Academic journal article Ethnology

Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Desire among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Ethnology

Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Desire among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

This article considers the way Christianity has transformed notions of

desire among the Urapmin of the West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.

While Melanesian cargo cults have generally been understood as generated

by a relatively comprehensible set of desires, Urapmin Christianity has

focused not on realizing desires but rather on defining and controlling

them. In its efforts to exercise such control, Christianity has come into

conflict with traditional Urapmin social structure. The latter depended

upon a dialectical relationship between willfulness and lawfulness that

allowed them both to be valued and to set limits on one another. By

demonizing all willfulness, Christianity has made sinners of those Urapmin

who operate successfully within that social structure. After tracing the way

Christianity has created this contradiction, this article concludes by

examining new Christian rituals that have developed in order to allow people

to resolve some of its effects on their lives. (Christianity, desire,

Melanesia, social structure, ritual)

The study of religious movements in Papua New Guinea has recently been dominated by a rethinking of the anthropological analysis of cargo cults. Critics have argued that the notion of the cargo cult is a faulty analytic construct (McDowell 1988), a projection of Western models of desire onto Melanesians (Lindstrom 1993), or a concept forged in pursuit of colonial domination (Lattas 1992; Kaplan 1995). One consequence of these claims has been the reopening of ethnographic questions long since thought closed about the nature of colonial and postcolonial Melanesian religious activity. Until recently, educational programs, local development groups, Christian churches, national elections, or almost anything of interest to Melanesians were liable to be described as a cargo cult by some social scientist (for examples, see Swatridge 1985; Walter 1981; see Lindstrom 1993:ch. 3 for a review). At present, by contrast, it is not clear what, if anything, should be described in those terms. This situation presents an opportunity to begin thinking about contemporary Melanesian religion in new ways.

This article considers the role of ideas about desire in the Christian religion of the Urapmin of West Sepik Province. As in other parts of Papua New Guinea, Christianity in Urapmin is focused on the millennial themes of Jesus's imminent return and God's impending judgment, and this lends it at least a superficial similarity to cargoism (cf. Gibbs 1977; Guiart 1970; Kempf 1992; Kulick 1992; Lawrence and Meggitt 1965; Ryan 1969). Yet there are at least two striking differences between Urapmin Christianity and cargo religion as the latter has usually been understood, and both differences turn on the role desire plays within Urapmin Christianity. First, for the Urapmin, questions about the nature of desire--about what is desirable and how desires should be acted upon--are one of the primary forces driving their Christian belief and practice. While classic accounts of cargo cultism always acknowledge the very intense desires that drive these movements, they tend to treat these desires as fixed and unproblematic: people are seeking political autonomy in the face of colonial domination (Worsley 1968), moral equivalence with the colonizers (Burridge 1960; Lawrence 1971 [1964]), or cognitive consistency in situations of radical change (Lawrence 1971 [1964]). Instead of considering in detail how people formulated such desires, these authors (with the partial exception of Burridge) primarily investigate the way people go about achieving their goals. It is the means employed in cargo cults (the rituals that mimic colonial routines, the gardens left abandoned, etc.), rather than the desires that put these means in motion, that require explanation. In Urapmin, by contrast, it is desire itself that religious activity seeks to understand and control. …

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