Ichthus symbolPETALING JAYA: The cross on a new church in a shophouse has been taken down after about 50 residents conducted a protest during Sunday service this morning, according to a media report.

The church in Taman Medan is situated in a shophouse.

The protesters gathered at about 10am while the service was being conducted for a congregation of about 15 people, Star Online reported.

The protesters said the sight of the cross in an area populated mainly by Muslims was a challenge to Islam and could influence younger minds, according to the report. (FMT reporters, “Shophouse church takes down cross after protests,” FMT News, April 19, 2015)

It’s open season on Christians. Every morning I wake up to news of Christians somewhere in the world being killed for their faith, usually by groups who claim to be Muslim. So when I hear of a group of Muslims in Malaysia who protest outside a church during their worship service because they are offended by the cross outside the church—a group of 50 confronting a congregation of 15, insisting that they take down the cross—I get a bit upset. The reason why the protesters were disturbed? The church premise is situated in a Muslim-majority area and the prominent cross may confuse their young and cause them to be converted. The church leaders decided to take down the cross. Fear of intimidation? Led by the Lord to turn the other cheek? Whatever. I find myself disturbed by various concerns.

First, I am very suspicious. Before this incident dominated the media in Malaysia, as such incidents tend to do, the focus was on the government’s gross mismanagement of the country’s finances. Now the eyes of the nation look elsewhere. Convenient? In addition, the cry in certain quarters is that the sedition act should be used on the protesters. Many have protested that the recently passed new sedition act is an assault on human rights. Now we are told that incidents like this protest against the cross shows that we need the sedition act. I think the case is more one of criminal intimidation not sedition. But the protest is given as evidence that we need the sedition act. Convenient? Perhaps I have been too influenced by my love for the TV series X-Files. Perhaps there is no conspiracy here.

Still, I am very disturbed by the growing intolerance of the beliefs and practices of non-Muslim religious communities by various groups in the country. Good grief, the government dictates to you what you can or cannot call God. State authorities confiscate your holy book. Non-Muslim parents often get short shrift in child custody cases when the other parent converts to Islam. Where is the Malaysia where all communities are treated equally by the constitution? Christians should speak up against such intolerance, not because the protest was against a church, boo-hoo, but because we want to continue to call the government to account to remind it to defend the constitution and the wonderful crazy idea of Malaysia our forefathers had in mind when they started this nation. In other words, we should be equally incensed if the protest had been against a Hindu temple, or a Buddhist temple, or if non-Muslims had protested against the crescent moon and star in a surau or masjid in a Muslim-minority area.

But I have other thoughts as well. Do we really have to put up crosses on our church buildings and meeting places? The New Testament church met in homes. They had no special buildings set apart for church life till the 3rd or 4th century. And the earliest Christian symbol was the fish not the cross. The Greek word for fish, “ichthus”, was an acronym for the words, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”, an early Christian confession of faith. Indeed the sign of the fish was used because the church was under persecution and Christians needed a way to identify each other that was not too obvious. So, must we put up crosses? This is a different question from whether the constitution allows us to do so. And do we need what looks like a big, red, in-your-face cross? Just wondering.

I also wonder about “architectural evangelism”, making a statement about the presence of God’s people through holy buildings and public symbols like crosses. The early church had no buildings. They made such an impact because of the quality of their community life, their sacrificial love for people in need, and the faithful preaching of the gospel. It was the reality of the cross in their lives and their communities that made such an impact. Christians were salt and light, living cross-centred lives in their gatherings and in their relationships with the wider community. It would seem that if we have limited time and energy we should be focusing on helping followers of Jesus grow in Christlikeness so the on-looking world can see Christ in them. I am therefore aghast at Christians who ridicule Malays and Muslims in response to incidents like the cross protest. What would Jesus do? Besides, it would seem that we are playing into the hands of those who would divide us when we blame a whole race and/or religious community for the actions of a few. I also wonder how we can make a stand for the law without baying for blood and calling for the punishment of the protesters. Humiliation breeds resentment. What would Jesus do?

The cross protest is a complex matter that resists any simplistic reduction to just one issue. There are many issues involved, and for followers of Christ, we have to view the issues through the framework of Scripture. This is a difficult time in the country, a time that calls for much wisdom, love, and patience. But times of difficulty can also be times that force us to think and pray, and that may lead to fresh light and clarity. All good things are birthed through pain and sacrifice. Our ultimate hope is the return of the King and the coming of the kingdom of God in its fullness. In the meantime, we do what we can to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. I end with the usual sign-off of my friend K J John…may God bless Malaysia.