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Cargo Cults: They Have This Hope

I’ve been fascinated with the cargo cult phenomena for years. I’m getting ready for classes tomorrow or I would add in more of my thoughts, but I realized that I haven’t posted on them for our Spectrum community.

I was reminded of the richness of the sociological parallels while reading this article in the Smithsonian Magazine:

For as long as Tanna’s inhabitants can remember, island men have downed kava [a narcotic] at sunset each day in a place off-limits to women. Christian missionaries, mostly Presbyterians from Scotland, put a temporary stop to the practice in the early 20th century, also banning other traditional practices, or “kastom,” that locals had followed faithfully for millennia: dancing, penis wrapping and polygamy. The missionaries also forbade working and amusement on Sundays, swearing and adultery. In the absence of a strong colonial administrative presence, they set up their own courts to punish miscreants, sentencing them to forced labor. The Tannese seethed under the missionaries’ rules for three decades. Then, John Frum appeared.

Of course, there are interesting parallels to Seventh-day Adventists. They are an intriguing example of deep faith. And while at first blush it might seem very different, yet, much more is very similar to religious practice around the world:

I find that cargo cults redefine my own understanding of:

  • Advent expectation (brings new meaning to Advent-ism),
  • religion’s mix of materialism and mystery,
  • the troubling history of colonialism and racism,
  • the legacies of war and missions,
  • And Pathfinders?

Unfortunately, often the narrators of these docs use a “voice of God” omniscient style which actually works to filter out crosscultural understanding. Here’s one in which the believers speak for themselves.

The Smithsonian Magazine writes:

This is February 15, John Frum Day, on the remote island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. On this holiest of days, devotees have descended on the village of Lamakara from all over the island to honor a ghostly American messiah, John Frum. “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. “Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”

The island’s John Frum movement is a classic example of what anthropologists have called a “cargo cult”—many of which sprang up in villages in the South Pacific during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into the islands from the skies and seas. As anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who spent 17 years in Vanuatu, explains: “You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.” The locals don’t know where the foreigners’ endless supplies come from and so suspect they were summoned by magic, sent from the spirit world. To entice the Americans back after the war, islanders throughout the region constructed piers and carved airstrips from their fields. They prayed for ships and planes to once again come out of nowhere. . .

I wonder, what’s more unsettling for those who use “beliefs” to define others out of a faith community: religious difference or religious similarity?

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