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In the Papua New Guinea society where my family and I once lived, wrongs could be “evened out” with gift exchanges. Such exchanges were reciprocal, and the value of the items exchanged depended upon the severity of the event. If a death was involved the grieving party expected to receive much more in worth and quantity than for lesser offenses, such as intra-clan stealing or simply fighting. There were many arguments involved.

If the infraction was committed within the clan structure, the leaders negotiated the discussion and interchange between the groups, most often simply between family units. When problems occurred outside of the clan structure, most often involving land disputes, terminated marriages, extra-clan stealing, and warfare, it took considerable time and resources to “settle” the matter.

When Joice and I began to live and work among the Kewa, the idea that difficulties could be settled by gift exchanges was outside our cultural knowledge. In serious American disputes, the offenders most often end up in court. The lawyers and the judge play the most important roles and the perpetrators respond to them, each party having their own lawyer(s) and claims and ensuing arguments sometimes go on for days or weeks.

I was very interested in in Kewa arguments because I wanted to understand the people’s perspective. What were the words and metaphors they used, and how could court-type injunctions be translated into Kewa? I would need to explain what Paul meant by arguments that he presented in his writings to churches and how Jesus would express his parables and other sayings in Kewa. It seemed like a formidable task, and in many ways, it was. I was helped when I took an anthropology course at Cornell University called “Primitive Law and Government.” The professor was an anthropologist and a lawyer, and his lectures gave me the background and impetus to write a paper on Kewa customary law.

I also wondered: Because there were no traditional “jails” in the Kewa society, how did the people react to the colonial government’s forms of punishment? (The name for jail was “kalabus,” a word borrowed from Tok Pisin, the trade language.)

In 1958, shortly after we began to live in the village of Muli in the Southern Highland of what was then simply “The Territory of Papua,” I witnessed my first clan dispute. A man and woman were divorcing, and the man wanted me to represent his case to the government office, which was some 15 miles away. He knew that I had a “box” which would capture his words and that I knew the government officer. He reasoned that I could send his recording to the government, and they would hear and resolve the case—to his favor. In fact, I did not know the officer well at all, and I had no intention of forcing any judgment in his favor. His wife claimed that he was a bad husband and that she wanted to leave him, which caused problems for the husband.

In the Kewa society at the time women were “purchased” by means of a bride price payment, generally in the form of pigs and pearl shells, with perhaps some salt, tree oil, and knives thrown in. The man wanted his prized pigs and shells returned and he hoped the government would agree. However, as is usual in exchanges that had taken place some years prior, the pigs and shells were long gone, having been redistributed to the woman’s clan members.

What was interesting to me about the argument was that the man’s argument revolved around the pigs and pearl shells he had given in the bride price. However, the woman who had owned the shells and pigs no longer had them and her clan members were not about to help. The items were gone, and she could not return them.

In my observations and notes I learned several things. First, the vocabulary associated with such vigorous arguments (there were other kinds) was about debts and payments. The participants taunted each other in their arguments and marriages were always tenuous and supported by gift exchange.

In translating Acts, I needed to translate the argument Paul and Barnabas had about Mark, cousin of Barnabas. Barny wanted his cousin to accompany them on a trip and Paul didn’t. The argument was so spirited that they parted ways because they could not agree. Mark went with Barnabas and Paul recruited Titus.

Paul also argued with Peter and even rebuked him when Peter would not eat with some Gentiles. He also had arguments with various churches that he had helped form when their leaders violated certain principles. He got involved in other kinds of arguments as well, such as that Apollos was more effective than him and, ultimately Jesus.

Jesus gave some general principles on settling arguments, including the matter of witnesses, and even involving the whole church. It seems that arguments are an inherent part of the “human condition” and the Bible is full of examples. Prime examples are Satan and God arguing about Job, Job arguing with his “friends”, and Jesus, in his temptation with Satan, arguing by using Scripture.

But how, I wondered, were arguments “settled” in Kewa? There was no stigma about a jail sentence, so even if judged wrong in a court case, incarceration was only a deterrent. The matter would come up again.

In many cultures continual arguing is subdued by gift exchange. If the defendant offers the plaintiff a gift, and it is accepted, the case was “closed.” It can also serve as an example of how Christ offered himself as the gift for our sins and, in doing so, the terrible case against us was closed. However, we don’t need to give anything back to him except ourselves. There should be no argument about that!

Karl Franklin


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