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Virtually any reference to the religion of Papua New Guinea will state that it is anywhere from 66% to an amazing 98% Christian. However, this figure can be very deceptive for three reasons. First, numerous religions fall under the heading of "Christian." This includes not only Catholics (22%) but also the United Church of Christ, the Seventh-day Adventist church and several other protestant churches. In reality, only a minority of the "Christian" churches preach salvation by faith in Christ alone.

Second, because the country is so vastly rural, it is extremely hard to say what any church is preaching, regardless of its affiliation. I do know of one village level Catholic church where some of the members are indeed Christians. However, there is another Catholic church only a few miles from the first where the leader is also one of the village sorcerers.

The third reason these figures can be so deceptive is because of "mass conversions." Clan ties are very strong. It has also been long recognized in Papua New Guinea that decisions affecting the community are made by the community.[1] Often this results in what is perceived as a mass conversion. It is true that some of the conversions are genuine on a personal level. However, it is often the case that the village, clan or tribe is merely deciding to accept the Christian religion as part of their culture.

In the tribe where we worked, the decision to become a Christian tribe was more insidious. There was a coordinated effort to see what could be gained from the Westerners. One Clan affiliated themselves with the Catholics while another chose the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Church of Papua New Guinea or the Assembly of God. The people then began to ask missionaries or leaders of the church for community development. In one case, I watched a large group of people attend a mass held by a visiting Catholic priest (the priest came less than once a year). After an ecumenical talk on working together, the priest asked for questions. The first man who stood up cited things other missions had done, and then asked for volleyball equipment. When he was gently turned aside a second man asked for basketball goals, then a third for soccer balls. The priest ended the meeting in frustration, yet the people would still claim to be "Christians."[2]

In actuality, the indigenous belief of animism is still practiced. Animism is defined as "the belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs."[3] Many have assumed this to be a simple religion, one that man came up with on his own to explain all the things that he could not understand. What was the sun? Why did storms come and go? What was the difference between a body which was alive and one that was dead? To answer these questions, three types of spirits were imagined.[4] The first type is that of autonomous creative spirits. The existence of these spirits would explain the sun, moon and stars. Although the people are generally much more concerned with the lower spirits, sun worship is not uncommon in the country.[5] The second type of spirits is the autonomous spirit beings that are seen to inhabit the earth. These spirits may be those which roam or those which attach themselves to places or objects.[6] Their presence would explain why a good swimmer drowns or a snake bites someone. Conversely, one of these spirits may also be responsible for good fishing or a plentiful garden.  The third kind of spirits is the ancestral spirits - spirits which are human in origin. When a person dies, his spirit lives on. If the person died an untimely death or with disputes unresolved, the spirit of that person may try to exact revenge. However, if a person dies happy then his spirit is likely to be benevolent.

As a result, the animist will seek to find out what forces are affecting his life and he will try to manipulate them. The first type of spirits - the creative spirit beings - is generally seen as unconcerned with human activity. They cannot be manipulated so people are usually unconcerned with them. Spirits found in nature, however, are very important to the people. If a group of men are headed out on a hunt then there are many spirits to be considered. Snakes must be avoided but the prey needs to be found. Violating a territorial spirit's area may result in mishaps ranging from a thorn in the foot to a tree limb falling on a member of the hunting party. All these spirits need to be appeased for the hunt to be successful. However, there is always the fear that one spirit has not been properly considered and so disaster looms at every turn.

Ancestral spirits are of particular concern in Papua New Guinea. Melanesians live with the idea that they are surrounded by life. There is life in nature and there is life in man. The force of that life is never destroyed, it lives on forever. This life-force is often called mana and it can be used for good or for evil - good for the one who uses it and evil for the one it is used against.[7] The ancestral spirits are seen to have access to this mana, and if their favor is garnered, then it is possible for a person to obtain this mana from them.

The reason this mana is so important is because it is the key to having a good life. The hope of the Melanesian is not life after death, but living an abundant life here and now. It is not an abstract idea but a concrete hope to be obtained in this world. This is the Melanesian's idea of salvation.[8] With mana gardens grow well, hunting is successful and women are fertile. Children will be healthy and the men will be strong, thus the clan will grow and prosper. With the introduction of western goods, the abundant life has grown to include material possessions.

The desire for western goods has led to "cargo-cults." The basis of these cults is the idea that the Westerner has apparently learned how to obtain huge amounts of mana. Thus, he is able to procure all of these appealing items. Therefore, the Melanesian reasons, if he can figure out this secret, then the "cargo" - the abundant life - will come to him as well.

In many cases, this results in envy. In the Melanesian's mind, the primary source of mana is the ancestral spirits. Therefore, if a Westerner is living in PNG, he is likely gaining some of his mana from the Melanesian's ancestral spirits. That means that some of the Westerner's things rightfully belong to the nationals. It is important to note that not every tribe thinks the Westerner is stealing their goods. It would seem to these Melanesians that the Westerner instead brings "cargo" with him from his country of origin. However it is a fine line that could be crossed.

The difference was highlighted while we were lived in a tribe that did not think the Westerners were stealing their goods. However, the Headmaster of the community school came from a tribe that did believe this (he assumed his host tribe did as well). The Headmaster hand-wrote an accusing letter and gave it to me late one evening. The letter stated that the Headmaster had seen a truck loaded with goods come from the local cemetery to the our house. These things were quickly unloaded and the truck disappeared. It is worthy of mention that this was a remote jungle area which had no roads and therefore no trucks. In the letter the Headmaster demanded a portion of the goods. If this demand was not met, then he would tell everyone what he allegedly saw. This, he stated, would likely result in a riot. In this riot, our house would be ransacked and we would be run off. I immediately took this letter to the community leader and we then confronted the Headmaster together that same night. News of this became known througought the community almost immediately, and the consensus was that this could not be true because we were there to teach them about God and we would not take their goods.

Once mana is obtained from the spirits it can be used in several ways. Some will indeed use it to grow good gardens by saying incantations as they plant. Others will hire someone who is known to have a good amount of mana to perform ceremonies to make their children well or their women fertile.  Mana is generally seen as something that is beneficial to the individual, the clan, or the tribe, and the more one has the closer he is to the good life.

From appearances, there is a fine line between mana and what is known as sanguma in the lingua franca. By definition, sanguma is the use of magic or spells to kill someone.[9] It is sorcery. However, the term has been broadened to include all uses of magic to bring evil on others or gain personal benefits.[10] If a person uses the power of amulets or rites to gather life-force for the purpose of healing a sick child, the person has used mana. On the other hand, if a person calls on a spirit or spirits to come and make the child well, it is sanguma.

Sanguma may be used for many reasons. If someone commits a crime then the perpetrator can be found using a simple ceremony. The crime may be as innocuous as the theft of a chicken or as egregious as murder but the evil-doer is normally discovered. As mentioned, sanguma can be used to restore a person to health but it can also be used to cause someone to become ill. Murder by sanguma can come in many forms. If a person dies from an illness, this is proof positive that it was the result of magic. If a person falls victim to a snake-bite or plunges off a cliff, someone is to blame because sorcery caused it to happen.

The most egregious form of murder by magic has been called "assault-sorcery."[11] It seems every tribe has one or more stories of this and they all bear significant similarities. First, it involves the removal of internal organs from the victim, usually while he is asleep. Second, the person continues to live for a time but third and finally, he dies. In one instance, a sanguman (sorcerer) cut open a man while he slept in his house. His heart and other vital organs were removed and the wound disappeared. The man woke up and went about his day but soon a pain in his chest was noticed. This pain grew worse throughout the day until the man was completely debilitated. Finally he died and when he did, the wound in his chest reopened to reveal the missing organs.[12] Many missionaries have wondered if it is possible for this to happen but it important to note that Revelation 13:3 records that the beast will receive a mortal head wound. However, he will rise and speak blasphemy for an additional 42 months (vs. 5).

In reality, whether it is mana or sanguma, what is done happens through the power of the spirits. The Melanesian will attempt to gather mana to get what he wants. If this is not powerful enough to accomplish his goal, the spirits will be entreated directly. These may be spirits which are thought to inhabit plants, animals, rivers or mountains. They may also be ancestral spirits who are also believed to impart mana. In the end, the simplest definition of animism is a person attempting to get the spirits to do what the animist wants them to do.



[1] Marcus Muntwiler, "Cross-Cultural Leadership Within the Salvation Army PNG," Melanesian Journal of Theology 21, no. 2 (October 2005): 46.

[2] Although the tribe numbered in excess of 5,000 people, virtually all of who claimed to be Christian, it would be a surprise to find more than just a handful of true believers.

[3] Gailyn Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ in Animistic Context (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1991), 20.

[4] Marilyn Robertson, Mid-Waghi Religious Belief and Implications for Ministry (CLTC, Banz PNG: Unpublished Paper, 1982), 2; quoted in Joshua Daimoi, "Understanding Melanesians," Melanesian Journal of Theology 17, no. 2 (October, 2001): 7.

[5] Francis Poye, "A Biblical Critique of the Worship of the Sun God "Yanigelwa" by the Dinga People of Papua New Guinea," Melanesian Journal of Theology 20, no. 1 (April 2004): 84-85.

[6] Penuel Idusulia, "The Beliefs About Spirit Powers in the Area of North Malaita, Solomon Islands," Melanesian Journal of Theology 18, no. 2 (October 2002): 123.

[7] Joshua Daimoi, "Understanding Melanesians," Melanesian Journal of Theology 17, no. 2 (October 2001): 6.

[8] Marilyn Rowsome, "Melanesian Traditional Religion," Melanesian Journal of Theology 17, no. 2 (October 2001): 38-39.

[9] Vic Johns, "Sanguma and the Power of the Gospel in Reference to the Gumine People (Simbu People)," Melanesian Journal of Theology 19, no. 1 (April 2003): 49-50.

[10] Ibid, 50

[11] Ibid. 50

[12] This story was first told to me by Dale LeRoy, a missionary to the Gobasi tribe in the eastern highlands. Several similar stories, some almost identical, were told by missionaries and nationals from other tribes.

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