Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The dialectics of Tongan churching

[I blogged a few months ago about Tevita Manu'atu, an 'Atenisi Institute student who has been finishing his Bachelors degree by undertaking a detailed study of Kala'au, a village on the isolated southwest coast of Tongatapu. Tevita produced an outline history of Kala'au last semester, using as his raw material a series of interviews with his village's elderly people. Tevita's history noted the religious diversity of Kala'au. Despite its tiny size, the village is today home to members of many different denominations of Christianity.

This semester I've been asking Tevita to test the material he has gathered against the academic literature on Tonga and similar societies. I've thrown him a series of texts and references, and asked him whether they illuminate or contradict the facts he has gathered in his village. Here are some notes I gave Tevita this week.]

Hi T,

You have stated that you would like to analyse Kala’au society using the methods of FutaHelu and Futa Helu’s great inspiration, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesos. I want to discuss a study of religious life in another Tongan village, because I think this study features the sort of method you want to deploy.  

First, though, let's talk quickly about the method Futa Helu got from Heraclitus. Heraclitus is often seen as the father of dialectics, because he emphasised what is sometimes called the contradictory unity of the world. According to Heraclitus, or at least Futa Helu's interpretation of Heraclitus, the world is made up of an almost infinite number of interconnecting parts and processes. Everything affects everything else, at one time and in one way or another.

Despite all this interconnection, the world does not, according to Helu and Heraclitus, exist in any sort of harmony. Different parts and processes of reality clash with one another, and these clashes create perpetual change.
A quick example of contradictory unity: class and capitalism
Let us concretise the vision of the world as a contradictory unity by considering the composition of a typical Western capitalist society. Such a society is broken into classes, whose members are defined by the way they make their living. A small class of people possess and live off capital goods, like factories and businesses, and invested money. Members of a much larger group of people known as the working class make their living by working for the businesses owned by the capitalist class. A ‘middle class’ made up of ‘professionals’ like lawyers and doctors and small business owners sits between the two most important classes in society.
Historically, the capitalist class and the working class have often been in conflict. The working class has formed trade unions and political parties to demand better wages and salaries and better social services from the capitalist class, which has run its own competing business associations and political parties. Election campaigns generally see a party supported by the workers clashing with a party favoured primarily by the capitalist class. In extreme situations conflict between workers and capitalists has exploded into strikes, riots, and even revolutions. The middle class has tended to vacillate between the two more important classes, siding at one time with the capitalist class and at another time with the working class.
Western societies are unified by the fact that all of their social components – all of their classes – are related to and dependent on one another. Capitalists need workers to operate their businesses; workers need capitalists to pay their wages and salaries. But, as dialecticians like to remind us, unity does not mean harmony. Capitalists and workers are constantly in conflict. It is this continual conflict which generates change.
The Beagleholes and the mystery of Tongan churching
Now that we’ve gotten a clear notion of what contradictory unity means, let us leave the West and return to Tonga. I want to suggest that some of the most interesting studies of Tonga have a dialectical quality, because they treat Tongan society as a contradictory unity.
I think that Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole’s discussion of the role of religion in the life of the Vava’uan village of Pangai has a dialectical quality which might have pleased Futa Helu. You have read an excerpt from the Beagleholes' short book Pangai: Village in Tonga, which was based on a few months of field work done in 1938 and 1939.
As you have seen, the Beagleholes analyse a feature of Tongan village society which has puzzled many palangi visitors, and which frustrates some Tongans. They try to explain the way that even the smallest Tongan village is home to outposts of a variety of churches. In Pangai, which was a very modestly sized village when the Beagleholes came visiting, four churches – the Free Wesleyans, the Church of Tonga, the Free Church of Tonga, and the Catholics – had buildings of their own where they held regular services, and a number of other religious organisations, like the Mormons, had followers, but hadn’t yet established places of worship.
I remember you telling me that, as a curious teenager, you decided to do a 'church tour' of Tongatapu, and experience a service by every denomination active on the island. That adventure took a long time to complete! Many palangi tourists are astonished by the number and size of the churches that rise from even the smallest and remote villages on Tongatapu.
It is important for us to remember that not every South Pacific society features the sort of religious diversity found in Tonga. Although Samoa is home to a number of different Christian denominations, many Samoan villages boast only a single church. It is normal for every member of a village to attend the same church, and in some villages residents who do not attend church regularly can be fined. There have been cases, even in recent years, of Samoans who have converted to a religious denomination not represented in their village being forced to leave that village.
Horowitz's gambit: Tonga as Texas
Some scholars have ascribed the religious diversity of Tonga to the supposed history of the country. Maikolo Horowitz, for instance, has called Tonga ‘the Texas of the South Pacific’, because of what he regards as the extreme individualism of its people.
Horowitz thinks that, because Tonga is made up of a large number of relatively small islands, Tongans were historically able to solve social conflicts through emigration. A group of Tongans who found themselves in conflict with authority could ‘up sticks’, sail across a lagoon or a relatively short stretch of open ocean, and found a new village on a new island. Horowitz thinks that the supposed fluidity of ancient Tongan society has left its mark on contemporary Tongans, by making them respond to social conflict by seceding from one organisation and starting another. It is not surprise, for Horowitz, that Tongan boasts so many churches, and that these churches are so prone to splits.
It seems to me that there are a couple of problems with Maikolo Horowitz’s explanation for religious diversity in Tonga. As Patrick Vinton Kirch, Sione Latukefu, ‘Opeti Taliai, and numerous other scholars have shown, ancient Tongan society was highly centralised, and featured a large class of tu’a who had very few rights and little mobility. Ancient Tongan society was also relatively densely populated - Kirch estimates that Tongatapu was filled to capacity a thousand years ago –  and so the opportunity to ‘up sticks’ and settle somewhere new would have been limited, even if the would-be settlers had managed to evade the control of central authority.
Horowitz’s talk about the fluidity and disunity of Tongan society also fails to explain the stability which has marked much of modern Tongan history. Between 1852, when Tupou I captured and burnt Pea, the last stronghold of his heathen enemies, and 2006, when the enemies of Tupou’s descendants burnt downtown Nuku’alofa to the ground, Tonga saw little or no violent social conflict. How could this be, if Tongans are as relentlessly fractious as Horowitz claims? It seems to me that Horowitz’s claims about Tongan society over-emphasise contradiction, at the expense of unity.

The dialectics of religious diversity

As you have seen, Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole explain the religious diversity of Pangai by arguing that the competing churches allow for competing personalities in the village to at once express and solve their conflicts.

The Beagleholes discuss a Catholic who falls out with other Catholics over their alleged theft of melons from his fields, and expresses his disgust with them by leaving the church and becoming a Wesleyan. They cite the case of the very argumentative amateur theologian, whose idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible cause conflicts with his fellow worshippers, conflicts which are solved, albeit temporarily, whenever he shifts church. And the Beagleholes mention those men from Wesleyan families who, wanting to differentiate themselves from their peers and to acquire what seems like them esoteric knowledge, shift their allegiance to the Catholic church.

In a small village set in a relatively remote part of what was, in the late 1930s, a profoundly undemocratic society, competing churches provide malcontents and dissenters with a way of expressing their sense of difference and dissatisfaction.
But the churches of Pangai are not only a means to rebellion – they also, according to Beagleholes, allow for the regulation of conflict. By shifting church, the person angry with his or her former social circle can acquire a new circle of friends, and leave behind old conflicts. By leaving the church of their family, the young and dissatisfied man or women can rebel without - usually - seriously disturbing the social order or attempting to enter the restricted realm of politics. For Beaglehole, then, the religious diversity of Pangai, and by extension Tonga in general, has a dialectical quality. It both expresses and - at least sometimes - manages social conflict, and divides as well as unites Tongan society. It offers a lesson in contradictory unity.
Of course, the Beaglehole’s' study was made more than seven decades ago, and it needs to be examined in the light of more recent research, including texts like Niel Gunson’s examinations of Tonga's Christian present and shamanic past, ‘Opeti Taliai's PhD thesis, which argues that Christianity has been, in Tonga, a ‘totalitarian’ religion, Nico Besnier’s discussion of the rise of ‘charismatic’ churches like the Tokaikolo Fellowship in Tonga, Giovanni Bennardo’s recent and very detailed neuroscientific studies of the worldviews of Tongan villagers, and your own research in Kala’au.

Some questions to consider:

Does the Beagleholes' account of religious life in Pangai have relevance in Kala’au today? Do the churches in your village express and regulate social conflict in the way the Beagleholes describe? 

Are the Beagleholes exponents of dialectical analysis?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]



Anonymous Anonymous said...

also significant are the FINANCIAL rewards clergy can get. corruption inside tonga's churches is an acknowledged issue. some unscrupulous people start churches to get rich

1:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tongan church alleges minister fund theft

Updated Thu 23 May 2013, 6:46pm AEST

Map: Tonga
A church in the Kingdom of Tonga is yet to decide if it will refer to police the alleged theft of more than $US340,000 by a group of its ministers.

The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga has alleged that eight of its ministers were involved in the misappropriation of approximately $342,000 in church funds, after investigation by the church's general auditor.

None of the ministers has accepted the allegations.

Audio: Indira Moala speaks to Reverend Dr Mohenoa Puloka (ABC News)

The Church's Director, Reverend Dr Mohenoa Puloka, told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat program that as a result, none of its ministers will now be allowed to be involved in dealing with church money, but he agrees the damage has already been done.

"It will cause a lot of people to question the fitness and reliability of the clergy," he said.

"It is bad publicity for the church."

Reverend Dr Puloka says despite "firm evidence" of their actions, the ministers involved say the discrepancy resulted from a computing error.

1:48 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

Hi Scott, can you be convinced, even briefly, to revisit the subject of alternative history and treaty conspiracy in the light of the sentencing of Allan Titford yesterday to 24 years in prison for the abuse of his family, the torching of his own house and sabotage of his own equipment, and then blaming it all on those scary Maori radicals?

11:09 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Jono,

I'm a little out of touch with the white power brigade in New Zealand - and not entirely unhappy about that fact! But I can understand how frustrating the attitudes they represent could be for an archaeologist working in Northland. How about writing a guest post on the implosion of Titford (you could lave it as a comment and I could put it up for you). A quick google shows that the nutbar Doutre is standing by his man (see the comments thread):

12:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Ethnology of Pukapuka / by Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole. Honolulu, 1938.
Let the talo tubers grow big
(Addressing the mayakitanga) Beckon to the god (that he may answer this request)
Let the fish be numerous
Let (feces) flow to the sea (in quantities from the abundance of food eaten)
Until the land stinks
Countless the feasts for the people

Ko Mataliki koe, ko Tohi au
Ya nono roa Iua pulotu
Wuli mai, e toku waie atua
E yinakava, e konga tatapu
Na wakawowo oku manako;
Tuki toku puna pe te puna o te tawola tu.
You are Mataliki (the Pleiades), I am Tolu (Orion)
(We lived) like two beauties together (as do these stars)
Turn to me, oh my wale atua
You are sacred, you are the tapu place
(For which) my heart has longed;
(When I see you) my pulse pounds like the breathing (blowing) of the Eight whale.

Na wakayinanai oki ai au,
Ma yuke maya i te uluaki,
Wakangakau mate ai au
Koa wano i taku kai iumanga,
Ma taku kai walenga kia koe;
E, kiai na toka toku manako,
Ko ttiaki au no mai na,
Niko pili au ma te ngutuala,
Wuli mai koe ke talatala,
Wunaki atu mau muna: wakaipo mo ko taua?
I had fixed my desire (on my wale atua),
The first-born opens (herself to me) and satis¬fies my desire,
Dead is my heart (with shame),
I go to my shameful food,
With my incest for you;
Unquenchable is the desire of my heart,
(I am) dragged back (by it) to where you sit,
I return near (tin's place) by the main road,
You turn co me that we may talk,
I hide our secret understanding: we shall have, intercourse, shan't we?

1:19 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Interesting stuff. Beaglehole certainly did a lot in his relatively short life.

9:14 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Was he related to J C Beaglhole the historian?

9:16 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

they were brothers. There must have been something in Mum's milk! Looking forward to catching up with your issue of brief soon back in Auckland...

4:11 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes. I knew about the other Beaglehole and sold a book by him. They were clearly both very clever people.

Be good to see you! I think in early December is the deadline for submitting to Dr. J. Ross's issue.


4:31 pm  

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