The following is a brief true story from a friend of mine of the conversion of a Papua New Guinea tribesman named “Pully.” The author of this guest blog, Nate Ham, knew Pully personally. I would earnestly pray that any conversion would have as much Holy Spirit ethical substance as Pully’s. I pray that we could live in as much gospel authenticity as this simple, elderly man, from Papua New Guinea. I would ask you, in the midst of much of the theological clamor today regarding God and retributive violence, to humbly and prayerfully consider the many and deep implications of Pully’s story.
This Isn’t Kansas, Toto
Latitude -5.633576. Longitude 143.891637. These GPS numbers are necessary for the gutsy pilots who fly the remote locations of Papua New Guinea. At the time, they were far less important to the people of the Yakuman Tribe in the Enga Province. The year was 1993 and my family had just landed in the small village of Wapenamanda. On this day the airport runway wasn’t blocked by unsettled tribal members demanding retribution from the airline company for “taking” their land, as it usually was. We were able to touch down safely.
I remember walking off the questionably dilapidated aircraft wondering if we would ever see the western world again. It was like stepping into a National Geographic magazine. Whatever this last corner of the planet was, we had just landed on it effectively out running modernism on the timeline of humanity. Kunai grass houses, no shoes, no shirts, and no MTV. The smell in the air was of small hut-fire smoke mixed with the aroma of raw, untouched earth. I miss that smell. The greenery was off the charts and the faint sounds of unfamiliar birds echoed in the background.
Taking in the strangeness of what was now new, we admired the beauty of the land. It didn’t take long to learn the Yakuman people were even more beautiful. We were adopted into their tribe and unashamedly they extended their life to us. In the Enga everything is tribal. You belong. You are part of others and they are part of you. The survival of a tribe depends on it.
A Culture of Retribution
A message was sent upon our arrival to neighboring tribes from the elders of the Yakuman. “These are our missionaries and if you harm them we will kill you.” That’s about as simple as it was. Of course, there were many cultural differences but this one was outstanding. In the U.S. when disagreements arise among neighbors, we tend to seek resolution through diplomacy and lawsuits, seldom resorting to physical violence. For centuries, our civilization has been based on the just execution of laws to control, subdue, or eliminate the self-destructive effects of retributive violence.
It was not so in the Enga Province–you settle disputes with war. Imagine axes with large sharp stone heads, bows and arrows crafted from Kwila wood, and spears made with enemy neighbors in mind. These were not decorative souvenirs made by the locals. These were tools of life and survival.
In New Guinea, when people are friends they hold hands when they walk, even men. It is a sign of loyalty, honor, and trust. When someone walks next to you and grabs your hand, you go with it–you are Wontok with another. In the trade language of Pidgeon English, Wontok is pronounced “One Talk,” implying that you are close enough for agreement and sharing life.
One day, holding a Wontok’s hand and walking, I met Pully. Some things in life have a lasting impact on you, effecting the way you think forever. I’ll never forget Pully. He was a mature man, quite possibly in his 60s or 70s at the time, but no one knew for sure. Most Engans didn’t know their birth date. His hair was white. He stood about 5′ 6″ and was built like a Ninja Turtle. Pully could have very easily been on the cover of a fitness magazine. Beyond his stunning physique, what stood out the most to me about Pully, was the constant smile on his face. I’m not kidding when I say he smiled all the time. He didn’t speak English or the local trade language. He only spoke Engan. Occasionally there would be someone around to translate.
I recall my Dad having many conversations with Pully this way and they would be able to share back and forth. Many times I would see Pully and we would have a broken language conversation with no translator. Although we didn’t understand each other somehow there was a sense of agreement.
Conversion: From Warrior to Lover
We soon learned that Pully had a wild reputation. You would have never known it, but he had been known as one of the most fierce warriors in the area. However, Pully had experienced a deep, personal event that altered the course of his way of life. An English speaking friend in the tribe told us that years before our arrival, Pully had received the good news of the Gospel of Christ and had made it public that he was now a member of his Heavenly Fathers Tribe! She continued to explain the events that immediately followed Pully’s induction into “Father’s tribe.”
Like many highland tribes, the Yakuman operated within the confines of the payback system. Payback is an ideology that basically says if you commit a wrong against another, it will be rectified with paying the offense back with retribution–retributive violence defined their concept of justice and how the Yakuman maintained their social cohesion. For Yakuman’s retribution may not happen today, or it may not come tomorrow, but it will come.
Some months after Pully’s conversion a tribal war erupted regarding a growing unresolved issue between the Yakuman and a neighboring tribe. As tensions hit a high, war ensued. Pully gathered his weapons and headed to engage his enemy. In mid-route to payback his opponents he was stopped in his tracks. WAIT! Something was off. Something was different. He no longer had a drive for making war. How could he payback his enemies with war, if God had never killed him?
Pully was at a magnificent crossroads of the soul. What about the responsibility to protect his tribe? What about the survival mechanism required to exist? What about his reputation? While other Yakuman warriors yelled and shot arrows at the enemy, without any attitude toward others, Pully turned around and walked back to his kunai grass house. He had left behind his noble art of war and embraced the power of Gods love. He had forsaken the cultural payback system of retributive violence, and embraced forgiveness. This is how the Yakuman people came to know Pully was a disciple of Jesus: how he loved his enemies. One of the most feared warriors of Enga was now one of the most wonderful lovers of people, including his enemies.
I remember yet another account from one of the tribe members regarding Pully.
One day he came to a church meeting and placed his spear, bow, and arrows on the floor because they were no longer useful to him for his existence. The magnitude of the mind change for a warrior like Pully, in his cultural value system, is tremendous. This is not about declaring one cultural philosophy of existence better than another–there is no such thing as a perfect human culture. They all have different strengths and weaknesses. Nor is it necessarily a protocol for the geopolitical orders of this fallen world. It’s just not about that, and neither is Christ. It does say something about Christ’s kingdom in the heart of a man, and that kingdom penetrating the kingdoms of this world with a message of love, peace, and good will toward enemies. It’s about the spirit of God having a life-altering impact upon someone in this life that affects the way that person lives before God and his neighbors. This is the gospel. This is the kingdom. This is conversion.
Without question, Pully’s testimony screams an ethical output of a real encounter with his creator and the power of Christ’s love in his heart. No one told him how to be a follower of Jesus. No one gave him seven secrets on how to be “like” Jesus. No one lectured Pully about the “immorality of war” and the “superiority of peace.” Pully simply responded to the power of the new life in Him, and that power drew him toward peace–a potentially very costly peace, a potentially a life-threatening peace. God had removed Pully from sin, and sin from Pully, and put an unknown and unexplainable love in his heart for his own people and the fruit of this love was . . . peace . . . I will make war no more. He was a changed person, to say the least, and I can’t wait to see him again one day. There’s an evident difference between a mere “profession of Christ” and a “conversion to Love.”
Steve Crosby Comments: This story of Pully’s is so very profound to me. It speaks in so many ways to so many things, not the least of which is the transcendence of the kingdom of Christ over human cultures and kingdoms. Jesus’ kingdom culture comes to transform ours. We do not, and should not, color His kingdom culture with our cultural values and slap God’s name on them: in effect, forming God in our image, also known as idolatry. It speaks to me deeply of the first fruits of a real conversion as being manifested in my relationships toward others, especially those who would do me harm, my enemies. In my opinion, regardless of what I have been taught by my own Protestant heritage, and the unwarranted fears over “works righteousness,” I do not believe in “ethic-less” conversions, and I believe the doctrine of ethic-less conversion to have done cosmic damage to the Body of Christ and humanity.
This true story was written by Nate Ham of Newport News, VA. Copyright 2016. Used here by permission. Backlinks to this blog are permitted. Reprint, reproduction, and distribution without permission is prohibited. Reprint requests should be directed to Stephen Crosby at [email protected]. Copyright 2016, Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, www.stevecrosby.org.