Kind of Red

October 4, 2009

In God We Trust

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 3:37 pm

150980sun-over-the-ocean Somewhere on the far side of the ocean, beyond the span of the sea, halfway across the world, on the other side of the horizon, there lies a place where the people no longer worship in the way of their fathers.  On the island of Tanna, the people have placed their trust in John.  At times John is a black Melanesian, at times he is a white man, other times he is a black American GI.  Regardless of how he appears to the indigenous people of Tanna, to them he is the son of God.

 tanna1The tiny tropical island of Tanna inconspicuously rests in the South Pacific between the more heavily traveled and more densely populated island nations of Fiji and New Guinea.   The island’s archipelago bends and stretches into the shape of a “Y,” as if it invites onlookers to question its odd shape.  That “Y” shaped island does more than invite the onlooker to question its exotic contours; it is home to a little known nation (Vanuatu) that houses “spectacular natural wonders and fascinating, age-old cultures,” much of which has never fallen upon an outside eye.  As the sun stands above the clouds each day, shining its blistering rays onto earth beneath, its sweltering heat swallows all who dare venture into the noonday sun, only to regurgitate the brave soul hours later at its setting, but not until after it has drenched them in its oppressive humidity.  The island’s volcano occasionally spews the magma within its crater outward and jettisons its leftover molten ash into the neighboring plains that reluctantly welcome the intermittent carbon downfall.  There lies a black sand beach on the coast side of the island that runs with “steaming rivulets of scalding spring water too hot to touch,” yet ideal for washing clothes and dishes.  Here, under the shadow of Mount Yasur’s rugged steeples, members of the village Lamakara worship a “ghostly American Messiah,” John Frum rather than Christ of the missionaries or the traditional “kastom” of their ancestors.

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Consequently, for the past forty-five years, the people of Vanuatu have participated in an unusual, ever-evolving, annual ceremony that falls on the ides of February.  As reported by Paul Raffaele of The Smithsonian Magazine, a typical ceremony begins shortly after dawn when men clad in, what appear to be, U.S. Army uniforms march on a mound slightly above the village.  One carries a precisely folded flag of the United States.  On the command of a “drill sergeant,” the flag is raised on a pole hewn from a tall tree trunk as hundreds of villages clap and cheer.  This is the venerated John Frum Day in Vanuatu, where devotees believe John will return with “planeloads and shiploads of cargo” if they will only pray to him.  On that faithful day he will bring radios, televisions, Coca Cola, chocolate, watches and other exquisite wonders.

FrumParade The John Frum Movement on Vanuatu represents what anthropologists classify as a “cargo cult.”   These “cults” shot up in tiny villages across the South Pacific when hundreds of thousands of American troops infiltrated the islands during World War II.  As reported by Mr. Raffaele, the indigenous people had no idea where the foreigners’ endless supplies originated, and subsequently surmised they were summoned by magic sent from the spirit realm.  From New Guinea to the Solomon Islands to remote island of Tanna, the cults began to generate rather spontaneously amongst people thousands of miles apart, who spoke different languages and previously operated under different cultures. Anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who spent seventeen years in Vanutau, explains, “[C]argo cults [emerge] when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.”   When the Americans left and did not return, the “cults” began to form the belief the Americans would return with their splendid treasures if the devotees would pray for their return.

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Philadelphia-area monologist Mike Daisy recently visited Vanuatu, and spent time amongst the disciples of the John Frum Movement.  He called the religious sect “the last of the cargo cults,” and marveled at its unconventional nature.  He recounted his trip to WHYY’s Marty Moss-Coane in an interview a couple of weeks ago.  He noted many of the observations of anthropologists who have studied cargo cults—the “bizarre” belief in the divine nature of Western technological advances, the more “bizarre” religious practices designed to lure the technological advances back, the depth of the conviction, etc.—but he also remained captivated by the fact that the people of Vanutau had little use for his American money despite their fascination with his American goods.  He mentioned there was virtually no use of a discernable currency on the entire island of Tanna, though he did note this is beginning to change subtly.  He was bewildered by that fact, and struggled to wrap his mind around the idea of how an entire island of people could operate without money.  It was as though Tanna had achieved the miraculous to remain outside of the reach of money.  This proved no small feat considering the West has obviously left an indelible impression on the island in its brief encounters with it.  Mr. Daisy found this miracle liberating and mystifying—his money was literally worthless in Tanna.   

imagespile-of-money-small1During the interview, Mr. Daisy admitted our culture would not allow him to relinquish his reliance on its money, but his time on Tanna caused him to reevaluate his belief in it.  He mentioned how when he asked an elder on Tanna why they had no currency; the elder answered by saying his people had no need for it.  The use of currency, he explained, was yet another custom, another cultural tradition that may have no necessary bearing on others.  The impression the custom of money, or any other foreign custom, leaves on another is subject to the culture’s acceptance of it.  The wrinkled pieces of paper he offered in exchange for goods in services was no more valuable than what the recipient believed it to be.  If an individual believed the dollar bills to be nothing more than wrinkled sheets of paper, then wrinkled pieces of paper they were.  Obviously, the revelation was not a novel one, yet the weight of its truth exceeded the weight of the gold that once backed the dollar bills Mr. Daisy kept in his wallet.

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With our obsessive discussions of our declining economy and rising unemployment rates, we easily take for granted the presumptions that drive the mechanisms of our financial systems.  Our economy revolves our faith in it.    Our currency is faith based.  Indeed it is in these minted coins and dollar bills we trust when we work in earnest to collect them.  Our belief in their value drives us to hold onto as many as we can.  This faith is one passed on by our fathers and one we have grown to accept.  Our money is only as valuable as we believe it is.  This preposterous belief that this wrinkled, mint-green-colored fabric will constitute an even exchange for our time, our energy and the best we have to offer is an absurd notion indeed.  Nevertheless, we all blindly adhere to such a faith everyday, and think little of our reliance on the concept.  We believe and do not question, as though we wait for John to come and bring us more.

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