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The Church in an Age of Ethnic Polarisation and Religious Exclusivism in Southeast Asia: Some Practical Considerations


Eugene Yapp

Eugene Yapp is a Senior Fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute of the South East Asia team. He is also the Vice-Chairman and Project Director for his own NGO, UID Sejahtera Malaysia, where he oversees the peace building initiatives that includes interreligious and diversity issues. He is a consultant to the Government of the State of Johor on their youth development programme for Ambassadors of National Unity.

Mission Round Table 18:2 (Jul-Sep 2023): 35-39

To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:2.



Modernity has brought great impact and even unexpected and unwarranted changes to the modern world. We are witnessing within the current global religious landscape the rise of ethnic chauvinism, religious exclusivism, and increased persecution of religious groups. These social realities, as evident in much of Southeast Asia, are largely, if not solely, due to political power plays that greatly impact religious groups in general and the Christian community in particular. Competing ideological positions often give rise to dialectical social tensions that, in turn, give rise to frequent dissonance from claims of the normative good in the so-called modern nation state. Symptomatic of these social tensions are the favoring of one social group over another, often leading to heightened restrictions on some and the inevitable rise of social hostility.

Christians living in Southeast Asia cannot afford to ignore such realities. There are reports highlighting the persecution of minorities—Christians as well as non-Christians. This state of affair presents a formidable challenge to God’s mission and the witness of the church. It is undeniable that the church’s ability to maintain a vibrant witness in the light of these growing and disturbing realities very much depends on how our leaders of tomorrow confront such crises to maintain holistic or integral mission. The pertinent question is: how and in what ways can we ensure that the church is equipped and empowered to continue with the mandate of our Lord in this regard?

Priority in maintaining a multicultural agenda

To enhance Christian witness and holistic mission without undue encumbrances and/or obstacles, whether from government or other external forces, there needs to exist free “social space” that allows for the flourishing of such activities.[1] The Lausanne Covenant affirmed that God is both Creator and Judge of all men and that the church, as the people of God, should share in his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of all men from every form of oppression and injustice.[2] The Lausanne commitment, therefore, negates the dichotomy that sees evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive activities, and replaces it with an understanding that Christian mission embraces both evangelism and social responsibility as integral aspects of our Christian faith.

Integral mission aims to bring the whole of life under the lordship of Jesus Christ, with evangelistic activities and the social responsibility of justice, compassion, and mercy united under the authority to Jesus Christ.[3] Such an enterprise includes the bringing of Christ’s peace—biblical shalom—into the world for the poor, the oppressed, and the unjustly treated. It brings to focus that Christian mission must be both the proclamation and demonstration of the power of the gospel in words and in deeds, intersecting with each other rather than being mutually exclusive.

Christopher Wright envisions integral mission as consisting of five marks following the mission statement from the Lambeth Conference of 1988.[4] One mark is justice, that is, the seeking to transform unjust structures of society. While Wright’s discussion of the unjust structures of society is heavily centred on the poor, the needy, and those who suffer, transforming unjust structures of society must include identifying systemic racism that fosters the idea or ideology of ethnic superiority and exceptionalism and moving towards more equitable outcomes in race relations and religious diversity. It is only within this kind of free social space that integral mission and witness can be carried out, thus sustaining and enlarging such free social space.

For example, in Malaysia where Islam is dominant, there is a debate on whether the country is an Islamic or secular state. The debate is compounded by the now-famous speech former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir gave in 2001 declaring Malaysia to already be an Islamic State. In the years since Dr Mahathir’s declaratory speech, ethnic and religious tensions have grown, thus prompting then current Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri, to propound his idea for a harmonious Malaysia through the more localised and colloquial expression “Keluarga Malaysia.”[5] More recently, the new government under Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim has introduced the concept of Malaysia Madani as a vision of a civilised, skilled, and inclusive society based on six core values, namely, sustainability, prosperity, innovation, respect, trust, and compassion. In essence, Malaysia Madani is a civil society concept intended to mobilise Malaysians to band together for a prosperous society.[6]

What is telling, however, is that these attempts have not yielded any fruitful outcomes thus far, but only more confusion. Malaysia has not come any closer to the sort of political order that our nation needs to successfully manage cultural and religious diversity both now and in the future.[7] Many Malaysians feel as though we are drifting further and further away from forging a consensus as to the relationship between state, religion, and society. The contestation will likely not abate, but will only continue with no sight of agreement between those who subscribe to different ideals as to the best framing for an inclusive society in Malaysia. I suspect more of what is happening in Malaysia is symptomatic of what other nation-states in Southeast Asia are experiencing.

The need for an alternative

The search for an alternative must recognise the history, formation, and trajectories of a particular nation-state. This includes having a thorough understanding of the culture, core values, and tradition of the country in question. In many Southeast Asian countries, society comprises many ethnicities, religious persuasions, and classes with the thrust towards an inclusive society being on the integrity of community life, and the promotion and preservation of harmonious living. In this scheme of things, the focus has been on praxis—the practical aspects that could bear on every human life and interest for the people and the community, not just on structures and institutional reforms.

As a basis for building this kind of platform, I find the work of Bhikhu Parekh on multiculturalism to be extremely helpful.[8] Parekh understood multiculturalism to be neither a political doctrine with a programmatic content nor a philosophical school with a distinct theory of man’s place in the world. Rather, it is a perspective or a way of viewing human life and how best to manage human relations for a good and better life.

Accordingly, Parekh views multiculturalism as consisting of three central tenets: (1) the cultural embeddedness of human beings, (2) the inescapability and desirability of cultural plurality, and (3) the plural and multicultural constitution of each culture. Each of these tenets consists of a creative interplay and functions in a complementary manner that coheres together to make multiculturalism a social reality. The advantage is seeing the world, the environment in which we live, as one that embodies the full range of the richness, complexity, and grandeur of human existence.

While Parekh was speaking distinctively as a non-Christian, I find we can agree with his insights from a biblical-theological point of view. All human beings are created in the image of God and seek a cultural belonging, for culture is humanity and all cultures are a diverse expression of what it means to be human.[9]

To sustain multiculturalism and to ensure its true flourishing, unity in a diversity of cultures is central. Hence, the perspective of multiculturalism—or a multicultural life that accounts for a society that cherishes diversity and encourages creative dialogues and respectable social engagements between individuals, groups, and their respective moral visions—is promising. A multicultural society is one that not only respects its members’ rights to their own cultural bearings, but also cultivates the powers for self-determination in her imagination. It exhibits the intellectual and moral empathy that is so essential for broader development and the well-being of everyone else.

Unity in diversity should be based on understanding the “other” (i.e., our neighbours) rather than merely tolerating or accepting them. Understanding, in Gurpreet Mahajan’s terms, involves

open appreciation of one another’s differences … Mutual understanding requires adjustments from both majority and minority communities in that absolutist values held by them may need to be moderated in the interests of social harmony.[10]

The key word is “moderated,” wherein we can unpack three key thoughts for our purpose here.

First, moderation requires that we search and espouse a “middle-ground” narrative of societal concerns and views. This extends to political agenda, religious and ethnic relations, economic distribution, and social welfare. It requires an “open-system” of thinking that embraces the ethos of diversity and differences as the norm rather than imposing or changing the differences in and disagreements with the other.

Second, we need to enhance relationships with and inspire confidence in those whom we often say we do not and cannot agree with. Without this trust and confidence, which aims to rid us of suspicions and caution and move us towards openness, there can be no understanding the way Mahajan described understanding, and hence efforts towards unity in diversity. Building trust takes seriously the tried and noble stance of civilisational existence that relationship of the “other” and with the “other” matters and offers potentials for new terrains in social imagination for a good and better life.

Third, in seeking to moderate the discourse on more contentious and sensitive issues that have come to plague many Southeast Asian societies, there is a need to seek reasonable accommodation with differing groups who hold contesting ideas and social visions. One way is to work through pragmatic concepts like the German constitutional doctrine of “practical concordance”.[11] The term “concordance” implies harmonious, consistent relations to each other. It’s about recognising the claims on both sides of the divide and finding ways to maintain a dialectical balance in this regard so that the teleological goal or aim of a common good—the wellbeing for a good and better life—may be reached or at least lie within practical grasp. The imminent juris, John Finnis, in his treatise has also treated us to valuable insights as to how society may aim for concordance in his doctrine of “practical reasonableness” and how this doctrine may hold when contenting interests are at play.[12]

Towards engaging moral citizenry

If the church is to be a catalyst and play a prophetic role, its focal point must necessarily be towards empowering leaders and making disciples as vibrant moral communities to lead the charge in pressing for a harmonious society within a multicultural framework. To meet this challenge, the Christian community and its leaders must emphasize moral formation to express themselves in the public square as upright moral leaders of the community and righteous citizens of the nation. Ng Kam Weng, quoting Pauline Chazan, suggests that moral identity must precede moral choices, however inseparable they may be.[13] This means that ethical actions can only result from the choice of the person that one chooses to be.

In emphasizing moral formation, the church through theological education must provide strong impetus and the moral resources to build individuals in terms of their moral citizenry. This is because theological education with its critical reflections over the centuries possesses vast moral resources and values that are able to shape a person’s heart and soul into becoming that kind of person he or she ought to be. How can this be done? Let me offer two suggestions.

First, theological education may impart a distinctive disposition and moral capacity for Christians to act in the promotion of peace and harmony in a fragmented or divisive society. Through the process of inculcation of values and the internalizing of the Christian faith as a way of life through critical reflection and prayer, Christians will accept the specific role entrusted to them as members of a larger and wider community within the nation. It is in and through this process of internalization that our moral identity and, consequently, our role in society is shaped.

In this respect, one way by which our moral identify is shaped is through the stories embedded within the community to which we belong. These stories function as symbolic discourse and handles that serve as models of inspiration for our moral identity. In the context of division and disharmony perpetrated by insidious forces in disrupting ethnic relations and manipulating religious exclusivism, Christians must hold these stories within their collective consciousness so as to relativize all such claims as normative. Stanley Hauerwas provides an example of how this can be worked out.

By making the story of such a Lord central to their lives, Christians are enabled to see the world accurately and without illusion. Because they have the confidence that Jesus’ cross and resurrection are the final words concerning God’s rule, they have the courage to see the world for what it is: The world is ruled by powers and forces that we hardly know how to name, much less defend against. These powers derive their strength from our fear of destruction, cloaking their falsehood with the appearance of corruption, offering us security in exchange for truth. By being trained through Jesus’ story we have the means to name and prevent these powers from claiming our lives as their own.[14]

Second, the task of theological education is to stimulate the Christian’s vision in the way he or she chooses to live. This is often accomplished by symbols and rituals lodged within the community. One such symbol that serves as a platform for moral reasoning and, consequently, the way Christians choose to impact society is the vision of the cross. The old rugged cross calls on Christians as followers of Christ to a life of “self-emptying”. It is a life that is neither a withdrawal from the world nor a hiding within the safe cocoon of our inner sanctuary in comfort and security. Nor is it engagement with the world on its terms. Rather, as messengers of Christ, it is that way of freely choosing and being prepared to be self-sacrificial and giving, even to the point of death, so that the message of the cross may penetrate and challenge every culture and the present world order, knowing that Christ is exalted and glorified. Peskett and Ramachandra summarize this idea by saying, “to the extent that the church participates in the suffering of Jesus, it becomes the bearer of the risen life of Jesus for the sake of the world.”[15]

Contextual realities for moral action

Alongside the resources and vision to act consistently with our moral self, it is equally important for Christians to discern and understand the signs of the times in which we minister. This requires the exercise of moral discernment as well as the capacity for mutual deliberation. To equip people toward this end, the church must have a firm grasp on  the historical backdrop and the traditions connected to the current human rights debate, the economic forces contributing to extreme nationalism, and issues of multi-culturalism framed within national particularities and culture. In practical terms, it will require that Christians be familiar with the history of the formation of the nation state, the social-political factors that gave rise to national identity, alongside the historical, legal, religious-economic policies and initiatives that have consistently and over time shaped the fundamental outlook of the whole of society.[16]

To this end, a missional engagement demands both academic excellence and praxis. By praxis, I have in mind the ability to interface understanding and reflection of biblical truth with right actions. This is “not just to actions but to the reflection that lies behind and within them …. This distinguished it both from abstract reflection on or a pragmatic response to, concrete situation.”[17] By engaging in praxis, Christians can discover God’s mission for the world, which will inform them to reflect further, which in turn “interprets, evaluates, critiques and projects new understanding in transformed actions.”[18]

Such an exercise will constantly demand that Christians critically evaluate their own thoughts and thought-actions in relation to their context and circumstances. Theological themes such as the doctrine of God, creation, redemption, and eschatology should be projected into and re-enacted by our worldview that consequently determines the significance of our lives and the nature of our being in society. In this regard, Gordon Dunstan highlights the role of traditions and conventions in guiding the course of moral discernment and deliberations when he says, “convention are carriers of moral insights, they form the network of moral communication in the community; they provide moral consistency within a generation and moral continuity within the next.”[19]

A praxis in societal engagement

What does such an enterprise entail and how can the Christian begin to take hold of social-religious-political-historical realities to exercise moral discernment and deliberation for right actions? Let me offer a suggestion.

The church through her enterprise of theological education must assist Christians to situate current ethnic-religious-economic considerations within a diachronic framework of the politics of national identity, while taking into account the synchronic ideological orientation of the evolution of such discourse and its impact on structures of society and state institutions in a given nation-state.[20] In doing so, it must critically analyze the social imperatives as part of an evaluation process before charting an appropriate course of action. In most of Southeast Asia, the pluralistic society comprises many different religions and cultures and it would be unreasonable to insist on accepting the views or the course of action of one dominant community, or accept that the one dominant community monopolizes state institutions to impose its views and dictate terms on others. A particular course of action may be deemed appropriate when,

Rather than excluding religion from the public area of political debate, the secular state encourages religious people and organisations to enter the debate with fervour and commitment in order to promote their particular view – with one proviso, and that is that they play by the same democratic rules as anyone else. In a heterogeneous society, this is the only viable basis for promoting public morality (action). There may be some absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrongs’ for society, as many religious people and groups would argue there are. In public morality (actions) these are to be defined, defended and promoted on the basis of reason and political process rather than by revelation.[21]

Vicencio’s observations provide the theological motive that supports the perspective of multiculturalism discussed above. They illustrate how the enterprise of societal engagement in the realm of the socio-religio demands that Christians mobilize as well as band together to exhibit and act out their faith for the common good or for public justice for the whole of society.

Worshippers sing at Longshan temple in Taipei.

In this, the church is both prophetic and cutting edge. It strives to  equip the Christian masses to “build a world in which the strong are just and power is tempered by mercy, in which the weak are nurtured and the marginal and those at the entrance gates and those at the exit gates of life are protected both by law and love.”[22] It then moves the masses into participation and mobilizes them into civil society movements as “mediating structures” to mediate the relationship between the all-powerful state with its potentially paternalistic tendencies and the wider diverse interest of ordinary citizens of community and the neighborhood for peaceful co-existence in a multicultural reality.[23]

The church’s engagement with society: Some practical questions

The quest for societal engagement in an age of increasing ethnic polarity and religious extremism demands a re-envisioning of our current philosophy of discipleship and approach to theological education. Robert Banks observes that education and training provide a vital dimension to the churches’ ministerial and missionary endeavour and that this aspect of the teaching ministry of the church must be met by involving specialised initiatives and services.[24] Without such a dimension, the mission and witness of the church would be ineffective and would lack the essential component to really move the missional task ahead in this era of global dissonance and upheaval.

To re-envision theological education in this direction, I set forth the following questions to facilitate effective solutions:

  • Is there a need to introduce civic education as part of the curriculum design, giving focus on social-political-religious issues plaguing society and a moral citizenry informed by a Christian worldview?
  • What about understanding and reflection on contextual realities, such as national history, traditions, law, heritage, culture, conventions and social trends of society, and prejudices and biases of each community? Do they have a place in our curriculum? If so, how much time and emphasis is adequate?
  • What is the role and contribution of the entire Christian community in this undertaking and how can we re-structure our practicum or practical ministries to incorporate this specific aspect of the training?
  • How can theological educators become role models through their involvement in civil societal movements and help contribute to developing a theology of public engagement for social peace, and, at the same time, to being a light and offering a light unto the nation?
  • Given that Christianity often attracts oppression and persecution, is there a place for the seminary to develop research projects or give grants to encourage the development of an indigenous theology of discrimination, oppression, or persecution?
  • Is there a place for theological schools and seminaries to create and incorporate an institute, center, or other such arms in research, teaching, dissemination, and exploring practical and effective models of societal engagement for the churches’ understanding and education?
  • What role should theological education give to actual practitioners on the field and what would be their specific contributions in the overall task in theological education?

Would mission agencies like OMF identify and begin to mobilize individuals who possess specialized skills and expertise in social studies or experience in wider social engagement to serve as missionaries who can enhance public societal engagement in a given country? If so, how could we overcome issues like procuring an entry visa or coming up against non-interference policies enacted by states and governments that are designed to keep foreigners outside of the conversation?

May the Lord bless the church in preparing and equipping Christians to face the challenges in this age and the age to come!


[1] By free “social space”, I mean a “social arena dependent on, but also partially independent of political and familial authority or specific economic structures … an institutionalised ‘space’ for human solidarity and bonding that allows in principle a credo to develop and be critiqued, revised and lived out (more or less) in the midst of history.” Over time, this includes a wide range of “voluntary associations, interest groups, dissent committees, experimental associations, opposition parties and private assemblies.” Max Stackhouse, Creeds, Societies and Human Rights (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 4.

[2] John Stott, Making Christ Known: Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement, 1974–1989 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996), 24.

[3] Lausanne Movement, “Integral Mission,” (accessed 9 June 2023).

[4] Chris Wright, The Five Marks of Mission: Making God’s Mission Ours (Gomshall, UK: Micah Global, 2015).

[5] See (accessed 17 May 2023).

[6] “Malaysia Madani to Restore Dignity of the Nation – PM Anwar,” Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia, 19 January 2023, (accessed 9 June 2023).

[7] For the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with the Malaysian struggles, the Islamic State debate has, over time, spiralled into an ideology proclaiming that the “concepts of a universal human rights posed a ‘clear and present danger’ to the sovereignty of Islam in Malaysia.” The attempts of this group are politically motivated, but represent a march towards the “desecularisation” of the implicitly multi-ethnic-religio character of Malaysian society in favour of a more “Islam-centric” way of life with a more fundamentalist outlook on religious pluralism, where the claims and rights of the majority are made to subvert the interest of the minority. See Gordon P. Means, Political Islam in Southeast Asia (Selangor: SIRD, 2009), 348; Clive S. Kessler, “Islam, the State and Desecularization in Malaysia: The Islamist Trajectory During the Badawi Years,” in Sharing the Nation: Faith, Difference, Power and the State 50 Years After Merdeka, ed. Norani Othman, Marvis C. Puthucheary, and Clive S. Kessler (Selangor: SIRD, 2008), 62–63.

[8] Bhikhu Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 2006). See also, Bhikhu Parekh, “What is Multiculturalism?” at (accessed 9 June 2023). I am indebted to and build on the work of Parekh.

[9] It is not my purpose to expound or render a theological exposition on culture or cultural studies from a mission point of view. This is to simply to highlight that culture or output of cultural studies on a missional basis can agree with the general findings of the social sciences. My argument here is that theological education can incorporate and integrate such findings for further reflections and multiple praxis-making.

[10] Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid and Zawawi Ibrahim, “The Governance of Religious Diversity in Malaysia: Islam in a Secular State or Secularism in an Islamic State?” in The Problem of Religious Diversity: European Challenges, Asian Approaches, ed. Anna Triandafyllidou and Tariq Modood (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 192. My italics.

[11] See, for example, the application by former United Nation Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief on the occasion of the thirty-seventh session of the Human Rights Council, 2018, on the agenda of promotion and protection of all human rights, civil political, economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to development, (accessed 17 May 2023).

[12] John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). See also the commentary by Diksha Sarma, “The Idea of Practical Reasonableness,” International Journal of Advanced Research 5, no. 1 (2017): 357–62, (accessed 17 May 2023).

[13] Pauline Chazan, The Moral Self (New York: Routledge, 1998), 108–109 quoted by Ng Kam Weng, “Religion and Moral Citizenry: Whose Morality? What Law? Which Moral Community?” in The Quest for Covenant Community and Pluralist Democracy in an Islamic Context, ed. Mark L. Y. Chan (Singapore: TTC, 2008), 89–90.

[14] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1981), 50.

[15] Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramamchandra, The Message of Mission (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 196.

[16] While adding training in socio-political identity may seem to be a lot to add to the discipleship process, discipleship is always a lifelong process that includes incorporating new ideas, knowledge, and understanding to one’s life. This includes the sort of multidimensional and integrated concepts envisioned here. It is thus pertinent to ask whether theological educators and other church leaders think that it is important enough to prioritize these ideas so that Christian congregations rightly learn how to respond to them.

[17] Robert Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Models (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 160. There are various meanings ascribed to this term but Bank’s explanation seems to be the most helpful for our discussion here.

[18] Charles Van Engen, “Specialization/Integration in Mission Education,” in Missiological Education for the Twenty-First Century: The Book, the Circle and the Sandals. Essays in Honor of Paul E. Pierson, ed. J. Dudley Woodberry, Charles Van Engen, and Edgar J. Elliston (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997; reprinted, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 223.

[19] Gordon R. Dunstan, The Artifice of Ethics (London: SCM, 1974), 9.

[20] For an example of such an approach in the context of Malaysia, see Helen Ting, “The Politics of National Identity in West Malaysia: Continued Mutation or Critical Transition?,” Southeast Asian Studies 47, no.1 (June 2009): 31–51.

[21] Charles Villa-Vicencio, A Theology of Reconstruction: Nation-building and Human Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 270. (italics mine.)

[22] Richard J. Neuhaus, “The Christian and the Church,” in Transforming the World, ed. James M. Boice (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1988), 120.

[23] See the exposition by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1977).

[24] Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education, 131.

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