Three things about ‘Evangelicalism’ Malaysians should know ― Joshua Woo Sze Zeng

JUNE 17 ― The controversy surrounding the “Jubilee Jerusalem” events, “Christian Dominionism,” and “Evangelicalism” has once again proved the poor level of religious literacy in general and inter-faith understanding in particular in the country.

Thanks to the government’s “divide and rule” approach, inherited from the colonial master, in minimalising mutual learning across religions for political expediency that our society has come to this dire stage.

The recent call by Centre for Human Rights Research & Advocacy (Centhra) to legislate anti-Evangelicalism laws is the unfortunate result, not to mention the mumbo-jumbo complaints uttered by fear mongers such as Kamarul Zaman Yusoff, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, Harakah Daily, and the likes.

This article wishes to clarify what “Evangelicalism” is, hoping to build mutual understanding across religious communities to avoid further confusion and provocation in the public.

Good news, not ideological ‘-ism’

The first thing one needs to know about “Evangelicalism” is that it is not a full-fledged ideology or worldview like “Communism”. Certainly, it describes certain belief but it is far from a comprehensive philosophy or weltanschauung. 

The word “Evangelicalism” derived from the Greek word “euangelion” (εὐαγγέλιον) that means “good news”. This word was used in four groups of ancient sources: (1) the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, (2) other Jewish writings not in the present-day Bible, such as the Psalms of Solomon and Dead Sea Scrolls, (3) the New Testament, and (4) Graeco-Roman artefacts such as writings by Plutarch and the Priene Calendar inscriptions. 

Christians have appropriated the word “euangelion” to mean the good news about Jesus’ accomplishment for humanity, that is saving individuals from their sins. Any Protestant Christian group or church that subscribes to this belief is casually considered “Evangelical”.

So, first and foremost, “Evangelicalism” is not an ideology about domineering the world, or support present-day Israel, or convert Muslims, or all of these combined.

Not Originated in 1942, USA

The chief executive of the Centhra, Azril Mohd Amin wrote that the Evangelicalism in Malaysia is linked to the “Evangelicalism” which appeared in 1942 through the formation of National Association of Evangelicals in USA. This is historically wrong.

Malaysian Evangelicalism today did not descent from USA. The root of Evangelical churches can be traced back to a few countries and few centuries through different Christian groups or denominations such as the Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and others.

All these groups had their origin in the 16th century Protestant Reformation movement, when religious authority was decentralised from the Holy Roman Empire into each European territories.

This decentralisation came through the Reformers’ emphasis on the good news of Jesus saving individuals from their sin by reading the Bible on its own authority instead of relying on the interpretation of a centralised authority.

The advocates of these doctrines were referred by Thomas More in 1531 as “Evaungelicalles,” Joseph Milner wrote about “Evangelical religion” in 1789, and The Evangelical Magazine was founded in 1793. 

Evangelicalism gained its currency in 18th century Britain, way before the rise of the Fundamentalist-Evangelical conflict in early 20th century USA that led to the setting up of National Association of Evangelicals. Evangelicalism came to Malaya variously through the English, Armenian, Scottish, and American throughout 18th to 20th century.

To any historian on Evangelicalism or Christianity in Malaysia, the remark made by Centhra’s chief executive is just plain nonsense. Centhra is a “research and advocacy group.” On this matter, they have so far demonstrated only their capacity for advocacy.

Diverse and Non-Zionist

Contrary to an unified global political movement that threatens national stability with Zionist agenda, as some fear mongers portray it to be, Evangelicalism in Malaysia is rather diverse and localised.

As a global identification, the label Evangelicalism covers a broad groups of denominations without a central authority. It is not coordinated nor does not have a uniform agenda. As historian Mark Noll describes: “The evangelical traits have never by themselves yielded cohesive, institutionally compact, or clearly demarcated groups of Christians. Since its origins, evangelicalism has always been diverse, flexible, adaptable, and multiform.” 

Christian Zionism is not a central tenet for Evangelicalism. Zionism was not a concern at all during the 16th century Protestant Reformation that gave rise to Evangelicalism.

Christian Zionism’s popularity is confined very much among American churches. Some American Evangelicals are Christian Zionist while others are not. It is worth noting that in July 2007, a group of influential Evangelical leaders wrote an open letter to the then President of USA, George W. Bush, emphasising “justice for both Israelis and Palestinians” and noted that “both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine.”

Many Evangelicals including those in Malaysia use terms like “Jerusalem,” “Zion,” “Israel,” and “Jubilee” not because they are Zionist. Rather, these words are commonly used in the Bible for their spiritual meaning, not as political aspiration for the modern Israel.

Thus, the uproars over the Jerusalem Jubilee events and the call to ban Evangelicalism revealed not so much religious insensitivity of the complainers but the failure of the federal government in cultivating strong inter-faith understanding in the country. The massive ignorance plaguing our society is the result.

* Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is a Municipal Councillor and an alumni of Cambridge University’s Inter-Faith Programme.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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