Reading Exodus in Timor

Timor-Leste had its 16thanniversary of the Restoration of Independence on May 20th.  The day is called Restoration of Independence Daybecause at the end of Portuguese rule in 1975, Timorese declared Independence. And the next day, Indonesia invaded and occupied the country for 25 years.  For the tiny nation of Timor-Leste to gain independence was a miracle. Indonesia, itself a large and powerful country, was backed by powerful Western actors like the United States and Australia from start to finish.  And yet in the end, Indonesia’s efforts failed and Timor-Leste is free.


Exodus is one of my favorite books of the Bible.  As far as I can tell though the Exodus story is not very well known in Timor-Leste.  At least it doesn’t appear to have played a significant role in the spirituality of the people in the way that the suffering of Jesus has.  That may be because there isn’t yet a translation of the Old Testament in a language most people understand.  But if there were one biblical story that is appropriate for Timor-Leste, it’s the Exodus.  I refer to it frequently when I am teaching and preaching because I believe its message is revelatory for all people in terms of learning who God is by what God does.  Not only the liberation of the slaves, but also the drama of the people learning what it means to be God’s people and God’s accompaniment of them in the wilderness.  Personally though when I read the story of the Exodus I do so as an “Egyptian.”  Let me explain why in the context of Timor-Leste’s history.

On December 5th 1975, just days before the Indonesian military invaded this land of paradise, then U.S. President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta meeting with General Suharto, the military strongman who had become the leader of Indonesia in a U.S. backed coup ten years earlier. Between 1965 and 1967 Suharto’s regime orchestrated the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian intellectuals, educators, peasant farmers and others thought to be associated with left-wing politics.


At their meeting in Jakarta, Ford and Kissinger virtually gave Indonesia a “green light” to invade Timor-Leste (then called East Timor) assuring them that the U.S. supported their objective.  And on the morning of December 7th,1975, Indonesia invaded.  The idea was that the Indonesians would quickly subdue the Timorese and East Timor would become part of Indonesia.  Instead the Timorese fought for freedom against all odds. For 24 years the Indonesians continued their assault on East Timor with the support of the U.S. and other Western powers. That support included military training and intelligence, financing and U.S. manufactured weapons and aircraft.  That vigorous support continued during both Republican and Democratic administrations until the late 90s when it became a political liability to continue supporting Indonesia’s occupation.

ov-10 bronco

The OV-10 Bronco made by Rockwell International was used in the invasion and occupation of East Timor.

During the Indonesian occupation over 200,000 Timorese were killed or died of starvation or untreated illness, approximately ¼ of the population.  The Indonesian military was responsible both for its own actions and those of Timorese militias who were often sent in to do the dirtiest work including brutal massacres in Timorese churches. Yet despite the continuous support of the U.S. and other Western powers, the Timorese eventually won independence.

From that history I think you can understand why, as an American it’s appropriate for me to identify with the Egyptians in the story!  Not real comforting.  As an American I repent in sack cloth and ashes.

Sixteen years on from independence it seems fair to say that Timor-Leste is in a “wilderness” period of its history.  I emphasized this in a reflection on a youth retreat yesterday.  Freedom is a process.  Actually my text was Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm therefore do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

What would it mean to “submit again to the yoke of slavery” in this context?  Further foreign invasion is unlikely but I suggested it might happen if you sit around and wait for someone else to complete the liberation that began with the end of Indonesian rule.  You’re free, yes.  And by the high participation in the recent election it’s clear that people take the responsibilities that go with freedom seriously.  But when so many are unemployed, access to education and health care is so difficult and so many children are physically stunted due to malnutrition, there is work to do to make freedom meaningful.

Getting down to specifics, “standing firm” in this case might mean rejecting an afternoon staring at a smart phone in favor of working with neighbors on a garden, chicken coup or a pig pen.  Learning about horticulture rather than bothering with computers and English.  I’m not against English and computers.  But practically speaking knowledge of horticulture and skills like welding, carpentry and masonry make most sense for most people. And those things would raise living standards more quickly for more people.

Anyway, the good news of the wilderness period in Israel’s history are the closing verses of Exodus (40:34-38).  Those verses give us the image of the glory of God filling the Tabernacle, the “portable temple” the Israelites took with them on the journey.  The image is apt for Timor-Leste as well.  Freedom for the Timorese represents what seemed like impossibility; for the world it’s a historical flash of the subversive power of God that “…brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly” (Lk. 1:52).







One comment

  1. Tom, great review of a sordid but inspiring history. Biblical parallels are striking and apt. Guess we should be calling it “T-L” instead of “E-T.”



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