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The impact of western religion - has it made PNG a better place?

Rose Kranz
People can be beautiful but does religion really make us better?


NEWCASTLE - The Catholics were the first missionaries in the upper Simbu in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and some got killed for their trouble.

Then the Lutherans came to Kundiawa in central Simbu and built a church mission station that remains to this day.

The missionaries were infused with a desire to bring the message of God to the 'heathens', a zealousness which is still seen today with evangelical Protestants spreading the word using pop music and, in their fund-raising back home, with fake news about Christianising the 'savages'.

In PNG overall, these 150 years of Christian contact have had a profound impact on traditional culture - in big ways and bizarre ways.

Missionaries offended by bare breasts and instituted the Mother Hubbard, or meri blouse, introducing skin complaints along with prudery.

And of course polygamy was beyond the pale.

Full membership of the church was refused to men who had more than one wife.

So a long-lasting means of organising a coherent social order in which every person would be looked after was (in most cases but not all) summarily despatched.

And sanguma (sorcery) was ostensibly replaced by a belief in Satan and his evil spirits, which for many people represented nothing more than a change of name.

It is sickening that women and girls are still tortured and burned in the name of Christ.

So what has Papua New Guinean society gained?

We replaced one belief system with another, and behaviours were still largely unchanged.

I don't think we have moved forward much when men can still torture and burn a suspected witch.

More than 90% of Papua New Guineans claim to be Christian, but abuse of women and girls and the most vulnerable people continues with PNG ranked amongst the worst in the world for this type of violence.

We know what the churches did in material terms, such as in education and health, but what did Christianity bring in moral terms?

Nice paintings, fake Christmas celebrations and a belief that we must distrust people who are different from us, other faiths for example.

Draw your own conclusions. I'm having a ‘no-Christmas’ Christmas.


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Giorgio Licini

Still a very long way to go with all the ups and downs of all human efforts and at times illusions... It will take forever to build a society of justice and equality. What matters is each one's generous and humble contribution, which begins with the change in us rather than around us.

Peter Kranz

Phil - the SDA's have the South Pacific Museum at Sunnyside, Cooranbong (Ellen White's old house) which they claim is the largest collection in the Southern Hemisphere (that's a bit of an exaggeration), based largely on donations from missionaries.

Here's an extract from their web site.

"Working in partnership with the Adventist Heritage Centre the South Sea Islands Museum collection includes photos, artifacts and serials. These cover a wide range of regions including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tahiti, The Gilbert Islands, Pitcairn Island, Australia and New Zealand.

"Objects range from simple weaponry such as axe heads and clubs to sophisticated intricately woven baskets and head-dresses. All realms of life are explored; the museum contains idols and charms for spirit worship alongside items used for hunting and food preparation...

"Many Melanesian tribes were head-hunters within the memory of people still living, but they were probably no more cruel than some white men who used to carry off the natives as labourers to sugar plantations,... but today, many Melanesians have become Christians."

Phew! That's a relief.

They've even published a kids book all about the brave adventures of the missionaries battling the forces of darkness against the fierce cannibals, "The Story of the Pacific" published by the Sanitarium Children's Library. A good read over your morning breakfast of Weetbix and SoGood.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's a very interesting point Peter.

When I was at Nomad I was amazed to see the collection of artefacts that the local SDA pastor, Tom Hoey, had stashed in his roof. As I understand it these were to be shipped off overseas for sale to collectors, presumably to bolster church funds.

Not only were the SDAs busily destroying a culture but they were effectively pillaging it for profit.

With respect to the latest move by the South Australian Museum to get rid of the foreign ethnology curator, Barry Craig, I might point out that a large part of the collection comes from the Pacific, PNG especially.

I've worked on a few of these collections. Trying to figure out what the stuff is and where it comes from.

Quite a lot was donated to the Museum by missionaries. Some of it is useful and well thought out. Harold Freund, who was at Menyamya, collected stuff he commissioned to demonstrate the nature of the local material culture and how it was manufactured. I wrote about this collection in the Museum journal in 1999.

A lot of the other stuff, however, is very obviously pillaged and dumped at the Museum without provenance or description. Again, the SDAs were particularly good at this.

This is why Barry's job is so important. He knows heaps about PNG culture and, most importantly, he communicates with local people in PNG about their material and returns a lot of it.

That stuff, like the Tiwi poles, is direct evidence of cultural destruction.

Peter Kranz

What be the response if a Catholic cemetery was desecrated and headstones stolen and mutilated to place in a museum?

Read this - "Graverobbers for God – AIATSIS, the Vatican and anthropologists on the Tiwi islands".

Mathias Kin

An interesting one Peter. The SDAs destroyed much of the Chimbu culture among their followers.

The early Catholic also discouraged alot of the ways of the Chimbu people. There was one, Fr John Nilles, who argued that Christianity can still have a place among polygamous men and argued on other issues also and usually got into trouble with the Church establishment.

Today laws of the Church have not softened. But sanguma issues have gone up another scale. I have known of many incidences where men and women had been murdered and bodies not found.

Yes in 2017 its still happening here. Maybe the Chimbu nation has not learnt the better teachings of the Europeans, the kiaps and especially the churches.

Many of the better educated - who are more cultured and seem to understand things - also are not practicing this foreign way of belief.

In PNG we still have idiots who claim BSc's from universities but still endorse sanguma! Na ol Christians tu ya. Complete assholes!

Nickson Piakal

Thank you for the pointers, Gary. That Herman Strauss book sounds interesting.
Indeed the Huli have a fascinating traditional folk lore that has some uncanny parallels to the Christian story, so I heard in passing. Even the Engans practised some sort of sacrificial systems (not human).

Garry Roche

Nickson, in my time in WHP I would also have come across reference to “Olga Nuknuk”.

The former Lutheran missionary, Herman Strauss, had written an excellent study of the way of life of the tribes and clans around Oglebeng. His book, called “The Mi-Culture of the Mount Hagen People”, was first published in German and later translated into English.

It is very positive about the culture. A local Huli man, Damien Arabagali, has written a very interesting book “God was working among the Huli”, about the coming of the missionaries to Hela and the pre-existing local religion.

Likewise the late Lawrence Kambao from Enga had seriously studied the relationship between his own Engan culture and Christian beliefs.

In brief, in many areas the missionaries did endeavor to know and understand the local culture.

Nickson Piakal

"It is sickening that women and girls are still tortured and burned in the name of Christ."

Come on Peter Kranz. Really? Where did you see that happen?

Fair enough if you have a general disdain for Christianity, but did you have to go down the path of painting a false impression of Christianity in PNG, one akin to Islamic extremists yelling "Allahu akbar" as they kill and maim?
Did you see one of those perpetrators of torture and murder yelling out "In Jesus Name" as they proceeded to torture and murder?
None of those tortures and sorcery related murders you are reading in your news feed are attempts at exorcisms, if that is what you think.

Indeed Christianity had a profound impact on our traditional way of life. So would have Islam or any other more organised religion where ceremonies and deities are somewhat more defined. On that note I agree with Paul Oates who provides a fairer view on this subject with his comment below.

I know for a fact that my forefathers from the Western Highlands (Melpa) knew of a being greater than themselves who existed in the sky, which they referred to as "Olga Nuknuk". There was no worship by way of festivals, sacrifices or song, dance and prayer as in other cultures. It was more of a hallowed reverence that required our people to adhere to strict moral guidelines that allowed for fairness and equality to prevail. Their belief in the spirits of the dead who were in the 'outside' world were also in that picture.

It was when the missionaries came and introduced us to Christianity that our folks were able to finally get a better picture of "Olga Nuknuk", so to speak. That is why it was so easy for them to embrace Christianity because they could relate to the stories in the Bible, and ultimately to God.

Our people, being diverse in culture, were also diverse in their relationship with the spiritual realm, so I cannot speak for the rest of Papua New Guinea in what their traditional practises and beliefs were like.

The line I highlighted above in your article still remains an overly fictitious picture.

Peter Kranz

Don - that New York Times article is superb. Thanks for the link. What is so disturbing is that Evangelicals think it is a religious duty to support Trump.

Peter Sandery

I don't mind a spade being called a spade, namesake Peter, but how I wish that sometimes, just sometimes, and perhaps Christmas is that time, commentators both here and elsewhere on matters PNG could substitute the Motuan "Gavamani" for "Kiap".

It is almost as soul destroying to me as is the situation where you get young, obviously Motuan shop assistants in Moresby talking to just as obvious Papuans in Pidgin.

Some might say I don't have much of a soul so it doesn't matter.

Peter Kranz

Rose's dad was a carpenter and helped build several Catholic churches in Simbu. She can still wield a hammer and chisel like an expert.

Don Albertson | Pennsyltucky

When I was younger, a friend was impressed by the stories of missionaries helping people in Rhodesia (yes, I was a lot younger then) to get medical care and help growing food.

My friend applied to be a missionary but was rejected because she could not provide a personal account of how she had accepted Jesus into her life. So she joined the Peace Corps.

As I grew older, some of the stories about missionaries began to include accounts of missionaries refusing to give food to people until they had been baptised.

I also began to see a pattern of missionaries spreading not just their religion but their culture and, in all too many cases, their diseases.

A few years ago, Jared Diamond (who spent many years in PNG) published Guns, Germs, and Steel which describes the spread of Western European culture throughout the world. It is very close to what I had intuited about missionaries as the advance guard of a cultural invasion.

Just this morning I read an account of how evangelicalism has become more a political movement than a commitment to spreading faith.

Slim Kaikai

Kickapoo Joy Juice - KJ, also known as:
Boost Juice
Red Buai
Coopers Thanks
Meri x Mas
Stuck Wan
L F B styleya

Chris Overland

The spread of western civilization across the globe was, inevitably, accompanied by efforts to spread the Christian religion in its various forms.

So, the Spanish were enthusiastic proponents of Catholicism in South America, whilst the Dutch promoted an austere version of the Protestant faith in what is now Indonesia. The British promoted Anglicanism which was and is effectively a state religion given that the Queen is its Governor.

PNG, being colonised rather late in the era of rapid European imperial expansion, became contested ground for the various types of Christianity.

Also, the colonial administration was basically a neutral player in the sense that it did not promote or support one faith as opposed to another.

Kiaps were, as far as I can recall, either very circumspect about their religious beliefs or, more likely, did not hold any strong religious opinions.

A studied neutrality was important because, sometimes, a kiap was placed in the invidious position of adjudicating between competing missionaries over things like access to certain areas or populations.

Interestingly, the Christian missionaries were hugely more successful in Africa and the Pacific than in India and Asia. The main reasons for this appear to be the prior existence of very well established religions like Buddhism, Daoism and the Hindu faith and the fact that the established authorities either discouraged or actively resisted the imposition of Christianity.

Thus, perhaps 1% of the current population of Japan identify as Christians, with a somewhat largely number (perhaps 5%) of the Chinese thought to adhere to one of the Christian faiths.

It is fairly clear that religions are quite culture specific, tending to reflect the historic moral, ethical and governance structures in those places where they have first arisen.

Thus early Christianity arose in Judea where there had long existed one monotheist faith. Its emergence from relative obscurity into a world religion clearly dates from when it was endorsed as the state religion of the Roman Empire.

In a somewhat similar way, Islam owes its rise mostly to its status as a state religion as well. Importantly, its founder was both a religious and secular ruler and he and his successors spread their faith by fire and sword, much like the Christians.

All this is a long winded way of saying the spread of Christianity to PNG was really just another manifestation of European imperial power.

I like to think that Papua New Guineans, when confronted with an apparently all powerful belief system utterly foreign to their own, made a perfectly pragmatic decision to embrace at least its form, if not its substance, in the hope that they could thereby participate in the benefits which appeared to flow to its adherents.

That said, I have little doubt that there are many sincere PNG Christians who, hopefully, derive some solace from their beliefs.

Personally, I think that the ancient PNG belief systems, which seem to be solidly rooted in their historic experience, continue to make more sense for those living a traditional life than a faith imported from the Middle East.

Peter Kranz

The photo is of Rose at Singleton convent which is most beautiful and where we recently attended the first communion of a young PNG friend. Yes we are all suckers.

Bernard Corden

Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forward - Soren Kierkegaard

Peter Kranz

I think Lindsay's had a few too many Christmas whiskies.

So many, in fact, that he's found it necessary to start on the Kickapoo Joy Juice - KJ

Paul Oates

Let's call a spade a spade. Most Christian concepts and celebrations are based on previous pagan celebrations and beliefs.

Mid winter ceremonies just look grossly out of place in the Southern Hemisphere.

They used to be fun for the children though until modern commercialism spoiled the concept of 'giving to other' and concentrated on the concept of consumer demand.

If one could draw a impartial balance between non Christian PNG and toady's societies there would be both good and bad aspects that could be highlighted.

As Kiaps, we saw many things done in the name of western religious convictions that were we to have been asked, we would have stamped out.

On the other hand, many dedicated Christians have given their lives and resources to bring health and education to the PNG people and that is a plus in anyone's books.

One only has to study how the original 'Cargo Cults' emanated from a confused view of religious fervor.

Perhaps one should take a helicopter view and with the benefit of hindsight say: What if there had been no changes to PNG or that say, the Japanese or the Indonesians had prevailed and their culture been introduced?

The truth is that an anachronistic verdict on what happened over one hundred years ago is rather hypothetical when compared with what could or should have been done with the benefit of hindsight.

It could always have been worse.......

Lindsay F Bond

Peter has long put forward views from observations of detectable injustices in PNG.

Heaping tinder for firing tropical heat to spurn detestable ills isn't just Christmas.

See every day at every narrower path, who it is that needs stand aside for others to pass.

Such graciousness albeit out of fear or whatever, is laudable and exemplary and honourable.

Not only "years-end party-time" (what, no Christmas?), social stableness is celebratory.

Gallantry and gender are the conversation mix that is presently of the mores for emergence.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A succinct and accurate summary Peter.

Have a nice no-Christian pagan Christmas and a great New Year.

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