At the time (1960s) the Sawi people were headhunters, at war with rival tribes, and absorbed in a culture of aggressive self-protection.
To the Richardsons’ dismay, when the Sawi people first heard the story of Christ they regarded Judas as a super-hero, and Jesus as someone to be laughed at for being a naive victim of betrayal.
One online source explains: “For centuries, the Sawi lived as cannibal-headhunters, each Sawi village warring with the others. Ordinary murder was nothing to them. To be a “legend maker,” you had to create a special scenario in which you pretend to make peace with someone, then kill him when his guard is down. This Sawi ideal is called “tuwi asonai man” which means “to fatten with friendship for unexpected slaughter” as one would fatten a pig.”
Eventually, however, Don and Carol discovered a way to build understanding with the Sawi. According to an online Wikipedia summary, “Three tribal villages were in constant battle at this time. The Richardsons were considering leaving the area, so to keep them there, the Sawi people in the embattled villages came together and decided that they would make peace with their hated enemies.
Ceremonies commenced that saw young children being exchanged between opposing villages. One man in particular ran toward his enemy’s camp and literally gave his son to his hated foe. Observing this, Richardson wrote: “if a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted!”
From this rare picture came the analogy of God’s sacrifice of his own Son. The Sawi began to understand the teaching of the incarnation of Christ in the Gospel after Richardson explained God to them in this way.”
Later Richardson would write books and lecture about his belief that there are woven into the cultures of the world “redemptive analogies” that can help people move from an idea or practice that they already accept to the life-changing news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in our place.
Also part of the Richardsons’ story is their discovery that “Sawi tradition contained prophecies that someday the Words of “Remon” [Regeneration /Immortality] would arrive. Richardson realized that some Sawi customs might actually be an attempt to reach such a high degree of collective sorrow that the Words of Remon would come more quickly. For those who believed that the Richardsons’ arrival with the Gospel story meant that the Words of Remon had arrived, the old customs became unnecessary — an old covenant was supplanted by a new one.
Seems to me that what the Richardsons discovered parallels what the Apostle Paul did when speaking with the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-34). He reached into their common experience and used ideas that they already accepted… as a bridge to explain what Christ has done for us.
I see it as a reminder to us that, although God alone understands the thoughts and motives of human hearts, and although he alone can judge peoples’ response to him on the basis of the light they have (i.e. as before the cross), no one (before or after) will come to God apart from the mercy and salvation that Jesus purchased by his own sacrifice and resurrection.
While “what about those who have never heard?” is the usual question, our most certain answer is that, according to the New Testament, everyone needs to hear what Jesus has done for us. Those who accept the message receive all that God has purchased for them– through the suffering and sacrifice of his own Son. All who refuse that good news reject at their own loss their only hope of forgiveness and immortality.
Note: This has been such a good and lengthy time of listening to one another that I may be testing your patience with this post. But as we’ve compared notes and convictions, it seemed to me that Richardson’s well known and widely accepted work might be worth thinking about again.