Circumventing Circumcision

DSCF8043Three students on field experience from Southern Islands Presbytery Bible College were practicing pastoral visitation, going from household to household praying for people’s needs. They entered one house where the upcoming circumcision of their son was weighing heavily on the people’s minds. The students brought the matter before the Lord and moved on. Later that day the family discovered that their son had been miraculously circumcised.

Six further ‘miracle circumcisions’ took place within about a month at that location, which is one of our mission fields. But these weren’t the first circumcisions of this kind to take place on Tanna. The first took place in 2000 when it was prophesied that miraculous circumcisions would take place across the island and radiate out from here around the world.

The family had asked for prayer in the matter of the circumcision because of the taxing nature of the ritual. Ken Nehrbass, in his book Christianity and Animism in Melanesia, explains that circumcision is ‘the most expensive event in the lifetime of any family.’   A father must give many gifts to his wife’s family during the two-month ceremony, in fact as soon as a couple is married they will start raising pigs for the anticipated circumcision of their first son.

This family, it seems, was not well prepared and lacked the necessary resources. This was weighing heavily on them when they asked the students to pray. The ‘miracle circumcision’ allowed the family to get around the problem of the obligatory giving.

The circumcisions were attributed to the work of God (after all, in at least this one case, the students had prayed to God) and the boys were brought before the church in an act of thanksgiving. During the service a pastor warned against human interpretations of the meaning of the circumcisions, however this only seemed to invite speculation. In fact, the very same pastor announced that since Joshua circumcised the men before the conquest of the Promised Land, that these boys might become warriors for God. Someone else argued that it represented a culmination of the history of the mission field, showing that cleansing had now come – they had arrived at the end of their journey.

This mission field, however, remains far from a full understanding of the cleansing which might be received through taking Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior. They are members of ‘Unity,’ a movement that arose out of the John Frum Cargo Cult in 2000. Unity seeks to combine all Tanna’s religious thinking: Kastom (the traditional magic-religious system), cargo and the church. While they might give thanks to God on Sunday, they practice ‘glass’ on Wednesdays.

DSCF8045Glass is Unity’s own form of religious engagement, given to them by their founding prophet, Fred. A guitar-dominated band made up of men calls down a spirit, while the ‘angels’ (the women) dance, spinning and looking up into the sun. As the angels become spirit-possessed, the ‘glass’ occurs. They look through this world and into another. They report what they see to particular men who interpret the visions and announce them to the group. Miracle circumcisions were apparently prophesied by the glass movement.

Jonathan, probably the most prominent man currently vying for leadership of the movement, welcomed the news of the circumcisions. For him it was yet another factor lending validity to his movement and to his predecessor, Fred.   But while Jonathan was glad to hear the news, it didn’t seem to surprise him. In fact it didn’t appear that he would have been the least bit surprised to hear that a child had been miraculously been circumcised in China, Switzerland or Saudi Arabia; an event that he would certainly see as having a mysterious spiritual connection to Tanna.

Soon after receiving his circumcision, one of the boys began to prophecy. He claimed to be receiving messages from the same spirit who spoke to the now deceased Prophet Fred. At first the boy seemed to be leading the people away from glass, but it soon became clear that he was adding yet another dimension to this already convoluted movement when he began instructing people to wear feathers on their foreheads and paint red dots between their eyes.

While it is easy to see why a loving God would have compassion on one small family that was burdened by the weight of Kastom circumcision, it is difficult to comprehend why he would do so in a way that seems to give credence to this non-Christian movement. These events seem to frustrate our mission work as they are distractions from the gospel and do little to cause people to cling to Jesus as their only Lord and savior. Even one of the students who initially prayed, has now turned from the faith.

If we believe that these circumcisions were indeed the work of God – and on at least some level we must do so, since, if we take God’s sovereignty seriously, then we must at the very least conclude that God has allowed these circumcisions to occur – if we do conclude that they were the work of God, then we can hardly help but search for answers: ‘Why God, why would you do this?’ But no answer comes.

Left to ourselves it is tempting to construct a rational hypothesis as to how and why these circumcisions have occurred. Yet any such theory is a house of cards – ifs built on ifs; speculations on speculations. No, it is best to refrain from joining others in dabbling in interpretations and declare with Paul: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!’ (Rom 11:33 NIV).

Paul didn’t write (or quote) those words while pulling his hair out in frustration with a god he couldn’t know, but in adoration for the God who would use the most unlikely means (the gentiles) to cause his people (Israel) to turn to him.

I do not know and can scarcely imagine how God is bringing about his own glory through these strange events. And yet we must be patient and rest in the knowledge that on the last day we will see that he will have brought all of his people into perfect relationship with himself, and that he will have done that through plans and purposes beyond our imaginings.

3 thoughts on “Circumventing Circumcision

  1. Hi Tom and Margaret. Thanks for the story. It is more than a bit perplexing. One of the lessons I learnt from Colossians is that there are times NOT to ask, “Where is this coming from? Is it God or some other power?” To ask throws you on the horns of a dilemma – you either have to endorse it or totally reject it. But in Colns, Paul seems to acknowledge that people in Colossi are having unusual experiences (2:18-19) but he doesn’t ask the question. The reason he doesn’t have to is because he knowws the experiences are not significant, because they don’t relate to Christ.

  2. Pingback: Words of Eternal Life | Talking About Tanna

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