The Strange Phenomena of the Cargo Cults
Often it becomes easier to understand an issue when we put it into a different context. It is very difficult at times to understand the diversity and scope of the beliefs that fall into the domain of religion. Each of us thinks that normative religious thought is what we individually believe. It's the other guy who has the problem. We find it incomprehensible that someone could sincerely believe things that we can clearly see are incorrect. Protestants find it hard to understand how Catholics can believe in the infallibility of the Pope. Baptists don't agree with the Charismatics on the issue of speaking in tongues. Mainline Christians don't believe that Muslims worship the same God because the refer to him as Allah (simply Arabic for God). Christians can't understand how it is that the Jews do not accept Jesus as messiah. When it comes to religious thought, each of us lives in a very tiny world of our own, even though the constraints are self imposed.
Everyone (at least those of us in the United States) has an inalienable right to believe what we choose to understand. Another way of looking at that, given the diversity of religious thought, is to say that each of us has the right to be wrong. Logic dictates that it is impossible for us all to be right. But my goal in writing these investigations is to prompt readers to think - to look beyond the constraints that may have encumbered their thinking, and to break through to a greater domain of understanding.
With that in mind I think it would be useful to consider a remarkable religious phenomenon that exists in some remote parts of the world. A truly new religion has emerged in these regions in the last century or so due to a unique set of circumstances. It is humorous to those of us from so called educated societies, and yet is serious and sad, in that it has become a force that demands the time, attention and loyalty of many adherents. Presumably it blinds its people to the possibility of other, more worthy, spiritual pursuits.
I am referring to a number of religious movements that have primarily taken place, independently, in the islands of the Southern Pacific, although some are known among primitive cultures in South Africa as well. They are known by the collective epithet "Cargo Cults".
The Cargo Cults seem to be unique to the more primitive Melanesian cultures of the South Sea Islands, although they can be found in Africa as well. The first seemed to spring up in Dutch New Guinea an 1867 and British New Guinea in 1893. They became significant political movements in those areas. This region has been home to idiosyncratic quasi-religious/ political movements over the years. The people of Hanover, Papua New Guinea were very captivated by Lyndon Johnson during the sixties. In their first House of Assembly elections they voted him in as their leader. When he declined to serve, they raised a fund to buy him. Of course, he could not be had, so eventually the Lyndon Johnson cult faded away. The Yaohnanen people of Vanuatu raised a worshipful cult for Prince Phillip of Britain. They have prepared a home for him and women have volunteered to be his wife if he would but come and be their god and bring to them the ostentatious riches of the British.
A Cult known as the Pomio Kivung have been awaiting their own millennium style redemption to take place in Papua New Guinea for over thirty years now. They expect supernatural bliss when their ancestors return bearing the "cargo" that will transform their lives. A man named Harvey Whitehouse, of Queen's University of Belfast, was assumed to be just such a reincarnated ancestor. He was able to observe the dynamics of the cult from the inside. He documented what he observed in a book entitled "Inside the Cult" published in 1995 by Oxford.
These movements have arisen out of contact with Europeans and Americans and the enormous prosperity and technology gap that they suddenly exhibited. Naturally, the islanders wanted to have the ships, vehicles, machinery and equipment, and the modern way of life that they had seen for the first time. They thought that the white man must have somehow tricked the gods into giving them these accoutrements of modern technology and prosperity. Therefore, they set about to get some of their own by the only means which to them was logical - religion.
The best known and most virulentof these cults, however, still exists on the Island of in Vanuatu, the real life inspiration for the Famous stageplay South Pacific.
In Vanuatu, there exists the John Frum Cult. It seems to have sprung up suddenly sometime during the period of the second world war, at the same time that massive western technology barraged the islands in support of the war effort. The simple aboriginal peoples were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of the western technology, such as the ships, weaponry, vehicles, appliances, and wealth that accompanied the westerners.
There seems to have been an American G.I - Possibly the name was John Frum (or John from America) in the area during that time who made some kind of statement that the people interpreted to mean that he would return to the islands and bringing all the wealth and technology of the West back for them, if they would give up their Bibles and return to their old ways. In other forms of the legend the soldier was a World War II seabee named Tom Navy. But whoever the central figure, he suddenly became their messiah, the focus of the hope for a golden age for the people of Vanuatu. Their longing for this new level of prosperity gave rise to a religion, to hasten the coming of John Frum.
The rites of these followers are predictably military along with a strange mix of Christian tradition, also learned from western influence. They consist of dressing up in mock military uniforms, holding military drills and setting up a small-scale mock airbase complete with a grass hut style control tower and a mock radio transmitter that consists of a vine stretched between two poles. During their ritual they fly the American flag, display the Red Cross, and utter phrases deemed to be magical - "Roger, you have landing clearance, come in, over and out", etc. The movement operates furtively, suppressed by the government, which does not view the flying of Old Glory lightly.
It no doubt seemed to the islanders that the visitors - military men, missionaries or administrators from the West - had obtained their riches simply by talking and shuffling pieces of paper. They did nothing that the simple islanders recognized as work. This was a great offence to the Melanesian work ethic and moral system, which dictated that wealth comes from hard work - farming, fishing, and trading. This was an enormous injustice and an affront to their sense of values. Logically, at least to them, they turned to religious ritual, based on a new and more specific cult observance to remedy the situation.
A few years ago, a crisis developed when younger islanders, some of which were educated in foreign universities, began to mock and disrespect the custom chiefs for perpetuating the myth. In a test of faith, and perhaps out of desperation, the custom chiefs said that Abraham and Moses would appear among them and shake hands on a particular Friday to reinforce their authority. When the specified day came and went without the appearance of the prophets, the islanders became enraged and beat the custom chiefs unmercifully, so much that some required hospitalization.
One would think that Elijah-in-reverse-like showdown would put an end to the cult. But as religions always do, a rationale develops to explain the failure of the appearance of Moses, or Abraham, or John Frum, or Tom Navy. Many followers believe that their messiah has come, albeit in a surreptitious way. In the stores of Vila, Vanuatu's capitol, can now be found the wealth and accoutrements of Western civilization, for anyone to buy. They now have what they want. There is coffee and dancing. There is electronics and other technology. The legacy of John Frum is reality in the form of economic development and progress. John Frum is there in spirit.
But in the back woods villages, miles away from the capitol, and life is still primeval, the aboriginal people locked in austere ways sing:
"Jon Frum He mus come Mus stap long kastom Mus keep Kastom"
The cult has mostly gone underground, but it goes on.
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