by Andrew Lansdown

Peace child

Simbu boy
A Simbu boy during independence day celebrations in Port Moresby.

THERE IS A TRIBE in western New Guinea called the Sawi. Barely fifty years ago, the Sawi were head-hunters and cannibals. But the thing that made them more terrible than surrounding tribes was their idealization of treachery and betrayal.

The Sawi honored treachery as their highest ideal. The ambition of a Sawi man was to become a hero by betraying someone who trusted in him. He would form a friendship with a person from another tribe with the sole intention of later killing and eating that person. The greater the betrayal a man devised, the greater the honor he received.

The Sawi expression for this practice was: tuwi asonai man—"to fatten with friendship for the slaughter."*

Now, a culture that honors treachery is a culture that destroys trust. And the Sawi people experienced that lack of trust even among themselves. To avoid self-annihilation, they fragmented into small, isolated villages.

When these villages had a falling-out, they faced a major problem over how to re-establish peace. If your code of honor as a people is "to fatten with friendship for the slaughter", then every gesture of reconciliation and every display of friendship is viewed as suspect at best. So how could they establish a peace that could be trusted?

Somewhere back in their history, the Sawi developed a custom to solve this problem. When warring villages reached the point where they were desperate for peace, they would each exchange a child. Fighting off his own and his wife's anguish, a man from one side would offer his son to the other side, and vice versa. The gift of the infant was the only demonstration of goodwill that could not be doubted. "If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted!"

The offered infant was known as a tarop tim, a peace child. So long as the child lived, peace would prevail. And the people of the village took great care to protect their peace child from harm, not only because they wanted the peace to continue, but also because their custom demanded it. Indeed, if the best thing a Sawi could do was to betray someone he had befriended, the worst thing he could do was to betray a peace child or the people from whom the peace child had come.

The Sawi practice of overcoming hostility by the gift of a peace child has some striking similarities to the Christmas story.

The Bible teaches that there is a state of war between God and human beings. This hostility began when our first ancestors disobeyed God, and it continues to this day because we too have chosen to disobey him.

In order to put an end to this hostility, God offered us a Peace Child. On the first Christmas day 2,000 years ago he gave his Son, Jesus, to establish peace between himself and ourselves. As one of the prophets said, "to us a child is born, to us a son is given ... And he will be called ... Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).

Some people may wonder if we really need a Peace Child. After all, we are not like the Sawi. While it is true that we are not guilty of murder and cannibalism, it is also true that each one of us is guilty of a far more serious sin. Each one of us has broken the most important commandment of all. The Lord Jesus said "the first and greatest commandment" is, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:36-38). Apart from Jesus himself, no one has ever fully kept this commandment. In fact, few people have even tried.

In various ways and to varying degrees, every one of us has failed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind. And all our other moral failures have arisen from this first, fundamental failure. By breaking the first and greatest commandment, we have destroyed the foundation for keeping the lesser commandments, such as, "You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not lie; you shall not covet." And by breaking the lesser commandments, we simply increase the antagonism between ourselves and God.

But because of the great love that he has for us, almighty God did not destroy us or desert us. Instead, he offered us a Peace Child. Miraculously and mysteriously, he caused this child to be conceived by a virgin, whose name was Mary. The child was born in a stable instead of a house and laid in a feeding trough instead of a cradle. And he was named "Jesus", which means "Savior", because he came to earth to save us from the power and penalty of our sins. He did this by living a perfect life on our behalf and dying a dreadful death in our place.

"God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). To anyone who will receive him by faith, Jesus is the Peace Child. He is the Son of God who reconciles us to God the Father. No wonder the angels sang at his birth, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:14)!

* Don Richardson describes the Sawi and their customs in his fascinating book, Peace Child (Regal Books, 1974).


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