Tuesday, April 13, 2010

clutch cargo cult

in this morning's theological voices from a global perspective class--aka, liberation theologies--I was looking up a bit of information about religions on the island of fiji and came across a religion I'd heard mentioned once, but knew nothing about. they're called "cargo cults" and they're absolutely fascinating. they use magic and rite as a way of asking their ancestors to drop material wealth, "cargo," on their society. the most popular one still existent is called the "john frum" cult ("john from jesus christ" or john the baptist of vanuata:

Eventually the New Hebrides islands (as they were then called) were colonized and placed under joint British and French rule. Christian missionaries formed a makeshift government and court system which punished islanders for following many of their long-held customs, such as dancing, swearing, adultery, and polygamy. The colonizers also forbade working and amusement on Sundays. The islanders lived under this oppression for thirty years before a fellow native rallied the people and promised an age of abundance to any who would reject the European ways. He went by the alias “John Frum,” a name possibly derived from the phrase “John from Jesus Christ”– namely John the Baptist. Many islanders joined him, and the cult moved inland to escape the missionaries and return to their old traditions.

One day in the early 1940s, the relatively isolated group of islands was descended upon by hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who arrived by sea and by air. The world was at war, and America had plans to build bases on the Pacific islands. The newcomers recruited the locals’ assistance in constructing hospitals, airstrips, jetties, roads, bridges, and corrugated-steel Quonset huts, all of which were strange and wondrous to the natives. But it was the prodigious amounts of war materiel that were airdropped for the US bases that drastically changed the lifestyle of the islanders. They observed as aircraft descended from the sky and delivered crates full of clothing, tents, weapons, tools, canned foods, and other goods to the island’s new residents, a diversity of riches the likes of which the islanders had never seen. The natives learned that this bounty from the sky was known to the American servicemen as “cargo.” [...]

When the war ended several years later, the Americans departed as suddenly as they had arrived. Military bases were abandoned, and the steady flow of cargo which had altered the islanders’ lives completely dried up. The men and women of Tanna Island had grown to enjoy the radios, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola, canned meat, and candy, so they set into motion a plan to bring back the cargo. They had surreptitiously learned the secrets of summoning the cargo by observing the practices of the American airmen, sailors and soldiers.

The islanders set to work clearing their own kind of landing strips, and they erected their own control towers strung with rope and bamboo aerials. They carved wooden radio headsets with bamboo antennae, and even the occasional wooden air-traffic controller. Day after day, men from the village sat in their towers wearing their replica headsets as others stood on the runways and waved the landing signals to attract cargo-bringing airplanes from the empty sky. More towers were constructed, these with tin cans strung on wires to imitate radio stations so John Frum could communicate with his people. Piers were also erected in an effort to attract ships laden with cargo, and the Red Cross emblem seen on wartime ambulances was taken as the symbol of the resurging religion. Today villages surrounding Yasur Volcano are dotted with little red crosses surrounded by picket fences, silently testifying to the islander’s faith.

The priests and prophets of the John Frum cult, called “messengers,” foretold the return of planes and ships bearing cargo for the people of Tanna escorted by John Frum himself. The movement declared that in addition to returning to their “kastom” [custom] ways, money was to be thrown away, gardens be left untended, and pigs killed since all material wealth will be provided in the end by John Frum. Their god has yet to emerge from his home inside the volcano to bring the promised riches, and at least one visitor’s guide offers this advice: “If you question a local about their beliefs, they will most likely reply that you have been waiting for your messiah to return for over 2000 years – while they have been waiting for only 70.”

(were I not in class at the moment I'd take the time to condense the above and paraphrase; but instead I'm cribbing it from this article.)

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