Paulus Widjaja: We cannot exist without the other
Reconciliation is more than a peaceful coexistence among various communities; it’s a “pro-existence” -- the understanding that one cannot be sustained without another, says the director of Duta Wacana Christian University’s Center for the Study and Promotion of Peace.
August 16, 2011 | Paulus Widjaja is a Mennonite of Chinese descent who grew up in Indonesia, which has the largest population of Muslims in the world.
As both a Christian and a Chinese minority in his home country, Widjaja said he experienced discrimination on two fronts as a child. Those experiences included being robbed and beaten up on his walks home from school and seeing his church attacked and destroyed by Muslims after a Christmas worship service.
From those encounters, Widjaja said, he often asked himself, “Why do people act that way? … Why are people fighting against each other? What is the problem?”
Those questions led him to earn a master’s degree in peace studies from the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and a Ph.D. in theological ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Today, he’s focused on helping people overcome the problem -- the root of which is seeing people of other faiths as enemies, said Widjaja, a professor of theology at Duta Wacana Christianity University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. As the director of the university’s Center for the Study and Promotion of Peace, he oversees training in mediation and conflict transformation for government officials and leaders of religious and nongovernmental organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific.
Widjaja is also co-author of “A Culture of Peace: God’s Vision for the Church” and has been the peace council secretary of the Mennonite World Conference since 1993.
He was at Duke University this summer to co-teach a seminar on Muslim-Christian reconciliation at the Center for Reconciliation’s Summer Institute. He spoke with Faith & Leadership about reconciliation and the role of leaders in cultivating “pro-existence.” The following is an edited transcript.
Q: How did you come to study theological ethics and be interested in peace studies?
I have a Chinese background, and I grew up in a situation in which there was discrimination in Indonesia against Chinese people. My childhood was not good in that sense, because often when I went to and from school, I was stopped on the street, asked for money by my indigenous neighbors, and beaten up. I was so afraid to ride back home on that road, I had to make a detour just to avoid that little road.
I remember in 1979 as we were celebrating Christmas, right after a worship service there were hundreds of Muslims suddenly coming into our church. They destroyed everything.
Those kinds of stories are in my heart. I kept questioning, “Why do people act that way? Why are we in enmity and hostility? What is the problem that is between Chinese and indigenous people and between Christians and Muslims? Why are people fighting against each other? What is the problem?”
Many times we are afraid of other people, and we see people of other faiths as our enemies and as a threat -- that is the problem that we have to overcome.
Q: How is that problem overcome?
I like to use the term “pro-existence.” That is the ideal where both communities, Muslim and Christian, have to go to. It is not just a peaceful coexistence, like “As long as I do not bother you and you do not bother me, it’s fine. We go our own directions.” It’s not like that.
It’s “How can Christians and Muslims support each other?” The existence of one cannot be sustained without the other’s existence. That is what I call pro-existence, and that is the kind of reconciliation that I’m longing for -- that Christians and Muslims can understand that we simply cannot exist without the other.
Q: How does pro-existence come to be?
The only way to win your enemies is to be friends with them. When we make people our enemies, then we will never overcome the enmity. So it is the enmity that we have to destroy. That is what Jesus began, deconstructing the enmity. But Jesus never eliminates any enemy. It is the enmity that we have to fight against, not the enemies.
And the way to overcome that enmity is to make friends. It is a simple step. That’s why when Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest law?” Jesus said, “Well, love is the greatest law.”
We are still sinful human beings. But that is when I talk about vulnerability. Vulnerability may bring joy to me or it may bring sorrow; I don’t know. But I will vulnerably open myself up to you. That is the kind of virtue that we need to cultivate, and that is where we can love other people genuinely and not demand, “I will love you only if ...” That is a love that is having a condition. That is not the kind of love that Jesus teaches us. It should be an unconditional love.
This is where vulnerability comes in. You have to cross the border, because you cannot simply live in your own comfort zone or your own enclave. But I cannot guarantee that when you get out and cross the border that you will be fine; I cannot guarantee that, because there are many kinds of people out there, and there is no guarantee that the end result of our relationship will be a good one. But we need to cultivate the virtue of vulnerability -- to open up our arms and embrace other people.
When we talk about dialogue, we can talk about it as a conversation, but it’s also a dialogue of life, in which we exchange our life. In my own life, I go to the Muslim community and I invite them to come to my community. That kind of exchange of life will be very, very fruitful for reconciliation.