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Surabaya

Religious Gaga!

by ANDRE VLTCHEK

The ‘church’ is located in a shopping mall designed for the local upper and upper-middle classes, a fact that squarely guarantees the bulletproof isolation of the rich from the great majority of the Indonesian public that is poor.

On the stage, a mixed-sex pop band is banging on the strings of electric guitars. The lyrics are primitive, even intellectually and spiritually offensive. But it is said that they come from some big church in Australia, and in this congregation of fanatical pro-Western, pro-capitalist and ‘anti-native’ Christian warriors, everything Western is the guarantee of excellence and legitimacy.

The lowest grade of Western consumerism now rules over this community, over the Galaxy Mall and over the entire city of Surabaya. The mall is clearly a re-embodiment of what Western business interests and governments have in stock for the ‘elites’ in such poor “client” states like Indonesia: junk food, chain ‘cafes’ serving sugary cappuccinos with artificial flavors, cinemas playing the cheapest imaginable Hollywood releases, and monstrously kitschy playgrounds for the kids of the middle and upper classes.

And now there are also churches. Why not stick a church into this sterile and heavily guarded environment? Why not make it look like all the rest – fluorescent, loud and superficial?9780745333878

Indonesia is breaking down, collapsing morally, intellectually and socially. And as the last semblances of culture – including its traditional theatre and music forms – are going down to the dogs, as the society is plunging into a pop idiocy resembling a pinkish and dirty lollypop, the capitalist world is cheering up, loudly, calling it ‘tolerant and democratic’ on the pages of its mass media outlets based in London, New York and Paris.

But let us return to that church in the Galaxy Mall. Here gospel songs, if these deafening karaoke-type tunes can really be called gospel songs, are rocking and rolling, and repeatedly firing some outdated messages: including those that one has to fear the Lord. The lyrics also suggest that Jesus should get involved in all those work-related and financial troubles that the members of the congregation face regularly.

Local ‘believers’ mainly consist of young people, mainly of the Chinese minority. Most of them are yuppies; some just out of school, almost all are ‘involved in business’. Surabaya produces very little and to be successful here, one has to sell, to trade, to advertise, to mark-up the prices of products manufactured somewhere else.

All throughout the sermon, people raise their hands towards the ceiling. At the front, something very much resembling a blue aquarium beams the subtitles of the lyrics, just in case someone is missing the point.

It all stinks of televangelism, of cheap “new age”, of terrible taste.

It is all total kitsch; the vulgarity of this environment and event is overwhelming, but by local standards it is very hip and cool, and ‘exactly how it is done in the West’. And that is all that matters – to be as far from the ‘native masses’ as possible, to be ‘modern’; to gain status, and therefore to be recognized as successful.

This gathering and the following sermon (based on its self-produced ‘Discipleship for Dummies’) are exercises in extreme individualism; how to approach and use God and Jesus for personal interests.

The misery behind the walls of the mall is never discussed. The shouting emptiness of life in Surabaya is not mentioned. The church is like the mall itself – sterile and absolutely lacking anything human and any warmth. And unless one believes that God is actually attracted to some nightclub-style, soulless and offensive expression of submission, one would definitely not opt to search for holiness anywhere around here.

The approach of this congregation resembles a huge advertisement gig, or the mad dash of a bunch of young escort women attempting to seduce a corporate fish, than of a group of people humbly searching for divine truth.

As with everything else inside this mall and around the city of Surabaya, the ‘church’ is nothing more than cheap, computer generated pop. Gradually, all around this archipelago, life has become meaningless and thoroughly empty. There is no aspiration to anything spiritual, intellectual or even remotely creative. The main goal of the great majority is nothing more than impressing their peers, and their families. Everybody lives the same life and thinks the same way; distinctions are only between the social classes and the races.

There is no escape, no way out. There is no point of even trying.

*

The excesses, the madness of Indonesia’s religions are on display all over the country, but rarely discussed in the West, which sees this poor and collapsing nation as one of its main milking cows for raw materials.

As inn and around Surabaya, segregation, one could even call it ‘apartheid’, is increasingly atomizing this huge archipelago locked in an unhappy set of geographic and cultural marriages.

Last year, there were an increasing number of attacks by the mainstream Sunni Muslims against the Shi’a minority, near Surabaya, on the Island of Madura. Several people were brutally murdered, and hundreds ended up as refugees. Instead of protecting them, the government began forcing the Shi’a to convert to Sunni Islam, humiliating them, and finally ‘relocating’ them – basically forcing them into exile.

I once drove to that conservative island of Madura, not far from Surabaya. There I visited the enormous Syekh Muhammad Kholil Mosque in the city of Bangkalan – built like some lavish palace in the Gulf. I found the caretaker – Mohammad Hasan – and asked him what he thought about the recent events; the killing of Hindus in South Sumatra, Christians in Papua, of the burning of churches and killing of Christians all over the archipelago, of the intimidation, harassment, and the killing of Shi’a Muslims, ‘Liberal Muslims’, Ahmadiyah Muslims. With no hesitation he replied:

“Ahmadiyah members should be killed. It is about faith. In Indonesia, we don’t want Ahmadiyah because it deviates from the teaching of the Sharia. They deserved to be killed because they are destroying people’s faith. When it comes to burning churches, I am against it. We are a peaceful religion.”

Surabaya and its environs are well known for their conservative, religious ways.

“I think the young generation in Surabaya is one of the most extremist, when it comes to religion”, explains Freddy H. Istanto, the Director of Surabaya Heritage Society. “Even some cultural events, like the Lion Dance were recently banned from being performed at Petra Christian University in Surabaya… They stopped The Lion Dance just a few minutes before the beginning of the performance, claiming that it comes from the Devil.”

Ignorance about the world and the ‘Others’ is breeding racism, discrimination, even destruction and death. Just to give an example, Chinese women are regularly harassed on the streets, while the Chinese community itself is in turn intolerant and locked in many medieval cultural practices, unimaginable for decades in Mainland China.

“When I go out with my friend who is actually also of Chinese origin, but of darker skin, to my mall, people stare at us like, ‘‘what is wrong with me?”, explains an artist, a native of Surabaya.

For centuries, people of Chinese origin have been harassed, discriminated against, even murdered. After the Western-backed military coup of 1965, hundreds of thousands of Chinese people were slaughtered, the Chinese language and writing were banned, and so was Chinese culture, including food, music, films, lamps and dragons. Chinese people had to change their names, and practice one of the 5 ‘official religions’. Only under the reign of President Abdurrahman Wahid, an enlightened Muslim cleric, things somehow improved. Confucian belief was added to the list of ‘permitted’ faiths.

The Horror of 1965 and 1966 slaughters immobilized many Chinese businesspeople, eventually turning them into collaborators. Inside families, very little was discussed. The culture of fear and silence took full control of the communities.

There is clearly a strong mutual mistrust.

Natanael Krisdianto, a 26 year old businessman from Surabaya, states his prejudices very clearly: “I was educated in a private Christian school. The great majority there were Chinese students. Now, if there are local, ‘native’ people around me, I feel awkward and not safe. I believe that one has to be cautious of them. That also affects my perception of some places in Surabaya: mainly public spaces. You could easily hear me say: ‘don’t go there, because there are too many natives. The reason for this perspective is: we feel here that local people are hostile. Therefore, it is better to spend time with the same ethnic group. It is simply safer this way.”

*

In the Galaxy Mall Exhibition Center, Iin Tjipto, a female preacher, is on her loud power trip. The event is called “Spiritual Warfare; The Key To Reach Success and Wealth…” It is supposed to train the congregation in some sort of art of wealth accumulation, before the return of Jesus and the end of this era.

Ms Tjipto jumps around the stage, while her disciples in robes and plastic knives kneel, yelling and sword rattling. It is all thoroughly embarrassing for any unprepared outsider, but it is considered fully legitimate, even admirable here, in Surabaya.

The father of Ms Tjipto, another famous preacher, some time ago, announced the exact date and hour of the death of his own wife, arranged a gathering of their close friends and disciples, to commemorate her departure. Embarrassingly for him, his wife refused to die on schedule. But this family of India-style gurus somehow survived at the top of the religious ‘Christian’ hierarchy, and continues to preach and extract huge sums of money from their followers to this day.

There are almost no native Indonesians in the Center; most of them are Chinese-Indonesians. Most of them are middle class and some of them are wealthy. One should remember that many Christian fundamentalists in Indonesia actually still give 10% of their incomes to the church, which makes the preachers and priests one of the wealthiest class in the country.

Ms Tjipto is still in traditional Christian Crusade mode, and this is her lunatic prayer to God:

“We pray for a large and magnificent share… We were mobilized, in order to dominate entire nations, to be Your right hand and executors of Your designs … To bring You glory!”

A bit later she asks the congregation, “Who believes that God is giving us the privileges of living a wealthy life?” Hands go up, one after another, but all quite fast. “Who believes that there is no poverty for God’s children? Because poverty is the devil’s weapon… That is why we have to be in constant spiritual warfare with the devil…”

To try to bring some linguistic sense to her discourse, Ms Tjipto claims that rich people are actually those who are blessed by God, and that no rich person could be united with devil’s deeds by definition.

Evil people are those who are poor!

“To be wealthy is your right…” she concludes her thoughts.

The congregation goes totally gaga. It is what they want to hear. Fake knights lift up their plastic swords and then begin marching, while many women, young and old, go into a total trance. People hold hands, some crying.

All around Surabaya, poor men, women and children live near open sewers, and on polluted rivers. They shit into those toxic streams, and they bath in them. They don’t even realize that they are poor. When asked, many answer: “We are fine… It is normal…”

Members of those ‘mall churches’ go to their mall cafes, feel superior and proud for not being part of the majority.

In Indonesia, Christianity has become ‘an elitist religion’. It associates itself with the West, and it apes the West. Some churches in the malls do not even bother with Indonesian languages anymore – it is all done in English, in very bad and primitive English, but in English, nevertheless. That is all that matters – to show superiority, to show how far from the robbed and abused majority this tiny English speaking Christian elite really is.

The sons and daughters of factory owners and businessmen (yes, in Indonesia being a ‘businessman’ is considered a very legitimate occupation) repeat pop lyrics, which they call gospels, in fluorescent plastic looking ‘churches’.

The majority of royally screwed Indonesians predominately go to mosques.

Those, the few who cannot face this sickness, left the country a long time ago.

Ask Jesus for better exchange rate

Ask Jesus for better exchange rate.

While rich eating,  humiliated maids looking after children

While the rich eat, humiliated maids look after children.

Wet dreams of the rich

Wet dreams of the rich.

Spiritual warriors

Spiritual warriors.

Spiritual Warfare with pop and speakers

Spiritual warfare with pop and speakers.

really out of it

Really out of it.

market at garbage dump for the poor

Market at garbage dump for the poor.

Love of Indonesian God

Love of Indonesian God.

housing for the majority of those God hates

Housing for the majority of those God hates.

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His discussion with Noam Chomsky On Western Terrorism is now going to print. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. He just completed feature documentary “Rwanda Gambit” about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.