Ungodly Images and Idols: Debating National Identity in the National Parliament
Richard Eves and Nicole Haley
In November and December 2013 a controversy erupted in Papua New Guinea when the speaker of the national parliament, Theodore Zurenuoc, a devout Christian, tried to rid Parliament House of what he described as 'ungodly images and idols'. Zurenuoc had already begun by removing the carvings from a lintel above the entrance to Parliament House, but planned to remove many more carvings throughout the building. His plans were strongly opposed, and considerable debate was generated in the two national newspapers and in social media. Those who opposed him saw him as a 'religious fundamentalist' and his actions as 'sacrilege' and 'cultural terrorism',1 while those who supported Zurenuoc's plans saw him as a 'God-fearing', 'modern-day Reformer' and 'God's anointed vessel'. Despite the protests, which included a number of high-profile critics, and the intercession of the prime minister, the speaker was unrepentant, vowing to continue his work until there were 'no traces of elements of cult and demonic worship in the national parliament of PNG' (Evara 2013).
The 'Zurenuoc Affair': Religious Fundamentalism and National Identity?
In late November 2013 it was reported in the Papua New Guinea press that the speaker of the country's national parliament, Theodore Zurenuoc, had removed and destroyed a traditionally carved lintel from the facade of the iconic Parliament House and was in the process of removing a four-tonne group of carved posts from the Great Hall of the building. The speaker's actions were later described as a 'cleansing' exercise to remove all 'ungodly images and idols' from the parliament (Evara 2013).
Tale of Two Speakers: Culture and Religious Hermeneutics
News that the speaker of the national parliament, Theodore Zurenuoc, had removed carvings from the lintel of Papua New Guinea's Parliament House and is intending a complete 'cleansing' of parliament came as a surprise to many. However, in some ways the campaign against images appears similar to a wider religious trend with a history reaching as far back as the polemics of the Protestant Reformation.
The Beginnings of a 'Pentecostalite' Public Realm in Papua New Guinea?
The recent removal and partial destruction of the carvings from Papua New Guinea's Parliament House marks a shift in the public meanings of those carvings. Once, at least for those aware of their existence, they were accepted as a symbol of Papua New Guinea's national unity rendered as inclusive of cultural diversity and indeed composed of the various indigenous traditions of its people. The recent actions by the parliamentary speaker and the support from Pentecostal churches have now cast the carvings not as a meaningful national symbol but as an embodiment of demonic power and a spiritual threat to the nation.
'Grass Roots' Views of the Papua New Guinea Parliament House Carvings Issue
Francesca Merlan and Alan Rumsey
Other contributors to this discussion paper have followed development of the Parliament House carvings controversy at the national level more closely than we have. Our perspectives are regional ones based on our long-term research experience in the Nebilyer Valley in Western Highlands Province, and our briefer stays in the provincial capital of Mount Hagen to the east. Most of the people with whom we have been in regular contact are village people who have had little or no formal education and are identified both by themselves and others as 'grass roots' people. We hope our contribution will provide a useful complement to the others in that respect, since none of them report on the views of such people. We are in a good position to do so, having made two field trips to the Nebilyer Valley during 2013 and one in early 2014 after the destruction of the carvings had taken place and been reported in the Papua New Guinea national media. Before presenting the views that people conveyed to us during that time we will first provide some background details concerning the region and history of Christianity in the area.