Cultural Landmines and “The Pineapple Story”


Otto Koning served in Irian Jaya back when it was part of the Dutch East Indies. He wrote the story, “The Pineapple Story.” It was a story we covered in our Intro to Missions class years ago. The story is all over the Web, so I will let you read it yourself. One could argue that the story addresses the issue of anger in missionaries. In many parts of the world, anger is seen as a sin. I was brought up in a church where anger (except for so-called “righteous anger”) was thought sinful. I don’t think anger is sinful in itself… but when one cannot control one’s temper, sin can result… and certainly undermining God’s work because one cannot control one’s temper is a sin. The story can also be seen as the problems of ownership. A lot of our problems as missionaries reduce if we can stop bringing our own sense of ownership with us. If all things are seen as God’s not our own… we are better prepared to deal with different understandings of material goods.

That latter part was where I had a bit of a problem with the story at first. The story emphasized that the local people were thieves. Koning had planted pineapples and the people kept stealing them. I had some concerns about this. After all, he planted tropical plants on tribal lands. Isn’t it possible that as such, the fruits were considered community property. In fact, it seems that the tribe’s attitude is “You plant it, you eat it.” Since the missionary owned the land BUT did not plant the pineapples, they were not seen as his to control. Sometimes different models of ownership can cause problems in the mission field. After all, Biblically speaking, stealing is a sin, and stealing is illegal taking of what is someone else’s. However, what is someone else’s is generally culturally defined. That is why stealing is not only deontological, it is also contextual. (There was an interesting episode on Gold Rush where Parker and friends are about to go after “gold thieves” only to discover that under Australian Law, what the people were doing was not theft, neither was it illegal. But if Parker and friends had harmed these “thieves,” Parker and friends would have been in trouble.)

However, as I looked into the story more, it was clear that the taking of stuff wasn’t just about community land. Koning talks considerably about the rampant thievery that went on pretty generally. I don’t know whether this was done by everyone against everyone else, or if the missionary family were especially targeted. I do have a friend who lived in foreign country who’s house was commonly broken into. It seemed to my friend that the people there were “just a bunch of thieves.” However, I am familiar with the people he worked with, and they do not generally have a culture of breaking into people’s houses. Thinking of “The Pineapple Story” there seemed to be a correlation. My friend had an anger problem and he lived in an area were emotional self-control was very much esteemed. So perhaps he was targeted because he was considered a bad person in that place.

Alternatively, some cultures have very different ethical rules regarding who are treated “Us” versus “Them.” Perhaps because my friend was a “Them” (and he was) it was considered okay to treat him poorly. Hardly surprising. I am from the US, and the US has a history of mistreating people based on their ethnic or racial background. Today, that is looked down on… but legal status still is held onto as a place for being an ethical “respecter of persons.” Some people in my home country think mistreating illegal aliens as a righteous thing. Weird, but hardly surprising. Jesus said that one must love one’s neighbors— both friends and enemies— because, people loved their friends but hated their enemies— Roman, Greeks, Pagans… whatever.

There are a lot of landmines in missions. I will add one more. If you click on the link above (okay, I will add it also HERE) there is talk that Koning gave on the pineapple story. It is very entertaining, but also rather “cringy.” You see, the talk was given some time ago… looks like late 80s or perhaps early 90s. He says some things that are a bit hard. He speaks “jungle folk,” talks about how bad the people there smell, and mentions how much they sterilized a can opener after it had been worn as a necklace by one of the local women. Terms like “thieves” and “rascals” were used. Of course, he was trying to be entertaining (and he was). It is also true that language that may be considered “normal” in one generation can be pretty offensive in another. Further, back then, I suppose there was an understanding that one could say whatever one wanted to when preaching in the US because the people in New Guinea would never hear it. I am sure that was true then… but not now. I have friends from tribal groups in New Guinea who can surf the Web as good as anyone else. It is awkward to talk about people when they are listening in.

There is no condemnation here. In fact, I like the fact that much of Koning’s talk is humor directed at himself. Humor is touchy when one crosses cultural lines. However, when one’s humor is self-depreciating, it is more likely, at least, to be accepted.

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