A few years ago I wrote a short Christmas story. The story is set in Tonga and the idea for the story sprang from my observations about the way Tongans deal with religious diversity. By way of introduction, here first is an excerpt of an email I sent earlier this year in which I am discussing with a Mormon the impact of Mormonism in the South Pacific and attempting to make sense of the informal separation of church and state that I witnessed on one remote, outer island of the Kingdom of Tonga:
Here’s another way the presence of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses liberalize the outer islands: their presence in the society adds to the cultural mix and forces a kind of separation of church and state – at least on a local level. This is hilarious to think about, by I’ve witnessed school superintendents and teachers forgo government mandated religious observances of the state religion (Free Wesleyan Methodism) at school functions – yes, breaking the law – out of deference to the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses present. The village allowed the school principle to NOT fly the Tongan Flag on the school flag pole, because it’s presence offended the Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe flags are idolatrous. Their were only three JW families on the whole island and that flag pole stayed empty! The majority decided those three families were more important than their own flag. Isn’t that remarkable? This is what was weird about religious diversity in Tonga. There was so much mutual criticism and condemnation and intolerance inside the churches, and so much tolerance and even accommodation in the village.
And the short story:
“They teach a funny religion over there! And they are pitiful today because they do not remember the birth of Sisu,” accused the Tongan in a mighty roar.
The boards creaked under the weight of his shifting, heavy frame. He pointed from his pulpit towards the corrugated metal hut across the Ha’apai village where three families met each Sunday morning. The congregants knew he meant the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In the pew, old Maukie nodded his head and wondered at the folly of these believers in false doctrines, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.
“We must protect our children from their lies!” the minister added.
“Mo’oni,” Maukie said. The word was a lilting, three syllables meaning “That’s true” and Maukie said it slowly in unison with other Wesleyan men around him.
He was relaxed from the kava he’d drank that morning and his mind quickly drifted away to his day yesterday fishing with Inoke.
Maukie fished with Inoke every week. Maukie’s family thought he was a much luckier fisherman than he really was because of Inoke’s skill. Maukie returned the favor by pretending he didn’t know Inoke regularly dug up taro and yams from his plot in the bush. They did not speak to each other all that much around the village. They didn’t go to the same church and couldn’t sit around the kava circle together because Inoke’s church forbade drinking kava. They kept their distance and didn’t really know what to make of each other.
It was different on the rolling waves beyond the reef.
The day before, Maukie dragged the dugout canoe down the beach and paddled hard against the waves. He could see Inoke out where the surf was breaking against the edge of the reef. The sounds of the village faded behind him and, shortly, he was alongside Inoke’s canoe.
“Find fish?” he said.
“Lots of fish,” Inoke said. “Too much to eat. My wife’s butt will get bigger tomorrow. That’s fine with me!”
The two of them laughed and grinned at each other. They made more jokes about their wives and watched their hand-held lines cutting through the waves. They talked to each other and to the fish they were trying to catch. They used words they would not use in front of their children.
“We’re just men out here,” Inoke said at one point. “Just men.”
“Mo’oni,” said Maukie. He intoned the word slowly like he said it in church.
The two were close enough to the island to see the village’s five churches but much too far away to hear the competition of the evening service bells.
When the sun dipped below the horizon, Inoke started throwing fish into Maukie’s canoe. “Fish, fish, lots of fish!” he said. “Eat yourself to death, tomorrow.”
Maukie had to walk by the corrugated metal Kingdom Hall on his way home from church. He saw Inoke come out with his family. Inoke wore missionary pants and looked very foolish to Maukie.
Maukie nodded at the group of Jehovah’s Wittnesses and, having just been reminded they believe there’s something wrong about Christmas, gave the standard Tongan greeting that literally translates as Thank you for the goodness on this day.
Inoke said the same.
Maukie went home to a big Christmas feast with all his family. His family congratulated Maukie on his fine catch. They sang and prayed and celebrated the birth of Sisu.