When missionaries came to bring the Gospel of Jesus to Papua New Guinea, the people they encountered were very religious. God revealed Himself to them as they developed the religious values and beliefs on which their whole society was built. Many elements of Christian truths were present in their values and beliefs. This was the sign of that the Holy Spirit has sown seeds of the Word among the people.
Our traditions tell us of ancestral spirits – the spirits of those who had lived among us before passing on to their spiritual existence. As he did for the people of Israel, Jesus has come to us, not to destroy the old things, but to fulfill them.
Our ancestors were seeking for a good life and for the ways to reach it. In their search they established many cultural and religious traditions that still represent the very basis of the society. Those life-giving traditions were also inspired by God’s Spirit’s presence and actions.
Yes there has always been evil everywhere. Our traditional traditions were not always enhancing life but sometimes harming it or even taking it away. We all know how tribal fights, ethnic hostility and domestic violence have caused destruction, fear, suffering and death in our society for thousands of years.
Through no fault of their own, our ancestors did not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church. Yet many of them sincerely sought God and tried to do his will, as far as they could discover it. Our ancestors’ lives were guided by their consciences. It is God who gave them the goodness and truth by which they lived. It is God who enlightens all people that they may finally have life.
However, the early missionaries also brought divisions to Papua New Guinea (religious and political) and these divisions caused confusion among the people. Some early missionaries were not always aware of traditional Melanesian attitudes and values. Often they failed to include positive aspects of the local culture in catechesis. The colonial times introduced many changes in our society, which had to adapt to these outside influences. Some of those changes fostered the life of the people. Some changes did not respect traditional Melanesian values and were harmful to their lifestyle.
Our cultures are healed and transformed by accepting the Gospel and its demands. We believe now that Christ has come to reveal to us a way to the fullness of life that our ancestors and we have been longing for. Now we live more fully in the presence of Jesus and his Spirit.
The Good News of Jesus gives us sure guidelines to help us evaluate the values that accompany these changes. He is alive among us and continues to show us the way to the fullness of life. In the light of the Gospel we need to work together to reconcile our traditional values with the many changes in our society and so build a society, which is truly Christian and truly Melanesian.
There are many Melanesian values that are both traditional and important for today:
Catechesis today needs to reclaim these traditional Melanesian values and make them the very soil in which the Good News can grow and produce more abundant fruit.
One of the key Melanesian values is COMMUNITY. Community comes before personal preferences. To care for the community is the way to find eventual happiness and well-being.
Our Melanesian community is made up by a web of relationships. In fact these relationships build up the community. Relationships involve rights and responsibilities, expectations and obligations. Proper relationships mean a healthy community in which all the members can enjoy life. If relationships are strained or broken then the community is ‘sick’ and individuals experience loss of ‘life’ through strife, sickness, misfortune or even death.
To mend, establish or strengthen relationships exchange needs to take place through giving and receiving of visible, tangible gifts. In fact relationships can be established and mended only through exchange. Gratitude is also shown both in words and in actions. In Melanesia we do thank you more than we say ‘thank you’.
The sum of everything positive a Melanesian desires and the absence of everything a Melanesian rejects is the ‘good life’ (gutpela sindaun), which includes security, health, wealth, growth, prestige and good relationships. The values of community, relationships and exchange are ways to reach the ultimate value of life, which is the focus of all the community’s activity.
In this light the Melanesian ethical principle that directs our actions seems to be: What helps the community is ethically good, what harms the community is ethically wrong and what is indifferent to the community has no ethical value. This ethic was useful in a world of smaller isolated and sometimes hostile communities. It does not work in building a modern nation or a Church ‘alive in Christ’. The challenge of the Good News of Jesus is to expand our idea of community – Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10: 25-37, The Good Samaritan) and to grow into that perfect love which Jesus revealed: your love must have no boundaries, just as your Father’s love has no boundaries (Math. 5: 43-48; Luke 6: 27-36).
In traditional society our people exchanged perishable items such as food, pig, shells and feathers as symbols to express new relationships that bound people together.
Today new values have crept into our Melanesian society, the most outstanding among which is cash. Cash in itself does not destroy the traditional value system. In fact money can support the traditional value system. Cash, however, does not have a sure and clear value in itself. Its value does not depend on sharing. In fact if one does not give money away it will increase! It does not perish when one saves it only for oneself. It can bring interest. Money lacks the communitarian aspect that we are used to when sharing traditional things of value. Money can be used very selfishly.
More and more people strive for cash. Money has become the way to achieve the well-being of the community. However, when people see in cash the fullness of life, and when the meaning of life and security are based on a steady flow of cash, then relationships are broken, and the needs of the community are forgotten. Today people use money for their own gain and not for the benefit of the community. In traditional society bride-price was meant to establish a new relationship and compensation was meant to heal a broken relationship. Now people talk about buying a wife and about getting as much as possible in compensation.
Today our ethical principle has shifted as well: what helps my community to get money is ethically good, what deprives my community of money is ethically bad. But the new value of cash has also changed the definition of what I call ‘my community’. Today what I call ‘my community’ may be:
Traditional communities based on the extended family have become impossible to maintain in a society governed by money and it is no surprise we are seeing families becoming more nuclear and new communities taking shape. Yet the traditional ethical principle is being applied to these new communities. In the minds of many of our people money misappropriated is not stolen, if it is used for their community.
Another important element in our social context is our changing attitude to the land of our origins. Land is a valuable asset in Melanesian society. It is still the main source of livelihood for most people and their land of origin forms an integral part of their identity and sense of belonging. However, land ownership is an increasingly difficult and complex issue for our people today.
Alienation from the land of our origins lessens appreciation of our sacred places, our legends or origin and the spirit world or our ancestors, and consequently our traditional sense of religion, the starting point for catechesis suffers.
The media too, have a tremendous influence in shaping our present day Melanesian values. Urban centres today are being influenced more and more by an increasingly secularized and post-modern culture, which, in turn, is also being spread by the media. Indeed the merging and powerful culture of the media cannot be ignored. Our effort for a renewed integral evangelization must seriously consider, therefore, the modern means of social communication not simply as a tool but as a source of ‘the new culture’.
Globalisation has an impact on our lives in many ways. The mass media brings us news, sport and entertainment from all over the world, increasing our awareness of our own people and people everywhere. Many of the values of the global entertainment industry are both seductive, especially for young people, and destructive of traditional and Christian values.
Multi-national corporations now operate in our country, some in ways that are destructive of our environment and community values. While multi-national companies allow us to purchase goods from all over the world, they often have no interest in the needs of our country and people and sometimes promote corruption in pursuit of their own profit. There have been many examples of dissatisfaction, hostility and even open warfare between local communities and multi-national corporations.
Many global Non-Government Organizations now working in our country have become active agents in the competing interests between development issues and conservation issues.
As leading Catholics we need to be aware of these competing interests and the effect these have on our country and our people.
Half of Papua New Guinea’s population is under eighteen years of age. Studies reveal that there are more street children in the capital than in other urban centres; more male children are engaged in street activities than females; even very young children are involved in street activities. Most street children come from centres other than the ones in which they are now living. This is something rather new in PNG. There are no government policies that directly address the situation of children living and working in the street.
Many people today see formal education as the way to the ‘good life’. Parents do sacrifice much to educate their children. At the same time formal education is becoming less available to large groups of people. Quality education is becoming the privilege of the rich.