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Political discourse and religious narratives of Church and State in Papua New Guinea

CollectionsANU Dept. of Pacific Affairs (DPA) formerly State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program
Title: Political discourse and religious narratives of Church and State in Papua New Guinea
Author(s): Gibbs, Philip
Keywords: Papua New Guinea
operation brukinskru
operation bend the knee
political discourse
Date published: 2005
Publisher: Canberra, ACT: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program, The Australian National University
Series/Report no.: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) working paper series: 2005/1
In Papua New Guinea, attempts to keep religion and politics separate often meet with incomprehension and resistance on the part of the general populace, for in traditional Melanesian terms, religion has a political function: seen in the power to avert misfortune and ways to ensure prosperity and well being. This paper looks at how religious narrative plays a part in contemporary political discourse in Papua New Guinea. It will look first at the links between socio-political and religious institutions, and then will consider some of the ways religious values and symbols are used and exploited to legitimise political aspirations. In contemporary Papua New Guinea some leaders attempt to use Christian rhetoric and symbols to appeal to people’s religious sentiments and to promote nationalism, however, sometimes symbols apparently achieve the agent’s goal and at other times the symbol backfires on the user. How can we account for the selection, uses and effects of religious symbols in political discourse? The churches and Christian groups seeking not so much to gain political power as to control it, appear to be divided as to whether it is better to respond with a progressive social agenda or to control political power by means of spiritual power. Specific cases from contemporary national and local politics will be examined in detail, including events such as “operation brukim skru (operation bend the knee),” Archbishop Brian Barnes criticism of the government, and the debate over the cross on the top of the Parliament House. The goal of the paper is to provide an anthropological perspective on religion as a category ofconcern in the evolving political scene in contemporary Papua New Guinea.


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