Ecolarchy as Missional Leadership “From the Margins”

By Meilanny Risamasu

Mission “From the Margins”

This article is an attempt to construct a contextual model of Christian missional leadership through an encounter with the Orang Suku Laut, an indigenous group living in a marginalized waterworld within Indonesia, and a reflection upon the mission theology insights and leadership experiences this precipitated. Through a careful analysis of mission theology and leadership from the margins, I argue that ecolarchy, or “leadership by assuming the world/oikos into consideration”, will encourage Christianity and church leaders towards an amicable and urgent theology of mission, in order to respond to human and non-human issues: a planetary agenda towards environmental issues and the extinction of indigenous communities, for example. However, the theological question is: in how far will the reciprocity of Christian mission and the experiences of the marginalized subjects have potential to construct an ecolarchy as a relevant model of ecological-missional leadership in Indonesia and elsewhere?

Fig. 1.  Koten, Thomas. The Orang Suku Laut in Riau Islands. Kisah Petualangan Suku Laut di Kepulauan Riau, Netral News, 19 Oct. 2017, rsn/read/108969/kisah-petualangan-suku-laut-di-kepulauan-riau. Accessed 21 April 2019.

In terms of theological encounters between Christian faith and human culture, Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder (2004) have  created an anthropological and transcendental model (Bevans and Schroeder 48) to affirm mission as prophetic dialogue. In this scheme, mission is dialogue, about preaching, serving and witnessing to the work of God in trinitarian ground, and open to traditions, cultures, and human experiences (Bevans and Schroeder 285). For Bevans, mission today, in this 21st century, has become more modest, exciting, and urgent, and emerged as a theological and reflective consideration towards the multicultural, multireligious, globalized and polarized world of the global South. Bevans said that:

No longer can we conceive of mission in terms of church expansion or the salvation of souls; no longer can we conceive of mission as supporting the outreach of colonial powers; no longer can we understand missionary activity as providing the blessings of Western civilization to “underdeveloped” or “developing” peoples and cultures; no longer can we conceive of mission as originating from Christianized North and moving toward a non-Christian or a religiously underdeveloped South (Bevans and Schroeder 284–85).

While mission belongs to God, and God invites people to share life in dynamic communion, mission becomes urgent because, as Bevans and Schroeder point out, “in a world of globalized poverty, religious violence and new appreciation of local culture and subaltern traditions, the vision and praxis of Jesus of Nazareth can bring new healing and new light” (285).

By using a prophetic dialogue lens, mission “from the margin” is about theologizing from below, and “signals a break from theologizing from above”, in order to do this “one must take seriously the epistemological  priority of those who are relegated to the margins of society” (Hof 12). In Inheriting Our Mothers’ Gardens (1988), Letty Russell states that mission “from the margin” will use “socio-political and historical analysis of those whose lives are shaped by oppression” (14). Eleonora Dorothea Hof, in her book Reimagining Mission in the Postcolonial Condition (2016), helps us to understand the perspective of mission “from the margin”, and defines mission as an “interpersonal encounter in the postcolonial context of World Christianitycharacterized by witness to the life-giving and life affirming Triune God”(Hof 38, 39).

Letty Russell’s ‘God, Gold, Glory and Gender: A Postcolonial View of Mission’ (2004) helps us to understand the shifts in Christian mission:

In the Pauline epistles, apostolate (apostole in Greek) was understood as sending by Christ to proclaim the Gospel. In Luke-Acts it came to mean the authoritative witness of the twelve apostles to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the early church “apostolic” shifted to refer to the authoritative representation of Christ by the Church. In the 16th and 17th centuries, missio, the Latin word for sending, became distinguished from apostolate and came to refer to taking the word of God to places where non-Christians lived, and planting churches there. This emphasis on the receiving end of church mission continued in Protestant churches as they developed their late 18th and 19th century missions along with the planting of colonies, and it continues in many places today (41).

According to Russell, “Christian mission has been part of the colonial project of destroying people’s culture and self-esteem” (40). Therefore, conversations about postcolonial missions must take cultural differences, experiences of oppression, and women’s experiences into account (41). The Church are called to participate in God’s mission as “a postscript on God’s love affair with the world” (Russell41). Therefore, mission “from the margins” is a peripheral-dialogical mission, reflected by Christ’s presence and actions, as the incarnated God, for the marginalized and the oppressed ones. This frame allows us to experience God’s presence through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the world/oikos. Sallie Mcfague’s “world as the body of God” metaphor used in The Body of God (1993), as an extrapolation of God’s immanent and transcendent-sacramental presence ( 20), embraces human and non-human entities as part of a living, changing and dynamic cosmos, through and in God (34).

By quoting John Henry Newman’s thought of Christian vocation, Mervyn Davies and Graham Dodds asserts that everyone – even the unbaptized – has a mission and part in God’s work (145). The problem is that local leaders are not willing to listen; listening to local narratives is an important skill that must be developed (Davies and Dodds 151). I reject the pyramid model that affirms the institutional and patriarchal hierarchy, and support the tambourine model to support the Church’s encounter with indigenous people. The tambourine model opens a prophetic dialogue space between the Church and the world, ad-intra and ad-extra (cf. Davies and Dodds 152–53; Bevans and Schroeder 283, 285). This approach paves the way for leadership “from the margins”, because it avoids exploitation and theological agendas, and does not merely make marginal people passive recipients of aid. In fact, according to Hof’s summary of Joerg Rieger’s work, that we must rebuild theology from marginalized perspectives, because they are obliged to reveal this unfair structure (Hof 149).  From this perspective, the theological question is: how to encourage local leaders to build their theology from the experience of marginalized people? What local narratives should these local leaders listen to, in order to underpin ecolarchy as a model of today’s missional leadership?

I propose two approaches; firstly, I will construct leadership “from the margin” from the experience of the Orang Suku Laut. Despite of their experiences being marginalized and oppressed, their way of living inspires the construction of leadership “from the margins” model. Secondly, mission “from the margins” and leadership “from the margins” will promote ecolarchy, or “leadership by assuming the world/oikos into consideration”. In this part, the life of Orang Suku Laut will be a critical challenge for leaders, particularly in Indonesian context, in order to respond to the suffering human and oikos.

Orang Suku Laut: Living on the “Margins”

Indonesia is the largest archipelago country in the world; with 54,716 km of coastline, from Sabang to Merauke, it has more than 17,500 islands, and it lies between two continents (Australia and Asia) and two oceans (the Indian and Pacific Ocean). Indonesia becomes the largest maritime country in the world (Arsyad 195).  Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics issued data in 2010 that there were more than 1,300 ethnic groups in Indonesia. However, the census officers had grouped them into 31 ethnic groups (Na’im and Syahputra 8). Some of them are Java, Batak, Dayak, Papua, Maluku, Timor, Malay ethnic, etc. In the Malay World, Orang Suku Laut were called as ‘indigenous people’ or ‘indigenous Malays’.1 Before the 18th century, the Orang Suku Laut played an important role in Malaka-Johor (now part of Malaysia) and Riau-Lingga (now part of western Indonesia) under Sultanate feudalism. We do not find this kind of socio-political relation anymore in the twentieth century (Chou Indonesian Sea Nomads 17). The term ‘Malay’/Melayu does not only refer to the Malaysian citizen, but for some Indonesian people as well.

Fig. 2: Bubuy. The Orang Suku Laut and Their Waterworld. Mengulik Sejarah Orang Sampan, Riau, Backpacker Jakarta, 12 Aug. 2017. Accessed 21 May 2019.

I lived among Orang Suku Laut between October 2004 and July 2008 in Teluk Setimbul village, Tanjung Balai Karimun Island, Riau Islands, as a pastor of the Protestant Church in Western Indonesia (GPIB/Gereja Protestan di Indonesia bagian Barat). Teluk Setimbul village consists of several villages inhabited by indigenous people of the Orang Suku Laut, who have lived on land or near the coast. They are one of the many ‘pelagic’ communities in Indonesia (Chou 265).

In Indonesian, ‘pelagic’ is ‘bahari’. Bahari is different to its English translation ‘maritime’. Instead of using the term of ‘maritime’, I prefer pelagic / bahari, which means ancient, beautiful, elegant, seascape, waterworld, and ocean. These multiple meanings express the existential, traditional, and cultural ideas of the Orang Suku Laut’s waterworld, as a string-life which includes maritime-world (cf. Mulyadi 1–2; Arsyad 195).

According to Cynthia Chou in ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’, the Orang Suku Laut consists of many groups spread from the north and south of the Straits of Malacca, Malay Peninsula to the islands of Batam and Lingga, and can be found in many major river estuaries in eastern Sumatra, beaches and small island in the South China Sea (now the Natuna Sea), moving from one island to another (265–68). Many experts have written about the Orang Suku Laut in the early 20th century, but Chou provides the most recent analysis in her works published in the 1990s.

The Orang Suku Laut are oppressed and marginalized. Their purity is pejoratively judged according to the religious, linguistic and behavioral criteria devised and upheld by dominant Islamic Malay groups. Otherwise, they are considered ‘different’, not progressive, dirty, and evil (cf. Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 265; Chou, ‘Orang Laut Women of Riau’ 9, 27–28). In short, they are aware that choosing a religion that is recognized by the state (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism) is an alternative way of life, which may gain them recognition from the Malay community (Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 183). Before the 18th century, they had to submit to the feudalism of the Malay Sultanate (Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 267). In the 20th century, the governments of Singapore and Indonesia restricted their maritime mobility and reoriented their lives on lands. In some areas in Riau Islands, the New Order Government built settlements with complete infrastructure and demanded that the Orang Suku Laut, whether voluntarily or by force, should abandon the old lifestyle and adopt the civilization of ‘land human’1 (cf. Prawirosusanto 129, 132, 133, 141; Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 266–67).

Fig. 3: Risamasu, Meilanny. Photograph of the House of Orang Suku Laut in Kampung Tengah, Teluk Setimbul Village, Tanjung Balai Karimun, Riau Islands, Indonesia.

For the people of the Orang Suku Laut, the sea and the coastlines are social, economic and cultural spaces. Their “adat” (customs) on marriage, death, naming, birth, fishing, and building homes reflect their cosmic world. For Orang Suku Laut, nature has bestowed life on human and the body only experiences support when they are connected with nature (cf. Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 275; Chou, ‘Orang Laut Women of Riau’ 13). Within this perspective, I agree with Glory Darmaraj, who states that “the transformation from the margins, especially through the agency of women, is enabled by observation that the reach from various margins is not so far. If women are sidelined in their religious traditions, interreligious dialogue, and mutual transformation is aided by the perspectives of the margins of their religious traditions” (Hof 155).Chou’s research supports this point. She interviewed Malay citizens and asked for their opinions on Orang Suku Laut people, who responded as follows:

The women of the Orang Suku Laut are not like Malay women. They very coarse and ugly. The women of the Orang Suku Laut are dark-skinned because they go out to sea. They smell because they play with the sea water all the time. We cannot understand how they can endure feeling sticky. The women do not know how to keep a clean house or to bring up their children properly. The Orang Suku Laut –men, women, and children – live in their boat together when they go out fishing. They do not have any religion, and possess no adat.

We are making efforts to help the Orang Suku Laut progress; to teach them Islam, to construct houses on land for them to live in, and to teach the women how to look after their houses properly. Some Orang Suku Laut women are now able to cook various dishes and make cakes like the sort that we Malays eat. They beginning to learn from us, it would not be long before the Orang Suku Laut will disappear. Their men and women will adopt lifestyle similar to the Malays (Chou, ‘Orang Laut Women of Riau’ 182).

In Malay culture, the status and prestige of women originates from their expertise in managing domestic affairs, tending to make women dependent on men (Chou, ‘Orang Laut Women of Riau’ 195). Independence, equality, and general social empowerment for women are considered against Malay customs/tradition, female emancipation resists hierarchical structures, opposes central authority, and destabilizes the ideal order of morality in Malay society (Chou, ‘Orang Laut Women of Riau’ 176–77). Orang Suku Laut women are victims of oppression, intimidation, and social stigmas. However, in their lifestyle, they are very independent, and disagree with the dependent-attitudes of Malay women to their husbands. Because of their economic independence, under forced and particular circumstances, the women of the Orang Suku Laut even dare to take the initiative to divorce and take responsibility for custody of their children. These self-reliant women were praised by men in their community. Although demeaned due to physical conditions (judged to be dirty and smelly), considered nakal (naughty) by Malays for violating domestic perimeters and working among men, women of the Orang Suku Laut feel free to manage their catch, clean it, and sell it to traders as Orang Suku Laut men do. Their economic functions are not based on sex, but on their competence (Chou, ‘Orang Laut Women of Riau’ 183, 186, 190).

Both men and women navigate the seascape by relying on wind, moon, stars and sun. Their ability to survive is built on their relationship with nature. They have superior knowledge of nature as an embodied ancestral inheritance. The sea for them is not only territorial occupation, they carry their cultural identity to the extent to which navigational knowledge directs them through the ocean (Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 278). The waterworld of Orang Suku Laut is an identity that encompasses the history of their ancestors, activities, and social events. It defines holistic ideas about the oikos/world, marine concepts, socio-economic, cultural and political aspects that connect people, nature, and God (cf. Stevens et al. 2; Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 269, 280).

Chou explains that they “are deeply situated in the waterworld and enmeshed in an intriguing nexus of relations with both human and non-human constituents of the seascape” (Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 279). They pass the knowledge of their waterworld from generation to generation through touch, taste, smell, or hearing, through material symbols from the banks of the ocean (seascape). They recognize that the marine living space is not merely a physical map. Their bodies and all their senses encounter nature. They recognize curves in the ocean by exploring island after island, and become aware of every sign, symbol, and signal that is presented before them. Because of these particular knowledges and experiences, they never try to change the ocean world, but accept it as a source of knowledge that gives enlightenment (Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 279–80).

Fig. 4.  Kencana, Atik. Woman Orang Suku Laut. Jauh dari Hingar Bingar Modernisasi, Unik, 21 Dec. 2016, Accessed 21 Mei 2019.

The Orang Suku Laut believes that nature is a source of strengthening and recovery. For example, when family members in the Orang Suku Laut community become ill, they dared to oppose the authorities, who had “landed” them/ forced them to live on the land, by moving their homes back to the sea. The regenerating powers attributed to the ocean are further illustrated in maternal practices: three days after giving birth, the mother will be bathed in ‘salt water’ (seawater), against the general tradition of Malays or Chinese, who tend to remain home until after the puerperium (Malay Islamic tradition), or 40 days after childbirth (Chinese tradition). If the children of Orang Suku Laut mothers get sick, parents take the initiative to return their child’s name to their pelagic culture, for example Udin becomes Udang (shrimp) (cf. Chou, Indonesian Sea Nomads 40; Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 274, 277). Women who give birth will position themselves according to the tidal level of seawater. This tradition indicates that they want to harmonize themselves intentionally, with the power of the cosmic God (Chou, ‘The Water World of the Orang Suku Laut in Southeast Asia’ 272).

The Orang Suku Laut people’s way of life inspires leadership ‘from the margin’ as a missional model of leadership in the context of marginalization and oppression. Leadership from the margins can learn from two important aspects of the Orang Suku Laut: firstly, the way the Orang Suku Laut relate to nature lies in the belief “of a single unitary essence which diffused throughout creation. Alternatively put, they believe that beneath the apparent diversity of things is a cosmic unity which is God” (Chou 2003, 65). Secondly, they create a cosmic relationship with God in harmonious and peaceful social relations. When friction occurs, their economic relations are also disrupted (Chou, Indonesian Sea Nomads 87).


Today’s Christian missional leadership has been shaped in various models of mission from global north Christianity. The rethinking of missional leadership as ecolarchic does not necessarily mean that the other models should be discharged. The challenge rather is to pay attention to the shifting of anthropocentric leadership ideas towards a conceptualization of ecolarchy leadership, by embracing and finding unity between human activity and nature. It is possible, amicable, and urgent because the Christian faith demands a transformation that corresponds to the suffering, violence and injustice all over the world/oikos – including human injustices and those towards the natural world. Disenfranchised humans (the poor ones) and nature (the new poor) are symbolic representations of 21st century world civilization, since both are seen as ‘resources’; human and natural resources (McFague, ‘The Loving Eye vs the Arrogant Eye’ 189).

Picture 5: Risamasu, Meilanny. House of Orang Suku Laut in Kampung Tengah, Teluk Setimbul Village, Tanjung Balai Karimun, Riau Islands, Indonesia.

Ecolarchy, as a model, is certainly open to criticism, but it should be given chance in theological conversations that have so far emphasized anthropocentric leadership models (hierarchy, kyriarchy, doularchy, or raise by philiarchy). One of the considerations of mission theology is the ways in which the mission of the Church, understood once as a colonial effort, has caused injury and trauma. Marriage between colonial politics, colonial economy, and colonial religion gave birth to social projects which destroyed indigenous communities.

God works and embraces the fragile creation into Herself, human and non-human, nature and culture. In the context of the Orang Suku Laut People, this indigenous community, as a vulnerable group, lives in their precarious waterworld, embraced by our vulnerable God, [1] who is embodied in a vulnerable world. However, this vulnerable community finds their strength inside and through their vulnerabilities. They find the energy from nature; water, air, seascape, and landscape. To repeat an earlier point, the Orang Suku Laut peoples believe “that beneath the apparent diversity of things is a cosmic unity which is God” (Chou, Indonesian Sea Nomads 65). The ecolarchy, as a contextual and relevant model of missional leadership, can also be submitted by non-religious affiliated persons. It will enable communities and institutions everywhere to demonstrate their willingness to work together for a better oikos/world. In a Christian context, an ecolarchy will sharpen the vision and mission of the Church, demonstrate solidarity with the oppressed, suffering, and marginalized ones, and be the voice of the voiceless.


[1] Sallie Mcfague’s “world as the body of God” metaphor, helps us to understand an imaginative concept of God, embodied in the world. This concept embraces human and non-human entities as part of a living, changing and dynamic cosmos, through and in God (McFague, The Body of God, 34).

Cite this article

Meilanny Risamasu. “Ecolarchy as Missional Leadership ‘From the Margins’”. Alluvium, 7.3 (2019): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2019. DOI:

About the Author

Meilanny Risamasu is a local pastor in Gereja Protestan di Indonesia bagian Barat (GPIB or Protestant Church in Western Part of Indonesia) for eighteen years. She currently studies in Jakarta Theological Seminary for her postgraduate program. Her research and thesis interests include Theology of Religions, Mission Theology, and Feminist Theology. She is a member in Department of Church, Society, and Religions in GPIB (Germasa Dept.) and also in Peruati (Persekutuan Perempuan Berpendidikan Teologi or Communion of Women Theologians in Indonesia).

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