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In Timor, the resurrection is not just another ghost story
In Timor, the resurrection is not just another ghost story
ByJohn Campbell-Nelson
BA'I NOH, a patriarch of Campbell-Nelson's Timorese clan.
Several weeks ago one of the patriarchs of our Timorese clan died. Ba’i Noh was in his nineties and one of the last practitioners of the indigenous religion of Timor. If you wanted to ask for rain, or for the rain to stop, he was the man to see. Like any good priest, he was a man of prayer. His public prayers (“No rain this week, please; we are having a wedding”) were tied to a bamboo pole protruding like an antenna from the top of a tree. Trees are bridges to heaven, he said. His private prayers could go on for hours as he squatted in front of the kitchen fire late at night, carrying on a conversation with an unseen companion. Children made fun of him, but few doubted his influence with the divine weather bureau.
About a week after his funeral, Ba’i Noh came back. One of his sons had returned to his job before the traditional period of mourning was over, and Ba’i Noh was apparently offended. His son came down with a high fever, and claimed that Noh had come to take him along to the afterlife.
It would be easy to dismiss this visitation as the product of malarial fever, but these things happen so often that few Timorese question that the dead come back. I once experienced such a visit, although it was more benign than Noh’s visit to his son. Yosina Almet was our housekeeper for 20 years and a beloved grandparent to our children. She died suddenly three years ago. About a month after her death I awoke one night with the feeling that someone else was in the room. I looked up to see Yosina standing at the foot of the bed. I called out her name, but when I reached out to hug her she disappeared because, of course, she wasn’t really there. But she was there, at least as a personal presence, if not a physical one.
In Timor the dead typically don’t stay around for very long. In dreams and visions, they say goodbye to those who were closest to them in life, sometimes, through a trance, even borrowing the voice of a family member to leave important final instructions for those left behind. But once they’ve tied up whatever loose ends they have on earth, they begin the journey to the world of the ancestors. Timorese used to be tatooed with the emblem of their clan so that when they got there, they could “ask for fire” — meaning they would be recognized by their tatoo and welcomed at the kitchen fires of their forebears.
The journey from this world to the next takes about 40 days, according to Timorese tradition. That’s just about the time the gospels calculate between Easter and the ascension. In fact, so many of the gospel stories about Jesus after the resurrection have parallels in Timorese traditions about the dead, that nothing about the Easter event is especially improbable to a Timorese way of thinking. The risen Jesus appears to the disciples, those who were closest to him in life (of course). Mary Magdalene reaches out to touch him — as I reached out to Yosina — but he prevents her. The dead can’t be held (of course).
And Jesus is always hungry. Did you ever notice that in the post-resurrection stories he is often eating or asking for food? The gospel writers wanted to emphasize that the risen Christ was not just another ghost. They showed Jesus eating because in Hebrew tradition, ghosts don’t eat. Offer them food, and they disappear. Unfortunately, in the Timorese culture of ghosts, the dead are always hungry.
So Jesus fits the Timorese pattern. He comes back to say goodbye, ties up some unfinished business with Peter (“Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”), leaves his final instructions (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …”), and then completes the journey to the next world. Even from his place in heaven, Jesus does what any good ancestral spirit would do: He intervenes on our behalf. Just as Timorese used to pray to their ancestors, who were nearer the Lord of Heaven and could put in a good word for them, now Timorese Christians pray to God “in Jesus’ name” — after all, he’s sitting at God’s right hand.
I recently asked my friend Ory, a young Timorese seminary graduate, what was unique about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from a Timorese perspective. He thought a long time before answering.
“I guess the fact that they didn’t find his body,” Ory said.
“Is that important to you?”
“Not really. What’s important is the way he died, his sacrificial death on the cross.”
Ory’s answer rings true for a lot of reasons, but also presents a major theological challenge for the church in Timor. The indigenous religion was based on a sacrificial system — prayers at planting and harvest, prayers for rain, healing, and peacemaking were all accompanied by the sacrifice of a cow, a pig, or, for smaller matters, a chicken. The liver of the animal was then inspected for signs of whether the sacrifice had been acceptable. Early evangelists had simply inserted Jesus into the Timorese system as the one perfect sacrifice for the expiation of our sins, replacing all those cows, pigs, and chickens. An old Timorese once told me he became a Christian because it saved him a lot of livestock.
But what seemed to be a good “contextualization” of the gospel inadvertently became part of an ideology of oppression. The whole social hierarchy could be traced based on who was required to offer a sacrifice or tribute to whom — children to parents, women to men, farmers to landlords, the people to their patriarchs, the patriarchs to the king.
At the top of the ladder during colonial times sat the Dutch. When independence came, the government simply replaced their former colonial rulers. Thousands of Timorese were among nearly a million Indonesians who were slaughtered (in the name of anti-communism) in the bloodbath that brought Suharto to power in 1965. For more than 30 years of the Suharto dictatorship, the government demanded sacrifices of labor, land, and natural resources from the people. The victims were even called “sacrifices to national development.”
If even God demands the sacrifice of God’s own son, who are we to deny the sacrifices demanded by those above us? For years, the doctrine of sacrificial atonement provided divine sanction to the whole pyramid of victims in Indonesia.
It wasn’t until the complex process of social change leading up to Suharto’s fall in 1998 that a space opened up for questioning this system of oppression and its theological props. Being a victim is no longer the noblest role an ordinary person can play in the nation’s life; it is a wrong to be righted. And Jesus no longer appears so clearly as the Lamb (or pig) of God, but as a fellow victim of an authoritarian regime just like the one that kept Indonesians down for so long.
The resurrection then appears in quite a different light for the Timorese people — not as the ritually irrelevant aftermath of the ultimate sacrifice (after all, a sacrificial victim is supposed to die and stay dead), but as God’s rejection of sacrifice itself and the system of oppression it supports. The resurrection proclaims that what God wants for us is not death, but life.
Probably not many Timorese Christians would articulate the matter in this way, but they seem to have had an intuitive understanding from the beginning. The most sacred moment in the life of the church here is communion. It happens only four times yearly, and it is not unusual to see people stifling tears as they approach the communion table. They have known kings who did not hesitate to make people die for them. But that the Son of Heaven — a title also given to Timorese kings — would die for us, on our side against oppressive power, reveals a love we can scarcely comprehend.
Although Ory didn’t say so, this points to another thing that is unique about the resurrection: The risen Christ had holes in his hands. He bore the marks of his earthly suffering into eternity. Amid the joy of Easter, it is good to remember that Jesus was not the last victim of organized violence and that his resurrection did not erase the suffering. Without the crucifixion, and all that it tells us about solidarity with the oppressed, about the depth and the cost of God’s love, the resurrection is just another ghost story.
Campbell-Nelson is a Global Ministries missionary serving on the Theological Commission of the Protestant Church of Timor, Indonesia.