Truth and myth are indistinguishable when it comes to the origins and doctrines of the Jon Frum movement on Tanna Island, Vanuatu. The members of the cult themselves are in disagreement and anthropologists have been left scratching their heads. David Iou, director of the Presbyterian discipleship workers on Tanna told me the story late one evening as we lay in our bunks.
Tanna had been a tough mission field for the early missionaries but in time the island had been evangelised and the church established. Those who believe that the movement was underway before the Second World War, say that a movement arose in the 30s, calling people to return to their customs. Who led such a movement and what motivated it is unclear, but as David Iou put it ‘a deceiving spirit went around the island.’
Regardless of whether the movement had already began at the time of WWII, it is clear that the war had a great impact since two of their sacred images, the Red Cross and the US flag, came from that era. One version has it that a US serviceman by the name of John visited the island, explained that he was ‘John from America’, and that he would return with riches in cargo. Other versions simply hold that Jon Frum was the alias of a local man who dressed up in a military-style coat and promised his fellow islanders riches if only they would reject western ways. Still others hold that Jon appeared in a kava-induced (a local narcotic) spiritual vision.
It is unclear today whether Jon Frum is white skinned or dark, whether he is a god, demigod or mortal, whether he lives in America or in the volcano, and whether he will bring goods from heaven or from over the seas. But all members agree that a man called Jon Frum will bring cargo (houses, clothes, food and transport). What the cult members have to do is raise the flag, do certain dances and rituals, and reject all things foreign. Cult members have rejected Christianity, money, and won’t allow their children to attend school.
All this seems quaint to our western ears. This is evidenced by the fact that the colourful dances and military parades held at the movement’s heartland in Sulphur Bay attract thousands of tourists. But below the surface the cult involves dark spiritual bondage. As people turned from Jesus, they turned back to the use of stones and other objects to manipulate the weather, harvests, and each other’s health.
Whereas in evangelical Christianity power is held ultimately by a benevolent creator-God who has made his will known through the Bible, within the custom worship of Tanna, which the people of the Jon Frum movement have returned to, it is held by those who hold certain stones or magic and who can use that power against others. People live in fear and uncertainty of cyclones being sent to destroy them, their harvest being destroyed, or their health or even their lives being taken away. Consequently these people tend to be suspicious of others, unlike the trusting and open Ni-Vanutu people found throughout the country.
People live in fear of evil spirits which can attack a person causing harm and of devils who live in certain places and can posses a person. For safety people rely on stones, leaves, sacrifice, and prayers made through drinking kava. For these people the natural world is hostile and unstable rather than the good and ordered creation of a loving God.
While we might be baffled by the seeming ignorance of people who believe that raising a flag could possibly bring untold riches from over the sea, we must realise that the cult is supported by a deeply held world-view and destructive spiritual power.
As David Iou finished his account of the Jon Frum movement, he impressed on me the need to send workers into these villages. In another post I will soon tell the story of God’s message of love demonstrated in his Son Jesus, once again going out to these people – and going out with power!