by Douglas Hayward
The first big question we face when we some to the subject of Melanesian millenarian movements is to know what terminology we should use in designating such movements.
The first big question we face when we come to the subject of Melanesian millenarian movements is to know what terminology we should use in designating such movements. Just to give some idea about the scope of the problem, here are some of the more common terms that have been used:
- Terminology that focuses on the leadership of the movement: prophetic movements and messianic movements.
- Terminology that focuses on the political aspects of the movement: proto-nationalistic movements and revolutionary cults.
- Terminology that focuses on the religious aspects of the movement: salvation movements, millenarian movements, independent or separatist churches, and new religious movements.
- Terminology that focuses on socio-economic aspects of the movement: cargo cults, adjustment movements, and nativistic movements.
- Terminology that focuses on the psychological aspects of the movement: crisis or deprivation cults and revitalization movements.
ATTEMPTS TO CLASSIFY THESE MOVEMENTS
A number of researchers and anthropologists have sought to categorize these movements by reference to their outstanding features, their ultimate goals, or by an interpretative system that adequately explains and arranges the data into an orderly and coherent system. In surveying the various approaches to the problem, I have been forced to make the same conclusion that John Strelan has made, namely, that the five categories that were compiled by Friedrich Steinbauer seem to be the most comprehensive and inclusive in coveting the wide variety of approaches to the subject. These four categories are:
- Socio-political interpretations: interpretations that see these movements as being due to acculturation and culture contact related problems.
- Christian-ethical interpretations: interpretations that see these movements as being the product of a people’s world-view and of the problem of syncretism.
- Cultural-historical interpretations: interpretations that see these movements as being the result of cultural tendencies and heritages.
- National-economic interpretations: those that see these movements as being due to political or economic conditions.
Every writer on the subject of millenarian movements has compiled a totally different list of essential elements. I have taken the liberty to do the same, trusting that what follows will be sufficiently complete and clear so as to convey the basic outlines of such a movement.
A dependency upon myth or historical tradition in order to validate the millenarian expectations of the movement. Numerous authors have noted the role of myth in the emergence of the various movements. Indeed, in some instances, it was the reformulation of the old myths that gave occasion for the emergence of the movement. It is the common exposure to millenarian concepts, either in myth or in their worldview, that makes millenarian movements intellectually acceptable to a culture group. The popularity of the myth of the return of the dead, and the commonly held belief in the loss of paradise at the beginning of time are two such powerful incentives to the emergence of Melanesian movements.
A prominent role by a charismatic leader who has usually had .come form of mystical experience. Some writers on the subject of Melanesian millenarian movements believe that it is the emergence of the charismatic leader that makes such a movement possible. In other words, they assert, the sociological climate may be ripe for such a movement, but it is the emergence of the charismatic leader that is needed in order to act as a sort of catalyst to produce the movement. However that may be, charismatic leadership, usually in conjunction with what might be labelled as institutional or organizational leaders, is important for the rise and spread of the movement. Generally, such a man is propelled into his role by a dream, a miracle, or some other mystical experience that authenticates his right to such a role in the movement.
The performance of ecstatic, orgiastic, and/or destructive activities. In order to usher in the new age, many of these movements will give themselves over to a variety of ceremonies of excess. In some cases, this will be some form of possession or ecstatic behavior, or it may be an all night dance, or it may be a time of sexual promiscuity. Not uncommonly, it also requires the destruction of crops, livestock and gardens, or the disposal of all forms of wealth. Such total impoverishment and acts of preparation are, it seems, additional factors that will hasten the coming of the future kingdom.
A strongly ethno-centric or nationalistic feeling that in many instances war combined with anti-white sentiments. Where there has been strong pressures for acculturation to a dominant culture, which has been characterized by the deprecation of a people and their culture, then the millenial movement will be strong in asserting its ethno-centric or nationalistic feelings. These may be so strong as to bring together traditionally separate and hostile groups. It has also happened that such solidarity has produced feelings of aggression toward those who would oppose the group or its movements, resulting in violent actions. In many cases, this has been directed at white men, but in even more instances it has been directed at fellow Melanesians who have opposed the movement, such as church leaders, loyalists and so on.
A belief in a redeemer, or messiah, or some such equivalent group. According to many of the movements the promised age to come will be initiated by the return of a messiah (such as Mansgren in the Koreri movement), or of the ancestors, or by a sympathetic response by morally responsible white men, such as the Americans, or the Dutch.
A marked tendency toward syncretism and/or d revival of paganism. For some of the movements the coming of the new age is dependent upon a return to the practices of an age gone by, when life was not corrupted by the influences of foreigners or their ways. For still others it is to be found in the incorporation of new ideas generally Christian, with that of the old. Such syncretism is usually not its purposeful goal, but rather arises as a result of not being able to comprehend the entirety of the white man’s religion. They tend to see what we do, hear what we say, but interpret it all from their own animistic worldview, which sees things in terms of magic, repositories of power, and secret formulas that are owned by and known to the white man.
A belief in a coming age which will be morally just and equitable for all. This belief in a golden age has taken on a number of outstanding features, which include such things as the arrival of cargo that will make all men equal; the belief that in the golden age white men will be black, and black men will be white; the reunification of the living with the dead, and the end of sickness and death; and the opportunity for a life of peace and tranquility from the struggles of life.
The capability for the re-emergence of the movement after its apparent failure. A study of the history of these movements in Melanesia has shown conclusively that the apparent failure of a movement does not mean that that particular group has henceforth been inoculated against any such further infection. On the other hand, it seems more than possible that such a group or area will continue to be open and susceptible to the emergence of another prophet or charismatic leader in the future.
The possibility that such movements may and probably will continue to take place leads us to ask what should be our response. If we are going to formulate any kind of meaningful response to them, we are going to have to be reasonably assured that we know what has provoked them. We’ve come a long way from those early days when an official could conclude that such a movement was the result of excessive energy on the part of the natives which needed to be diverted by teaching them to play ball. If, on the other hand, we accept the thesis that these are indeed salvation movements, then the comment of F. C. Kamma is most relevant. He states that in such a climate we shall fail in the communication of the gospel if we present it as solely an intellectual system and not as a social, economic and emotionally satisfying way of life.
We also need to see the positive aspects of such movements, rather then reacting to them with fear and paranoia. The reactions of missionaries and mission churches to such movements in the past has been characterized by outright fear, condemnation and persecution. They have been seen as a threat to the churches, and as an instrument of the devil. Indeed, relationships between church leaders, missionaries and the supporters of such movements have been hostile. Persecution of church leaders has been common. Such activities, of course, cannot be condoned or glossed over. Nevertheless, unreasoned fear and blanket condemnation of these movements does absolutely nothing to build bridges of communication that could lead to constructive healing. In this connection, the observation of Gottfried Oosterwal is pertinent. He suggests we see these movements as genuine efforts to revitalize and reform the community. They have the capacity to break down traditional tribal barriers and they create an atmosphere of liberation from the past and a hope for the future. All of these attitudes, he suggests, could be fresh opportunities for the preaching of the word of God.
We need to formulate a theological and pastoral response that reflects a truly Christlike attitude. Harold Turner in an article in Missiology on the North American Indians noted that the attitudes of churchmen and missions toward the Indian religious movements "ranges from indifference to hostility, and is consistently based on ignorance. " A Christlike attitude of love and compassion, and a desire to see cultists won to the Lord Jesus Christ and walking in Christian maturity, is going to mean that we first of all be equipped to give an answer to heir claims from a theological and biblical point of view. Our Bible schools and our pastors ought to be trained how to confront the religious ideology that undergirds such movements. Furthermore, our opposition needs to be one which, while being defensive, nevertheless reflects Christian grace and concern for these persons who are attracted to such movements.
We need to do everything possible to ensure the full measure of human dignity, equality of being and potential for self-determination among those with whom we serve and minister. This is going to mean learning to act as `brothers, not as bosses; to give suggestions, not orders; setting standards and making decisions that are subject to consensus opinion; which carries the weight of group support, rather than our own arbitrary or personal demands.
It is going to mean having to see some of our own choice plans and ideas being "mangled" by co-workers who fail to share our perceptions. It is also going to mean learning to develop a personal ministry in which close personal contacts with Melanesians are such as to foster the confidential sharing of needs end concerns, and which will create mutual understanding and respect.
Finally, we need to become involved in projects that will help Melanesians to understand the complexities of money economies and to assist them in the development of a potential for earning the cash that will give them access to goods and services that are necessary for improving their living standards. Quite a number of the authors who have written on this subject have emphasized that one of the underlying causes of the problem is a false perception regarding the origin of goods, and a failure to understand money economies.
Furthermore, it has been proven that simply telling them or showing them how such things work and how goods are produced has not been sufficient. What the Melanesians need is an opportunity to be involved in the process of making and earning money. Peter Lawrence states that as economic gains are made this will force a change in the socio-political structure of the culture and a reformulation of their belief systems. As missionaries we are not going to be able to escape the necessity of being involved in such a process.
Inasmuch as consumer goods and cash are perceived as a means to selfrespect, identity, and self-sufficiency, then the people with whom we minister are going to be increasingly pressuring us to share with them or to assist them in improving their socio-economic conditions. This means the necessity for having a philosophy of community development that will direct and give meaning to our involvement in such activities.
I have defined and described these movements so that we can understand their exact nature and then prescribe an adequate solution. Several years ago there was a popular saying going the rounds, which went something like this: "If Christ is the answer, what is the problem?" At times, we missionaries have a tendency to rush in with answers without having first of all defined the question. If we are going to propose some answers and responses to these Melanesian movements, then we are going to have to be fairly certain what they are, what it is that constitutes their underlying motives and needs, and what gives them their energy and support.
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