Why all this hopelessness and despair?

Many saw the move to include the teaching of khat as breaching the secular nature of the vernacular schools. Some saw it as a politically engineered c

Aug 16, 2019

By Anil Netto
Now that the khat controversy has quietened down, it allows us a period of reflection.

Why did so many, especially those in the vernacular schools, protest against something which is, after all, just Arabic calligraphy?

Perhaps the protests arose due to a lack of confidence and trust after years of creeping Islamisation which has resulted in national schools taking on an increasingly religious flavour.

Many saw the move to include the teaching of khat as breaching the secular nature of the vernacular schools. Some saw it as a politically engineered crisis to boost support for certain political parties and leaders.

But after a flurry of at times heated exchanges, the government has given an assurance that the teaching of khat would only be optional and would not be included in exams. The issue seems to have subsided for now. But now we have a fresh and unnecessary controversy, a bill regarding unilateral conversions in Selangor despite an earlier Federal Court decision...

These controversies, as is typical with cases of religious and racial issues in Malaysia, overshadowed other serious issues confronting the country: the U-turn over the return of Lynas waste, the rising cost of living, the precarious state of the nation’s finances and the outcry over environmental degradation, including deforestation and massive land reclamation.

Just a year ago, amidst much euphoria, we embraced Malaysia Baru. But already, it seems some of the politicians the people placed so much hope in are finding it challenging to tackle the real issues affecting ordinary people.

It is thus easy for us to sink into helplessness and despair. But remember, Malaysia Baru is not just a political project; it also involves all of us doing our bit to change the world around us in our own way.

In the New Testament, we are called to love, and to reject violence. In today’s world especially, this includes any violence against the integrity of Creation.

Not only that, the Spirit calls upon us to help transform and transfigure the world in our own – well, in God’s – way. This means we have a lot of work to do.

So why is there this sense of hopelessness about the dawn of a new Malaysia?

Perhaps it all boils down to how we look at the world and what we believe lies in store for us.

It is fashionable among many Christians to talk about the End Times and the trials and tribulations that would accompany it. Some people even spend a lot of time trying to decode and decipher the signs of the times.

Part of this, perhaps, stems from a misreading of the Gospel of Mark, which was written some time around the late AD60s.

Now this was the period of the first persecution of Christians in AD64, soon after the Great Fire of Rome.

The Gospel of Mark was also written around the time of the great Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in AD66-74. The Romans, with their superior military force and resources, eventually crushed the rebellion, demolishing the grand Temple and destroying Jerusalem and its surrounding areas.

So as you can imagine, with the mass slaughter, desolation and persecution of that period, it must have seemed like an apocalypse for the Jews and Christians of the time. Their world as they knew it was over. The Temple and Jerusalem were devastated; they had to flee as refugees to safer places.

That is why the Gospel of Mark has a somewhat apocalyptic tone to it. Even Jesus is left on the cross, asking aloud why God had forsaken him.

The writer of Mark records Jesus as saying:

13:14-15 “When you see the appalling abomination set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judaea must escape to the mountains; if a man is on the housetop, he must not come down or go inside to collect anything from his house...”

“Let the reader understand” sounds rather cryptic, like code language. But if we understand that this Gospel was written in Greek for Gentile converts in Rome – and the Romans were still very much in Israel/Palestine at the time, we can understand why Mark was circumspect in not naming the place where the atrocities were being committed.

In contrast, the Gospel of Luke was written around AD63-68, in a more Hellenistic environment, perhaps in Antioch or Asia Minor, probably further away from the action. It is thus able to be more explicit and elaborates a little on Mark, from which it draws upon.

Luke 21: 20: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you must realise that it will soon be laid desolate. Then those in Judaea must escape to the mountains, those inside the city must leave it, and those in country districts must not take refuge in it.”

Here, clearly, we can see Luke has Jesus referring to the imminent destruction of the Temple and the horrors in Jerusalem, perhaps ongoing at the time of writing.

Understandably, many Christians of the time were left thinking that the second coming of Jesus was at hand (and for the Jews, many were led into thinking the Messiah was coming). Indeed, even the writer of the Gospel of Mark may have believed the time of Jesus’ second coming was close.

But the writer was also able to make a careful distinction to separate the two events (the destruction of the Temple and the second coming of Jesus) — and he did concede that no one knew when Jesus would return except the Father.
Why is this important? Because it enables us to rethink the second coming of Jesus, which in popular contemporary Christian thinking is often associated with a great war and the destruction of the world.

This kind of thinking reduces us to a helpless, passive state: if the world is going to end with war and destruction, why bother doing anything to change the world?

But this vision of a world ridden with war and conflict goes sharply against the vision of God for his kingdom, which is one based on justice and non-violence, characterised by love and compassion.

Jesus wanted the kingdom of God to grow from a seed into a large tree providing shade to all the creatures of the world — a world recreated by the power of the Spirit.

So when Jesus comes, would he bring war and destruction — or would he want to come to a transfigured world where justice and love flower?

That’s something to ponder over — for our response will very much shape how we respond to unfolding crises, manufactured or otherwise.

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