by Karen Yunia

[Image: Stirling Conference 2018. Used with permission]

Karen is a PhD student at Stirling Theological College. Her work explores models of Christian identity within Javanese culture. This article is developed from a presentation given by Karen at the Stirling Conference in July 2018.

Solo is a city in the province of Central Java, Indonesia. With a population of over 550,000 people, Solo is a densely populated city and people live close together. This city has a community atmosphere which arguably is the epicentre of Javanese identity and tradition. Yet, the city is also a hub of Islamic extremism. It was the birthplace of radical Islamist leader Abu Bakar Bashir as well as the refuge of Malaysian terrorist Noordin Top, who masterminded the Jakarta and Bali bombings. I live in a suburb where radical hardline Muslim bases are located. However, Javanese people share basic ethical values on harmonious social intercourse with others. It is an interfaith neighbourhood; churches and mosques are placed closely to each other while, in other regions in Indonesia churches are torn down and banned. This is to say that Indonesia has diverse social, cultural and tribal lores within a single society. This is exemplified in Solo. 

In Indonesia, greeting each other demonstrates great manners and a polite attitude to others. Whenever you meet someone you know, you say hi! and give a handshake. If you happen to meet older people and people whom you respect, you smile and nod your head. This shows respect; hospitality is a central social element in my hometown. Social gatherings are preserved as a cultural and lifestyle expression for human interaction. These can be family gatherings, a religious study, celebrations, weddings, or reunions. Literally every relative, colleague or business partner could be invited to a wedding. Joining a group of others that are invited, even if you did not receive an invitation personally addressed to you, is normal. Attending an event shows that you care, that you respect the people involved and your relationship with them.

There are sets of categories within Javanese Christian culture and ethics that assert belonging and identity within Christian community, or within a particular church, or even within broader Javanese society. Within the system of culture, values and norms in Javanese society, religion attempts to establish quasi-legal parameters in politics and the public domain as representing human dignity and civilisation. Javanese society gravitates to pre-conceived standards and behaviours in order to prove Christian identity. Boundaries are created where beliefs must be commensurate with behaviour. Therefore, Christian identity is often defined by moral performance, not by identity in Christ.

Hospitality suggests treating others in a warm, friendly, generous way. It is obvious that hospitality plays a significant role in biblical ethics. It is an imperative throughout Scripture in both Old and New Testaments. Hence, hospitality exhibits the distinctiveness of Christian impetus. While people in some parts of Indonesia still preserve this attitude, in some other part of Indonesia hospitality is losing emphasis. The practice of hospitality in Java can be habitual, almost duty-driven rather than out of people’s heart as an expression of faith. 

In Australia hospitality tends to be politicised. We can get caught up in legislative frameworks during the federal election campaigns in relation to the homeless and refugees. Of course, hospitality exists in both Australia and Indonesia. But I now live in a western culture where individualism and isolation can lead to a functional decline and depression. I see young people on the streets wearing headphones, listening to music, reading books. They have no interest in talking to strangers. I had difficulties finding a home church because every week I came to another church, I felt a lack of connection and meaningful relationship. The interaction that occurred and developed was not as easy as in Indonesia. Some people simply grouped up with their friends. Some were just not interested in knowing or even building a relationship with newcomers. I observed different kinds of behaviours and manners within a culture of social interaction, particularly in a church setting. What factors create differences in hospitality between Christian communities in Melbourne and in Java?

Javanese people uphold and adhere to their local customs, beliefs and daily practices. One of distinctive values in Javanese culture is living in harmony in order to live peacefully with one another. Javanese people also maintain the existence of mutual cooperation and social interaction which can strengthen neighbourhoods and avoid conflict. With this, hospitality plays an important role. As a result, connection between one another easily develops with these underpinning social values. In contrast, western people seem to value the maintaining of individual privacy; that is, respecting other people’s business. Does this minimise vulnerable interaction?

In Jesus’ ministry throughout the Bible, he has a way of showing up at tables. The table is a place to remember the blessing of God. The table is the place where broken people find connection and belonging. The table has a potential to be the most “missional” place in all of our lives. It’s worth noting that at the centre of the spiritual lives of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments, we find a table: the table of Passover and the table of Communion. Being welcoming and open to other people is significant. Hospitality can be superficial whether in Indonesia or in Australia, yet we can offer genuine hospitality. The way we receive, interact, and treat others is an impetus of Christian faith and an embodiment of God’s love.

Return to Batch 1, 2019