Formulating “theology in the Pacific world” was a strong theme in the Oceania Continental Assembly. Archbishop Tatamai shares how several Christian beliefs flow naturally from Melanesian thought and practice.
By Sr Bernadette M. Reis, fsp
In a second in-depth interview with Vatican News, Archbishop Rochus Tatamai, of the Archdiocese of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, expands his remarks regarding how the Melanesian concept of gutpela sindaun connects with the Christian understanding of salvation. He then showed how the Melanesian tradition of “exchange” can be used to explain the covenantal relationship of the Lord with his people, the Incarnation, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and marriage.
Balance in relationships
“The whole concept of relationships, as we understand and as we experience it, is very foundational to all forms of balances in terms of relationships, the whole notion of well-being, the common good, and what we refer to as an experiential gutpela sindaun. And that’s gutpela sindaun presumes that there is good health, law and order, plentiful harvests, life in abundance in all forms. And we also believe that the abundance of life continues on as long as the balances are in place in the relationships within the family, with in-laws, with the relatives, the ancestors. And it extends to the environment since we relate with the environment as living.
Nature as teacher
“I think tension was once caused it was thought that the people in Melanesia were animistic. It wasn’t really animism that was the underlying experience. It was more a biocosmic understanding. And biocosmic is really referring to life. And the cosmos is really the life that is providing us. It is the sense that highlights, emphasizes, and confirms that since the world around us – the universe and the environment that we enjoy –is biocosmic, it also reflects this whole notion of salvation – that it is fruitful, it is giving us life in abundance because the world around us is giving life, and life in abundance.
Tension in relationships
“Now, coming from that particular experience, we know that tensions arise. These tensions have to do with the different aspects of relationship – strained relationships in the family, the marriage, then it flows onto the community. It even affects our relationship with those who have gone before us, or our ancestors, as we refer to them. And, of course, the environment around us. And as I was spelling out, this whole value of exchange comes in to make right that particular relationship so that the balance is once again achieved, and therefore the flow of life continues and life in abundance is experienced, and gutpela sindaun is there.
Christianity in dialogue with Melanesian experience
“Now from this particular experience, we as Christians understand that we are all called to be brothers and sisters, having one Father in heaven. So, we have dignity, each one is a child of God. And so, this relationship is now opened up beyond our own families only, and our clans, our tribes. It’s now a universal family because of our baptism. And so, baptism opens up so that, regardless of who you are, it confers one confession in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit. All these things now come to build on our experience of creating that balance within us.
Balance is the result of obedience
“And we also underline in our experiences what we refer to as obedience. Obedience is basic and foundational. In fact, we all agree that because of obedience, you naturally have the balance. We take it from nature. Every morning, the sun rises and sets. That is what you may call the ideal sense of balance in nature. The law of nature itself – the sea has its winds, currents, shorelines. And you know that rivers flow down from the mountains. When you look around everything from their creation story, you see that from the plant world, to the animal world, and then to the human beings, all the rest are perfect in their response to doing what is naturally a call to their particular life. We will never see a coconut transforming to a mango tree or something else. All of these are perfectly in balance because they are living up to what they are in terms of obedience.
“And so, the call to obedience is on the level of nature, the level of the animals. We can see that their instincts, and all the rest, are perfectly matching. But when it comes to human beings, from our creation story we are made in the image and likeness of God, the crown of creation. We are made in God’s image, and therefore we now have to decide, we have to make choices. We now have to choose between the options that are presented to us. And we now begin to understand the effects of original sin that we know from our catechism, the tendency is always to try our best to do the good, but we see ourselves doing the opposite.
Struggle with sin
“And this is the struggle that St Paul tells us – the good I want to do, I end up doing the opposite. We know that the tendency to be good and to be godly is there. But this effect of sin though, of all the good options we have, makes us always choose the negative. Sometimes it’s greed, it’s selfishness. This causes the imbalance. Because we move away from the call for the common good, which happens when we are all in obedience to saying yes to what is the right thing to do. Our own selfishness, and our own greed tends to be more self-focused. And that’s how we upset the relationships.
“Now we need to correct this. Of course, we do correct this with our Melanesian ways of exchange. And we say that with the exchange, it also emphasises the value and the aspect of reciprocity – that everybody is giving and receiving. And this is why I said compensation challenges and corrupts this whole value of exchange because it is one-sided, one pays and the other receives. But when it comes to exchange, it is a mutual giving and receiving.
Incarnation as exchange
“And for me this makes it easier for me to explain the Incarnation. Because the Incarnation is really God coming to exchange with humanity. He exchanged his divinity with our humanity. And this is the whole project of coming back to restore this balance. We’ve been left alone to our own resources, to our own intents. We tend to be to be lost totally. But the fact that God chooses to become one with us through the mystery of the Incarnation, through the Angel Gabriel coming to talk to Mary, or to announce to Mary, that she will become the Mother of the Word of God, the eternal Word of God. We also value the importance of knowing that the power of the Word is also there. We also have that experience of the power of the Word.
Communal decision making
“Now we are going through this process of synodality. And in our Melanesian experience, synodality is part and parcel of everyday life. All of us make a contribution. We never individually come up with an idea or a decision. Consultation is a painstaking experience, but we all know that it is important for all of us to participate in it. Because whatever we decide to do, whether it’s any of the fish things, or any of these exchanges that someone has to do to right the wrong – everybody has to agree. And everybody has to be part of that particular decision. Everybody knows their sense of responsibility, their sense of leadership. Everybody is there. We take the time to sit down and spend hours talking it over, listening to everybody. And sometimes you have to be patient, and there may be a little bit of hidden argument there. But that’s all part of the process of looking for what is the right thing to do and what is everybody’s responsibility to contribute to make it a communal experience to restoring the balance.
“So, we sit down, the women cook the food, the men talk and chew the bitternut, they contribute their ideas. And everybody is part of the whole process. But at the end of the day, the actions have to be taken and it’s a communal activity. And the process that has been talked through and been exhausted, and we have come to the resolutions and decisions, everybody now will come out saying, ‘Okay, we reserve these particular reefs, the bushes. We don’t hunt here. Women, children, the men, all plant your gardens.’
“And it comes back to this whole notion of obedience – that everybody sets out once we have agreed on something, and we do it. And it strikes me that what Adam and Eve were asked to do by God in the garden was to listen to him, just to obey him. But unfortunately, they heard the lies and this is how we started to cause the imbalance. We are also struggling with so many messages in the world today, and the lies are also there, and they are causing the imbalances. And we have to always try our best to find the right message. That means obedience to the commandments, obedience to the spirit of the Beatitudes. When we abide by these things in relationships, and there is happiness, a sense of order, a sense of balance. Everybody feels right. But the moment someone starts to entertain their selfish needs, selfish motives, and with the fact that greed is there, they begin to rob from what is the common good for everyone. And that’s when you start to see the imbalances coming in. And we are told to strive and to be ready and to be humble to go through the process to restoring it back.
Sacrament of Reconciliation and exchange
“So, the Sacrament of Reconciliation flows from this. You can actually incorporate what we do with our exchange, because when you come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, you’re confessing your sins and receiving absolution. And you are also given the penance to do. And in many cases, in my past pastoral experience, it’s easy to integrate this penance by putting in an aspect of exchange. ‘Okay, you did wrong to your husband…to your wife…to your children…against the community. When you see fit to be able to do something right to them, now that you have received the Sacrament of Reconciliation, you have been forgiven, go to do something concrete to demonstrate to the community that you were wrong, so you want to do this.’ But then the others will say, ‘Okay, we accept your exchange, and we offer you this.’ In this way, the whole aspect of reciprocity comes back.
“So, the notion and the value of relationships is there deep down and the tensions are created due to our human tendencies, we have to always return back to confess it and be committed to make it right. So, for us, this has been always a way to cross over from what we always do to properly understanding God’s action in the history of salvation.
Salvation and Covenant
“So, in a in a sense, the whole aspect of salvation is really the exchange of God’s dignity, which is divine, with human dignity – that if I have to do something great to appreciate what God has done for me in my human life, then all I can offer back is my whole life. The commitment that a Christian, a priest, a religious undertakes, is the offering of their whole life. When it’s properly understood and when it’s properly expressed, it is the exchange of lives. And the exchange of life brings back the whole notion of Covenant. Covenant is the notion of God saying to his people, Israel, ‘I will be your God, you will be my people. You will be my people. I will be your God.’ That is the Covenant concept and the Covenant reality. And this is what happens with couples who are in the Sacrament of Marriage. The husband is saying to the woman, ‘This is my body. I’m giving myself over to you.’ And the woman is saying the same. And in a sense, it is the tribes that are part of that, and the families are part of that whole exchange.