Response to ‘The Syncretistic Rabit’

Here’s a response to The Syncretistic Rabbit from Bethann Carlson – it’s worth posting in full. Bethann and her husband Greg and three children lived on Tanna for many years while they worked as consultants on the North Tanna (Naka) Bible translation.  They now live in Port Vila and are good friends and a wealth of information and experience.

By Bethann Carlson

I’m so glad you landed in a benevolent position towards my Easter chocolate.  Though I celebrated the Resurrection without chocolate this year, I do love my dark chocolate!  And I agree, given our situation, the Easter bunny isn’t really syncretism, but he is a cute little fuzzy distraction.

Yams, on the other hand, have been a very serious Easter contemplation of my adult life. Today, 2 April, is the “traditional” Nup Wi  for our village.  As always, I pray as I wonder what dramas are taking place there today. 

For the first few years, we quietly watched and tentatively ate the yams brought to us after Nup Wi  (New Yams or New Year—yam and year are the same word, indicating just how important the yam cycle is in the culture). The New Testament teaching on “food sacrificed to idols” suddenly became relevant!

Each year the first fruits of the yam harvest were brought to the imaim (village gathering place under the banyan tree) and given to a god or “devil” named “Iarukumpsa”.  He’s not one of the “devils” one hears stories about.  I did ask if anyone knew anything more about him, and they looked at each other and shrugged with that “I dunno, do you?” look.  Afterwards, yams were roasted and shared out to everyone.  I did not know anyone who refused to partake or questioned the ritual.  No one seemed to be concerned about eating “food sacrificed to idols,” so we weren’t offending anyone by eating,  but then again, no one was worried about giving thanks and asking blessing from someone other than the Creator God who had come and died to save them! 

The following Sunday, the “first fruits” of the yam harvest were decorated and brought into the church, prayed for, then given to the pastor or elder, and everyone ate boiled yams for lunch.

In 1993 or 1994ish, after we felt we’d learned enough, Greg decided it was time to preach about the issue.  It was clear that (at that time anyway), it was far more than a cultural issue.  After the service, one friend came and talked to me later, forhours.   She was surprised, she said, that she had never thought through it for herself before, but that this is clearly not a permissible practice for a Christian.  She told me then and there that she and her husband were finished with it—and they have never looked back. The discussion came up in another denomination afterwards, and one dear old saint (who by the way could and did regularly read any available language Scriptures), struggled to her feet with her cane, simply to say, “I am God’s.  I only want him.  That’s all.” And then she sat down.

But for others it was much harder.  One old chief told us he “would rather burn in hell than give up his ‘custom’”.  Another told us that yes, God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, but he is a god afar off.  We are “people of the ground, and we must obey the law of the ground.”  Another elderly deacon gave up the practice, but that first year the poor old fellow was literally shaking with fear when he brought what were truly his first fruits to the church.  Yet another was bothered by the social implications—his brother-in-law was furious that he was giving up the custom.  So he didn’t go to theNup Wi himself, but privately sent his yams with his brother-in-law.  Still others secularized it.  They really didn’t “believe in” those devils anyway, and were glad to be free of the obligation, but there was no new dependence on God for the yam harvest—or salvation from sin. 

A few years down the pike, it came to our attention that many other  crops (including fruits, and even coconut leaf) have quieter less celebrated “first fruits” rituals at different points during the agricultural year.  Individuals in the community had been responsible for seeing to it that the custom was followed for that crop.  But now Christians who had left off the yam sacrifice were called to account by resident ni-Vanuatu from other islands for their hypocrisy in abandoning only the yam celebration.  So some gave over a little more of their hearts and lives to Christ, and gave up the other rituals too up too.  Fence-sitting has definitely become harder.

Then there was a death.  The death of a tiny newborn boy.  And so began the discussions about why…was it because his grandfather had failed in his mandarin and coconut leaf “sacrifice”?  Or was it because God was punishing the people who DO give their first fruits to another god?  Or was it just general abandonment of ‘kastom’, or was it… (etc)?  And that is a conversation that has not yet ended. Every time there is a tragedy, the question arises.

 But your main point, that Easter is grossly under-celebrated, is also true.  Again, however, I have a vivid memory of another Easter. 

A man fell very ill in the fortnight prior to Easter.  The Nup Wi discussion was at its height, and he had supported leaving off the custom.  At the same time, our village was practicing for the Napɨn-apɨn dance—very strong time for custom, a time of darkness and open adultery.  The dance practices went on for day and night, seven days a week.  The sick man returned home from hospital just before Easter.  Too weak to sit, he still attended, though he had to lie down throughout the service.  No other men attended.  Just a handful of women and children.  It was a time of fear.

One young woman stood up in this very unusual Presbyterian service.  With tears she cried out that “This is OUR day!  He is risen, and in Him we have victory, no matter what else is happening!” 

I pray with you today for all our Tanna friends, that they would know the power of his Resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering being made conformable to his death as they faithfully consider God’s Word.

How long will it take?  I also remember a day when I was down, wondering how long it would be til they gave up their old gods. But that day in home school, we were studying History, and I read how it took 1000 years before the false gods were run out of Europe…or were they?  And I read how Jennie Lawson, missionary to China, encouraged Gladys Aylward.  Gladys was horrified that after 70 years Jennie had so little “fruit” to show for her labor.  But Jennie cheerfully replied, “But we’re just getting started!!!”

I suspect that the wheat and the tares will grow together until the harvest.

And yes, resident missionaries who will truly give themselves to learning how to understand local people and their concerns are still oh-so-necessary.   Thanks for being there.  I often wish I was there myself!

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About Tom Richards

I am an Australian pastor serving with the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu. I currently teach at Talua Theological Training Institute on Santo and formerly taught at Enefa on Tanna. Mi wan man Ostrelia be mi stap long Vanuatu we me wan pasta wetem PCV we me stap tij long Talua Theological Training Institute long Santo. Bifo me wok long ples ia be bin tij long Enefa long Tanna.

1 thought on “Response to ‘The Syncretistic Rabit’

  1. Thanks so much, Bethann. I was really encouraged by the beautiful stories of saints standing for the creator-God amongst all the darkness. Such a lot to do, but we all keep on in God’s strength.

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