31 Days of Missionary Stories: How to minister to a culture that values treachery?

peace childI first encountered Peace Child by Don Richardson several years ago in the Reader’s Digest Book Section. I cut it out and kept it, and some years later in college I also saw a film based on the book. I bought a new copy of the book after learning that these events took place in Indonesia, “next door” to where a missionary worked whom we knew and supported.This missionary knew Don and some of the people he ministered to.

In the early 1950s, many tribes in the jungles of Indonesia were totally unevangelized and virtually untouched by the modern world. Though “primitive,” they were not at all unintelligent: they had developed many skills for living in the jungle and had many legends and elaborate rituals ripe with meaning that had developed over the years. The Sawi, whom Don Richardson came to work with, were headhunters and cannibals, as were many of the other tribes. The Lord opened the doors for these people to accept the missionaries through their thinking at first that white people (whom they called Tuan) weren’t quite human, though they knew they were different from the spirits, through rumor that the Tuan could “shoot fire” (with guns), and through gifts the missionaries brought of such things as axes, which could fell a tree in four strokes, whereas the hand-made stone axes required about 40 strokes.

Three communities or villages settled around the new Tuan. Don spent hours listening to them, learning their language and their customs, and trying to tell them of God’s truth about creation, the entrance of sin, the promise of Deliverer, and the life of Christ. But the Sawi weren’t used to listening to tales about other cultures and grew bored…until Don’s narrative got to Judas. They listened intently to the story of Judas’s close relationship with Christ and his betrayal. They whistled with admiration. In their culture treachery and deception were virtues, the admirable stuff of legends. They valued not just cold murder, but the “fattening with friendship” of an unsuspecting victim, then delighted in telling about the look of astonishment on his face when he realized they were about to kill and eat him. They thought Judas was the hero of the story. Don was astonished and chilled and tried to explain that the betrayal was evil, that Jesus was the Son of God. But he couldn’t get through. Don and his wife Carol knew that God had some way to reach this culture and “set [themselves] to hope for some revelation.”

The next day fighting broke out between the different villages. That day and in the days to come, Don urged peace. Sawi villages usually kept some distance from each other, and Don realized that by having three villages come together to settle near him, the villagers were constantly being provoked to battle. Finally he felt that he should leave and settle somewhere else so that the Sawi would not end up destroying themselves. The Sawi protested they did not want Don to leave. Discussions began and leaders from both factions came to Don to assure him they would make peace.

The next day, the Sawi groups solemnly gathered. Don witnessed, to his amazement, a man from each of the warring groups bring one of his own children, with the mothers weeping, and exchange the children. Those in one group who would accept the child as a basis for peace were called to come and lay hands upon him, and the process was repeated in the other group. Then each child was taken to his new adoptive home. In a culture of violence and treachery, “at some point the Sawi had found a way to prove sincerity and establish peace…If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted.”

Don was horrified that his call for peace had caused this to happen, but soon began to see the parallels between the Sawi “peace child” and God’s sacrifice of His own Son. He began to tell them that Jesus was God’s own Peace Child to all men. Judas lost his status as hero because harming a peace child was one of the worst things someone could do. They began to see the inadequacy of their “best,” because peace in their culture only held as long as the peace child lived. When he died, old animosities could revive. But because Jesus rose again and was eternal, the peace He gave could never die.

It took many months for understanding and conviction to sink in, and even then they were afraid of angering the demons by departing from tradition. But when God enabled Don and Carol to revive a Sawi tribesman who was near death, the Sawi took this “as proof that the tuan’s God was powerful” and many began to believe.

Eventually more than half of the Sawi became believers, their language was reduced to writing, they were taught to read, the New Testament was translated, and some of the Sawi became teachers to their own people. Praise the Lord!!

As I have written before, some will criticize any attempt of other cultures to contact or influence primitive tribes. But, really, just as in the case of the Waodani (previously known as Aucas), if no one had stepped in, the Sawi would most likely have eventually ceased to exist, because each treacherous act of one group against another would set off a series of revenge battles with many more being killed. The Richardsons were careful not to try to impose a Western church upon the Sawi culture but to bring the gospel into theirs.

I would warn that the first several pages of the book describes a pretty ghastly deception and murder of one man to show by example what the Sawi culture was like. It is not gratuitous but it is graphic. I think this book would be perfectly suited for reading as a family or a class as well as for personal reading, but parents and teachers might want to preview that chapter to determine its appropriateness for the age level and personalities of their children. But I think anyone who reads it will get a glimpse into a missionary’s journey through adjustment to a different culture, perplexity in determining how best to share the gospel, the darkness of a culture without the Lord, and the amazing way God opens hearts and understanding to His truth. Stories like this are a part of the glorious fulfillment of the day John prophesied in Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”

A few years ago I searched for and found a copy of the film I had seen back in college, Peace Child, on DVD. I enjoyed watching it again. I am amazed at how much of the story they packed into a 30-minute film. I can’t express what it does to my heart to see former cannibals at the end of the film singing gospel songs. Then last year I came across this neat video of Don and his sons going back to visit the Sawi 50 years after that first visit.

(You can see a list of other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)