He is called Ahok, and until a few weeks ago he was one of Indonesia’s most powerful officials, the governor of Jakarta. He will spend the next two years in prison, but not before thousands of his supporters have held candlelight vigils in cities around the world.
America’s conservative Christians should consider not only joining the vigils, but also visiting Ahok in his jail cell. His story, and that of other Chinese Indonesian Christians, has much to teach us as we consider whether or not to embrace Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (retreat in order to rebuild), or instead seek positive solutions to social problems in an America that judges us on the wrong side of history. By choosing the former, we may risk consigning ourselves to the backwaters of fundamentalism; by choosing the latter, we may help refresh the American experiment.
Ahok—or Basuki Purnama, as he is formally known—is headed to prison because hardline Muslims doctored a recording to make it sound as if he had blasphemed Islam during a recent campaign for another term as Jakarta’s governor. The real story is that Ahok is a Chinese evangelical Christian, a double-minority in the world’s largest Islamic nation. His vision is to make the capital city of Jakarta a better place for all Indonesians to live. After two years in office, he was succeeding, albeit with the occasional heavy hand: clearing up official corruption, improving housing, cleaning Jakarta’s waterways, and improving its roads. Seventy percent of Jakarta’s citizens approved of his performance, even as he lost the recent election. Race may have been a factor in the election outcome, since the Chinese minority is noted for its wealth and success in business. Religious identity, sharpened by the blasphemy accusations, certainly shaped the election narrative in voters’ minds.
Ahok’s example, and that of his fellow Chinese Indonesian Christians, should be studied closely by America’s followers of Christ. In general, Chinese Indonesian Christians have resisted the temptation to retreat from the larger society. Rather than hunkering down in wealthy, gated Chinese communities, they engage.
One of my students recently told me of his experience of 1998, when Indonesia’s masses rioted and burned down thousands of Chinese businesses and homes. My student, then five years old, fled with his parents and brother to the hills around their city as their business and home burned to the ground, knowing there would be no justice or compensation for their losses. After the riots, my student’s family did not give up, but returned home and rebuilt their business—today a vibrant enterprise that employs hundreds.
Ahok and many Chinese Indonesian Christians are committed to blessing Indonesia, not just their own community (which is only 1.2% of the population). When I visited Jakarta in 2012, I interviewed a number of Chinese Indonesian evangelical intellectuals. To a person, they declared that they wanted to make Indonesia a society that works well for everyone. They are creating smart and sustainable villages, teaching formerly headhunting tribes of eastern Indonesia to win mathematics competitions, creating thousands of jobs, designing popular financial education programs (like those developed by Dave Ramsey here in the US), and doing what they can to reduce corruption. I’ve watched their teachers labor for hours to tutor students once considered beyond education and civilization.
While some American Christians have advocated a strategic retreat, especially from political life, Ahok was busy leaning in, finding ways to engage redemptively the heart and soul of Indonesian politics. In addition to Indonesia’s business sector, in which they predominate, Chinese Indonesian Christians are increasingly found in education, medicine, social work, and other forms of public service. One source of this remarkable vision is the Fellowship of Indonesian Christians in America (FICA), a group of highly educated Chinese Indonesian Christians who cultivate Jeremiah’s vision in chapter 29, namely, to “seek the welfare of the city” even amidst political weakness.
Are they engaged in a fool’s errand? Perhaps the unjust jailing of Ahok has shocked Indonesia’s Islamic majority into self-awareness. There are hints online and elsewhere that Indonesia’s Muslims, most of whom are peaceful and tolerant, know that the persecution of Ahok has empowered the radical elements. From now on, religious politics will take priority in Indonesia. Has the Muslim majority released a genie that cannot be returned to the bottle?
Perhaps America’s progressive elites would be similarly jarred by the sight of a respected leader being hounded by a progressive mob because of his or her Christian moral vision. I wish this on none of my brothers or sisters, but Christian faith radiates from a crucified Savior. We win when we are crucified, as has happened, metaphorically, in the case of Ahok.
We must be prepared to invest in the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional lives of our children, as have Chinese Indonesian Christians, who benefit from the dual heritage of Christian faith and Confucian morality. The cultivation of Christian practices and ways of thinking is a virtue of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, if only because it provides a solid anchor that enables believers to engage a culture that holds us, whether Chinese Indonesian or American Christians, in such contempt.
Is it too much to hope that Ahok will become Indonesia’s Martin Luther King, Jr, whose “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is required reading in thousands of American schools? Young Chinese Indonesian Christians who may judge Ahok’s jailing a tremendous setback can learn from Americans that jailings sometimes become triumphs. Having crafted his own jail letter, Ahok is inspiring Chinese Indonesian Christians to redouble their efforts to bless their nation. He may also inspire American Christians at the losing end of our decades-long culture war.
Bob Osburn is executive director of the Wilberforce Academy.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.