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A Theological Evaluation of
Indonesian People’s Reflections on Suffering

Emanuel Gerrit Singgih1


How do the people of Indonesia view suffering? Is suffering part of God’s providence so that people have to bear it in patience and faith? Or is it to be questioned as something against God’s providence?

I live in Yogyakarta, Central Java. About 30 kms north of Yogyakarta is Mount Merapi, an active volcano. A Catholic priest, Sindhunata, once ministered to the simple and poor villages at Pakem, on the slopes of the mountain. His pastoral experiences there have been published in a book in Javanese, and a later Indonesian version, Mata Air Bulan. The book is very moving. For the people, Mount Merapi is a central point of reflection. They are used to travelling close to the crater at midnight, and meditating on the meaning of life. Rather than forbidding the people to continue this practice (as was very often done in the past), Sindhunata traveled together with his people, and meditated with them. From time to time they heard the rumblings of Merapi. This is his impression: “Mbah (grandpa) Merapi is very frightening but at the same time very benevolent towards the people. He resides far in his mansion and cannot be approached by human beings, but at the same time mbah Merapi is always approaching people and giving them fertility and life. If the mountain erupts, emits hot cloud, or if the lava comes running down the slopes, we can see that mbah Merapi demands human sacrifice. But he also showers the people with abundant blessings of nature. Again we hear the rumblings. And suddenly we feel as if God is like mbah Merapi: God is tremendous but also beautiful. He creates death but also life, He is far but also near, He is demanding but also merciful. He is very rich but also very simple.”2

Sindhunata wrote about how the people of Merapi reflect on God through their experience of the volcano. The mountain becomes a symbol of God. Although it is never regarded as a holy mountain, many take quiet pilgrimage to one or two shrines, where it is believed that some holy figures from the past were buried beneath. Based on their reflections, people conclude that God is ambiguous; is terrible but at the same time merciful; kills but also gives life. When some of them became members of the Catholic Church, the forms of belief did not change. Around the slopes there are also adherents of other religions, most of them Muslims. But they share the same forms of belief. Not infrequently do people from different religions make pilgrimage and meditate together.

In the book’s 8th chapter, Sindhunata narrated the life of a poor blind woman called mbok (mother) Tukinem. She became blind at 7 and was baptized at 10. Her father was a poor tenant farmer who did not own land, and her mother a collector of gerabah (dried paddy stalks). Tukinem helped her mother and very often they traveled for one month to do this work. They traveled on foot from the slopes of Merapi towards Semarang, the harbour-city on the northern coast, a distance of more than 100 kms. Little Tukinem carried some gerabah and walked behind her mother. Once she asked: “why are we ascending? I thought we are going down to the shore”. Her mother answered, “because we are in the area of Gombel now” (when you journey from Yogyakarta to Semarang, just before you enter the city you have to go uphill through the area of Gombel). When she was come of age, she was married to a man who was also blind. They had 3 children but all of them died. Then her husband got very ill with cancer, and all he could do was lay down and bear the pain. To ease the pain and bitterness he sang verses from Javanese tembang (popular poems). When he did so, Tukinem would stop whatever she was doing and kept him company by saying the rosary.

How could mbok Tukinem live in such a way? Having borne so much suffering, why should she in her old age suffer more? Sindhunata asked these questions to engage his readers in a dialogue. But Tukinem answered without any tone of rebellion: “Sakersanipun Gusti, kulo nampi mawon” (it is up to the Lord, I accept all these things). She accepted suffering as it is. Sindhunata took the husband of Tukinem to a hospital in Yogyakarta. As a poor parish priest, he had no money to cover the cost. Being a correspondent for a very big newspaper, he wrote the story of Tukinem, which was published in “Kompas”. Readers responded enthusiastically through donations, and in a short time the hospital bill was paid. There was even a considerable amount left for mbok Tukinem to continue her life. Touched by all the help she received, she asked Sindhunata to thank the readers of “Kompas” and to wish them God’s blessings. Sindhunata interpreted Tukinem’s suffering as meaningful suffering. At first it looked like a senseless suffering. It became meaningful because it touched many people’s hearts. And through the people the love of God reached Tukinem and her husband.

I refer to Sindhunata’s reflection to show how Indonesian people generally view suffering. The same reaction was seen in the wake of the terrifying tsunami in Aceh on December 26, 2004. The tsunami caused enormous devastation and countless deaths in a matter of minutes (150.000 people died and 100.000 managed to escape but now they live as refugees). Based on mass media reports, people seem to accept the natural disaster and the suffering it caused. It can be gleaned from the frequent exclamations to the greatness of God (Allahu Akbar), even by the immediate victims. Admonition for self-introspection and the thought that this was a form of divine punishment and call for repentance in order to return to the ways of Allah were part of this reflection.

Similar to newspaper readers’ response to Tukinem’s suffering, many people outside Aceh who learned about the tsunami through the mass media started making donations to newspapers, sending goods through every available ways, and many even came to Aceh as volunteers to help carry the countless dead to be buried. Many of them in the end fell ill because of contagious diseases. Although the people of Indonesia are still struggling to overcome the economic crisis that started in 1996, so many billions of rupiah have been set aside for Aceh. I have never seen before the list with names of contributors filling up columns of Yogyakarta’s foremost newspaper, Kedaulatan Rakyat (People’s Sovereignty) for days. Following Sindhunata’s reflection, we can say that the suffering because of the Aceh tsunami in the end was also meaningful, because so many people were touched and encouraged to show concrete solidarity. They came not only from among the people of Indonesia, but from every corner of the world. Before the tsunami Aceh was a more or less closed territory, but now it is open because of this creation of concrete solidarity.

Theodicy: attempts to answer the question “why”

It is interesting to ask whether the poor people who live on the slopes of Merapi never questioned why they are poor and suffering. Sindhunata asked such questions but mbok Tukinem never did. She accepted everything as part of her life. But if Sindhunata did not help her husband and did not write the article, then there would have been no change in the course of Tukinem’s life.

In the Bible, there is some relation between the omnipotence of God, the compassion of God, and suffering which is caused by human evil and disasters. The book of Job is an example. But the term “theodicy” was introduced for the first time in the book of G.W. von Leibniz in 1710 as an attempt to justify the ways of God towards human beings. According to Leibniz the world where we live now is created by God as the best possibility of so many possibilities in creating the world. So although human evil and disaster happen in this created world, they happen and will happen in a better world compared with other possibilities of creating the world. If we can see it that way, then suffering must have meaning. If we cannot see it now, then we can see it in the future. Forty-four years after the publication of Leibniz’ book, a disaster similar to the Aceh tsunami hit Lisbon, Portugal. The famous Indonesian writer Goenawan Mohamad referred to this in his column in Tempo magazine on January 16, 2005. It was a reflection on the Aceh tsunami which contains some theodical questions.

First the people of Lisbon experienced a severe earthquake. Next they were swept by ocean waves that were 6 meters high. Then the city was caught in an ocean of fire. Lisbon, which so far was regarded as a jewel of Europe, instantly became devastated. About 50,000 to 100,000 people perished. This event shocked the whole of Europe, and caused people to ask why it happened. Although Leibniz’s teaching on theodicy had given the people a sense of optimism, the Lisbon earthquake instantly changed this optimism into pessimism. People like Voltaire questioned the whole concept of theodicy. According to him, the devastation of Lisbon is a dire contradiction to the teaching of Leibniz. Thus, theodicy did not only mean statements to justify the ways of God, but also questions and even accusations against the ways of God.

In the 19th century this theodical question comes again to the surface, not because a terrifying natural disaster has again happened, but because of reactions to the reflections of Russian author F. Dostoyevsky concerning the nature of human beings in his novel The Karamazov Brothers. Where is God, when an innocent child was thrown to the blood-thirsty hounds by the order of the landlord? Where is God, when babies who in one moment are cuddled by soldiers, are at the next moment banged against the walls? On one side you have the omnipotence of God, while on the other side you have the children’s helplessness. If God does not help these children, so runs the argument, then there are only two possibilities: either God is not omnipotent, or God is a malevolent God. And in our own contemporary world which remembers the World War II atrocities, questions of theodicy are usually asked concerning the fate of the Jewish people, such as in Elie Wiesel’s novel, Night. There he described his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. One afternoon all the camp inmates were gathered to the gallows to watch an execution. Three persons were going to be hanged, of whom one of them was still an adolescent youth. The two died soon after they hung, but the boy struggled long. Wiesel heard people behind him whisper: “Where is God?” “Why does God not help?” And suddenly, as if by inspiration, Wiesel knew the answer. God was there, with the dying boy.

Natural disasters, human-made disasters, and human evil cause people to ask questions, and these questions in turn compel people to seek for answers. Of course it could be that people do not look for answers, but that is because they do not ask questions. I think it is almost impossible that people do not ask questions, especially when disaster happens in one’s surrounding. I think the enormity of the devastation in Aceh caused people to ask questions and look for answers. In a way, we can say that the Aceh tsunami caused people to do theological reflection, and it is worth to look at these theological reflections as the product of an inter-religious contextual theological thinking.

Punishment theology as an answer to questions of theodicy

Let us go back to the context of the problem of the Indonesian people, and my earlier opinion that Indonesian religiosity never asks questions. We have seen that Sindhunata asked questions, while for mbok Tukinem, the subject of his reflection, did not ask questions. Tukinem belongs to the lower class, while as an educated person Sindhunata belongs to the middle class. In Indonesia the lower class usually accepts their fate, while the middle class very often asks questions.

However, when I was director of Duta Wacana Christian University’s social institute during the eighties, I discovered that Indonesians from the lower class also asked questions and protested against their plight. The years 1980-1990 were the glorious years of Soeharto’s New Order government. Indonesia experienced an economic boom and thus became one of the most important countries in the Pacific area, the so-called emerging “tiger” nations. But it was also evident that the economic progress could only be achieved by ignoring social justice and human rights. Many people became victims of economic development, and most of them lived in villages in the rural areas. They were forcibly evicted from the land of their ancestors, because the government and the business people need space for their factories and plantations. The villagers were poor, but because of the New Order policy they became even poorer. All they got was offers of unjust compensation, which were non-negotiable, and often there was no compensation at all. Soeharto and many government leaders at that time stressed that people have to make sacrifices so that the country could become a developed country.

In their prayers to God, victims of development have questioned why they suffer and they have discovered that it is social injustice which is the cause of their suffering. There are rich people who become richer because of the government’s policy of pauperization. Once they discover the answers, they become more encouraged to face and overcome their suffering. One of the reasons why the people of Kedungombo dared to refuse government’s order to leave the area since it was going to be flooded to make water available for a hydro-electric power plant, was the new conviction that not all kinds of suffering have to be accepted. But with their refusal they suffered more. Their huts and farms were flooded, and frequently they experienced intimidation and terror by the army. But to them it was better to suffer because of their own decision rather than to suffer because of other people’s decision. The suffering of Kedungombo people was met with great sympathy by the rest of the people in Indonesia. It was this sympathy that pressured the government to open negotiations with the villagers of Kedungombo. The struggle of the Kedungombo people was not based on theories of social analysis. But they were doing it with the assistance of their facilitators – mostly university students, priest and writer Mangunwijaya, and Josef Widyatmadja and his friends from YBKS. It was also done through the framework of their own folk-stories that they inherited from their ancestors. In these stories they heard about incoming disasters and how they were destined to overcome these disasters, etc. We cay say that they are fighting against fate (in Indonesian, “takdir”) by referring to destiny. One is the cause of suffering but the other is the cause of well-being. Questions in the form of “why” enable people to discover the cause of their suffering. Because of that, in their prayers, they beseech the Almighty and Just to punish those who are responsible for their suffering, so that the people can be freed.

So there is a theology of punishment coming from the reflection of the poor who have experienced injustice and oppression. Is this punishment theology reflected in the story of Tukinem and in the book, Mata Air Bulan? I do not think so. There it is acknowledged that God is omnipotent but also benevolent; One who kills but also brings life; One who is powerful but does not punish people. In the reflections of people in Aceh and those outside Aceh, the possibility of divine punishment is acknowledged. People of Aceh say: “It is possible that we are unaware that we have been indulging ourselves in wrongdoings, so let us repent”. Two songs were heard on TV as victims of the Aceh tsunami were repeatedly shown. One, composed just after the disaster, refers to God flicking his fingers and Banda (capital of the province) turning into ruins (“Engkau menjentikkan jarimu dan Banda menjadi hancur lebur”). The other, a popular song by Ebiet G. Ade, refers to the possibility of God getting bored with human beings and punishing them. Beside this punishment theology, there are also the theology of divine testing and the theology divine education. The theology of divine testing regards the disaster as God’s way of testing so that people’s faith may be strengthened. The theology of divine education regards the Aceh tsunami as God’s way of teaching people to change from being arrogant to being humble. Some believe that the areas swept by the tsunami were conflict areas – i.e., Sri Lanka (conflict between Singhalese and Tamils), Thailand (Phuket is part of Muslim Thailand where recently there is conflict between the central government and the Muslim people), and Indonesia (Aceh is where the military is confronting the GAM or free Aceh movement militias). For the adherents of this theology, these conflicts arose out of human arrogance and the tsunami functioned as a warning to set aside this arrogance. As one could read in the news following the tsunami, the government was again making contact with GAM. In a way, these two theologies are mild forms of punishment theology.

In the reflections of many people who live outside Aceh, divine punishment is not only a possibility but a reality. They think that the Aceh tsunami IS God’s punishment. A colleague of mine who lives in a village near Prambanan overheard his neighbours talking about the disaster as “God’s punishment for those who want to separate themselves from the Unified State of the Republic of Indonesia (“Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia”). For these people, political aspiration in the form of separatism is theologically interpreted as a grave sin. These villagers also referred to the earthquake of Nabire, Papua, just a week before the Aceh tsunami, which they regarded as a punishment for many Papuans who want to become independent from Indonesia.

Within the Christian community, some Christian students and intellectuals viwed the Aceh tsunami as God’s punishment for “oppression” (or suppression) of the Christian minority in the province”, linking the disaster to the burning of a church in Meulaboh in 1986. This kind of theological argument is common among the Christian community of Palu, Central Sulawesi, where Muslims and Christians are involved in a communal strife. But a month later Palu itself was hit by a strong earthquake and the panicked people stopped talking about Aceh.

Goenawan Mohamad compared these reactions with the reactions of people who heard about the Lisbon earthquake. Some questions raised were: “Why does God destroy a Catholic city, in a holy day, when many people are in church for the Mass? Why is there a priest who declares that this disaster is God’s punishment for the rich but wicked people of Lisbon? If that is so, why is the house of an anticlerical minister untouched? If it is God’s punishment of the Catholics, why did the earthquake also destroy the Al Mansour Mosque in Rabat, Marocco?” In the United States there were Protestant ministers who interpreted the Lisbon earthquake as a sign that God was angry with the Roman Catholics but, 18 days later, Boston was hit by an earthquake and 1500 Protestant homes were destroyed. Like the Palu earthquake, that earthquake effectively silenced the arguments of the ministers. Punishment theology is very quickly applied to others and rarely towards oneself. The argument runs like this: we are God’s people and that is why we are saved; they are not God’s people and that is why they are punished.

Although punishment theology is an answer to questions of theodicy, the line of argument is weak, as we have seen above. Shall we set aside this punishment theology by the people, and try to look for more satisfying answers? I do not think so. In a small booklet which I edited, Amos dan Krisis Fundamental Indonesia (“Amos and the Indonesian [fundamental] crisis”) Eka Darmaputera wrote three articles to which Robert Setio and myself responded. I wrote an interpretation of Amos in the context of his visit to Bethel, and I applied this passage to the post-Soeharto situation, in trying to understand why many people, including Muslims and Christians, are talking about the financial crisis of 1996 which developed into many-faceted crisis as God’s punishment of the people of Indonesia. Robert Setio is categorically opposed to punishment theology, which to him is a reflection of human beings’ and divine cruelty. What about the Chinese women who were raped and, while still alive, were thrown into the burning buildings of Jakarta during the riots of May 1998? This incident started the discourse on theodicy among the Chinese Christian communities throughout the country who asked whether they were punished by God.

I can understand the position of Robert Setio. I have said that punishment theology has weak argumentations. I have refused to accept that people with HIV-AIDS are punished by God. Punishment theology very often corners people who are already victims of violence and disaster, explaining their predicament in terms of being punished by God. However, I cannot completely reject the possibility of a punishment theology. In my experience, the people from the villages of Gunungkidul and Kulonprogo know that their suffering is caused by unjust structures, which are maintained by unjust rulers. These people have nothing but they pray to God to punish the rulers. If punishment theology comes out of the reflection of the poor and lower classes, then I think it is a valid theology. So then it can be asked: “Do the Christian minority who live in Aceh belong to the lower class? If so, can they be justified if they interpret the Aceh tsunami as God’s punishment of the Aceh people?” In my opinion this interpretation is not valid, as the comparison they made between the church burning of Meulaboh in 1986 (which is a small and solitary incident) and the Aceh tsunami (which is one of the most devastating earthquakes the world has ever known) is out of proportion. It can also be asked whether the Christian minority in Aceh consists of people from the lower classes. I think they are a minority but they belong to the middle class.

Doing theology by starting from the question “why”

Generally people are not encouraged to question God if terrible things happen to them. Questioning could weaken their belief in the omnipotence of God. The believer could bring forth pleas for mercy, but that is very different from asking questions. It is precisely from this point that I would look at things from my perspective as an Indonesian Protestant from the Calvinistic tradition. I believe that we can ask “why” in the face of the event of Jesus Christ, who died a terrible death at the hands of his murderers in Golgotha. In the event of the crucifixion, we discover that God is not only omnipotent but also “weak”, full of love instead of being powerful, the God who kept company and live amongst the poor and the suffering people. A theology of the cross (“theologia crucis”) such as that which has been expounded by Luther, and developed further for the context of Asia by Asian theologians such as Kosuke Koyama (No handle on the Cross and Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai) and Andreas Yewangoe (Theologia Crucis in Asia), in my opinion, is the right theology for the context of Asia which is full of suffering. Not only from the event of the cross, but even from the ministry of Jesus as it is narrated in the gospels, we can find how Jesus responded to vestiges of punishment theology. In John 9:1-7, he responded to the disciples’ question whether the man born blind had sinned or his parents did. Jesus answered that neither he nor his parents did, but that these things happen so that God can be glorified.

There is suffering and evil in this world but rather than to look for sin as the cause, it is better to overcome suffering and evil. Jesus did exactly this when he healed the blind person. To overcome suffering and evil is a form of glorifying God. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus identified himself with the poor, those who have neither clothes nor food, those who have lost their freedom, “the least of my brothers”. If we read this passage, we can be filled by compassion and act to help the poor. But we have to be clear that Jesus identified himself not with us as helpers, but with the poor we want to help. We are used to asking Jesus as Lord to help us. Even in the gospels there are people who beseech Jesus: please help us! But in this Matthean passage, it is the Lord who asks for help. How is it possible to help the Lord? When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he shouted “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 46, RSV). This is a prayer quoted from Psalm 22:2. It means that Jesus joined the question asked by all the suffering Jews from the time of the Psalms to the end of his days. And because he has asked “why”, we can also ask “why” to God.

In his book Mata Air Bulan, Sindhunata never referred to Jesus and there is no Christological reflection in his book on the suffering of the Merapi people. Rather, the focus is on his mother, Mary (who is called by the Merapi people “Dewi Maria” or “Mary the Goddess”). The Javanese edition of this book is titled Ndherek Sang Dewi ing Ereng-erenging Redi Merapi, which means, “To follow the Goddess on the slopes of Mount Merapi”. In the introduction it is clear that this book is written to glorify Mary. But of course it is normal for a person who follows the Catholic tradition, such as Sindhunata, to focus on Mariology than Christology. However I think the reason is deeper than just to follow the perspective from one’s own Christian tradition. By using “dewi”, Sindhunata and the Merapi people are referring to the old goddess of rice and fertility, Dewi Sri. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is identified with Dewi Sri. Sindhunata never referred to Dewi Sri but I suspect that is the way most Javanese Catholics think about Mary. Maybe for them, the male figure of Jesus is still representative of omnipotence and sovereignty, and so this male figure is not suited in expressing a deity who is human being’s co-sufferer but at the same time their helper in the time of need. Coming from a very different Christian tradition (Calvinism), where precisely the sovereignty of God is emphasized, I cannot but ask myself whether there is something to be commended from this divine female figure. But as I have stated above, for me it is the figure of the suffering Jesus Christ which could be the starting point of an alternative against the traditional punishment theology in a discussion about theodicy. I hasten to add that while I refer to a theology of the cross I do not understand it as a theology which accepts the status-quo, where poor people are asked to bear their burdens with the promise of eternity. Jesus bears his cross and asks his disciples to bear their crosses and deny themselves, but this is done under the perspective of the Risen Christ. Suffering can be meaningful, precisely because people can no longer accept suffering as their fate. Because of this then a theology of the cross can only be lived by having a perspective of the resurrection. Good Friday is celebrated because of Easter. Then, in my opinion, it is alright if people still adhere to the old credo, which starts from the confession of the omnipotence of God as long as it is held together with the confession of the event of Jesus Christ, who suffers, dies but on the third day rises again from death.

To conclude, I would like to return to the Aceh tsunami. Using the framework of Sindhunata’s theology of suffering, I can see that devastating as it is, the Aceh tsunami in the end is meaningful, if not for others then for me personally. So many people helped, and among those who volunteered are the foreign armies of the United States, Japan, Singapore, Great Britain and Germany. In other contexts, the presence of foreign armies is always problematic for they are regarded as symbols of evil. But in Aceh the foreign troops became symbols of goodness. When the government of Indonesia began to worry about the presence of so many foreign armies, it suddenly announced a deadline for their withdrawal (in March 205). The victims and refugees organized protest marches against this for they have experienced concrete help from these troops and do not think badly of them. This dilemma was brought forward in the magazine, “Tempo” (January 17-23, 2005). On the cover you can see a grim-faced US Marine, with a military helicopter that just landed on the background, carrying a small wounded boy to safety. Maybe this cover is not fair to the Indonesian army and police. After the tsunami I kept following the TV reports, and I could see that the army and police in Aceh worked very hard. But they were also part of the victims for many of their family members and members of their companies lost their lives in the tsunami. When they had to do the cleaning work, there were too many dead bodies and too many people who were still alive but needed immediate attention. In the end they all became exhausted. The work was continued by the foreign armies who were still fit and strong, and whose equipment is much better. We still have to look for the answer to our question “why”, and we still have to look for its meaning for the post-tsunami days which will be long and hard. But the global solidarity that we witness in Aceh is sufficient to for us to know that God is not behind the Aceh tsunami, but behind the helpers and those who need help.


1 Dr. Emmanuel Gerrit Singgih is professor and dean of theological faculty of Duta Wacana Christian University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He presented this paper at the People’s Forum in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

2 Sindhunata, Mata Air Bulan (Moon Spring, Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 1998), 175.



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