Politics and Religion: Politics and Oceanic Religions

views updated


In the late eighteenth century, at the beginning of extensive European intervention in the region, Oceanic peoples spoke more than twelve hundred languages and lived out their lives in tens of thousands of mostly highly localized political units. Religious beliefs and activities were correspondingly diverse, although one can detect very broad regional patterns. In traditional Oceanic societies, people lived in intimate relationship to spiritual forces and entities. Notions of the spiritual reinforced the social order that governed community relationships, informed understandings of leadership, and underlay the external politics of warfare and alliance-building. In the past two centuries, the region has moved from intermittent encounters between Pacific Islanders and Europeans through colonization to the emergence of independent nations. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the overwhelming majority of the indigenous citizens of the twenty-eight states and dependencies in the region are Christians living in circumstances markedly more secular than those experienced by their ancestors. All the same, religion remains a very strong and politically potent force in most places.

For convenience, it is useful to divide the consideration of Oceanic religions and their relationship to politics into three rough historical phases: indigenous societies as they were before extensive European contact; the colonial period, marked by intensified missionary efforts and a loss of local political autonomy; and the postcolonial period, in which religion, like much of politics in the region, is increasingly shaped by global forces. A caveat is in order. With the exception of the last period, these phases do not correspond neatly with calendar years. Some isolated groups in the interior of New Guinea did not look upon a white face until the 1960s, and a good number of islanders continue to live under colonial regimes. Many aspects of indigenous religions and political arrangements have survived or been revived in all areas, but especially those with relatively shallow histories of interactions with the outside world. Indeed, it is still possible today to observe all three of the phases described here, sometimes in the same place.

The Political Functions of Indigenous Religions

Oceanic languages possess no words corresponding to the concepts of "politics" or "religion." Most cultures recognized at least a degree of religious specialization in the forms of part-time magicians, healers, sorcerers, and priests; a much smaller subset developed distinct places of worship and sacrifice and supported full-time priests. The elaboration of religious functionaries and institutions reached its apogee in Hawai'i, where a priestly class periodically contested the influence of the high chiefs. But even in this case one cannot speak of a separation of religion and politics, as the chiefs, like the priests, were regarded as direct descendents of the gods and themselves possessed godlike powers of life and death over commoners. Religious assumptions infused all aspects of life in Oceanic societies, not least those concerned with the exercise of political power.

Across the region, the vast majority of people lived in small political entities made up of several hundred to a few thousand members bound by ties of kinship (real and fictitious) and territory on the one hand, and hostility to neighboring groups on the other. The daily round for most people comprised subsistence activities, usually directed by households, and reciprocal exchanges of food, labor, and wealth items that cemented relationships with kin and neighbors. Virtually everywhere, people assumed that the recent and distant dead continued to take an interest in the community. People also generally assumed the existence of impersonal spiritual forces possessing tremendous powers of transformation and destruction. The specific conception of these two notions of the spiritual and their elaboration varied tremendously from place to placefrom the rather simple, vague religious notions found in many Melanesian societies to the extremely complex religions of some parts of Polynesia, with their detailed mythologies, dedicated temples, and elaborate ritual codes. All the same, Oceanic people conceptualized the implications of divine intervention in the human world in essentially similar ways. First, spiritual power was a necessary component, often along with human skill, for success, whether as a gardener or a lover or in making the transition from child to adult or from life into death. Ancestors could intervene of their own accord, but everywhere people attempted to capture and channel spiritual forces to their own advantage through the practice of magic or by offering prayers and sacrifices. Second, spiritual entities were conceptualized as extremely powerful, dangerous, and ultimately autonomous. They had to be approached with great caution and often elaborate ritual preparation. Even so, they had the potential of wreaking havoc upon the people if mishandled or angeredor simply because they could. Third, those who interacted with the divine took on divine attributes themselves.

In Oceania, as elsewhere, the spiritual could provide a source of revolutionary change but for the most part served to maintain the existing order, first by making that order appear to members to be natural and inevitable, and, second, by punishing those who deviated from the social norm. In one particularly striking example, the deepest secret of many of the elaborate male initiation cults that developed in parts of Melanesia was that the power monopolized by men was originally stolen from women. The cults served, in the men's eyes at least, to assert their domination over women, who were barred from most rituals and cult houses under pain of death. In many other places, supernaturally sanctioned food taboos, fears of pollution, and purification rituals served to distinguish men and women and to assign them distinct roles in society, usually with the men on top. By the same token, understandings of the workings of the supernatural tended to reinforce social conventions and morality. In many places, for instance, ancestors or sorcerers were assumed to attack those who failed to live up to their social obligations by making them or their loved ones sick or by destroying their gardens. To this day, parents in many parts of rural Papua New Guinea commonly explain the death of a beloved aunt or uncle to their children as the result of sorcery attacks brought on by some apparently trivial breach of the rules of sharing or respect toward others. This strongly sanctions conformity.

The political aspects of Oceanic religion become more visible when one turns to patterns of leadership. Most societies in Melanesia lacked formal offices of leadership. While powerful leaders did emerge, they largely gained influence by demonstrating their own abilities as warriors, managers of exchanges, and orators. In several areas, men rose to prominence in the course of organizing initiation and mortuary rituals, often involving years of careful coordination and spectacular forms of artistic expression. Melanesian leaders could also gain influence by gaining command over various forms of esoteric knowledge, such as garden and war magic or sorcery. Chiefs in the more hierarchical societies stretching from eastern Melanesia through Polynesia and Micronesia, by way of contrast, were considered to be inherently sacred. In the larger societies, chiefs were ranked according to their genealogical closeness to a founding ancestral god, following a principle of primogeniture. Chiefs at different ranks possessed equivalent degrees of mana (spiritual potency), with the highest chiefs approaching the level of the gods themselves. Polynesians often pictured their chiefs as the "fathers" and, less frequently, "mothers" of their communities. The chief was often also the highest priest, receiving first fruits from commoners in various rituals meant to assure success and fertility. The visible splendor and wealth of a chief corresponded to level of his mana and, by extension, the success of the community he represented. By virtue of their mana, chiefs demanded tribute from commoners and proclaimed tabu (ritual prohibitions) over economic resources. As sacred beings themselves, chiefs were often surrounded by a variety of ritual restrictions and tabu. These were extremely elaborated in the most hierarchical Polynesian societies. The sanctity of the high chiefs of Tahiti was such, for instance, that they would not enter houses except those dedicated to their own use or allow their feet to touch the ground outside of their own hereditary district. Violations of chiefly tabus in Tahiti, Tonga, and Hawai'i often resulted in execution of the offender.

Contrary to romantic stereotypes of a South Seas paradise, most areas of Oceania were subject to endemic warfare. Religious ideas both reflected and propelled the violence. The ghosts of the dead in many Melanesian societies could only be satisfied by a revenge killing, and in areas of southern New Guinea a boy's initiation into manhood depended on the acquisition of a human head. In Polynesia, success in warfare provided perhaps the main venue within which a chief could demonstrate his mana in the face of challenges from rivals. Continuing success in warfare required the proper rituals and sacrifices to the ancestral gods. Aspiring chiefs cultivated new gods with spectacular rituals, including human sacrifices in some of the cults that developed in Tahiti and Hawai'i.

The Colonial Era

Although Ferdinand Magellan crossed the Pacific Ocean in 1521, centuries passed before most islanders were disturbed by European intruders. Roman Catholic priests accompanied Spanish forces in the northwest reaches of Micronesia, forcibly converting the Chamorros in the 1680s. The next wave of missionary activity did not get under way until 1797, when poorly equipped parties of English Protestants landed at Tahiti, Tonga, and the Marquesas. Far from outside support, pioneer missionaries to Polynesia and many parts of Micronesia were forced to rely upon alliances with local chiefs in order to survive. Conversions, when they came, tended to follow the baptism of chiefs, who in turn ordered their followers to enter the churches. The early missions entered the islands during a period of considerable social turmoil caused in part by the increasing presence of European whalers and traders, who introduced devastating diseases, alcohol, and guns. Whatever their understanding of the missionaries' teachings, some aspiring chiefs evidently saw many advantages in forming alliances with the powerful new god of the white man. In Tahiti, Tonga, and Fiji, chiefs allied with the missions managed to conquer their enemies and to establish themselves as Christian kings. White missionaries, in turn, became councilors to the new rulers, helping them establish codes of law, courts, and new customs based on a mix of traditional chiefly privilege and the Ten Commandments. The association between chiefly rule and Christianity remains strong in many islands to this day, marked by the exalted social status of pastors in Samoa, for instance, and the strict Sabbatarianism of Tonga.

By the time European powers took an interest in the South Pacific, missionary regimes were well established on the larger islands in Polynesia, and armies of Native evangelists were taking the Word to smaller islands and into Melanesia. Missionaries and indigenous clergy wielded considerable power for a time in southern Vanuatu, Mangareva, Tuvalu, and elsewhere. By the end of the 1900s, however, colonial rule had been established over the entire region, with missionaries relegated to mostly nonpolitical roles. Still, colonial administrations everywhere depended very heavily upon them for the provision of educational and medical services and, in Papua New Guinea, as a bulwark against tribal fighting. Through such operations, as well as the networks they established, the missions played a fundamental role in easing the integration of small autonomous communities, often no larger than a village, into emerging states. In the extremely diverse linguistic context of Papua New Guinea, for instance, mission schools introduced students to the idea of a multicultural country as well as providing the tools to participate in it, through the teaching of a common language and literacy and by familiarizing students with European concepts of time, work, and authority. The most senior graduates of the mission school system, when they did not become missionaries themselves, entered the nascent bureaucracies of the colonial states and formed the seed of the elite classes that would eventually rule the new countries.

Christian ideas spread remarkably quickly, even in areas where people resented the presence of Europeans. From a very early date, prophets won followings with powerful combinations of Christian and indigenous themes that challenged white power. In New Zealand, for instance, the prophet Te Ua Haumene taught that the Maori were the true chosen people of Jehovah, whose mana would grant them immunity from European diseases and guns (a teaching that had disastrous consequences in the Maori wars of 18641865). The leaders of the so-called cargo cults of Melanesia skillfully wove together local mythology, prophetic visions, and borrowed elements of Christianity in ways that helped explain to followers the reasons for their apparent inferiority in the face of white power and wealth. The forms these movements took often struck observers as bizarre, but they are best understood as attempts to gain a moral equivalence with whites through rituals meant variously to raise the stature of indigenous followers or expel the whites while claiming their power. Colonial regimes regarded indigenous religious movements with suspicion and often brutally suppressed them. Most of the movements did not last long, brought down as much by disappointment in the lack of results as by state suppression. At their height, however, they temporarily brought together disparate communities in aspirations for a better life, leading some scholars to consider them "proto-nationalist movements."

The Present

With the exception of the Indonesian province of West Papua, which recognizes only the world religions present at the time of the country's independence and closely monitors the activities of churches and missions, residents of the Pacific islands today formally enjoy the right of free religious association. Since all but a tiny minority are affiliated with a Christian church, religious freedom has meant, in effect, competition between established groups and the mostly unfettered influx since the 1960s of a wide range of primarily evangelical Protestant sects. The domains of politics and religion are more distinct than in the past, but still overlap far more than in most Western countries. The constitutions of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, for instance, formally recognize Christianity and indigenous traditions as the twin foundations of the nation. Many of the most prominent politicians, including the first prime minister of Vanuatu, Father Walter Lini (19421999), have come from the ranks of the clergy. In Papua New Guinea, as in several other former colonies, the state shares administration of the school system with the churches.

As in earlier times, many ordinary people in the islands tend to perceive their world through a spiritual lens. Some election campaigns in Papua New Guinea resemble revival meetings, punctuated by prayers and appeals to God and posters in which Jesus appears as a politician's effective running mate. From Samoa to the Solomon Islands, chiefs legitimate their authority to followers by merging traditional statuses and customs with strong public declarations of Christian faith. Many Pacific Islanders take this conception one step further, viewing Christianity and ancestral traditions as one and the same, merely different faces of a single religious identity. In one of the uglier twists on this powerful synthesis, members of the Tukai ("land") movement in Fiji appealed to Christian nationalism and traditional land rights in attacking the rights of Indo-Fijians in the wake of government coups in 1987 and 2000.

All but the most remote areas of Oceania are experiencing rapid change in response to improved communications, increasing migration, and the influx of commodities, all of which work to undermine the former autonomy of local communities. Increasingly, people have choice in their religious affiliation as in other areas of life, and even the most established churches are gradually becoming more individualistic and democratic in response to global influences. For some, the newer Fundamentalist and Pentecostal sects sweeping through the region provide a refuge from the confusing changes undermining old certainties. But for others, the churches and faith have provided a platform and venue to challenge given orders, including political arrangements. Thus, churches have provided spiritual and organizational support to the pro-democracy movement in Tonga, protesting the autocratic power of the king, as well as to protests against continuing French colonial rule in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. In Papua New Guinea and elsewhere, church leaders and activists have spoken up, often at risk to their lives, against rampant political corruption, the rape of precious natural resources for short-term profits, and the impoverishment of local peoples. The churches have been especially important for women, as one of the few venues in which they can organize to improve the economic conditions for their families and to urge action against alcoholism, drug abuse, and associated domestic violence. Finally, the churches have provided a center of community life and a link to home for the vast and quickly expanding numbers of islanders from places like Samoa or much of Micronesia who now make their home in distant places like New Zealand or the United States.

It seems likely at the beginning of the twenty-first century that increasing globalization will continue to diversify and fracture the religious choices and identities available to Pacific Islanders. If so, the political potency of religion is likely to decline, because it depends to a high degree on a sense of shared community. Increasing numbers of Pacific Islanders are also likely to abandon religious affiliation entirely, particularly in urban areas. Still, one cannot help but be struck by the centrality of a spiritual outlook in the lives of most Pacific Islanders, a face they share with much of the so-called Third World peoples. As long as this is the case, religion and politics will form a potent mix in Oceania.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Oceanic Concepts; Cargo Cults; Colonialism and Postcolonialism; Cosmology, article on Oceanic Cosmologies; Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Oceanic Religions; Globalization and Religion; Mana; Maori Religion; Melanesian Religions; Micronesian Religions; Missions; Oceanic Religions; Polynesian Religions; Revenge and Retribution; Rites of Passage, article on Oceanic Rites; Taboo.


Studies Bearing on the Political Aspects of Indigenous Religious Traditions

Firth, Raymond. Rank and Religion in Tikopia: A Study in Polynesian Paganism and Conversion to Christianity. London, 1970. A rare analysis of a traditional Polynesian chieftainship as observed in action by an anthropologist.

Goldman, I. Ancient Polynesian Society. Chicago, 1970. An excellent comparative survey of eighteen traditional Polynesian cultures. Contains a great deal of information on variant notions of sanctity and their relationship to political hierarchies.

Lawrence, Peter, and Mervyn J. Meggitt, eds. Gods, Ghosts, and Men in Melanesia: Some Religions of Australian New Guinea and the New Hebrides. Melbourne, Australia, and New York, 1965. A classic collection of articles on Melanesian religious conceptions and experiences. K.O.L. Burridge's contribution on the Tangu of New Guinea is exceptionally good in teasing out the religious, moral, and political dimensions of big-man leadership.

Trompf, G. W. Payback: The Logic of Retribution in Melanesian Religions. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1994. More compendium than analysis, this massive work documents the presence of the logic of revenge in traditional local religions, regional cargo cults, and modern circumstances across Melanesia.

Tuzin, Donald F. The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh Religion. Berkeley, Calif., 1980. One of the most detailed and sophisticated treatments of a Melanesian male initiation cult available, with a provocative reading of the implications of such cults in the politics of gender.

Valeri, Valerio. Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii. Translated by Paula Wissing. Chicago, 1985. A challenging but fascinating ethnohistorical reconstruction of a sacrificial cult that buttressed chiefly power in precontact Hawai'i.

Studies Concerning Missionaries, Conversion, Cargo Cults, and Colonialism

Gunson, Niel. Messengers of Grace: Evangelical Missionaries in the South Seas, 17971860. Melbourne, Australia, and New York, 1978. The best account of early evangelical missionaries to the South Pacific, with a sophisticated treatment of their political views and interactions with chiefs.

Howe, K.R. Where the Waves Fall: A New South Sea Islands History from First Settlement to Colonial Rule. Honolulu, Hawaii, 1984. This lively history of the early contact period provides detailed information on the political and cultural impact of Christian missions in several Pacific societies.

Jolly, Margaret, and Martha Macintyre, eds. Family and Gender in the Pacific: Domestic Contradictions and the Colonial Impact. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1989. Includes case studies examining the reconstruction of local political space and notions of gender after conversion to Christianity in various Oceanic societies.

Kaplan, Martha. Neither Cargo Nor Cult: Ritual Politics and the Colonial Imagination in Fiji. Durham, N.C., 1995. An important study of creative tensions between indigenous religious assumptions and the expansion of colonial institutions in Fiji.

Latukefu, Sione. Church and State in Tonga: The Wesleyan Methodist Missionaries and Political Development, 18221875. Canberra, Australia, 1974. Studies the mutual reinforcement of chiefly authority and missionary progress in Tonga, which culminated in the creation of the Tongan kingdom and the first independent church in Oceania.

Robbins, Joel. Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society. Berkeley, 2004. This richly detailed anthropological study investigates the implications of conversion on an indigenous group's conception of community, personal morality and leadership.

Siikala, Jukka. Culture and Conflict in Tropical Polynesia: A Study of Traditional Religion, Christianity, and Nativistic Movements. Helsinki, Finland, 1982. An exceptionally detailed account of early syncretic religious movements in Polynesia.

Worsley, Peter. The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo" Cults in Melanesia. New York, 1968. A classic survey of cargo cults from a neo-Marxist perspective, emphasizing their political implications.

Studies on Religion and Politics in Contemporary Oceania

Barker, John, ed. Christianity in Oceania: Ethnographic Perspectives. Lanham, N.Y., 1990. Examines contemporary Christianity, including its political dimensions, from the perspective of local indigenous societies.

Ernst, Manfred. Winds of Change: Rapidly Growing Religious Groups in the Pacific Islands. Suva, Fiji, 1994. The most comprehensive review of the contemporary religious scene in Oceania, with a great deal of information on the interface between politics and the churches, new and old.

Garrett, John. Where Nets Were Cast: Christianity in Oceania Since World War II. Suva, Fiji, and Geneva, 1997. A regional survey that provides information on politics within as well as without Christian denominations across Oceania.

Gibbs, Philip. "The Religious Factor in Contemporary Papua New Guinea Politics." Catalyst 28, no. 1 (1998): 2751. A rare treatment of the prominent role of religious rhetoric in contemporary political campaigns.

Keesing, Roger M., and Robert Tonkinson, eds. "Reinventing Traditional Culture: The Politics of Kastom in Island Melanesia." Mankind 13, no. 4 (1982). A stimulating and controversial collection of studies on political manipulations of tradition, including traditional religion, in postcolonial Oceanic societies.

Marshall, Mac, and Leslie B. Marshall. Silent Voices Speak: Women and Prohibition in Truk. Belmont, Calif., 1990. One of the few studies available detailing the political role of women's church groups.

Robbins, Joel, Pamela J. Stewart, and Andrew Strathern, eds. "Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity in Oceania." Journal of Ritual Studies 15, no. 2 (2001). Several of the studies in this collection examine the growing influence of Pentecostal churches on local political perspectives and activities.

White, Geoffrey M. Identity Through History: Living Stories in a Solomon Islands Society. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1991. An engaging study of the melding of tradition and Christianity in the contemporary construction of Oceanic chieftainship.

John Barker (2005)

About this article

Politics and Religion: Politics and Oceanic Religions

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Politics and Religion: Politics and Oceanic Religions