Kindred spirits

Photo by Robert Harding/AFP.
24 March 2014
Photo by Robert Harding/AFP.

A five-year research project on the spread of Christianity in the Pacific is revealing just how much of the human spirit is common to both ‘the West’ and Oceania.

In the 1970s a young, excited Margaret Jolly shipped from Australian shores headed for the island of Pentecost – one of 83 which make up the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu.

As a Marist priest put it in the early 20th century, she was stepping onto shores bordered by ‘a wild sea’. There as a young anthropology doctoral student she embedded herself in the traditional kastom communities of Bunlap and Porur.

According to Jolly, these people were famed “for their resistance to Christianity, capitalism and the colonial government” which ruled what was then known as the New Hebrides.

They were also renowned for their ritual of gol – a dive made from dizzying heights by men in honour of their ancestors and in celebration of the yam harvest. It’s also the inspiration for modern-day bungee jumping.

But why was this first brush with a literal ‘leap of faith’ so remarkable?

Jolly, who is now a professor of anthropology, gender and Pacific studies at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, says her time among the people of South Pentecost, was not only profoundly life changing, but laid the foundations of her academic career.

Almost 40 years later, Jolly has gone back to those roots. As an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow she is leading a five-year project which is examining gender, Christianity, commodities and emergent individualism across the Pacific.

She has returned to South Pentecost –and other islands across the Pacific – to investigate the relationship between contemporary Christianity, everyday life and personhood across Oceania. It is a wide-ranging and profound topic, with many different currents; much like the world’s largest ocean from which the region takes its name.     

“Christianity is something that has been in the Pacific since the late 18th century,” says Jolly.

“But in recent times you’ve had re-conversions to more evangelical forms of Christianity, some of them emanating from movements in the United States and Australia, but many of them indigenous.

“Some scholars have argued that this has led to a fundamental rupture between earlier and traditional ideas of relationships and personhood based on the collectivity, to more individuated forms of identity.

“But, I am actually strongly suspicious of that idea of total rupture.  I think there is a co-presence and a contest of relational and individual models of personhood, depending on context.”

Professor Margaret Jolly.Professor Margaret Jolly.

Jolly says she’s critical of the idea of rupture for several reasons. Some Pacific Islanders even suggest they were already essentially Christian, even before missionaries arrived, so that “missionaries just revealed what was there already”.

“And for the majority who see conversion to Christianity as the ‘coming of the light’, Christianity has becomes ‘ours’; it is not something foreign; it is something that is absolutely part of ‘our’ way of life,” says Jolly.

To account for this oversight Jolly is using her ARC Laureate project to explore cross-cultural relations and historical connections to overcome a simplistic ‘either/or’ approach to the question. She suggests that conversions to evangelical forms of Christianity do not always simply lead to increasing individualism in the region.

“Emergent individualism is also connected to other processes,” she says. “These include the commodification of land, the production of new forms of bio-medicine, new ideas about justice and the state and new forms of politics which focus on the individual.”

One powerful example is the HIV epidemic in Papua New Guinea. One of Jolly’s Laureate project team, Dr Katherine Lepani, has recently published a book, Islands of Love, Islands of Risk. It shows how public health messages are failing to gain traction in the Trobriand Islands because they focus on individuals rather than cultural collectivities and the relations in which persons are embedded.

A diver plummeting from the tower of the land dive or gol, Wali, South Pentecost. Photo by Murray Garde.

Jolly’s research, like that of several staff and graduate students from the Pacific who are an integral part of her project, is focused on Christianity because it is such a dominant value across the region – 97 to 98 per cent of Pacific Islanders are members of some denomination. She suggests that in scholarship and public policy, there has been a tendency to ignore or feel squeamish about the pervasiveness of Christian faith.

“I think that is partly to do with the predominant secular emphasis of scholarship and indeed the predominantly secular emphasis of our government’s aid and development-institutions,” she says.  “Only recently has the importance of faith-based organisations been acknowledged.

“But, one has to start from the presumption that Christian commitment is fundamentally indigenous to the Pacific.”

For Jolly, scholarship on Christianity is crucial to informing better public policy – particularly when it comes to one of the most fundamental of collective and individual rights; gender equality.

“I think that the 19th century missionaries’ message of Christian was really important in terms of the idea of improving women’s status in this part of the world,” she says. “It is crucial even given the great diversity of gender relations across Oceania and even when foreign missionaries misconstrued indigenous gender relations.

“Contemporary ideas about gender equality, which are often linked up with global models of human rights, are articulating or ‘hooking up’ if you like, with those very Christian ideas of improving women’s status.

“Those Christian ideas are probably more significant to most women than more secular ideas of improvement. But of course, they have been translated and indigenised to fit diverse cultural contexts.”

It can also cut both ways. All too often across too many parts of Oceania, violence against women is something that Jolly says is “expected and accepted”. Too often this violence is justified using Christian ideals – as is evidenced in her book edited with Christine Stewart, Engendering Violence in Papua New Guinea (available through ANU Press).

“I think that in terms of opposing gender violence, Christianity can be a mixed blessing,” says Jolly.

“Clearly all the ideas about peace and harmony, equality between men and women that are one part of the Christian message can work to redress patterns of violence.

“But on the other hand you also have some people espousing those parts of the Bible where the Christian message is about  the husband as the head of the family, like Christ is the head of the church, and using the Bible to legitimise not only violence of husbands against wives, but parents against children.”

There is still much to be done if Pacific Islanders are to enjoy rights similar to those enjoyed by us living in Australia. But this is another aspect of our relation with the region which Jolly critiques – she suggests that too often when people look at the Pacific they see it in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

“I am quite allergic to these ideas about us and them, I am quite allergic to these binaries that situate Pacific people as the opposite of Europeans,” she says.

“I am much more interested in models of humanity which go beyond a naïve relativism, and which are about what we share as human beings, which are about relations, and about historical connections.

“We should not just associate universal ideals and values with the West. And that we actually have to see, particularly in the contemporary era of globalisation, that there are lots of ideas about the whole world that are coming from places other than from  the UN in New York.

“Ideas of what we share as human beings are very powerfully articulated by Pacific women for example, but they are not heard as universals because they are seen to be coming from relatively remote and powerless places.”

Local women singing the Sa adaptation of the Bob Dylan song 'All the Tired Horses', Bunlap village, April 2013. Photo by Murray Garde.

The mix of the universal with the local is a familiar tune for Jolly. It’s not just how she has approached her scholarship. It’s how she has lived her life.

When she was living in South Pentecost all those years ago, she taught the women she was living with Bob Dylans’ All the Tired Horses.

Upon her recent return with linguist Murray Garde, Jolly started humming that melody in an exchange of songs. She was instantly greeted by a chorus of women crooning the same ballad, but the lyrics had been changed to their own language, Sa

“You remembered the song,” exclaimed Jolly in delight.

“Of course we did Margaret…it’s your song,” they replied.

But they had also made it theirs.

It just goes to show that if we all learn to sing from the same hymn sheet, albeit in our own way, we can all be brought together in truly meaningful ways.

Amen to that.

This is an extended version of an article featured in the Autumn 2014 edition of ANU Reporter.



Updated:  11 October, 2013/Responsible Officer:  Web Communications Coordinator/Page Contact:  Web Communications Coordinator