The Passion of Easter
This coming weekend expect church pews to be packed.
Congregations will spill into carparks, sometimes even the street. Laggards will have to make do with closed circuit telecasts, bottom-pinching metal chairs and maybe a slither of shade under blue plastic
For many Westerners, especially from Australasia, Easter in Indonesia is an extraordinary experience. We know the population is overwhelmingly Islamic so are astonished to find the principal event in the Christian calendar treated with respect and celebrated with passion almost everywhere.
It’s not like that Down Under.
Population differences aren’t the only factor. Religion is on the way out according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In 1911 only one person in every 250 put ‘no religion’ on their census forms; now the ratio is one in five. The non-religious tend to be under 30 and better educated.
More than eight per cent even refused to answer the question about religion, as they’re entitled to do though all other questions are compulsory. That’s because the State is legally prohibited from getting involved in religion, although Parliaments still start with prayers. No Ministry of Religious Affairs, no ID cards stamped with a faith approved by politicians.
It’s the same next door in New Zealand, a country settled in the 19th century by the fervent faithful from the United Kingdom. The mainly Protestant migrants held beach services on arrival before seeking food and shelter – then set about building churches.
Last year’s census shows that less than half the NZ population claims to be Christian, while 40 per cent say they don’t follow any faith. Catholics have now overtaken Protestants for the first time.
This makes the South Pacific nation one of the most secular countries in the world – but all this discarding of religion doesn’t seem to correlate to wrongdoing: NZ is the least corrupt nation in the world. (Indonesia ranks 114 on the international corruption perception index.)
It doesn’t need spreadsheets of statistics to prove the social shifts. Just a peep inside most churches on a Sunday (don’t linger lest you get kidnapped by an eager pastor) shows a flock of few, mainly elderly women. Multiple services have shrunk to just one, and many parishes have to share ministers.
In Indonesia churches are being built. In the country next door they’re being closed.
The upside is that poor attendances and limited funds have encouraged ecumenism. Smaller towns often share a worship center – as the Catholics enter the Presbyterians depart.
Bucking this trend are the charismatic evangelical denominations that attract young people with rock music, and churches catering for Maori and Pacific Islanders. Other faiths are faring better; there are now more Buddhists than Baptists in both countries.
Islam is also rising, mainly through immigration. Numbers are small – Australia has about half a million Muslims and NZ 50,000. The faith isn’t monocultural as in Indonesia because adherents come from multiple traditions, liberal Europeans through to conservative Arabs.
As in Indonesia, some are only nominally religious, agreeing to worship occasionally to satisfy their families.
Living in the Southern Hemisphere may also be a factor in the decline because so many references are irrelevant. Easter pre-dates Christianity, a festival to herald spring as snows melt, soils defrost and dormant seeds sprout. But in Australasia it’s autumn and a time of death and decay, a hunkering down – not an opening out.
Eostre was a pagan German goddess, usually portrayed as a virginal nymph frolicking in a cornucopia. An appropriate symbol for the carnival of commerce that Easter has become with eggs and chocolate rabbits (representing fertility) hopping onto shop shelves soon after the Christmas baubles are packed away, and nary a sight of a crucifix.
In southern Australia Easter offers the last chance to get away before winter hits and head for the coast with rod and line. Even on Good Friday the fish keep biting.
Easter Monday isn’t a religious day but it’s still a holiday. The kids are on their two-week term break, and the weather is usually mild enough for camping. At this time the Great Northern Highway leading out of Perth is like the Puncak Pass on a long weekend.
Yet here in the sweltering archipelago straddling the Equator millions will don their best clothes and head for church where they will freely and joyously worship, even if that means enduring prolix sermons and hard pews.
There are worrying pockets of intolerance and rejections of plurality in Indonesia, but what nation doesn’t have its bigots? You seldom hear of Australia’s Abu Bakar Bashirs because they’re usually ignored by the mainstream media or treated with derision, often by their own congregations.
The standout reality is that so many Indonesians will openly and abundantly celebrate their Christianity in a sea of Islam during a national holiday enjoyed by all. This has to be a fact worthy of national pride and international applause.
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 17 April 2014)