Case study: Peacemaker or Patsy?

"Case studies facilitate our understanding of others. Even more importantly, they assist us in understanding ourselves" -- Alan Neely

Case study originally written by Ron Priest. Presented here in edited form.

It was after 11 o'clock at night. The missionary looked at the lifeless body in his yard and at the villagers milling around. What should he do? What was God's word to the Yan tribe tonight?

6:30 P.M. The calm of the evening in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea is broken by loud, incessant yells. From one end of the Yan village to the other, the air is tense as people wait to hear the reason for the commotion.

"Singing Out," as the yelling is called, is a way of announcing emergencies, deaths, and other important messages that need to be passed from one village to another. Such persistent yelling gets people to ask: "What has happened?"

For the past few years, the Yans and the Emsas, who live on opposite ends of the amw plateau, have been at war with each other. There has, however, been a three-month lull in that fighting.

Churches have been planted in the two tribal groups living on both ends of the plateau. Some congregations with members from both tribes have even had to divide. Tragically, warriors from those tribes involved in the fighting have burned down some church buildings.

At this point, the Emsas have a 24-to-11 lead in the death toll. The Yans are eager to even up the score. In spite of twenty years of Christian teaching, it doesn't seem that people are going to consider the war over until every death has been avenged. Missionaries working in the area have tried to remain neutral and have encouraged people to apply Biblical principles so that peace can prevail.

7:00 P.M. The Singing Out becomes louder and more intense. On the road near the missionary home, Yan villagers hurry to the local meeting ground.

Suddenly, the Singing Out stops. The only sounds to be heard are of feet pounding on the road. Then, there's only a muted muttering of voices. The gathering is apparently complete.

The missionary is a rookie. He has been in Papua New Guinea for just nine months and he has no idea what is happening. He stops a hurrying late-comer who tells him that two Emsas have infiltrated a nearby village. Now, the word is that they are hiding just outside the mission property. Their presence spells trouble: burning, rape, or death. Thus, the Yan villagers are assembling to devise a plan of action to deal with the intruders (and perhaps thereby avenge a death or two).

9:00 P.M. The missionary hears a nervous, demanding knock on his door. It's the local pastor who is terribly agitated. He says one intruder has been captured while the other managed to escape into the night. The captured man is a friend of the pastor's from their younger days. The pastor begs the missionary to go with him to plead with the villagers to deal kindly with his friend. The pastor hopes the villagers can be persuaded to send their captive home unharmed. If they do that, it might be seen as a peace offering by the other tribe. It might be a step toward ending the seemingly never-ending war.

9:45 PM. After the pastor and missionary present their case to the villagers, the missionary returns home. He feels frustrated and extremely concerned for the captured Emsa. He wonders: Are the Yan villagers going to abandon their Christian lifestyle? Gathering his wife and three children, the missionary seeks God's help through prayer.

10:30 P.M. The low mutterings from the assembly grounds subside, and then, suddenly, loud shrieks cut the darkness. They sound like shrieks of victory. Has a decision been reached?

In a few moments, the missionary hears noises outside. Peering out his bedroom window he sees Yan villagers pouring into his front yard. Lighted torches illuminate two men carrying a lifeless form tied to a pole.

When the missionary goes outside, a jubilant Yan steps forward to say that the missionary should return the intruder's lifeless body to his home village. Stunned at the sight, the missionary is both horrified and grieved. The crowd insists that the axe-mangled Emsa deserved his end.

The spokesman says the body must be returned to the enemy side. If not, the man's dead ancestral spirits could cause disease and death among the Yans. Also, the Emsas will be further outraged because a fallen warrior's body has not been returned.

The missionary is perplexed. If he does what they are asking, will it look like he approves of their hideous act? On the other hand, not doing it may cause people to blame him for any future "curse" that comes upon the Yans.

The missionary asks about the traditional way of returning a dead enemy. He is told that the victors normally locate a woman in their village who has come from the enemy's village and has married into the other clan. The warriors will take her and the body to a previously arranged place. Because the woman is still free to mix with her own clan, she is left with the body while the others draw back. Her own clan then comes to retrieve the dead body.

The explanation doesn't make things any easier for the missionary. He wonders if the Emsas will feel gratitude toward him if he returns the body. Or will they simply view him as an accomplice of the Yans? Even worse, will they think the missionary is disturbing traditional customs and practices? Will he be seen as a peacemaker or simply as a Yan patsy?

Muttered threats against the missionary from the crowd pierce him like a cold wind rushing through a hole in the pit of his stomach.

11:00 P.M. The villagers tire of waiting. They dump the lifeless body on the ground and begin leaving. The few who linger mingle nervously, awaiting the missionary's answer. He has a question of his own: What is God's word to the Yans tonight? Whatever is done should reinforce and point to that, but what is that word? How can he, as a Christian missionary, be an effective agent of change in this situation?

This missionary case study appeared in its original form in Case Studies in Missions, Baker Book House, © 1987. It may be reproduced only upon payment of a 35¢ royalty per copy to Baker Book House, P.O. Box 6787, Grand Rapids, MI 49516 USA

  1. Read the case.
  2. Determine the cast and chronology.
  3. Clarify from whose perspective the case has been written.
  4. Identify the basic issues.
  5. List the possible alternatives. What will be the likely results of each alternative?
  6. What additional information would be helpful?
  7. Reflect and meditate on what you have discovered. Spend time letting the facts of the case and the possibilities suggested ferment in your mind.
  8. What would be the most appropriate course of action?

Some questions to ponder

  1. What does the missionary do now?
  2. Why did the villagers change the system and take the body to the missionary?
  3. Why did the missionary rather than the pastor become the focus?
  4. Should the missionary have done something different earlier in the evening?
  5. Was it wise for the pastor and missionary to leave the tribal meeting after making a plea for the man's life?
  6. Is there any plan of action the missionary can implement that will empower Christians in the two tribes to end the warfare?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

More Background

Tribal warfare in Papua New Guinea has been a longstanding aspect of the country's social landscape, deeply rooted in cultural traditions and historical rivalries. Often driven by disputes over land, resources, or perceived slights, these conflicts can escalate into violent clashes between neighboring tribes. Traditional weapons like bows and arrows, spears, and axes are still commonly used, though firearms have increasingly found their way into these conflicts. Despite efforts by the government and international organizations to promote peace and reconciliation, tribal warfare persists in some remote areas, presenting significant challenges to development and stability in Papua New Guinea.

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