Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Crossings: A Conversation with Alphonso Lingis

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Crossings: A Conversation with Alphonso Lingis

Article excerpt

On 3 October 2012, Alphonso Lingis, a Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at the University of Manitoba, participated in an open three-hour interview with Mosaic and a number of invited student and faculty participants. The following is a condensed transcription of that memorable conversation, which originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Mosaic (45.4).

DM You have recently returned from Indonesia. Can you tell us something about your travel experiences there?

AL I went there with a friend, a documentary filmmaker, who made a documentary on refugees from Myanmar into Thailand, a documentary on Mexican immigrants in Tennessee, and another on trance in Haiti. But we did not go to do a project. We went to Tana Toraja, an area high in the mountains of the island of Sulawesi. The Toraja people have a very distinctive culture. They build the most beautiful houses I have ever seen in any community. They are high, built on piles, with enormous soaring roofs of many, many layers of split bamboo. The entire structure is embossed and painted. Of course, in the towns there are some nondescript buildings. But we were pleased to see new houses in this style being built.

I think that certain political changes recently have led them to affirm their culture even more. During Dutch rule, they resisted Christianity, not more than ten per cent of them accepting Christianity. Then after independence, several islands in Indonesia wanted their own independence from the new Indonesian state, as did several groups in Sulawesi. These uprisings were repressed by the Indonesian army. The lowland people, the Bugis and Makassarese, who are Muslim, began moving toward the mountain area. Then an extraordinary thing happened: the Toraja people massively converted to Christianity. Virtually all of them were baptized.

The most important ceremonies of the Toraja are funerals that last four to ten days; they require enormous expenditures and hundreds, even thousands, of people attend. People come from other islands in Indonesia and from abroad, even from Europe. Participants bring dozens of pigs and especially water buffalo (it's the only place I've ever seen water buffalo not used for labour, for plowing the fields and pulling wagons). The pigs and water buffalo are sacrificed and their blood offered to ancestors, their meat distributed to the guests. When next there is a funeral in another community, this community will reciprocate. The funeral affirms both the deceased individual's importance to the community and also the complex marital, economic, and political relationships with other communities.

The Calvinist Dutch Reformed pastors and theologians met to determine what to do about Toraja ceremonies and rituals. In the end they distinguished between "religious practices" and "customs." They decided to allow customs, including the great funerals, on condition that the people would no longer say that blood was being shed at the funerals as a gift to ancestors. The conversion of the Toraja to Christianity, which affirms their ethnic distinctness, connected in my mind with what happened in a community, the Urapmin in Papua New Guinea, studied by the anthropologist Joel Robbins in his book Becoming Sinners. Their religious leaders had had much repute in the surrounding communities. But these other communities now had access to transport; a road had been built near them; there was commerce and new sources of wealth from which the Urapmin were excluded. They sent some of their young men to get educated. When they came back they had been converted to Christianity, and proselytized in their home community. Outside missionaries did not come to them. The community became purist fundamentalist Christians. They became very preoccupied with guilt, which was a new phenomenon among the Papuan people. They spend their time examining their conscience and expressing remorse over the smallest transgressions. They proselytize to the communities around them. …

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