Gospel & Culture blog
The Melanesian Institute’s (MI) Point 33 is replete with thick ethnographic description and missiological applications. In addition to supplying particulars about how and why sorcery is variously practiced throughout Papua New Guinea (PNG), the contributors suggest how the church should respond to this phenomenon.
The government has long been aware of the troubles caused by sorcery (sanguma in Tok Pisin), and made it illegal under the 1971 Sorcery Act. However, proscribing the practice has not been effective enough in mitigating these problems. The solution, the authors suggest, is not merely to discourage the practice of sorcery; rather to dispel such “ignorant” (31), “barbarous” (33), “heathen beliefs” (157) in the first place. Accusations of sanguma cause people to live in fear of their neighbors and usually victimize those with less power, such as women and the elderly, as they inevitably take the blame for death and other misfortunes.
Therefore, the authors are not wondering about how to discourage sorcery, rather how to foster another Enlightenment like Europe experienced (46). They admit this is an ambitious project, since Melanesian cosmology involves ghosts, demons, angels and mechanistic powers. Additionally, Melanesians see some value in the sorcery system: It empowers women who are known to be witches; it explains misfortune; and the fear or retribution by a sorcerer is an important regulating force (337).
While cultivating such an Enlightenment is ambitious, these authors do not consider it impossible. If pastors would preach “against the belief and practice of sorcery” (154) people would be less likely to blame others when misfortune befalls them. But if they must maintain their cosmology, pastors should at least encourage people to attribute misfortune to “nature spirits, ancestral ghosts, evil spirits, Satan or even God” (298) rather than to their neighbors.
Because most of the authors do not reify sorcery as a spiritually energized phenomenon, their missiological application is limited when it comes to combating demonic powers behind sorcery, e.g., through “power-encounters.” Apparently they believe that spiritual warfare would be unnecessary if people would cease believing in demonic powers all together.
Aside from the Western bias of the authors, they achieved their goal of “linking faith questions with a phenomenological approach based on ethnographic enquiry” (58). The research methodology in this book is indicative of the high caliber of scholarship going on at the MI, and we can expect more studies from them of this value in the future.
This article first appeared in Nehrbass, Kenneth. (2011). [Review of the book Sanguma in Paradise: Sorcery, Witchcraft and Christianity in Papua New Guinea, Point No. 33]. Missiology, 39 (3). pp. 248-249.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor