I spent the last week in Papua New Guinea – not something I ever expected to do! With over 800 languages, communication in PNG is fascinating. There is no internet and even phones are hard to come by, a few cell phones are here and there. Most people I met promised to write me – as in a letter. We will see how that goes.
I went to PNG as an invited guest to a Lutheran women’s conference. Colonized by Germans, more than one-fifth of the country is Lutheran. One of the key features of the conference was a bible study called “Jesus Liberates women in PNG from male dominated cultures”.
Growing up, Pastor Michael, a seminary professor, watched his mother suffer in a polygamous marriage. His father, a “bigman” would force ably take the pigs she raised so that he could enjoy a high status in the community, beating her if necessary. When menstruating, women were (and still are in some places) secluded, and some believe that even the food they touch is contaminated so they are no allowed to cook meals. After the age of 13, Michael was discouraged from spending time with his mother. Because of a tradition called the “Bride price” -similar to a dowry- women cannot divorce their husbands because their family is expected to pay the money back. By paying for their wives, it encourages a culture where many men consider their wives a possession. Even though she was often beaten by her husband, his sister was unable to divorce him because of the culture and eventually committed suicide.
All this caused him to read the bible searching for stories of woman’s liberation. At the conference he distributed a 60-page book written in Pidgin (the national language) and English that systematically unwraps the stories of women in the bible to deliver a message of respect and encouragement for women’s leadership. It ends with a chapter: “Jesus’ approach to the Samaritan Women (and others) could be a model for PNG men to follow”. Some of the suggestions:
-PNG men should put aside their beliefs of gender-based concepts of clean and unclean…
-Women ought to be given equal invitation and opportunity for leadership roles in the church
-Women should be given equal theological education…
-Women should be ordained
Now – the format of this communication was not modern, it came in a dense booklet – footnotes – even the original Greek in some cases. But he systematically made the argument for gender equality in a country where it is an urgent life or death issue with one of the highest infant and maternal death rates in the world. He took nearly 8 hours over four days to deliver his lecture to 1,000 women and some men, including high ranking pastors and the Bishop.
But this is an oral culture, so the women may not read this thesis booklet, but they will remember his new interpretations of the Samaritan woman and the woman at the well, and they will take it home to their villages and retell the stories. They asked him to address the synod meeting next year, which will be mainly men, and hopefully this will happen. In a male-dominated culture, it will help women gain credibility to have a man – and the bible – speaking on their behalf.
I think this was a historic occasion in PNG, and it speaks to the power of education. He went to school and chose to study this subject and is now preaching a new gospel in his own language in a country that is hungry for it. The “West” cannot export gender equality, it has to come from up from the grassroots within. PNG is a very religious country, they have mixed Christianity with their own beliefs and it permeates almost everything they do. I can’t think of a more credible way for a gender equality movement to gain foothold in this country.