Faith: A Malaysian Perspective

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JOJO M. FUNG, S.J.

This article sets out to examine some of the cultural practices common to Malaysians. After the initial step of explanation, this article attempts to explore the Christological newness and theo-logical understanding of these everyday Malaysian practices. Some insightful conclusions will be drawn toward the end.
 

Cultural Practices

Some of the everyday Malaysian practices are as follows: going for tea tarikhaving gotong royong, pakai tangan, and kaki ayam.1 First, tea tarik literally means "pull the tea." It signifies an action on the part of the tea-maker (hawker) at the tea-stall. He pours the hot tea (to and fro) from one cup to another in an attempt to cool the tea down and to create the foam atop the tea in the glass. Second, gotong royong is a term in Malay. "Royong" denotes "reeling or staggering." Combined with gotong, the term means "cooperating together in some works or projects."  Third, pakai tangan literally means "using one's hand"  during meals instead of the chopsticks, folks and spoons. The symbol's meaning of consuming food with one's fingers is akin to the Kentuky Fried Chicken caption: "It's finger licking good!" When asked, Malaysians who eat with their fingers amusingly remark that the food tastes better!!! Last, kaki ayam denotes an action of walking barefooted, either in the homes, temples or in the courtyard.

Value-laden Symbols

Each of these symbols is laden with meaning. Mark Hobart understands practices to be the "diverse particularities that constitute people's sedimentary, situated and recognized actions and events" (Hobart 1994:7). Malaysians go for tea tarik during the coffee breaks at mid morning, afternoon, and, latter in the night, after dinner. This practice brings people together for a cup or for hot drinks, be it tea, Nescafe, Milo or Horlicks. It is a social activity engaged in by Malaysians from all walks of life, culture, races, and religions. It forges a sense of belonging among the members. In a more Christian sense, tea tarik fosters communion and fellowship among the participants. Gotong royong is a practice centered not so much on having food and drink but on doing works or projects together. The participants volunteer themselves when they are being called upon to do such a project as building a bridge. In the process of accomplishing the works, the relationship between the participants becomes transformed. The collaboration brings about a sense of solidarity which springs from a deepened sense of appreciation and understanding. Unlike the two former cultural practices, pakai tangan and kaki ayam can be engaged in by individuals within a group or together. Pakai tangan is a practice common among the Malays, the Indians and even among the Chinese. Therefore, it is a local practice which articulates with the eating habit of the local ethnic communities. Certainly, pakai tangan heightens the individual's sense of appreciation of the food. Finally, the practice of kaki ayam is rather common among the urban and rural Malaysians (Fung 1992: and 1998:315-22). Malaysians from the different walks of life remove their footwear before entering places of worship and their homes. It is a symbol which heightens the personal respect for the spatial sacredness and cleanliness in both the places of worship and the home environment. However shoesoff and barefootedness is at the same time a result and therefore a resultant sign of economic and political marginalization. Among the poor women of the marginal communities, bare feet are a further sign of discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender and biology. Hence barefootedness is ultimately a counter-sign of the Kin-dom of justice, peace, equality, and fellowship. It is not just anti-Kin-dom but anti-humanum too, because of the systematic poverty and discrimination that dehumanize the marginal communities in Malaysia.

Christological Newness

In the light of the life and praxis of Jesus, these four cultural practices take on new meanings. Needless to say, Jesus went further than Malaysians in his meal/table-fellowship. Jesus invited his fellow Jews, labeled, despised, rejected as sinners and tax collectors to dine with him.  Hence, in the account of the invited guests who made all kind of excuses, St Luke remarks: "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame" (14:22); "Go to the open roads and the hedgerows, and press people to come in, to make sure my house is full; because, I tell you, not one of those who were invited shall taste of my banquet." (14:23-4). Jesus too went out of his way to dine and drink with them. In the case of Zacchaeus, he made it a point to invite himself to the house of Zacchaeus: "Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today" (Lk 19:5-6). This is a radical meal/table-fellowship in which Jesus honors those who have no honor, only guilt, shame and stigma in society; Jesus reversed the "high" and "low" relation in the early Palestinian society so that the "last" will be "first", the master, the servant who washes the feet of others (Jn 13:1-16), a role reserved to the doulos (servants) or in Malaysia, the maids of the house; at the same time, Jesus erased the boundaries and purity-markers between "the saved" and "the sinners." This fellowship is open to all. Caste, color, culture, creed are not important here. It is inclusive because those excluded from the fellowship of God as sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes are invited to his fellowship. It is liberating for the tax collectors and sinners because he restored to them their dignity and religious rights as children of Abraham. Indeed, the table-fellowship of Jesus is an open, inclusive and liberating radical fellowship centered on a liberating and radical God.

Through the phrase, "eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors" (e.g. Mt 9:10-13, Mk 2:15-17, Lk 15:1-10), the evangelists portray a Jesus who translates his vision of God's Kindom into a praxis of building a community of equal disciples. He constantly invites the sinners and tax collectors, women (including prostitutes) and the economically underprivileged to have fellowship with him. His fellowship restores them to the social positions as daughters and sons of Abraham which the Templo-State denied them by their purity regulations (Lk 13:15-16). The practice of meal/table-fellowship is akin to having a drink (tea tarik) together. What is different and peculiar about his praxis lies in its subversiveness. The founding of a community of equals delegitimizes and dismantles the sole mediatory function of the "Temple-State." Jesus has made God's salvation accessible through the meal/table fellowship where he touches, heals, forgives and restores them to the wholeness and fullness of life in God's Kindom already present in their midst through his ministry.

The meal/table fellowship enables Jesus to interact more intimately with the social outcasts in early Palestine. I can only surmise that the habit of eating with their hands (pakai tangan) is also customary among the Jews in their households and in the early Eucharistic event within the community called the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42). In the meal/table fellowship, the focus has shifted from the mere appreciation of the food to the mutual and selfless giving between Jesus and the social outcasts. Jesus becomes God's offer of the wholeness and fullness of life. The social outcasts are the immediate recipients who experience this offer physically and psycho-emotionally. This mutual and selfless giving has created a sense of solidarity from below between the 'least' and 'last' of society and those who opted to be "last" when they are "first" in society. This solidarity from below further empowers the marginalized and economically poor, especially women who are the last of the last in society. Not only are they restored to the physical and psycho-emotional wholeness befitting the so-called "saved" daughters and sons of Abraham, but they are directly healed, forgiven, and, loved by God.

In relation to gotong royong, Jesus does not merely gather around him the twelve apostles. He meets with them and tutors them. More than that, they do things together. We see this in the story of Jesus going fishing in Simon's boat (Lk 5:4-7) and picking corn as they walk through the cornfields (Mk 2:23-28). In the two stories of the miracles of the loaves (Mk 6:30-44; Mk 8:1-10), Jesus and the disciples were doing things as a group. But this time, they do it for a crowd. In the first stage, they need to gel as a group. So they do things together to foster the sense of solidarity within the group. In the second stage, the spirit of solidarity opens the group out toward the needs of others. In early Palestine, Jews like Jesus may not have the Malaysian custom of gotong royong but they certainly meet and do things together. Looking at the group activities of Jesus and the disciples from a Malaysian perspective, it can be safely said that they collaborate ("gotong royong") together. It was not just having "gotong royong" among themselves (as an end in itself), but for fellow Jews (a means to an end) who are in need of economic aid, i.e. food during their sojourn with Jesus.

For Peter to take up the invitation of Jesus to walk barefooted on the water toward the Lord (Mt 14:25-26) is indeed a shoesoff (kaki ayam) experience. Barefootedness becomes the locus where the Lord of creation encounters Peter. Therefore anyone who walks barefooted in Malaysia opens herself and himself to an experience of the Lord of creation. For Malaysian Christians, the God whom they encounter in the harsh hardship of everyday economic and political marginalization is the God who beckons them to walk across the turbulent waters of life. This God is Emmanuel (God-with-us) with a name and we recognized him as the Shoesoff Barefoot Jesus. He takes on the brunt of the harsh marginalization suffered by the discriminated against and oppressed citizens of Malaysia. He transforms marginalization into life in abundance (Jn 10:10) with his total self emptying through death by surrendering all death-dealing forces to God.

Theological Principle

Besides the Christological principle, I would like to examine the four cultural practices in the light of the God-principle. I will now use four Christian symbols to further unpack the richness embedded in these four Malaysian cultural symbols. They are: creation, incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost. These symbols are chosen because God is the ultimate author of creation, the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and, finally the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Indeed, God's action of creation has allowed God to share God's most intimate self with God's creation. Creation has become a living and dynamic symbol of God. Humankind and all of creation are suffused with God's presence and they constantly and continuously "image forth" their likeness to God. Through the incarnation, God is present definitively in the world, both globally and locally. In other words, God is in and with all persons of diverse cultures and religions from the different nations. Therefore all things, all persons in their cultures and religions are sacralized by God's everyday and perennial presence in the world. God's sacred presence affirms all that is edifying in every person, culture and religion. At the same time, God also liberates all that is enslaving in every person, culture and religion. By the resurrection of Jesus, all creation and humankind are reconciled with God through the risen Lord. This reconciliation becomes the horizon for humankind to labor with steadfastness for the fullness of reconciliation at the end-time. The event of Pentecost highlights that God's pneuma is ever present in creation and humankind as an ever-abiding and indwelling Spirit, since the beginning of time, now and even more so in the near and distant future.

Tea tarik becomes a symbol of the God who is in communion with humankind and the universe through God's action of creation. Through the incarnation, God in person participates in the lives of those who are already in communion with each other through tea tarik. As they share their life-stories of joy, sorrows, aspirations and dreams with each other, they allow God to share God's most intimate self with them. Thus sharing becomes the activity which fosters communion with one another and with God at the same time. Thus St. John remarks, "whoever loves God must also love his/her brother/sister" (1 Jn 4:20). So the cultural practice of having tea tarik becomes the locus by which God enters into communion with Malaysians irrespective of their social position, race, culture, gender, religion and ideology. The resurrection of Jesus points to a God who will liberate participants of the tea tarik from all manipulative forces and egoistic tendencies in the Malaysian society which destroy their communion with each other and with God. God's abiding presence in the Spirit is the sinew which cements the participants in their intimate and communal bond.

In relation to gotong royong, it is a symbol which points to an ever-creative God who continues to collaborate with humankind in the ongoing process of co-creation.Kotong royong underscores the fact that creation is a dynamic and living process rather than a finished product to be looked upon as a thing or a commodity, to be consumed and exploited for selfish gains. The spirit of solidarity through cooperation in works highlights the vocation of humankind, not so much as one who exploits but as a co-creator. Through the incarnation, God does not leave humankind alone to its task of ongoing creation but joins and collaborates with humankind in this unfinished process. Humankind will not be incapacitated by the weight of the current ecological crisis. The resurrection of Jesus reminds humankind that God is still the principle author of creation. The order which God has brought out of the primal chaos will be sustained over time. God's Spirit which hovers over the water is still hovering over the world, offering hope and sustaining inter-generational life in the world.

God's endless and unconditional giving takes place in the symbol of pakai tangan.Although God cannot be "anthromorphisized" to have hands and feet, God has become our food for our pilgrimage through life in Jesus the Bread Of Life. As the participants appreciate the food they eat, they give of themselves too. In this mutual appreciation and selfless giving, God's incarnation is personally experienced as bread shared with all and for all. The resurrection reminds us that mutual appreciation and selfless giving continue to be countercultural amidst an apparent irreversible trend of a "dog-eat-dog" world, characterized by a calculative and manipulative mentality. The Other is not just another consumable commodity which gives the Self the desired pleasure and satisfaction, as dictated by the insatiable greed and lust, fanned by the prevalent trend of consumeristic and hedonistic materialism. The Other is a person sufficed with the Spirit who has risen and can transcend beyond an existence based on consumption to the level of being-with/in-God. At this level, God's Spirit is the motivation and power of human existence.

God is a sojourner in relation to the Malaysian symbol of kaki ayam. God ever so faithfully journeys with the people who suffer from the economic and political marginalizaton (on the basis of caste, color, culture, creed and gender) in the global village today. God has become incarnated in those who have opted and will choose to accompany the powerless and voiceless children, youth, women and men through their vales of tears. The resurrection reminds us that no one earthly empire or power can deny God and God's faithful sojourners their commitment to rise beyond the mentality of "each for her/himself." In fact, the resurrection points to the subversiveness of their everyday resistance and negotiation within the harsh realities of everyday marginalization. Their everyday struggle, in collaboration with other concerted efforts, can transform the world into a global community where there are only equals instead of a current world, divided between the powerful "rich and famous" and the squalid "pauper and vagrants." God's Spirit will ensure that this global community consists of diverse local (intercultural and interreligious) communities of equals where we are first human beings who respect each other's dignity and Christians who love each other because God first loves us.

Conclusion

Malaysians from all walks of life engage in these four everyday cultural practices, be it tea tarik, gotong royong, pakai tagang and kaki ayam. These practices constitute the cultural identity of Malaysians. Yet they are not value-free but heavily value-laden practices. They are intimately connected to a Malaysian anthropology in that these practices say a lot about who Malaysians are: Malaysians enjoy being in communion (tea tarik), working together (gotong royong), appreciating each other (pakai tangan), and most of all, revere spatial sacredness and respect the heads of the households (kaki ayam). In the light of the Christological and theo-logical reflection, these four cultural practices acquire a Christian newness which constitute the theological and anthropological understanding of ourselves: we are Malaysian Christians whose faith is in the Shoes Off Barefoot Jesus and in the God who is the ultimate author of creation, incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost. This is the God whom we have not seen and heard as pneuma, yet seen, heard and touched in our neighbors, our fellow Malaysians, with whom we dine, work and walk with as co-pilgrims in this journey of life.


NOTES

1. All these terms are in Malay, the official language of Malaysia. Malay is also the name of an ethnic community whose members are by and large Muslim.


REFERENCES

Fung, Jojo M.

1998 "Glimpses of the Malaysian Jesus," Vidyajyoti: Journal of Theological Reflection, Vol. 62, no. 5.

1992 Shoes Off Barefoot We Walk. Petaling Jaya: Longmans Malaysian Sdn. Bhd.

Hobart, Mark

1994 "As They Like it: Overinterpretation and Hyperreality in Bali" in Interpretation and Context, ed. R. Dilley. Oxford University Press.

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