In 1988 Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) fell into a state of civil war, and that conflict raged until 1998. Although statistics for the number of fatalities are hard to find, a key government figure has estimated that more than 20,000 people died in the war. The issue at the heart of the conflict is easy to understand. Bougainville had a large copper mine, at a time when world copper prices were very high. The problem was that the copper was being mined, refined and sold, and everyone was financially benefitting. Everyone except for one group: the citizens of Bougainville. As they saw their natural resources being exploited, without reaping any of the gains, resentment grew. And eventually it festered into a full-scale conflict.
When I was called to serve as president of Bougainville Mission in 2014, I realised we weren’t going to make progress. Why not? Because some of our members supported the PNG government; others supported the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. And our Church was completely split along those lines—even though it was almost 25 years since the end of the conflict. While we’d like to live in a world where such secular political tensions don’t impact our Church, unfortunately this isn’t the reality. We’ve seen in Rwanda, South Africa, Australia and the US that politics and ethnic divisions seep into our Church.
To see them suffer would have brought me great satisfaction. Because I wanted justice—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
The people of Bougainville are extraordinary. They have tremendous drive. Despite the destruction caused by the war, they have started businesses and are ambitious. If only we could harbour the intelligence, drive and strength of the people for the gospel, I thought. We only had 6500 members in a population of more than 200,000—one of the areas where the Adventist Church had the lowest participation rate. But, being from the PNG mainland, I was an outsider. And after the war, outsiders were considered to be naturally suspect. What could I do to heal the scars that divided our Church?
Recently, however, something has changed. The change has come through reconciliation programs. So far the Church has conducted 22 of these programs on Bougainville.
Let me give you one example of the power of forgiveness. I travelled to a village on the other side of the island to conduct a reconciliation series in November 2015. You might think, why are you still running reconciliation programs more than two decades after the war? Because when you’ve had a war of that scale—maybe 10 per cent of the population killed and every single person impacted—the emotional, psychological and physical scars don’t just disappear—many linger.
In the village I met a beautiful, older, crippled woman. During the war she supported one side of the conflict and young men from her village supported the other. One day they burst into her home and demanded she change sides. She refused, and one of the men took out a gun and shot her in the ankle, absolutely shattering the joint and immediately crippling her. She will never again run, dance, do heavy lifting or work in the fields. In one instant of partisan insanity, the woman was rendered disabled in the most profound way.
After the war, the woman demanded compensation from the young men. She wanted compensation for her pain, her lost earnings and for everything she went through at the hands of these heartless young men. So she demanded a very high payment—so high the young men and their families had no chance whatsoever to meet her demands. Negotiations went through the village chief but no settlement was obtained. One of the young men became sick and died. Still no settlement. Government officials got involved. No settlement.
When I arrived at the village I preached about the power of forgiveness—what God has done for us. I talked about the heart of the gospel.
The next day we held a reconciliation seminar. And halfway through, I was stunned when the woman hobbled up to the front. There she stood and in a loud, clear voice surprised us all.
“As you all know, I suffered great pain and humiliation when I was shot,” she said. “And every day is impacted by what happened. But what has happened to my soul is far worse than what happened to my leg. I have felt enormous rage since the day I was shot. I woke up angry. I went to bed angry. And if I could have, I would have totally bankrupted the young men who did this to me, and their entire families. To see them suffer would have brought me great satisfaction. Because I wanted justice—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
She paused as everyone wondered where she was going with this. “But God has touched me. What we’ve heard about God’s grace—it has changed me. Today, before all of you, I want you to know . . .” At this point she pointed to one of the young men, who is now married and has suffered great guilt for what he did. “I want you to know I forgive you. Of everything. You owe me nothing. Because, just as Christ freed me from my debts, I free you!” She then shuffled her broken body forward and looked into the heavens, stating: “I know I won’t be whole here—no matter how much money is paid. But I also know that I will be whole. Totally whole—in body, mind and spirit—when Jesus returns!”
We’ve seen that reconciliation is the way forward. It isn’t a footnote to the gospel. It is the gospel in action! In December 2015, Bougainville Mission voted to create a reconciliation department. We hope to establish reconciliation leaders in every district and every church across Bougainville. Because as we reconcile, we draw close to God. And as we draw close to God, the gospel catches fire. Through reconciliation we will see the Adventist message go forward in love. That is my prayer.
Pastor Kepsie Elodo is president of the Bougainville Mission, Papua New Guinea.