Christians are all about blessing. We memorize the Beatitudes in confirmation class, we are blessed at the end of every service of worship; we even say “God bless you” when somebody sneezes. By contrast, North American churches have given little thought to the equally biblical tradition which is the opposite of blessing: the curse. We tend to think of cursing as synonymous with swearing, but in biblical tradition the curse has a very specific function. It calls down God’s judgment on people and actions that are deemed evil, just as blessing invokes God’s mercy. In Deuteronomy, the promises given to Israel as they entered Canaan were always balanced by dire warnings of what the consequences would be if they forgot their covenant with God. And we often forget that (at least in Luke’s version) when Jesus blessed the poor he also cursed the rich (Luke 6.24).
As an anthropologist would explain it, the “blessing/curse” pair has a clear social function. Blessing nurtures a society’s core values, while cursing sets the boundaries against persons and actions that are “beyond the pale” and therefore not an acceptable part of our society. Both aspects are crucial to preserving a group’s identity.
In West Timor, both blessing and curse are a living part of the cultural tradition. We have often dealt with curses directed against people who steal their neighbor’s coconuts, move the boundaries of their fields; even curses directed by parents against their unruly children. Little did we expect that we ourselves were the objects of a curse.
It began about two years ago with the unexpected death of the Timorese matriarch who ran our household and had been like a grandmother to our children as they were growing up. Shortly after, we became unwillingly embroiled in a series of internal conflicts at both the church and the university where we worked. Everything seemed to be going wrong all at once, and for a time, it seemed that we would be unable to continue our work here.
Our adopted Timorese clan in the mountains of South Central Timor had been following our dilemma with sympathetic concern. They decided to do something about it. In their interpretation, our problems stemmed from a vow made by their ancestors not to allow foreigners to enter their territory. The term for those excluded is kais muti--"white strangers". After all the grief the Dutch gave them in colonial times, followed by the Japanese occupation, their attitude was understandable. They were concerned that these foreign powers that had invaded and dominated them politically would eventually steal their very identity as Timorese. The problem is, the curse on dealings with white people had never been lifted. For twenty years we had been coming to the village, spending Christmas and Easter together, our children growing up together--all flying in the face of an ancestral curse.
So members of our extended Timorese family and their community decided it was time to lift the curse. We met at the edge of a stream that marks the boundary of the village, they on one side and we on the other. On their side, tree branches blocked the path and a string tied between two upright sticks. There were a few rounds of antiphonal ritual speech back and forth across the stream, followed by a prayer from the local lay preacher. Then a descendant of the king who had made the original curse pulled aside the branches and cut the string. A pig was slaughtered at the edge of the stream, its blood falling to the ground as an offering to the ancestors on whose ground we stood. We then crossed over into the welcoming arms of the village. They cooked the pig on the spot and, according to tradition, we ate it all before leaving. There could be no leftovers, as a sign that the ancient problem was completely finished as well. As we ate in a circle on the bank of the stream, Karen looked around at the faces of these kind and generous people and said, "This is communion." That day the promise of World Communion Sunday became a reality for us.
But moments later we both had the same thought: if only we could experience this kind of communion more often in church. As I think about it, perhaps one of the reasons we don’t is that communion is so often celebrated in the abstract. It comes as a ritual marked on the church’s calendar or as part of the liturgy, not as a response to the need to bind a distinct group of people into a community at a crucial point in their history together. In our secularized mindset, ritual rhymes with “habitual” and therein lies the problem. By contrast, to our Timorese friends, ritual is a response to an urgent need. Perhaps our celebration of communion will be more meaningful if we can tie it more closely to the social challenges faced by our communities—even to the lifting of the unspoken curses we have placed upon one another. Ideally, people would leave the communion table saying, “Thanks. We really needed that.”
West Timor, Indonesia
John Campbell-Nelson is a missionary serving with the Evangelical Christian Church of Timor. John serves as a professor there.