Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: Evangelism and Domestic Violence in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Evangelism & Domestic Violence
in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea
by Stephen Douglas

“And this woman shall bear her iniquity” (Num. 5:31)

“In some developing countries, modernization came not with independence, but with colonial dependence and subjugation … The west was so far ahead that [they] could not innovate but only imitate.” —Karen Armstrong, Fundamentalism is Here to Stay, Global Agenda, 2005

Evangelical Christianity has gained prominence since 2000 with the re-election of George Bush in the USA, based in large part upon the support of the Christian Right, and the same-sex marriage debate both in Canada and in Europe. The dramatic growth of Christianity in developing nations was evidenced recently in the serious consideration given to both African and South American candidates for the Papacy of the Roman Catholic Church. Christianity is the largest faith practiced on the earth today, with 33% of the world’s 2.1 billion population avowing to be adherents (Britannica Almanac). One of the hallmarks of evangelical faith is the mission of ‘bringing the Good News’ to others. There are ethical questions raised when any church introduces its own view of faith into a culture in which it is foreign. Is it in the best long-term interest of the culture? Does evangelical zeal cause harm to the culture in which it is introduced? Speculation aside, there has been ample opportunity to examine the evidence in this regard. I wish to provide you with one such account.

The rate of wife beating in the Highlands exceeds 90%.

I spent an illuminating year in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2000 helping a small concerned group establish a domestic violence counselling program. I was blessed, I thought, with this opportunity to help women in a developing country improve their lives and end oppression. The rate of wife beating in the Highlands exceeds 90%. It is a defining characteristic of marriage. “We pay for our wives, so we own them and can beat them any time we like,” a government minister was quoted as saying in 1987 (Papua New Guinea Law Reform Commission Report on Violence against Women).

The window of knowledge about how this population lived prior to contact with the outside world is based upon an oral tradition tantalizing to anthropologists. The Leahy brothers of Australia, Dan and Mick, flew up 5,000 feet into the mountain rainforest in the ‘40s looking for mining opportunities and first sighted the countless remote villages, home to over a million people who had at no point in the documented history of civilization explored their frontiers in the world below. This was a National Geographic coup, and a holy grail of sorts for missionaries in the west seeking new fertile grounds to spread their faith and words of salvation to the heathen. Evangelical missionaries rushed up to the Highlands in great number in the decades that followed and today Christianity blankets the culture, whether Seventh Day, Lutheran, or Catholic. Ninety-six percent of Papua New Guineans’ 5.1 million citizens identify themselves as members of a Christian church, according to the 2000 national census.

Fifty years after the Leahys’ flight, violence against women was pandemic. A request was made by a group established as Eastern Highland Family Voice to CUSO, to provide them with a volunteer to support them in developing their domestic violence program. With my background working with families who have experienced domestic abuse and my own pro-feminist zeal, I leapt forward to offer my services, excited at the prospect of ‘making a difference’ with little idea of how best to do so.

“One more question,” David at CUSO asked me the end of a brief and apparently successful interview in Vancouver. “Are you a Christian?” I was a little taken aback, but he explained that Papua New Guineans take their faith very seriously. Well, I might be described as a lost sheep, I paused to consider, but recently had resumed attendance in a progressive congregation at Ryerson United in Vancouver (it was their choir that did it for me), so I confidently answered “yes” and gave it no further thought.

Two months later, late winter in PNG (in which the rain lasted until 6:00 am then stopped, followed by sunshine through 90 degree days until sunset, when the clouds returned to rain once more) I arrived by jeep, following a hair-raising drive up muddy mountain roads that my CUSO program director expressed great delight in accelerating through. I will not ever forget my first encounter with Naomi Yupea, a woman of great courage who had herself taken the rare act of separating from an abusive spouse with the remarkable support of her family. On one hat tumas (very hot) afternoon, she stood up to greet me with the warmest and biggest of welcoming smiles. “Tenkyu tru, papa God, lo bringem Stephen long opis bilong mipela…” (Thank you very much, father God, for bringing Stephen to our office…) “…lo helivum makim gutpela wok” (…to help us do the good work). With the assistance of the YMCA in Goroka and Save the Children Fund, Naomi had set up a small office in the heart of Garoka, a small pedestrian hub of commerce in the Eastern Highlands Province of PNG. Without any awareness in the community of the need to address family violence, and in the office little more than a few chairs, a desk, a computer that lacked software, I conceded that faith might have a role to play.

I knew Naomi was worried for my soul.

In the first few months of spring (which is delineated from the other seasons by an extra two hours of rainfall each day), we covered the basics; I helped Naomi connect to the internet and set up an email address, learn accounting practices and maintain the books, and develop a protocol for interviewing victims and perpetrators of violence, while learning a little myself about this strange and fascinating culture. I avoided attending the churches, however, for their proselytizing was more than I could bear, but my excuses wore thin. I knew Naomi was worried for my soul. Normally generous in her kind words to me, her brow would furrow as she spoke to me of the need for spiritual family. How could I tell her that my faith made no discrimination by gender nor sexual orientation, that my faith recognized the Old Testament to be a historical document rather than credo, that my faith did not judge non-Christians, or that hell and damnation was not something I could participate in denouncing upon others? So I remained silent and continued to act in a manner in which I believed to be authentic and supportive.

Then early in the summer months I was informed of a pending meeting of men in the community which I was invited to attend. They were gathering to discuss the growing incidence of violence. I was elated. With all the work I had participated in thus far, the meetings with church and police officials, participating in sing-sings (family celebrations), this was my first real chance to hear the men of the community talk. I joined in, anticipating naively that violence against women might be identified as a problem.

Moses was cited repeatedly by one pastor as the model men should follow, correcting his family and leading them to salvation.

I was both disillusioned and alarmed to discover, instead, that the focus for the meeting was the need to repress these women (their wives) who had taken too many liberties. Moses was cited repeatedly by one pastor as the model men should follow, correcting his family and leading them to salvation. The fervor was gripping. I watched and took my cue from Father John, a wonderfully supportive and robust Irish priest who had spent two decades maintaining a healthy Catholic congregation in Goroka. An immense figure, over six-and-a-half feet in height with a ruddy beard and sparkling eyes, he was the only other expatriate participant at the meeting. He looked concerned, but did not speak. It was clearly not in the protocol to contradict the pastors in this instance. And possibly, it was dangerous.

The next day I explained my concern to Naomi and the other women participating in the Family Voice committee. I believe that I erred in under-estimating the impact to them in challenging this literal rather than historical usage of Biblical references. More furrowed brows. Silence followed for a period.

I soon found myself being seen as a bit of a pariah in the community. When the computer broke down, when my partners struggled to learn the new accounting practices or emails went undelivered, I was somehow deemed responsible. The housing that was promised to me disappeared, and I was left to seek a room to lodge in the homes of fellow ex-patriots.

In hindsight I must take responsibility for demonstrating intolerance myself in not participating more openly in the community as a guest. Of course, being ‘protected’ from malaria with a daily diet of Larium didn’t help, infusing me with a quiet apprehension bordering on paranoia. Perhaps I was less than suited for foreign aid work. On the other hand, I believe I may have contributed something significant by challenging the use of Moses as a role model for Papua New Guineans. Perhaps this type of challenge is like the mustard seed (which was seen as a weed in biblical times in Judea, so it is a conundrum that Jesus would have alluded to it in his parable). Yet, I ask myself, what justifies my interpretation of Christianity any more than the evangelism they had adopted?

At the five month point, we met for mediation with the assistance of a wonderful German volunteer named Henry to whom I am forever indebted. Discussing difficulties on both our parts, but never mentioning religion, which Henry was experienced enough to recognize the import of, we found a resolution and, remarkably, cooperation was restored. This is one quality of the Highland people that I admire greatly, the capacity to forgive once reparation is offered. My remaining three months were truly productive and enjoyable; counselling strategies were developed, a community workshop was facilitated and we helped coordinate a comprehensive response to gender violence which continues to this day. A touring group now takes awareness-raising plays to remote villages and the hospital is creating a domestic violence response protocol that Naomi has been instrumental in. Even the police are begin to intervene in domestic disputes (albeit still inconsistently).

My personal story, however, while perhaps offering an interesting vantage point, is secondary to what I learned about missionary evangelism in this microcosm of third world culture fusion. Evangelical Christianity in Papua New Guinea, I believe, has provided one of the necessary conditions which reinforce violence against women — infused into this culture which already demonstrated an emphasis on the value of power and the delineation of gender roles — by legitimizing control-based relationships and the authority to punish transgressors.

While Christ may be a model of tolerance and compassion, Moses is a figurehead of unilateral authority.

Was violence against women as prevalent prior to the colonization of Papua New Guinea? While it may have existed in some circumstances, the National Council of Women reports a significant increase in incidence in the last quarter century. A position of Fiji Women’s Crisis Center is that a balanced system of ‘compensation’ existed throughout Malaysia pre-colonization in which any offending husband would be required to pay ‘compensation’ to the family (as well as the significant extended family) of the wife. To our ears this may seem offensive, but there is little doubt that the system did work to prevent assault. Since Australia introduced Western institutions into the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, this system of compensation has been compromised by patriarchy. Naomi Yupae explained to me how in the days of her parents’ childhood the ‘big man’ in any village was accountable to the village for his actions. If he acted irresponsibly he would be removed by his wontok (extended family) and replaced with someone more agreeable. Subsequent to colonization, according to the new civil code introduced by Australia, magistrates and police constables replaced the big men as the authority and the villagers were suddenly deprived of any recourse for poor stewardship. Secondly, missionary zeal succeeded in converting virtually the entire country to Christianity, largely evangelical. While Christ may be a model of tolerance and compassion, Moses is a figurehead of unilateral authority.

I believe we will look back upon the latter half of the 20th century as a turning point in the spread of Christianity and the values it emphasizes. South Pacific and African nations, in particular, were prone to embrace such a literal interpretation of Old Testament prose as I witnessed in Goroka. We may deem this to be the consequence of zealous commitment or, perhaps more skeptically, of a cargo culture in which contributions from developed nations are embraced without discrimination. In either interpretation, it appears that that punishment and retribution has taken precedence over ‘turning the other cheek’.

This movement parallels a similar struggle by the followers of Jesus described within the New Testament itself. Mark wrote some thirty years following the death of Jesus, within the era of Roman occupation following the suppression of the first Jewish uprising. His aim, we might speculate, was to help those suffering difficult circumstances in life to be comforted in his message of ‘everlasting peace’. By the time of John’s writing, more than seventy years after the death of Jesus, Christianity was becoming popular among the gentiles, no longer a mere sect of Judaism. The message had notably become infused with more invective. Proponents of evangelical faith lean more consistently upon the Gospel of John in their dedication to the mission than upon the Synoptic Gospels which provide comfort and faith.

Since my return to Canada, I have found it difficult to lay aside my questions concerning the long term impact of missionary intervention in the South Pacific. I am troubled for two reasons. First, it is admittedly a matter of faith. My value-based judgments are subjective and possibly divisive. Secondly, I tell myself, the point appears to be moot. The interventions already have occurred throughout the developing world. When the people of the Highlands were discovered in Papua New Guinea, this last vestige of paganism drew much attention and has been forever altered.

However, what’s done-is-not-done. We are responsible for redressing injury when it is caused whether by intention or negligence. Is it sufficient to help Papua New Guineans speak against violence against women without addressing the issues involved in the literal interpretations of doctrine of the church? No, perhaps not, but I believe we can do both.

On the one hand, I believe that Christian churches have yet a role to play. It is time to encourage a debate regarding the role Christianity has had on the cultures it has permeated, whether this has contributed to violence against women, and consider the impact of promoting gender roles prescribed in the Old Testament which are contextually inappropriate as our guides today.

On the other hand, we cannot simply wait for this change to occur at the institutional level. Each individual act can yet have a profound influence. Just before departing Papua New Guinea, for instance, I had the opportunity to speak with the new chief of police in Goroka. As we talked over breakfast I told him of the White Ribbon initiative in Canada, among other developments in the work by both genders to end violence against women. On more than one occasion I had heard stories of brutality by the police and consequently I believed that I had reason to be skeptical of the interest he expressed. Months later Naomi sent me pictures of a walk organized in Goroka to ‘Say No’ to family violence. There, in one of the photos, I spotted him; the chief of police of Goroka, with several constables behind him, each wearing a white ribbon.

Stephen Douglas is a family and an individual counsellor with a practice in Burlington, Ontario.

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