If anybody paid attention to what I write about religion they might wonder why I seem to have a persistent interest in evangelism, particularly as practiced by missionaries who target the souls of the peoples of Asian and the Pacific islands.* It is one thing for us Westerners to rip off their natural resources, pump them full of opium and our consumer crap, and install Wal Marts on their sacred burial grounds, but we can’t be satisfied with that. No, we have to mess with their metaphysics and snatch their souls away from their atavistic and strange deities. We know what we are doing, because we learned from ages of this sort of thing in the West and Middle East that when we get our clutches on their souls we own ‘em.
I, of course, knew nothing of this dynamic when the good Sisters of St. Joseph were entreating me to stuff my pennies into those little containers called “mite boxes” so that the souls of “pagan babies” in the Marshalls or the Carolines could be rescued from the Church’s eschatological Gitmo called “limbo.”** I was assured that I would accumulate a big glob of “grace” to cash in on behalf of my own little soul.
Evangelists are often the vanguard not only of their religious denominations, but they are also the tip of the spear of colonialism and corporate intrusion. But while I am ideologically critical of cultural rape I must confess to an abiding fascination I have with its dramatic consequences. Drama is conflict, and there is plenty if it in the clash of customs and mores. Remember Michener’s Rev. Abner Hale fulminating that it was an abomination that the queen of the Hawaiians slept with her brother? Now that’s drama.
But at the practical level there is no cheaper way of getting control over the locals than to mess with their heads. And what more zealous shock troops than those fired with the message of the Pauline mission—spread those gospels far and wide. Believing that they were assuring their own salvation by saving pagan souls missionaries have a fervor that conflates self-sacrifice with self-interest. Hey, what’s more paradoxical than altruism?***
The LMS (London Missionary Society) was founded in 1792. Suddenly, families of missionaries wearing the wrong clothing and bad teeth were turning up in far flung locations like the Kalahari, Tahiti, Hawaii, China (Canton), Malacca and other places that putatively need to hear the so-called message of Jesus and put some clothes on to cover their bouncies and danglies. Tom Hiney covers a lot of this territory through the journals and reports of two Protestant clerics, George Bennet and Daniel Tyerman, the LMS deputized in 1821 to check out how things were going with the soul-snatching.
For its time a family of evangelists being dropped on some island in the Western Pacific only recently discovered by Captain Cook, and on which the native religious practices might have involved the ingestion of something more substantial than a Eucharistic wafer (like the guy holding the wafer), was the equivalent of the moon landing in our time. One has to admire the courage and dedication of these snatchers. As if the crossing of open oceans on long voyages weren’t perilous enough, these were the days when the inhabitants of many of the islands of the South Pacific referred to their white deliverers as “long pig,” a delicacy delivered right to their shores. Wives and children were not ignorant of the dangers; it is recorded that one young boy asked his father as they were being attacked by Maoris in New Zealand, if, after they were killed, it would hurt when the natives ate them.
Hiney’s recasting of the eight-year sojourn of Bennet and Tyerman consequently makes for dramatic reading. Their encounters and adventures rate up there with some of the best adventure travel and dramas of the 19th Century. Tyerman died of exhaustion in Madagascar, but Bennet made it back of England with their journals in 1829.
One hundred and seventy years later there are faint echoes of missionaries on Tarawa, a spray of coral atolls where J. Maarten Troost sets foot when his wife gets a government job on Kiribati. By now the image of the pastoral paradise of the South Seas has been supplanted by hard ecological realities. Troost and his girlfriend, Sylvia, have no illusions about westernizing the I-Kiribati into some psalm-spouting congregation. What makes Troost’s adventure fascinating is not just his wry and clever humor, but what he finds humorous. The details and concerns of everyday life on a coral atoll provide a glimpse into what those bold LMS evangelists must have encountered.
Kiribati is a small barren, infertile bump on the surface of the ocean still showing the remnants of the pitched battle that took place between the Japanese and American Marines in WWII. It relies on rain for fresh water, and it needs to be caught before the island’s contaminants (worms, parasites, fecal matter, and insects) render it undrinkable. It has an economic base consisting of copra, and copra. Fish is the main staple of the diet and a salad Nicoise is about as likely to be found as the bones of a T-Rex.
What is most interesting in Troost’s account of two years there with Sylvia is that the island is an example of a sustainability experiment in microcosm. Tarawa is about as lonely in the vastness of the Western Pacific as Earth is the universe. One of the most humorous accounts is of the author’s first swim in the lagoon, about which he has some fear of sharks. He encounters no sharks but has some difficulty getting ashore because he has to avoid the floating feces of a man who has just defecated in the shallows. (Apparently, this repels even sharks.) In fact, now that he is aware of it shit is everywhere, all over the beach (so much for those pristine beach commercials) and polluting the lagoon water from which most of the dinner fish are obtained.
Small as it is Kiribati is overpopulated for what its parsimonious environment can handle. No “multiply and subdue the earth” here. There are several other example of this problem, but Troost meets them with wonderful humor, yet still falls short of going native.****
Most of the I-Kiribati have never been anywhere. Their atoll is their universe. So would they, like many of the islands evangelists hankered to Christianize, need a first century Jewish rabbi to guide their lives? (Maybe they could relate a bit to Jesus’ fishermen disciples.) Would they need irrelevant references to Biblical events involving nomadic herders? Island gods, it seems, should be of “the place”; they should derive from and speak to the issues, concerns and other particularities of the place, especially if that place is small and is your entire universe. But you still might have occasion to offer a prayer of supplication to that God, when the fishing is bad and the typhoon has blown away all the coconuts: “Oh, God of my ancestors, please send us some missionaries to eat.”
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.14.2011)
* 52. 3: THE SHARK GOD, by Charles Montgomery, 2004 [BR] 8.8.2008; 31. 2: THE MEMORY PALACE OF MATTEO RICCI , by Jonathan D. Spence, 1984 [BR] 4.4.2006; 21. 1: Stem Cells and Witch Doctors 5.30.2005; 10. 2: The Theopaths 7.15.2004. See also, my “Invasion of the Soulsnatchers,” The Wild East, Issue 4, May 2003, Pp. 16-17
**Limbo has since been expunged from the dogma of Holy Mother Church as a repose for the un-baptized (they now go to a Carnival Cruise ship where they are cursed with having to slither underneath a progressively lowered broomstick to the sounds of bad Calypso music). Every so often I fantasize about the pagan babies I “adopted.” I imagine the baby girls having now matured into beautiful young island girls, dancing in their grass skirts with crucifixes hanging between their swaying, un-halted breasts. I love this fantasy. Hey, I paid for it with a lot of pennies.
***Consider the promised reward of the Muslim suicide bomber.
****His departure is a blessing, since he has gone on to write humorously of his travels to other places.