MicSem Publications

Faith, Culture and Democracy in Truk

by Francis X. Hezel S.J.

April 30, 1988 Cultural Government Religion

Reflection Weekend
Truk, April 30 -May 1, 1988

Democracy presents a problem for Trukese, as for other Micronesians, since the notion seems to be so much at odds with the traditional culture. The word "democracy" is associated with free elections, a participatory style of government, rule by the people, freedom and rights. The concept was a foreign one introduced by Americans after the war, and it remains rather foreign to many Trukese today. Even acculturated Trukese who have been schooled in the Western tradition are acutely aware of the tensions between democracy and traditional island political forms.

Moreover, many Trukese seem to feel that democracy conflicts with the Christian beliefs that they embrace. Christianity is a call to reverence authority –the authority of God in the first place, and then of the church leadership (whether Catholic or Protestant). For many this summons to submit to authority is very much like the duty to obey traditional chiefs; it is to be discharged without question and without reference to freedom and individual rights. Catholic theology encourages this parallelism by asserting what appears to be the unlimited authority of the pope.

When participants were asked to describe democracy, many saw it as mainly concerned with the good of the individual rather than society as a whole. It was seen as something new, an approach that "seeks freedom but often results in conflicts", among individuals and between persons and society. "Democracy is concerned with the self and not with others," one man suggested. Law courts, lawyers and the whole foreign legal system tend to pit one person or family against another in a system in which there is "one winner and one loser, and no draws." The legal apparatus of democracy seeks right and wrong, but is less concerned with what is a paramount question to most Micronesians: how to restore harmony among the aggrieved parties. One participant, articulating the feelings of many others, asserted that democracy is much more than merely a type of government; it is a "way of life and a religion," besides. The demand of the young (and sometimes the old as well) for their rights has taken on an ideological cast these days, many participants felt.

The tensions between democracy and Trukese tradition came out even more clearly when the group was asked to describe culture. Trukese culture was seen as stressing sharing of goods rather than individualism. It avoids open confrontation over issues –such as might be expected in campaigns and legislative debates –in favor of achieving consensus. It maintains the importance of land, which was almost always collectively owned, rather than the accumulation of storable resources like money and goods. Overall, it gives the primacy to what one person called "social integration," meaning the preservation of peace and cordiality in the society, over the rights of the individual.

Effects of Democracy

Another strong characteristic of traditional culture is its emphasis on obedience and respect –what some would call the passive virtues –as opposed to initiative and assertiveness.

Participants were broken down into small groups and instructed to list as many issues as possible on which democracy seems to conflict with cultural traditions. The contrastive pairings that were reported go beyond the political form of government that is called democracy and include other features of Westernization as well a8 the following list shows.

(1) Choice of leaders. Democracy entails the election of leaders, as opposed to the hereditary succession that was customary in Trukese culture. Election implies, at least in theory, that leadership positions are open to just about anyone. Democratic leaders can also be thrown out of office if they do not perform well. On the other hand, elections can give rise to conflict as candidates compete for an elected position.

2) Individual and society. Democracy emphasizes the rights of individuals and offers a "more open" society so that almost anyone can move upward. The traditional culture more static than a democratic society tends to limit opportunities for individual development, while stressing the preservation of the society as a whole.

3) Decision-making. Democratic governments make decisions by open debate of issues and taking the matter to a vote, with the majority prevailing. The traditional society, on the other hand, puts great importance on the building of consensus and thus discourages expression of difference of opinion. Likewise, the justice system in a democracy resolves disputes by letting claimants fight it out in public, while the traditional society attempts to find a mutually acceptable settlement.

4) Control of resources. In a democratic society (assuming that it is also modernized and monetized) the most important resources, especially money, are individually owned. In the traditional Trukese society, however, the main resource was land and it was collectively owned.

5) Authority. In a traditional society authority was thought to have been absolute, while in a democratic society this is normally not the case. If a traditional chief asks someone for a gift, for example, the person has no way of refusing; but his counterpart in a democratic society can deflect the request with an explanation of why he is forced to do so.

6) Role of Women. Women seem to be freer in a democratic society than in a traditional one. They can aspire to new roles, often in competition with men, and assume more political power. They are accorded more respect, at least outwardly, and have a greater say in family affairs.

7) Allocation of Resources. Although modern societies are often branded as stingy while traditional societies are thought to be generous in sharing resources, there is another side to this matter as one group noted. The traditional society encourages sharing resources among the kin group and perhaps others in the immediate community but usually not beyond this. Democratic societies, on the other hand, seem to countenance a sharing of the wealth with all members of the society through welfare programs, social services, and the like.

8) Family System. The extended family ordinarily seems to hold sway in the traditional culture, while the nuclear family usually is dominant in a democratic society. A number of other social changes generally accompany this transformation: ego greater individual control of income and resources, breakdown of older forms of respect.

9) Religious Belief. In a traditional society there is usually a single dominant religious system in which everyone professes belief. In a democratic society, however, the uniform set of beliefs gives way to many different religions. This means that believers will be compelled to practice their faith privately and without the support of those public institutions that upheld the belief system in the past.

At the end of the first day's session, the facilitators attempted to provide a bit of historical and philosophical background on the rise of democracy. Although there were attempts to install democracy in classical times by Greeks and Romans, these were relatively brief experiments. [It was not until the late 18th century that the modern thrust towards democratic government began, and even then democracy was resisted by most of Europe, and the Catholic Church as well until the end of the last century. The forces for change erupted during the Age of the Enlightenment as the individual person came to the fore in Western thought.

Prior to this, people tended to think of social structures as ordained by God rather than fabricated by people themselves. The structure of society was usually in the shape of a pyramid with the ruler at the top, nobles below him, and other classes ranked to the base of the pyramid. The God who had created this society entrusted power to its rulers, who were in turn obliged to provide for the welfare of their subjects. The members of a society were thought to have no more right to re-form their society than they had to attempt to transform their own nature. Any rights that individuals possessed were linked to their status in society, and emphasis was placed on the discharge of their responsibility to society in keeping with their status.

During the Cultural Revolution in 17th century Europe, thinkers shifted their attention from the society to the individual. They began to affirm that individuals derived their rights not from society but from God Himself, and that it was within their power to restructure their societies if need be. A society was a man-made institution to which individuals voluntarily surrendered some of their freedom so as to achieve certain common goals, they maintained. The purpose of society was to provide for the welfare and maximal freedom of each of its individual members. At bottom, then, the society was made to serve man, not man to serve the society. This was a profound change in thinking that led to increasingly greater emphasis on the rights of citizens — all citizens, as the abolition of slavery and bestowal of the vote upon women dramatized. By the turn of the last century, the Catholic Church, which had long held out against this fundamental change in perspective, began to acknowledge the right of individuals to shape their own society, among other things. Today the papal encyclicals routinely invoke the rights of individuals, economic and social as well as political and religious.

Even if there appears to have been an evolutionary movement towards democratic governments on the world scene, this is not in itself reason for us to reject the traditional political institutions in Truk and opt for a totally democratic system. Although democracy of a form has existed in Truk at least since the end of World War II, it has clearly had to accommodate to the traditional culture to some extent. To deepen their appreciation of the fact that we need not always make either-or choices between democracy and tradition, participants were asked to divide into small groups and list ways in which democracy has been adapted to make it more compatible with Trukese culture.

Democracy as it is practiced in Truk has a certain local flavor. There are the more formal adaptations that appear in documents like the FSM Constitution, where the Bill of Rights has provisions peculiar to the island, where the separation between church and state is greatly modified, and where a section ontraditional leaders and local culture has been written into the document. But there are many less formal adaptations besides. Elections are held, but candidates in many municipalities are from chiefly families with a claim to traditional prestige. Political parties in Truk, such as they are, are founded not on issues, but along clan and family lines. Campaigns are far different from what would be expected in other democratic countries. Political rallies are rare; house-to-house visiting is the more usual form that campaigning takes. Although all adults may vote, the head of the lineage often directs the others in his family how they are to cast their votes. Political patronage extends well beyond what may be expected in Western societies, since successful candidates are obligated to repay favors done for them by relatives and others.

There are adaptations, too, in the legislature. One participant reported that the Truk legislature, like other deliberate bodies, operated on the principle of "consensus in disguise" –namely, that members try to vote according to the way they feel their leaders want them to vote. Thus, what appears to be consensus is, in actual fact, deferring to the wishes of a recognized leader. Even on the legislature floor there is evidence for adaptation in the recent practice of departing from the normal parliamentary procedure of addressing all remarks to the chairman. Members will ask for the privilege to chuukei –to "Trukize" the procedure by addressing someone else in the chamber directly.

Participants had time to explore some of the tensions between democracy and their own cultural traditions, and they saw how at least some of these tensions were abated by the ways in which democratic structures were transformed in Truk. But as the workshop drew to a close, they still had not taken up the question of what their faith bids them to do about all this. Is the committed Christian to adhere to his cultural traditions or reject them in favor of democratic principles? Since there was too little time to discuss the question thoroughly, we selected one issue –that of women's rights –in the hope that a brief discussion of this would exemplify the role of faith in other such matters.

What does our faith teach us about women's rights? Should women's roles be restricted in accord with traditional norms, or should women be free to do whatever men do? Our brief discussion on this question produced a remarkable diversity of opinion.Many, quoting well-known passages from Paul's letters, felt that women should continue to be quiet in assemblies, as the Apostle enjoined, and should remain submissive to men in family matters. Some thought that in our changing circumstances today women should be free to take on almost any kind of work and develop themselves and their abilities as fully as possible outside the home; but in the home they should be subordinate to the male head of the family. A few felt that women should have more authority in and out of the household. Clearly there was no consensus on this issue among the participants.

A couple of principles emerged that could be important in dealing with this and similar questions. First of all, the faith should find a comfortable home in any culture, no matter how traditional or modern, no matter how the particular culture is organized. In advising women not to speak out in assemblies, St. Paul was not imposing new regulations on them; he was merely accepting the conventions of society as he found it. Evangelization did not require a new set of social rules; it implied that Christians adhere faithfully to all that was not evil in the society of their time. Thus, he could also instruct slaves to obey their masters, accepting as given the institution of slavery that was to survive for another eighteen centuries. Perhaps he would also have told colonial peoples to humbly respect their foreign masters, although it is hard to imagine him saying that to Micronesians or anyone else in today's world. As times and societies change, so do the demands of the gospel on its followers. What might have been ethical several centuries ago would not necessarily be so today. We have only to think of apartheid or preventing smaller colonies from exercising their right to self-determination.

Yet, our faith is also a challenge to our society or any society to live up to Christian ideals. The light of faith should expose those areas in a society that tend to destroy rather than build up its people. A fairly clear example of the seamy side of island cultures was the thirst for revenge and the continual warfare that occurred in days gone by. Missionaries opposed the steadfastly and correctly, and in time the more extreme abuses were corrected. The gospel is a leaven, we are told, which will slowly work its effects on society. It is quite plausible that the present-day concern for the freedom and dignity of every individual is an outgrowth, in part, of two thousand years of Christian reflection and prayer and practice.

These principles do not supply ready-made answers, because there are none for most of the questions discussed at this workshop. But they at least remind us of the strange and elusive ways in which faith sheds light on present-day tensions like the one we spent the weekend probing.