Happenings, News

Impact of accepting Christ on Iban society

The writer of this reflection on the social impact of accepting Christ on the Iban society, Thomas Harris, was engaged for many years in Methodist agricultural missions at Nanga Mujong, upriver from Kapit, Sarawak. Prior to Sarawak, he and his wife served in China until they had to leave after 1948. His years of experience with the Iban people give him a thoughtful insight into the life and culture of these sturdy Methodists in Sarawak.

‘… THERE is much more to the Iban social organisation than what appears from a brief look at a longhouse. Far from being a communal type of society as might appear to the casual observer, the longhouse community is composed of several distinct and separate family units.

Each family is independent of the others and responsible for the construction of its own apartment or bilek. Each separate family, in its own way, pursues the principal task of an Iban livelihood, farming.

Selection of farm sites within the area is decided upon by embers of the community. By democratic methods the several families of the longhouse community choose from among themselves a male member to be their community leader or Tuai Rumah. It is the sage counsel of the Tuai Rumah, it is hoped, which will cause the community to obtain prosperity, peace and cohesion.

The Gospel of Christ, when applied, upsets the foundation of Iban social structure because it commands its followers to forsake the age-old pagan customs which are at the centre of that structure. For this reason, many disciples within this young Church find themselves caught in a conflict of loyalties – pagan and Christian.

However, Christ makes absolute claim on all our ways. We accept the fact that Christ’s message never leaves the status quo in its set way.

Hidden in the social structure of the longhouse community are these characteristics which may well be accepted as good for the progress of the community, while others may be regarded as handicaps to the general welfare.

The Iban community offers a sense of togetherness, a comfortable fellowship of belonging. One or two Christian families within a longhouse community sometimes enable Christianity to spread with epidemic speed to claim the entire community for Christ.

On the other hand, many a time the longhouse may be so strongly influenced by Iban customs – (adat) – that many an individual family, when considering such a bold step as becoming Christian, is fearful of exercising its desires.

There is fear of the pressures resulting from being ostracised, fear of being denied the advantages of an “exchange of farm labour” (bedurok) with older families, fear of alienating the pagan gods (petera) and in invoking their wrath upon the family.

Through training institutes and youth workshops, the Church is finding ways to equip its people with greater courage, a Christian interpretation of life, marriage and God’s purpose for the individual. The training programme of the Iban Church is placing a person in a position to find Christian answers to his social problems.’ – MM, May-June 1965, p.8.

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Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.