- Christian Politics in Oceania edited by Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall
This edited volume continues a by now significant history of monographs in the anthropology of Christianity in Oceania, with Mission, Church and Sect in Oceania (edited by James Boutilier, Sharon Tiffany, and Daniel Hughes, 1978) and Christianity in Oceania (edited by John Barker) as its main predecessors in the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO) series. So what has Christian Politics in Oceania to offer to the current popular field of studies of Christianity in the Pacific and beyond?
In their introduction, the editors repeat the question that Fenella Cannell posed in her edited volume, The Anthropology of Christianity (2006): “What difference does Christianity [End Page 576] make?” Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall argue that in Oceania, “the difference that Christianity makes is always and inevitably political” (2), both in terms of political relations between denominations and in the way Christian churches partake in debates about the governing of society (13). This observation is a reassertion of earlier work, like Philip Gibbs’s long-standing research on the interplay between Christianity and politics in Papua New Guinea (PNG). As Gibbs stated in a 2005 working paper, “Political Discourse and Religious Narratives of Church and State in Papua New Guinea,” in that country, “attempts to keep religion and politics separate often meet with incomprehension and resistance on the part of the general populace, for in traditional Melanesian terms, religion has a political function: seen in the power to avert misfortune and ways to ensure prosperity and well-being” (Gibbs 2005, 1).
The recent upheaval caused by PNG Parliament Speaker Theo Zurenuoc, who started to remove all “ungodly images and idols” from the National Parliament, is another affirmation of the entanglement between Christianity and politics in Melanesia. What this volume successfully offers is a comparative perspective between Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji—historically entwined “troubled nation-states” in terms of engagement with Christianity—richly supported by comparative discussions of Christianity in these settings by the interlocutors themselves (4). More specifically, Christian Politics in Oceania provides insight into the diversity of mainly Protestant denominations in the Western Pacific (Melanesia) and their entanglements with local and national politics, kastom, and culture, as well as their infighting.
The first two chapters focus on denominational competition, with Courtney Handman analyzing this through the perspective of an argument over land and the use of musical instruments (traditional drums) in Protestant church services in Papua New Guinea’s Waria Valley. Michael Scott sublimely reveals internal Christian politics in the dialogic construction of the “underground army” on Makira, Solomon Islands, which some regard as the defenders of kastom, while Seventh-Day Adventists see the army as Satan’s base, operating in the interest of the Catholic Church, which they perceive as the anti-Christ.
The next three chapters address the ways in which Methodist and Pentecostal denominations in Fiji, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands “shape ideas of the nation and inculcate practices of citizenship” (15). Matt Tomlinson illustrates religious politics of nation and state building in Fiji through the linguistic and rhetorical analysis of a sermon by the New Methodist Church leader, Vulaono. Tomlinson shows how Vulaono critiqued other churches’ practices by emphasizing the “new” as a source of religious and political legitimacy in service of Fiji’s latest coup, versus the old and familiar in the Methodist church of Fiji and the previous government. Annelin Eriksen equally discusses the interplay between Church and State, and, in particular, the ways in which churches in Vanuatu are taking on state forms. Here, emerging governing bodies that have [End Page 577] strong Christian ideals, such as the cooperation between AusAID and the Vanuatu Christian Council, produce state effects—regulating behavior, education, and creating the idea of the Christian as the ideal Ni-Vanuatu citizen (117). Debra McDougall continues this discussion of churches’ state effects by analyzing the narratives of two men...