By Elizabeth Smith
I remember a comedy sketch where a comedian went on about the phrase “dying suddenly.”
“Of course he died suddenly! Is there any other way? You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive, bam, you’re dead.”
“No, no. I mean, he didn’t die of natural causes.”
“What? Of course, he did. If you get hit by a bus, NATURALLY you die!”
Oh man, I was in stitches! But there’s a similar distinction in Papua New Guinea about natural deaths versus unnatural ones.
See, in Papua New Guinea, a natural death is one where a person lives to be so old that it’s honestly a surprise they’re not dead yet. And then they die. This is good. Long life. Not really contributing to the community anymore. It’s a good passing. Any other death, ANY other death is unnatural. And in my understanding unnatural deaths are caused by one of two things: a conflict (disrupted the Feng Shui of the village) or sorcery (someone has hired a magical assassin to put a hit on the victim). Obviously, these are not their terms. I’m using terms you probably know to help you get an idea.
In the event of the first cause, you sort out any existing conflicts. If you don’t know of any, you give a generic apology to the village and give a platform for anyone who has a problem with you to speak up. Once the problem is solved, you’ll be healed. If that doesn’t work, it’s sorcery. So you can try to get some sorcery from someone else to counteract the sorcery done on you. (Or you can, you know, pray.)
But if you die, then your family is pretty much obligated to retaliate. So they use sorcery to figure out who used sorcery so they can hire a magical assassin to take that guy out. Wanna guess what that guy’s family does next? And the retaliation cycle continues.
This is horrific to us, isn’t it? Killing someone because they killed someone (plot twist: it isn’t always the alleged killer who is killed in retaliation, sometimes it’s family, like his son). And what if there was no sorcery? In their worldview, it’s always sorcery. But we know that just sickness happens sometimes. So what if there was no attacker? Then someone gets killed as a scapegoat.
But we do this too, don’t we? We, as a culture, may not condone murder, but we seem to have no qualms in ruining someone’s life. Someone says something offensive on the internet and the response is to do everything possible to make them rue the day they first turned on a device with Wi-Fi. After ripping them to shreds on the comments, sending direct messages, and cyber stalking them to find more fodder, screenshots are taken to share on the internet so that others can join in this lynching. Whether or not this person was being malicious or just said something utterly ill-conceived (a mistake we’ve all made at one point or another) is irrelevant. Sometimes it doesn’t go far and it’s just an awful day to week of being mercilessly attacked. Sometimes it goes viral.
I recall one woman who posted a poorly conceived tweet to her small following of 100 people just before boarding an international flight. By the time she landed, she was an internet sensation. She had lost her job, friends, and become a social pariah. Because she is really really bad at satire. I watched a documentary that followed up on her a bit later. In a world that googles everything, she can’t find a job or a date. The internet didn’t ruin her life, the people using the internet did. It seemed perfectly reasonable retaliation for posting something that was found to be offensive.
What was the objective of sharing her post in the first place? What were those individuals hoping to gain? I’m not against admonishing, educating, and edifying! But sharing someone’s mistake on the internet seems to only have the purpose of rallying a mob for lynching.
While it would be splendid if the only things shared on the internet were good, and lovely, and pure, our world isn’t so accommodating. And there is GOOD in sharing things that aren’t.
If it is edifying.
If an audience can learn from a post, if an audience can pray, if an audience can be moved to action, then that’s edifying.
Let us evaluate why we share things.
Let us forgive as we are forgiven.
And judge as we want to be judged.
Let us be counter-cultural, living in the world but not of it.
Let us not be so quick to judge another culture because we do the same thing in a different way.
Our work in Papua New Guinea is to see transformed lives. And in this case, that means a rejection of their cultural norms justifying retaliation and an immersion into Christ’s culture to forgive relentlessly. May we lead our brothers and sisters by example and reject our own cultural norms in favor of God’s love.
Please pray for Nikolas, a national translator among the Mum people who is fighting cancer. Pray he stays strong in the faith, that he stands firm in the face of the temptation to turn to sorcery to heal his pain, and that he makes clear his opposition to retaliation. Pray his family stands strong against peer pressure to do otherwise. May God use His servant as an example to the community of His transformative power, that Nikolas’ mercy and forgiveness to his assumed murderer is seen as a reflection of the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness, and brings people to Him.
Elizabeth serves as a Bible translator in the Mum language area.