Thursday, September 27, 2012

PNG: "One tribe, one kantri."

With the start of the recent national elections in Papua New Guinea, two new provinces were added to the country: the Hela Province and the Jiwaka Province. These two provinces were not formed by the addition of new territory to the country (as one perhaps could say about the addition of Alaska and Hawaii as States of the USA). They were formed by dividing two existing provinces: Hela was divided from the Southern Highlands and Jiwaka was divided from the Western Highlands. Since this is an accomplished fact, I don’t wish to evaluate the pro’s and con’s of what has already happened. Here in the Diocese of Mendi, we look forward to working closely with the leaders of the new Hela Province, and we share in the sense of hope and expectation of the people of Hela.

Papua New Guinea is a beautifully diverse country that is made up of hundreds of different cultures. Often it is said that there are almost 800 languages representing almost the same number of cultural groups of people. One of the greatest challenges over the past years since PNG won its independence in 1975 is the matter of how to form one country out of the multitude of tribes, clans and language groups.

One of the first major challenges to this vision was the terrible crisis in Bougainville. As a result of this bloody conflict, Bougainville is now an Autonomous Region which some believe may eventually end up as a country independent of PNG. Apart from such an extreme situation, one might ask the question, is it good for the country that each year, more and more provinces would be formed by division?

One could imagine many other groups in the country asking the question: If it is good for Jiwaka and Hela to become their own provinces, why not us? Where would such a division begin doing real harm to the country? In a country of over 700 language groups, (most admittedly too small to be politically independent), when would the national government have to draw the line and say, “No more divisions”?

Politics is a part of the reality of human beings as social creatures. Perhaps we could generalize and say that politics is most-often motivated by self-interest. What makes politics good or bad from a human point of view is how broadly or narrowly the “self” is understood. Politics at its best seeks to serve the common good; that is, it understands “self” in terms of the entire community. Politics at its worst defines “self” in a very narrow way, so as to mean, my group, my friends, my interests or, even simply “me” the politician. It takes courageous leadership to help everyone in the political community (which includes all of us) to broaden the concept of “self” that we are interested in.  (Of course, we must always guard the dignity and unalienable rights of every individual and not just consider them as parts of some overarching collective.)

A country whose people cannot see beyond narrowly conceived self-interest to the promotion of the common good of all will never gain the strength and vision required to develop to its full potential. “A house divided against itself shall not stand” (cf. Mk 3: 25). It is not the place of leadership to impose a vision of the “self” but rather, in the lively discourse of pluralistic democracy, to help people freely grasp a wider, more inclusive view.

I believe the Church has an important role to play in this lively discourse. In its recent Pastoral Letter on Communion, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of PNG/SI proposes a movement toward communion as a response to many of the challenges faced by PNG society today. A commitment to communion can invite people beyond alienation experienced by so many people today – especially the young - to a real experience of belonging. The dynamism of the church, inspired by the example of Jesus and made possible by the Holy Spirit is toward “com-union”, that is, “being one with” others (and ultimately with God). This oneness, this solidarity is the foundation of any authentic community. This dynamism toward unity begins with individual persons but can extend to wider communities and even nations.

I was walking through a pharmacy in Boroko recently and picked up a rubber wristband like the ones which many young people are wearing these days. This one had the flag of Papua New Guinea on it and the words: “One tribe, one kantri”. The dream of the Founders of PNG was to form one, independent country. They strove to forge a real unity out of the wonderful diversity in language and culture. The strength of the people of Papua New Guinea in the future will very much depend on the unity that all are able to bring about within the wonderful diversity which exists. The beauty, strength, values of each language group and culture in PNG can enrich and strengthen the one people, the one tribe, the one nation that is developing into the one country of Papua New Guinea.

(An article I wrote which was published by The Catholic Reporter in September 2012 in honor of PNG Independence Day - with some minor changes.)

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