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As Long as We Remember...

April 3, 2013

Mixing Christianity With Ancient Lore

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – An old joke tells of a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit who are arrested during the Russian revolution for spreading the Christian, capitalist gospel, and thrown into a dark prison cell. In a bid to restore the light, each man reflects on the traditions of his own order.


The Franciscan decides to wear sackcloth and ashes and pray for light. Nothing happens. The Dominican prepares and delivers an hour-long lecture on the virtue of light. Nothing happens. Then the Jesuit gets up and mends the fuse. The light comes on.


…From the Guardian (London)



I like the new Jesuit Pope, Francis. As the above joke suggests his order is one that goes out into the world and does things. They roll up their shirt sleeves, or should I say hassocks, and teach biology, agriculture and soil chemistry, subjects vitally needed for the abject poor farmers of the planet. They are not afraid – standing side by side – digging an irrigation ditch. Of course, it is shoveled with a healthy dose of Catholic religion


They are quite different from the missionaries I meet here in Borneo. Most of them are in Indonesia, an overpopulated, poverty stricken country that can use all the help it can get. The missionaries, for a lack of a better term, are young people whose church sponsors them to come here and spread the word. Unfortunately, they have no language training and their Bible classes in the crudely-built and dirt-floored churches usually don’t go very far. Still where there are two gathered in His name….


I have met many of them when they come here to Kuching from their hard work in Indonesia. They are mainly from the Midwest and with the guys incredibly handsome in a boy band sort of way and the girls very pretty. They are very healthy, even glowing, except for the ones who have been ravaged by intestinal problems. They are still very good looking, just with an ashen pallor.


I usually like to talk with them – well, I will talk with anyone – and learn what exactly they are doing in deepest darkest Borneo, as many people like to think. After we establish that we are both Americans and exchange the PTL (Praise the Lord, for you heathens), I don’t think there is a secret handshake, they will usually open up to me.


After many conversations, I have discovered the Christian Indonesian locals combine Christianity with a blend of the old standby of animism. When spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not meaning to sound sacrilegious, the Christianity fits perfectly with the traditional beliefs.


Before their “conversion,” many of them worshiped a tree which contained the spirits of their ancestors. There is not much stretch of the imagination to worship a guy hanging in a tree. The crucifixion makes perfect sense from their background.


As former head hunters just a generation ago, the drinking of the blood of those slain was reverent practice. There are stories handed down through generations about the bravery of taking heads. I have an antique jug in my flat that an old man said was a vessel that used to contain the blood of the Japanese whose head were taken during the occupation.


The former White Rajah had forbidden the practice of head removal but the ban was lifted, to the unmitigated joy of some, but only the heads of those fighting under the banner of the Rising Sun could be collected. Again, drinking the blood and eating the flesh during communion fits right into the traditional beliefs. Although in defense of the headhunters, I have never, ever heard of them participating in cannibalism.


The young, corn-fed idealistic young people dressed for the streets of Des Moines, and not rain forest kit, seem not to understand why the natives can’t get into hymn singing or the joys of the Lord. Their Bible lessons fall flat, especially since all of the above are done in English.


These children are often bewildered by their reception and are usually glad to be returning home to their churches to discuss the trial and tribulations of converting the heathens. They have a sense of confused accomplishment because what they expected and what they found were two very, very different things. If they have learned that life lesson, then I think their experience was very worthwhile.


I am glad we have a new Pope who will send forth people who will really help the Third World in a practical sense. Healthcare education and agriculture are all skills desperately needed. And if they convert a few who think they are drinking the blood of their ancestors and the crucifixion is just another tree with a twist on an ancient story, then, in strange way, I guess the Jesuits will and the children have succeeded in their goals.


…Life is good. . .


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