Melanesian Conversion


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An analysis of the course and causes of Christian conversion in West Papua,

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Melanesian Conversion

  1. 1. 1Melanesian Conversion. An Historical and Comparative PerspectiveDr. A. N. Ipenburg,Evangelical Christian Church in Irian Jaya,Theological College “I. S. Kijne”,Abepura-Jayapura, Irian Jaya, IndonesiaContents:1. Introduction 22. Patterns of Conversion 23. The Nature of Conversion: Some Melanesian Examples 34. Conversion and Special Revelation 45. Conversion: Continuity or Discontinuity? 56. Conclusion 58. Discussion 69. Bibliography 61. IntroductionIn this paper I want to reflect on the nature of Melanesian conversion in historical andcomparative perspective.In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Dani of the Baliem Valley were very quicklyconverted to Christianity. The missionaries could hardly keep path with the process.While still mainly engaged with establishing the preliminary preconditions forevangelising, like building an airstrip, the Dani pressed them to make them Christians.(Hayward 1980: 128-9). This is quite unique as elsewhere in Irian, for example in theNorth in Biak, Numfoor, Manokwari and Jayapura-Sentani area. The same is the case inAfrica before the establishment of colonial rule at the beginning of the 20th century.
  2. 2. 2Missionaries had to wait for decades or even generations to see meagre results. Theconversion of the Dani began with their own decision to burn their fetishes. These werethe tools of their previous religion. By burning the fetishes there was no way back. Somewould explain this rapid conversion as the work of the Holy Spirit. However, we are onlyable to establish this when the motivation of the converts is clear. There are pragmaticaspects to conversion. The main theme of this paper is: Can we speak of a specificMelanesian conversion, what is its nature, how does it relate to conversion elsewhere, forinstance in Africa?The model provided by Horton (1971: 85-108) could contribute to our understanding ofconversion. He places conversion in the perspective of outside influences in general inthe field of politics, economics. In order to get a grip on these outside influences peopleneed more encompassing religious concepts. As the tribal world is broken open, theworld is widened and the traditional religious concepts are experienced as inadequate, astoo narrow. There is a need for the concept of a universal God, of a Creator God, of auniversal religion to get grip on the new and changed environment. In other words, whenthe environment changes, when certain elements of the culture change, religion has tochange too. If the traditional religion can not change it is replaced by the new religion.Christianity and Islam are both equally suitable to fulfil these needs. If people hear aboutChristianity first Christianity is accepted. If Islam comes first people get converted toIslam.Tribal people have a pragmatic attitude towards religion. Religion has to prove itself.There should be immediate gains. Salvation is in the first place this worldly. Salvationmeans: a full life, a marriage, many children, an active sex life, success with farming andhunting and tribal warfare, a long life. Christianity came to the interior of Irian when thelocal societies were just being opened for external government administration by theDutch and later the Indonesians. This meant an intrusion in the day-to-day activities ofthe people. There was interference with warfare, with customs and rituals considered
  3. 3. 3immoral or objectionable. Western clothing was recommended. The missionaries cameslightly ahead of them or at the same time. The policy of the missionaries was to givepresents to “break the ice” to establish friendships and to pay for small services, like helpwith building activities. This in itself would already establish the superiority of the newreligion, as the “Christian” iron axes were clearly superior to the “traditional” stone axes.This may have set a pattern where Christianity became connected with the superiority ofthe material culture of the people that brought the new religion to Irian and with thereceiving of material goods in exchange for outward allegiance to Christian rituals suchas church attendance, participation in the sacraments, the giving up of one‟s fetishes, aChristian marriage. Western type of clothing and living in a household with one‟shusband or wife and one‟s own children only.2. Patterns of ConversionWe can distinguish three different patterns of conversion: the Protestant pattern, theRoman Catholic one and the pattern of the indigenous religious movements (IRMs).These three patterns correlate with different forms of mission strategy. People mayrespond differently to each of these strategies.a. Protestant conversionProtestant missions used, generally speaking, education as their main method ofevangelisation. Basically, the idea was that you teach people to read and write, youtranslate the Bible, and the work of evangelisation is done. The people can read the Biblethemselves and by reading come to faith. The Bible, as the written Word of God, will initself convince the pagan reader to change religion.For the local people education was an immediate gain. There was with the increasedeconomic opportunities in the mines, the mission and in government a need for literateAfricans. Education was the main means to social advancement, for an increase in status,for access to money and the goods it could buy, which could not be provided by
  4. 4. 4traditional society with its simple social structure. In traditional society one could onlygain a position of leadership when one descended from the chiefs or headmen. A mancould only hope that with a large family and many children, his sons in law with theiroffspring would decide to live with him. With the increased number of members of thefamily he would have the opportunity to establish a new village, bearing his name, andbecome its first headman.Education offered many secular opportunities. Conversion was an individual decisionbased on one‟s participation in the educational system of the Mission. One‟s conversioncame about as a matter of course as one climbed one‟s way upward in the educationalpyramid. As one learned the 3 Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic) and the first principles ofwestern knowledge one also learnt the catechism. One was incorporated in the church asone passed the catechism examination. Faith was a thing to be learned. Conversion wasan intellectual decision.The Protestant missionaries stressed the preaching and reading of the Word of God asfound in the Bible. The Bible was the written (and printed) Word of God. It was ofextreme importance to make available as soon as possible and on an extensive scale theBible in the language of the local people. The Bible would speak for itself. Thesemissionaries held the opinion that the Bible is inherently clear. It would not needintermediaries who take up a position between the biblical faith of the individual believerand his or her God. Similar ideas of the prime importance of the Bible published in a locallanguage, is found in Irian with missionaries and bible translators of SIL/Wycliff.b. Roman Catholic conversionInitially, till the 1930s, the Roman Catholics did not pay much attention to educationaland health services. The main interest was to incorporate people into the “Holy MotherChurch” through baptism. Baptism had an objective value in salvation. This means thatwithout the Roman Catholic sacrament of baptism people would be damned forever. The
  5. 5. 5Roman Catholics laid more stress on the celebration of the various sacraments than theProtestants. Not the spoken word but the performed ritual was the major religious activityto communicate the Gospel. The Protestant missionaries could link up with theimportant oral tradition of story telling of traditional religion. However, their approach ingeneral was more rational, more directed to understanding with the mind, of learning thegospel truths as one learns the three Rs. The Roman Catholics with their complex and“secret”, for priests only, rituals, in the „sacred‟ Latin language, connected more closelyand more directly with the way of thinking of the traditional religion. These magico-religious, rites competed with the rites done by the priests and healers of traditionalsociety. Catholic missionaries, initially, had the habit of enticing people to attend theirchurch services by giving tobacco, needles and other useful gifts to the participants afterthe church service. Here again the reward of conversion was immediate and concrete..The Roman Catholic missionaries tried to use the structure of society to convert thepeople to their Church. They aimed at converting the leadership, the Chiefs andheadmen. Having achieved this the conversion of Chiefs the common people wouldeasily follow. Conversion is conversion of a whole people. It is a collective decision, takenby the leaders for the people.c. The conversion with indigenous religious movements (IRMs)Indigenous religious movements originate sometimes as a form of protest against missionChristianity. There may have been a rivalry about leadership in the church. A leader whowas left out established his or her own, independent, church. People may feel they haveto wait too long to get accepted for membership. Sometimes poligyny. was the issue tobreak away. A major issue was the fact that the mission church failed to addressimportant pastoral problems the people have, like the belief in and the fear for witchcraft.There is sometimes another protest element. The indigenous religious movement maywant to be a kind of a “national”, ethnic or tribal church, in particular for a dispossessedor a suppressed group of people. An example is the Wege Bage Movement for the Me
  6. 6. 6people of Paniai, established by Zakheus Pakage.The independent church or movement is often established by a gifted individual, a personblessed with spiritual gifts and gifts of leadership, a messiah figure or a prophet. Such aperson is difficult to contain in a church, which stresses formal education as arequirement for office, and does not recognise the office of prophet.Indigenous religious movements usually have a close relationship to the social structure,the belief systems and the aspirations of a local tribe or group of people. Its membership,usually, consist of the rural poor. Illiteracy is common, even among its leadership.Conversion to these churches and movements usually comes about in the process ofseeking help for a specific personal problem, like a disease, barrenness, possessedness byevil spirits or fear for witchcraft. As one is helped effectively, one joins the movement.In the Irianese context there are also numerous of similar Indigeneous ReligiousMovements, here often described as „cargo cults‟.3. The Nature of Conversion: Some Melanesian ExamplesIt seems there are similarities in the pattern of African and of Melanesian conversion.The concept „cargo-cult‟ may not be adequate to describe such movements in Melanesia.The concept can also be considered derogatory. Cargo cult could be reserved for areligion where cargo is given religious dimensions. For instance the idea that one canonly become a full person by possessing as much cargo as one can. This form of religioncan be found in western developed countries, where moreover to the devastation of theenvironment there also is an enormous amount of „cargo‟, of material objects or consumergoods. For many movements in Melanesia the term „messianic movements‟ seems to bemore adequate. This term covers similar movements in Africa.Moreover, hardly any religion is only otherworldly. Most religions promise the followersbenefits in the here and now. The cargo cult aspect is but one aspect of indigenous
  7. 7. 7religious movements in Melanesia as well as elsewhere. The Melanesian NRMs have alsoaspects like Messianism, Zionism, healing, exorcism, political and social protest, politicaland social reconstruction, cultural innovation, or simply to provide “a place to feel athome.” (Welbourn, 1966: 201)4. Conversion and Special RevelationWhen we go back to the individual level we see that conversion can come about as anencounter with the divine, as a consequence for a special revelation given to a particularindividual. There is a pattern in special revelation.As the first Melanesian example one could mention Pamai, who brought the gospel to thepeople in the Sentani area. He was himself an illiterate, but taught the people to destroytheir Kariwari-masks, after these had been shown to women, which was taboo.. He thentaught the people the Lord‟s Prayer and the 12 Articles of Faith. Pamai had been sick. Hehad died. Had appeared for the Lord, who told him that he could not yet enter Heavenbefore he had brought the Gospel to other people (Schneider 1929: 108-109).A very striking example wich formed the linchpin in the success of early mission at theNorth Coast of Irian Jaya. is the story of Jan from the small island Roon, as recorded by F.Kamma in his history of the GKI (Kamma, 1976: 602-607).A former slave, named Jan, raised in the house of a missionary, had an accident. Threedays before his days he had the following dream. He walked in a large house and saw aniron door. He passed through the door and saw a golden door. Passing through that doorhe came into a very large room, with everywhere around, above and down, gold. While hewas walking around, quite amazed, he saw from the other side a man dressed in purewhite, followed by numerous small girls all dressed in long, white dresses, their beautifulhair tied up with ribbons. The man asked what he was doing. Jan said: “I am just lookingaround.” “But you do not belong here. Go away,‟ the man said. Jan wanted to leave, but
  8. 8. 8the man called him back. He took a very big book, looked into it, and said: ”Your name isnot yet written here. Go back home, say farewell to your wife and children, and after threedays you must come back here.” Then the man opened a hatch in the floor, where agolden ladder led to the earth. Jan went down the ladder and awoke. He told everybodywho came to visit him about the dream. Three days later, on 1 January 1908 in themorning, Jan died. Then the people of the island of Roon got converted in great numbers,while before only a few had showed interest in the Gospel. On New Year‟s Eve 1907 thepeople of Roon burned on the beach their korwars (sacred objects made out of the skullof their ancestors), their fetishes and amulets.The dram of Jan translated the gospel in terms the people could understand. A dream hasauthority as it is considered a message form the other world, the world of the ancestorsand the spirits. The house of gold is symbol for the land of the spirits. It is significant thatthat world is above and not down below as in the traditional representation of the land ofthe spirits. Jan found there a house and a home. As a former slave he did not haverelatives and a home of his own. The iron door means the status of a slave, while gold isthe symbol of the free person. The people dressed in white. White is the colour of thedeceased. The long hair is the symbol of the Irianese who are not slave but free. Thegolden ladder is the traditional representation of the better world. Before everybody hadaccess to this world, but because of negligence of human being access ahs been lost. Inthe dram of Jan the Gospel reunites the two worlds, the broken unity. There is the newelement that forgiveness has to replace revenge. The message from Jan‟s dream was toldfrom mouth to mouth without using the channels of communication of the Gospel createdby the missionaries. In the whole process the missionaries were outsiders, reduced to amarginal position. But the people came back to the missionaries and the gurus to learnmore about the Gospel and to ask for catechetical instruction and baptism.5. Conversion: Continuity or Discontinuity?
  9. 9. 9In the history of the conversion of the people of Roon we see a continuity in the use ofreligious symbols, as well as a discontinuity in the acceptance of central elements of theGospel.Conversion could be considered, following Max Warren, either as a „change of mind‟ inthe form of a specific individual spiritual experience or as a change of allegiance, theacceptance of a new environment of thoughts. The latter is, in the nature of things, moregradual, and less likely to be dramatic (Warren, Max 1967: 164). Protestant andIndependent conversion seem to fall in the former category, the group conversions ofRoman Catholic missionary policy would fall in the latter category.The sudden conversion of the Western Dani in the early 1960s seems almostunprecedented. What made them burn their amulets, fetishes and witchcraft tools,probably their most prized possessions, necessary to survive in a hostile environment?This would be a clear example of conversion as discontinuity. The burning was by andlarge their own initiative. As Hayward (1980: 141-143) describes it the missionaries werevery hesitant towards this sudden enthusiasm for a new religion about which the peopleknew still very little. Some were opposed to the sudden burning arguing that it is better tohave a wrong religion, spirit worship, than no religion at all. It is possible that elementsin the traditional religion of the Western Dani triggered off this outcome, though neitherHayward nor Peters (1975) gives clues in this direction.The Una people in the Eastern Highlands had a similar, sudden, conversion in the period1973-1980. Some elements involved in this conversion were, that the people associated theEuropean people coming into the area as associated with the spirit world because of theirpale skin. Secondly, the newcomers who brought the Gospel used supernatural means oftransport ( a helicopter). Thirdly, the tools the outsiders brought with them wereperceived as superior (steel axes, machetes, knives) and finally, some authoritative Unapeople had had a dream pale skinned people who would come and do good to the Una
  10. 10. 10people. These factors played a role while there was at the same time a spiritual crisis. Thefirst village to be converted was Langda. The people in this village were considered theunderdogs in the war with the village of Loryi in the Northern Ei valley. The frequentearthquakes in that period may also have had an impact.6. ConclusionConversion does not mean a complete break with the past. There is discontinuity, butalso continuity in one form or the other between the traditional religion and Christianity.The new religion is interpreted with the concepts of the old religion. The new rituals, likethe Roman Catholic sacraments may in the understanding of the converts just mean morepowerful magical rites aimed at achieving health, well being, material wealth, a positionof power When the Western Dani of the Baliem valley in the early 1960s or the Uni peopleof the Eastern Highlands in the 1970s burned their amulets and fetishes or destroyedthem in another way, it did not mean that they did away with magical thinking. It mayhave meant a replacement of magical tools for better ones, their functional equivalents,like replacing their stone axes for imported iron ones.It will be clear from our analysis that more factors are involved in conversion than thosethat are mentioned by Horton.There are similarities in the way prophets are called. They hear a voice: “Go and proclaimthe Gospel”. They tell the message of the Gospel in a form and with rituals, which areclose to the people. The prophets reach people unreachable by the established churchesas they are, generally speaking, living marginal lives in the rural areas without access toproper schooling or health care facilities.. We could consider seeing the Holy Spirit atwork here calling people to His work: to bring all the peoples the Gospel of eternalsalvation.We should, however, see these revelations not as absolute, not as replacing biblical
  11. 11. 11revelation. The revelations are a step in a process, which lead to conversion. Conversionis a moment in time and at the same time a step in a process of Christianisation, of growthin the fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Continuing bible study and reflection is aprecondition for this process to continue.7 Discussion:In how far can the Church open itself for the gift of prophecy as a form of specialrevelation. As described in Rom. 14? This gift is clearly recognised in the early church,and even put at a higher level than the speaking in tongues. The early church had alsolearnt to distinguish between true and false prophets (see 1 John 4: 1-6).In how far an the Church develop a positive attitude towards existing prophetic ormessianistic movements? At present the Church keeps itself at a distance, often fearingcompetition. Some Churches even claim that demonic influences are at work in thesemovements. Governments have also, generally speaking, a negative attitude and many ofthe prophets mentioned above have faced severe persecution, imprisonment, banningorders. One (Zakheus Pakage) was locked up in a mental hospital.How is revelation related to theology? Dulles sees revelation (also the specialrevelation described in this paper) as “ the source and centre, the beginning and end, ofthe theological enterprise.” (Dulles SJ, Avery 1983: 283). A challenge for the Church herein Irian and also for academic theology as taught at universities?What is the nature of conversion in the context of Melanesia (Irian Jaya) and in othercultural contexts (Africa, America, Europe)? How does culture relate to the Gospel? Canwe speak about the Gospel without any culture, above culture, independent of culture?
  12. 12. 12What is the nature of salvation? And how does salvation influnce a (American,Irianese, African, European) culture ?8. BibliographyDulles SJ, Avery 1983 Models of Revelation, Dublin: Gill and MacmillanGiay, Benny 1986. Kargoisme di Irian Jaya, Sentani: Region PressGiay, Benny 1995. Zakheus Pakage and His Communities. Indigenous ReligiousDiscourse, Socio-Political Resistance, and Ethnohistory of the Me of Irian JayaAmsterdam: VU University Press (PhD Thesis Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)Hayward, Douglas 1980. The Dani of Irian Jaya Before and After Conversion Sentani:Region PressHorton, R. 1971. “African Conversion”, in: Africa 41: 85-108Kamma, Freerk Ch. 1972. Koreri. Messianic Movements in the Biak-Numfor CultureArea, The Hague: Martinus NijhoffKamma, Freerk Ch. 1976. “Dit Wonderlijke Werk”. Het Prtobleem van de CommunicatieTussen Oost en West Gebaseerd op de Ervaringen in het Zendingswerk op Nieuw-Guinea (Irian Jaya) 1855-1972. Een Socio-Missiologische Benadering, Oegstgeest: Raadvoor de Zending.Peters, H. L. 1975. “Some Observations of the Social and Religious Life of a Dani-Group”, in: Irian. Bulletin of Irian Jaya Development (Jayapura), 4, 2
  13. 13. 13Schneider, G. J. 1929. “Sentani Ontwaakt!” in:Nederlands Zendingsblad, 13: 108-109.Slump, F. 1935. De Zending op West-Nieuw-Guinee, Oegstgeest: Zendingsbureau(From: Mededeelingen. Tijdschrift voor Zendingswetenschap.)Warren, Max 1967. Social History and Christian Mission, LondonWorsly, Peter 1968. (Second Edition) The Trumpet Shall Sound. A Study of „Cargo‟ Cultsin Melanesia, New York: Schocken Books© 1998 Dr. A. N. IpenburgNotes:1 The Old Testament view on salvation is not so different. God promises Abraham„descendants countless as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13: 16) and ass the „stars of the sky‟because of his faith (Gen. 15: 5). Jacob, Joseph, David and Solomon were blessed withwives, children, material wealth and a long life when they kept God‟s law and had faith in Hispromises. The people of Israel are promised prosperity, good harvests, rains in due time,peace and a long life if they keep the Lord‟s commandments ( Leviticus 26: 3-13). However,the people will be punished by wars, disasters, famine, diseases if the people break thecovenant and do not obey all God‟s commandments (Leviticus 26: 14: 41)2 Fokke Sierksma also points out the “cargo” character of modern societies. The Britishauthor Priestley found in the USA in some place the sign: “Turn Right On Next Block ForPerfection.” He thought this was typical for American materialistic culture, with its promises ofperfection through health food, body building, special courses, mental training, ownership ofspecific cars and so on. (Fokke Sierksma 1978 (second ed.). Een Nieuwe Hemel en eenNieuwe Aarde. Messianistische en Eschatologische Bewegingen en Voorstellingen bijPrimitieve Volken, Groningen: Konstapel). For Sierksma the emergence of salvationmovements mainly originates in the encounter between Europeans and “Primitive” peoples.This Eurocentric view seems outdated now. Cf. Benny Giay (1995: 255-6) for an approach“beyond „cargo cults‟”.3 I am indebted to Drs. Dick Kronemans (SIL) for this analysis of Una conversion.WEBCONFERENCE CHRISTIAN MISSION AND DIALOGUE : Melanesian Conversion -7