An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mining & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
THE BIBLE, IN THE BOOK OF EXODUS, states that the God of the Israelites was a jealous God. When the Israelites entered the land of Canaan they were forbidden by the Ten Commandments to worship the Gods of the other conquered tribes.
In particular “Thou shall worship no other Gods but me” is the underlying law that guided the Israelites. The Israelites needed to protect their religious belief as they came into contact with the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
Worshipping a foreign God had consequences. Those who worshipped attracted different physical problems which had a spiritual connection. Most people were cursed, they had boils and sores, their crops withered away and their children died unexplainable deaths.
What is the correlation between the Exodus story and the debate about the actions of the Speaker of PNG’s parliament, Theo Zurenuoc?
In some of the Pentecostal movements, Christians see themselves as spiritual Israelites. They feel that their way of life should mirror what is written in the bible. This understanding causes them to dislike what is not biblical.
As spiritual Israelites, these cultural items are associated with traditional belief systems which have no place in modern PNG. They are cursed objects which will bring destruction to this nation. They need to be destroyed as soon as possible.
Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare signed the national covenant on 26 August 2007. This covenant meant that the God of Israel is now the God of Papua New Guinea, consolidating the notorious notion that PNG is a Christian country.
This covenant has marked a very important change in the way religion is practiced in PNG. To some, he has merged religion with politics. To others, he has reiterated the fact that PNG is and will be a Christian country.
Any religion that is not Christian in nature has no place in PNG. This is the view some hardliners and fundamentalist have formulated in recent years thanks to the covenant. This is also the rationale behind the move to ban all non-Christian religions in PNG.
People who have a deeper insight into spiritual matters are supportive. One said “The Speaker is doing the right thing; the people of PNG will see growth and prosperity in the years to come”. Another said “the actions of the speaker have deep spiritual implications; all citizens must support his actions”.
Branded as ‘fundamentalist’ they believe that what the Speaker did was and is an act of divine intervention. He is the ‘rait man lo rait taim’ (right person at the right time). If he does not act now, then the country’s future will be in limbo.
These cultural items are the root cause of evil today. They house hordes of evil spirits. Decision makers are affected by the spiritual condition of the house. The lack of development in rural areas and the high rate of corruption are consequences.
On social media, a good number of users also support what the Speaker is doing. Their comments amount to the common argument that these cultural items are cursed. If the legislative building continues to house these cultural items the nation will pay the price.
Another commenter said these cultural items are idols. Our ancestors worshipped these idols who resemble different traditional Melanesian deities. If Christian PNG continues to exalt these idols, we will bear the consequences.
In contrast, there are those who see the Speaker’s actions as ridiculous. He has no right to remove items that depicts the rich culture of this great nation. These items make this nation unique from any other nations in the world.
The Constitution of the Independent State of PNG states clearly in Section 45 (Subsection 3) that; “No person is entitled to intervene unsolicited into the religious affairs of a person or belief, or to attempt to force his or any religion (or irreligion) on another, by harassment or otherwise.”
The Speaker’s actions can be understood as a breach of Subsection 3. By taking down the cultural items he is attempting to force his religious view on other Papua New Guineans.
His intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism confirms the statement made by the PNG Catholic Bishop’s Conference. Fundamentalism is on the rise in PNG. In the years to come as those religious movements grow more influential they will start to exert their influence on PNG politics.
The cultural items contain indigenous knowledge that was passed on from generation to generation. This indigenous knowledge existed before Christianity. That is why the physical manifestation of the indigenous knowledge is sacred and valuable.
Every design on a lintel tells a story. Only the person who carved the lintel and those whom he has shared his knowledge with can read the story. They know where to start the story and where to end. They also know the morale behind the story.
The lintels are not just meaningless pieces of art used as decorations. They were selected purposely by the architects who design the building to resemble the Sepik ‘haus tambaran’ (traditional men’s house). They made the legislative building looked exquisite and authentic.
Many social media users have commented that the lintels are part of PNG’s heritage and the speaker has no right to remove them. The speaker has failed to ask all Papua New Guineans via their elected members of parliament before removing the cultural items.
The main message in a lot of the Facebook status updates insinuate that the Speaker must be out of his mind. No one in their right mind would do such a thing. He is destroying PNG culture in the name of a religion that is foreign.
Fr Giorgio Licini said “Politicians should not court these movements”. If more politicians court these movements with the hope of finding a way forward for PNG, then they will create more friction. The different fundamentalist movements pose a threat to domestic stability and the Constitution.
As PNG grows wealthier, the different movements will grow in numbers. The leaders of the various movements will be able to manipulate their followers into doing anything under the sun to protect their belief.
It has happened in the United States where cult leaders have manipulated their followers into committing mass suicide. Some other religious movements happened in ranches where the leaders encouraged their followers to engage in orgies.
The Middle East is the center of violent fundamentalist movements. The different religious movements grew over time and became very influential. The leaders of the movements were able to manipulate their followers in taking violent measures to protect their religious beliefs.
These cases in other countries helps one to draw a conclusion that such practices will happen in PNG. As more become educated they will see how other religious fanatics defend their beliefs and will try to do the same.
In 2012, an American female professor specializing in religion and politics visited Divine Word University. In her guest lecture, she said “PNG is moving against the global trend”. The rest of the world is secularizing. America was founded on the biblical principles but has now transformed slowly into a secular society.
Her observations are true. PNG has a lot of religious movements which have different doctrines. These religious movements are growing at a rapid pace; this is obvious with the ever growing list of new names and abbreviations.
In an interview with a betel nut vendor, she said she was confused about religion. She asked; “Comparing all the different religious movements, what is the one true religious movement?” We all worship the same God but have different doctrines.
This makes it very hard for one to say whether the Speaker’s move is good or bad. One group will say his move is good using a fundamentalist lens. While another will say his move is bad from a secular point of view and a different religious interpretation.
The Speaker’s move has sparked a nationwide religious debate. At the moment, arguments for and against the move can be read on the mainstream media and social media.
It will be good to see academic institutions host debates about the Speaker’s view and his act in the months to come. His controversial view and act will definitely have a bearing effect on PNG’s history.
Also public debates and forums in major centers should be conducted with the aim of identifying the reasons behind his move. Such public discourse will help enlighten the public.
Otherwise, influential individuals will continue to fill the minds of the people with all kinds of ideas. The illiterates and semi educated people in the rural areas are the vulnerable ones. Charismatic people can take advantage of their gullibility and mobilize their support.
Award winning writer Francis Nii commented that there should be a national referendum on the issue. According to him, the majority in the rural areas will support the actions of the speaker. There is merit in his line of thinking.
The country is going through a tough period at the moment. Most people find comfort in attending church. Especially, the promise that there is a good life after death gives them that sense of pleasure and a glimpse of utopia.
In heaven, there will be everlasting peace and joy. There is no corruption, no global warming, no wars, no poverty, no pain, no sorrow and the list goes on.
If the Speaker’s move will propel PNG on the path towards a corruption free society, then it is a step in the right direction. His move is pleasing to many Papua New Guineans who have sore knees caused by hours of praying.
But human beings can never be trusted. By nature, all human beings are egoistic. In the act of pursuing one’s own interest, one engages in corrupt activities. Corruption is an inevitable trait in any human civilisation.
In a nation where the secular world complements the spiritual world, will this spiritual act initiated by Theo Zurenuoc minimize corruption and ensure an equitable spread of the nation’s wealth?