With New Tribes Mission in 2008, My wife Deb and I attended a 5-week cross-cultural church planting course called “Interface,” located in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Having never traveled to West Coast, a trip across the world to a 3rd-world country was a huge shock to my comfortable, McDonald’s-addicted system. During this 5-week course, we traveled to nearby tribal villages and practiced writing phonetics and speaking Tok Pisin (the trade language of PNG) to the nationals. We were really not very good, but it was a neat exercise in handling being made fun of graciously. We saw firsthand the depravity and darkness of each of these villages, which were controlled by their own local spirits and witchdoctors in every manner of life: they were told by their spirits how to cook their food, where to hunt, how to raise their children, where and how to build their homes, what route to take to neighboring tribes, etc. The spirits’ rules are merciless and awful, forcing the people to eat only the worst portions of their catch while sacrificing the rest to the spirits, driving them 90mph towards malnutrition and otherwise avoidable illnesses. Life for these tribes is not “peaceful” and “happy” as some say; it’s actually morbid, with no opportunity for escape outside of the Gospel. As it is often said, to leave the community is suicide. These tribes survive as a community, believing their ancient ancestors are watching closely, seeing to it that they are doing things the way they should be done. The moment someone acts on his own, shame and isolation is cast on the violator – they’re good. as. dead.
“Our Ancestors have arrived.”
So after we walked into a village and told the folks our names, two of us were surrounded immediately with smiling, greedy faces (dearly loved by God, however). Being taller than the 10 or so men that crowded around us, I imagined that it was probably what it felt like to be an NBA player in the States. “Uh. Hi?” There was no electricity (let-alone wash machines), and clothes are worn until they are hardly recognizable as such; so the smell was quite pungent…like BO and campfire. “Our ancestors have finally arrived,” the missionary translated. “You’ve come back.”
We were white, and still are white. Papua New Guineans are very brown, some nearly black depending on which part of the island they’re living on, so none of this was adding up to us. The missionary spoke some words in Pisin hoping that they’d sort of walk away, and they did eventually.
During WW2, tribes observed huge battles happening right in front of them. Supplies from the Allied Forces and the Japanese were being dropped all the time to aid the troops. Food, water, medicine, and clothes were kindly being shared with the people who were very curious and obviously needy. For many of these tribes, this was their first exposure to white and Asian people, and man… it was a doozy. Americans were driving tanks, flying planes, distributing and shooting ammunition – they were using machinery these people had NEVER seen before, and certainly hadn’t seen since. According to Paul Hiebert,
Traditional societies of stone and wood technologies were with the people of European origin who were perceived as radically different and infinitely more powerful. Above all, these strangers had cargo, goods which the Melanesians attributed to the white skins’ superior magic (Understanding Folk Religion, Kindle Loc. 6450).
Soon after, individuals with high status and charisma developed cults to trick these needy tribes into giving them what little stuff they had. If the people gave their possessions and performed rituals that attempted to replicate the battles and actions they saw the militaries do in their backyard, an ancestral hero or messiah would return someday with the key to the white people’s far superior material possessions. Their white ancestors who looked like the Allied Forces would come with Jeeps, food, clothes, and all kinds of valuables to give to the individuals that made worthy sacrifices. In some cases, the tribal people made fake guns and radios out of wood and built plane replicas, all in the hope that one day they would find prosperity. Peter Worsley notes that thousands of these local cargo cults within the tribal Melanesian Islands have a single theme woven through them all:
The world is about to end in a terrible cataclysm. Thereafter…the ancestors, or some local culture hero will appear and inaugurate a blissful paradise on earth. Death, old age, illnesses, and evil will be unknown. The riches of the white man will accrue to the Melanesians (1997, 343).
With more and more oil companies moving into Papua New Guinea, this belief has strengthened; and as white missionaries have come in and unknowingly reinforced this belief by giving the tribal people stuff, this barrier to the Gospel is there to stay. They aren’t believing the Christian Gospel if their hands are raised in agreement, because most, if not all, only do because they want the key to material possessions from their white missionaries. They aren’t believing the Bible if their whole life is dedicated to the appeasement of the multitude of local spirits and ancestors to earn a utopian-like existence. Their animistic beliefs are 180 degrees, completely contradictory to what the Bible tells us about the nature of man, animals, spirits, God, the earth, possessions, sickness, etc.
They live in darkness, but many tribes are asking for able men and women to bring them the Truth. But in order to show them the Truth, missionaries need to understand the lies these people are believing, like the Cargo Cult. Without bringing their old beliefs about the nature of reality to tension with what the Bible says, syncretism is sure to take place.