To anticipate a series of seminars on Work and Identity that we are to organize in Jakarta, next year, I and a friend of mine came up with this paragraph as we reflected on why such a series would be needed here:
Corruption mars the political scene of Indonesia for the past five decades; the little changes that have been made in an attempt to improve the situation have been often viewed as superficial. This in turn affects our legal environment such that the upholding of the law is held only loosely. This background becomes unconducive for personal and professional integrity, as people find creative (and often unscrupulous means) to survive. Compromises have to be made, and when they are, consciences are tainted. As a result, many argue that, realistically speaking, the biblical standards of morality cannot be met for the sake of survival. A dualism arises: Christianity becomes a purely nominalistic identity lived out only during Sunday worship. The cultural mandate and the redemptive witness that Christ calls one to do are hardly present in the minds of those engaged in public service or in the marketplace. The seminars will be done in the background of these issues in the capital city of Indonesia.
Anyone living in Indonesia can relate with this paragraph. Compromises are made daily, from the small bribes people perfunctorily pay to avoid the driving tickets around Bunderan HI to that briefcase one leaves in a hotel room to close a deal, sadly corruption has become almost ingrained within the Indonesian life. One has to do it to get by; it has become the status quo.
In such a context, being a Christian brings one great cognitive dissonance. Here people normally fall within two (related) camps. The first camp buys into the prosperity gospel, where such dealings are necessary to attain what God has promised us, supposedly, in the Bible. Financial gains are seen to be part and parcel of the blessings from God, while becoming poor is the direct result of his disfavor. A theological rationale becomes ready to hand in such a context – that one remains financially well even when one engages in such compromises clearly shows that God does not disapprove of one’s compromises. The second camp, disbelieving the prosperity gospel, simply falls into detached cynicism. The folks in this camp look down on the sermons preached at church about living in moral integrity and working out one’s sanctification – they look at their pastors and think “how naive: they don’t know what we face, and they or this church would fail to survive were it not for the compromises we take to tithe well here.” They simply follow the status quo of ruthless pragmatism in their every-day engagements in the marketplace, privatizing their faith and ‘justifying’ their actions by tithing well. Church-going and ‘family-values’ are the only marks of what Christianity becomes to them. Here Christianity bears little difference with cultural Confucianism.
In either case, the Gospel fails to truly take root in one’s life. The Gospel requires not merely faithful church-going, but obedience to Christ – and this involves every aspect of one’s life. No compartmentalization is permitted here. One is called to witness to the kingdom values Christ calls us to emulate equally whether in church or at work.
Of course, we are still left with the question: how are we to do this in the Jakartan context? Here, I must confess, often times I do not know. Pithy sayings can only take one so far – the concrete situations pile up and the moral dilemmas remain. We can make the distinctions between bribing and extortion, between the compromises we take to “further” our selfish gains and the compromises we take to “preserve” the basic living necessities we need, of course, but these distinctions, helpful as they are, rarely cover all the hard cases. There is one thing, though, that I think should be constantly axiomatic for us. In our living within these compromises (perhaps, even, the ones that are necessary for survival), one cannot begin developing a calloused, hardened conscience. To become a Christian comes with the joy of knowing God, of tasting salvation, of being delighted in the love of Christ, but it also means accepting, in a lot of ways, a ‘harder’ life. A part of what this hardship entails, I think, is a troubled conscience that comes with living within the ‘already-and-not-yet’ period of this age, where sin still abounds, and the justice of God is not yet realized. It is the troubled conscience of being a justified sinner, of being aliens in a strange land, still awaiting home.
In the context of Jakarta, then, this remains the same. In the tough choices we have to make, in the moral dilemmas we face, we must do so with a ‘troubled’ conscience. This means that we cannot become calloused and denounce the Bible or the church as ‘unrealistic’ and go on living the status quo. This also means that we cannot twist our theology to justify our worldly dealings. It means that we must seek Christian communities that are facing these realities daily in prayer and in fellowship. It does mean that we must continue to wrestle with our Christian identity in the face of such realities, and it means that, perhaps, we must embrace the life-long struggle of constantly weighing decisions with theological vigilance and moral sensitivity. As long as we are in this life, it seems that this will always be a constant – and it is the mark of a Christian to struggle in this way. To engage in moral reflection and prayer within a community is not necessarily to bring a neat resolution to our dilemmas – but to be fed with the resources to keep going within the dilemmas. They are the effective means of grace, necessary for our sustenance.
These things, of course, can become unbearable if one is unsure that God is with us and behind us. And here is the Gospel. Jesus comes not primarily to change a political situation or to alleviate economic hardship (neither is he here to impose such hardship upon us), but to save sinners. And once this vertical dimension is resolved, it is union with Christ, too, that gives us the power to continue on living in this world. It is this firm foundation, then, that can keep us going.