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Checkpoint Summer 2021: From reciprocity to reconciliation

How does ‘grace’ work in a place where the rule for maintaining good relations is not grace but reciprocity? CMS missionary Joel Atwood, working with students in Vanuatu, explains.

Vanuatu is an intensely relational country. Even though it’s a little unfair to treat over 115 language groups across 96 islands as a single entity, a common aspect we’ve noticed across the archipelago is the deep, almost fundamental, place of reciprocity.

‘May I borrow your ute?’

In Vanuatu, all the relationships you find yourself enmeshed in have to be kept in a rough balance and harmony. One of our dear friends works in a bakery. He occasionally brings a basket of bread and hangs it on our gate after his night shift. Who doesn’t appreciate fresh bread in the morning? Then it clicked that the frequency of the bread aligned with requests to borrow our truck, or our mower, or some help with this or that. The bread doesn’t ‘pay’ for the mower or the ute, but it frontloads an appreciation of the relationship that allows the borrowing to happen.

We were saved early on from embarrassment by a long-term missionary friend who caught us washing up a container someone had brought with food in it to a party. We thought to clean the box and hand it back. How rude of us! To honour their gift of food to us, we needed to fill up the box with some of our own food and then hand it back. Under this system, no one misses out, everyone is honoured for their contribution. Relationships must be balanced to keep all things in harmony.

When reciprocity works, and when it doesn’t

On the one hand, this reciprocity makes excellent sense of how we respond to the gospel. If God has treated us so unbelievably kindly, we can only respond with a radical outpouring of our own life in thanks to him. We cannot just offer token actions of recognition or treat such a gift lightly.

We are radically indebted to our Saviour! Where this way of maintaining relationships may be less helpful is when our students start to understand the magnitude of what God has done for them in Jesus, they feel a drive to ‘frontload’ their relationship with God, to perform the right level of religious and moral actions to ensure that
God is sufficiently well-inclined towards them so that he will bless them with salvation and its fruits in life.

This leads to an unfortunate tendency to look to works, morality, and religiosity as the prerequisite for salvation and God’s favour. Overlay this on the already strong hierarchies within communities, and churches become very forceful in imposing high standards of behaviour on their members, especially young people. Do this and this and this—NEVER do that—and then God might spare you, might bless you. Sadly, this often coexists with high levels of hypocrisy amongst leaders who fail to meet the very standards they enforce on others.

Tired of perfection

How do these influences and experiences shape a person? You become exhausted from performing for the religious crowd so as to not let your family down. As one of our graduates shared upon leaving university, she had come to campus ready to let her faith drift away, because she was, “tired of having to be perfect all the time.”

According to the cultural mores of Vanuatu, when you sin, it is either swept under the rug to be ignored or overlooked, or you are publicly ‘hung out to dry’ as an  example of the bad people you’ve always been warned about. And beneath it all is the persistent message that God would never, ever want ‘someone like you.’

Of course, as we are, none of us is worthy or loveable. But that is the point of grace. It is while we are still enemies of God, still dead in our sins, that Jesus in his grace came to reconcile us, resurrect us, and carry us home. But when you’re wired up to keep all your relationships in harmony, maintain a balance, it is almost inconceivable that God would bother with you at all.

Speaking and living grace is hard

We have found grace incredibly hard to articulate simply here. We can talk and talk about the great gift God has given us in Christ, and all will nod approvingly, familiar with the words. But seemingly it doesn’t get any deeper in than the nod.

When you are caught out in sin here, it is normal to disconnect from those you think you’ve disappointed (because you can’t keep the harmony). Sadly, over the last few years a remarkable number of core students, graduates, board members, and future staff workers have stepped away from our ministry due to sexual sin. Here, it’s considered ‘normal’ for these people to disappear from your radar for a few years, then slide back into churches and groups as if nothing had happened.

Grace against the grain

It took us a while to decipher this pattern. But when we did, we wondered what would happen if we pushed against the cultural grain and persisted in seeking a relationship with those who were pulling away from us. We had already had the hard pastoral conversations about sin, repentance, and consequences for ministry and life. Now we wanted to model grace by not allowing that sin to sever our relationships.

The first phase has been incredibly uncomfortable. Messages have gone unanswered. Attempts to catch their attention on the street were ignored. But with the considered pigheadedness of a cultural outsider, we have kept doors open long enough that some, at least, have seen that disappointment, hurt, and consequences do not have to destroy relationships. Even when we don’t deserve it, sin can be forgiven, (although not overlooked). If we can show grace in this small way, perhaps, in God’s kindness, he can show something all the greater through it.


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