a matter of law. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution. Article 11 provides that every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion and (subject to applicable laws restricting the propagation of other religions to Muslims) to propagate it."

Religious Liberty Watch (Kam Weng):
"It is already an act of defacement when the government utterly disregarded the fact that Christians regard the Alkitab as Holy Scripture. It is a hostile and contemptuous action that ignores the protest from Christians. In the light of these factors, any self-respecting Christian who loves God and His Holy Scripture can only judge the government’s action as one of DESECRATION of God’s Word. "

These are just highlights. Each has its good points.

Alwyn thinks that it is not a desecration at all because Christian theology does not say that the sacredness of the Bible lies in its printed material. So stamping on the materials is absolutely okay.

Alwyn's theology on the scripture is correct, in my point of view. However, I see a lack in his response because I find that he has let his theology of scripture to be the only consideration, if not the primary framework that all other theological considerations subsumed under. I think the elevation of one doctrine above other considerations such as the value in protecting the legitimate and general minority's rights--that could be exemplified through the response of the people of God in this case--within a discriminating social setting can be reviewed.

Tony does not see the stamping on the Bible as acceptable but tolerable due to the multi-religious context in Malaysia. Nevertheless it is not a desecration to stamp on it.

It seems to me that Tony shares the same theology of scripture like Alwyn and myself. Hence he does not find the government's stamping on the Bible as desecration even though the stamp that reads "For Christians Only" poses a political sanction against Tony's theology that "the Word of God is for all peoples of all nations." I believe that Tony's theological conviction that the Word is for everyone is something he found from within the message of the Bible. And if anyone goes against this conviction is going against what is in the Bible. In this case, wouldn't the Home Ministry's forcing a stamp that carries a message that goes against the message of the Bible onto the Bible is a sort of disrespect of the Bible? Obviously disrespect is not desecration, yet desecration, in Christianity, is disrespect towards an accepted theological conviction to say the least. If this is correct, then isn't the stamping of such message onto the Bible is disrespecting an accepted theology, and thus a desecration?

Soo Inn is arguing here that the stamping is primarily a legal violation and so Christians should take issue with it. He doesn't talk about desecration at all, so we cannot be too presumptuous in this regard.

I can see the benefit of Soo Inn's public theology to focus the matter as a legal violation. This helps to provide a common reason that non-Christians able to sympathize with. However, to argue that Christians should not agree with the government's stamping of the Bibles because this is primarily a legal violation is self-defeating because legality is always the means of the civil government and never that of the Church in Malaysia. That means what is officially legal is constitutionally installed, changed, and nullified by the government. In other words, an action is only officially legal or illegal when the government says so. Add to that, there can be paradoxes in the domain of legality (for eg. parallel courts system in cases of Muslim apostasy), hence one can hardly demand the government to be coherent on legal matters in the Malaysian context. Therefore the stamping of the Bibles is not a legal violation since it is the government's official declaration that such action be executed (in the same way that capital punishment is officially legal). To argue that this as a legal violation, whether be it primarily or not, is hence wanting to keep the cake and eat it at the same time. And this can even backfire the Christian community in cases involving activities that are not constitutionally legal yet theologically binding to do. The appeal for justice rather than the constitution could perhaps prove to be more helpful by evading the listed problems.

I think the more coherent and comprehensive argument would be that of Kam Weng. He allows for diversity on the theology of scripture by employing the minimal criterion to establish his case, that is the demand for respect for religious items regardless of legality. Thus to him, the stamping on the Bibles with a declaration that contradicts the content of the Bible is a desecration of both the scripture as well as the religious sentiment of the Christians for the two cannot be separated.

To follow Kam Weng's approach would mean that Christians have much more issues to deal with. The AlKitab issue is merely the tip of the iceberg of religious desecration which is rooted deep within the Malaysian society and the country's constitution. If the language of desecration is considered valid as a public reason, then the implication is that many things can be argued by appealing to religious sentiment. This would in turn invite the demand for recognition of all sorts of unexpected activities in the name of religion. Although this is not necessarily a bad thing yet we are not sure if Malaysia is ready for such liberation.


Sivin Kit said...

Perhaps, one way to get to the depth of the matter is not to reduce "the Bible" especially the Malay Bible as a mere "document".

it's always been more than a "document", and now the symbolic interpretation of the Malay Bible for example includes it being the "Word of God", but also seems to have the added dimension of being understood as a sign of the plight of religious minorities, indirectly exposing abusive power, serving now even as a way to include people of other faiths and their experiences too.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Sivin,

That's an insightful way to look at the Bible through what is happening in Malaysia.

Taken to be the plight of religious minorities would mean that the Bible is the torch in which all injustices on the minorities are unveiled. Wow.. this is interesting! You have just uncovered the public significance of the Bible in the given socio-political condition.

Sivin Kit said...

:-) of course, you can also see my "ping pong" match with Alwyn on a more general topic on how Christians can and/or should respond in a Christ-like matter in the FIC ... it also reflects IMHO how we view our words and terms differently.

blogpastor said...

Thanks Sze Zeng for helping me see the many perspectives involved in this issue....and all coming from thoughtful godly Christians. As a Singaporean, I never saw the multi-facets it entailed.

Israel Lee said...

While I agree this issue highlights the sense of injustice felt by Christians due to the high-handed and insensitive way the Home ministry has handled the case, I still feel that this does not warrant the use theological argument of 'desecration' by CFM and Kam Weng in understanding the issue.

I believe the obnoxious response from the Home minister and his ministry is an issue of religious freedom for minority groups like us. We should show our objection to the minister through legal or political means. Christians should be united in this sense of raising our objection.

Nevertheless, I agree with Tony, pity the flak that he has to take from emotionally-charged brethren for voicing his opinion, that the stamping is not an act of desecration. It is a restrictive regulation that is seen as challenging the religious freedom enshrined in the constitution, but it should not be viewed as an act of defiling something holy.

Israel Lee said...

Josh, been thinking about this line you wrote.

".., yet desecration, in Christianity, is disrespect towards an accepted theological conviction to say the least. If this is correct, then isn't the stamping of such message onto the Bible is disrespecting an accepted theology, and thus a desecration ..."

My problem is with the phrase 'yet desecration, in Christianty'. I am trying to look at it in a biblical sense. At the moment, I can't think of relevant verses in the NT to provide an idea on how the early believers view disrespect of their faith as desecration.

More importantly still, how they reacted towards religious persecution (not that we have reached this stage yet, but any form of violation of religious freedom could eventually lead to it) is something worth considering for our present situation while we consider our response towards the government.

Borrowing from Wright, do we go the way of the Zealots, the Herodians, the Essenes or the cross? Revolution, compromise, withdrawal or sacrifice?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Blogpastor,

Glad that you find this helpful. Yes, this is a complex issue where there are different and opposing views even within the Christian community.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Israel,

You have raised good points and questions. I will address all that you have said in an upcoming post.

Meanwhile, if you are interested to check out my engagement with Tony on NT's notion of 'desecration', you may go to his blog. The fundamental thing here, as I see it, is what do the first Christians think about what consider 'holy' or 'sacred'? This will point to us whether is an act is desecration or not.

Yet even having established that it is a 'desecration', that does not lead to necessarily the zealot's or the Essences's way. IMO, the question on how do we respond does not dictate whether is the Home Ministry's act really an act of desecration.

My comment to Tony:

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Israel,

To add on, I have responded to Tony's reply to me. Still waiting for Tony to approve my comment, even though he has written that, "I will not be entertaining further comments on this matter."

My response to him is that I see his interpretation of first Christians' notion of sacredness is too preoccupied by his many concerns (see his many emphases "It worries me"). I shared to him that my concern was not on how our current worries should shape how we think about the first Christians, but how the first Christians really were regardless of its implication for today's context.

I hope he would approve my reply.