Christian Marriage, Money Scams, and Melanesian Social Imaginaries



In this paper, we draw on fieldwork with middle-class investors in ‘fast money schemes’ (Ponzi scams) to consider how Neo-Pentecostal Christianity may be mediating social and economic change in Papua New Guinea, particularly in relation to gender equality. Ideas of companionate marriage and the cultivation of an affective self imply masculinities that are more sensitive and less domineering. As these images of fulfilled modernity flow out from Pentecostal churches into broader Papua New Guinean society, they corroborate Taylor's theory of how change occurs within the modern social imaginary.


How might gender be central to processes of social change? In Papua New Guinea (PNG) and beyond, gender equality is often derided as an externally imposed idea that has little resonance with local ‘culture’ (Macintyre 1998; Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1998). Nevertheless, many other modern influences are embraced as highly desirable, such as the capitalist economy, or are readily naturalized into Melanesian society and tradition as is the case with Christianity. Indeed, Christianity can be considered as a site of rapid social and cultural change, even in relation to gender equality. Our research into Melanesian ‘fast money schemes’ (Ponzi or pyramid scams) explores some of these questions of social and economic change in relation to Christianity. In this paper, we illustrate how Charles Taylor's (2004) elaboration of ‘the social imaginary’ can be used to explain why it is that ‘Born Again’ Christianity might be more socially progressive than it initially seems in relation to gender equality.

Drawing on fieldwork among middle-class Pentecostal Christians seduced by the U-Vistract pyramid scam, we contribute evidence that supports Richard Eves's (2012) cautious optimism about the role of some churches in changing the dynamics of marital relationships. We examine the emergence of ideas of marriage and family and new ideals of gender harmony that are based on notions of equality between men and women. For many Papua New Guineans, these new iterations of personhood and social relations imply the mastery of modernity.

Conversion to Christianity during the colonial period had immediate effects on gender relations in PNG (Jolly and Macintyre 1989). Recently, as new evangelical churches have gained influence, the changes have taken on new characteristics, with companionate marriage becoming ‘an important marker of Christian modern personhood’ (Wardlow 2006a:73). There are ways in which Christianity legitimates violence, particularly within marriage (e.g., Hermkens 2012), and fundamentalist Christianity can disturb indigenous gender relations and create new divisions and inequalities (Minnegal and Dwyer 1997). Nevertheless, Christianity also promotes new ideas of personal responsibility and moral obligation that emphasize mutuality within marriage. Eves (2012) has argued that ‘Born Again’ Christians in PNG are surprisingly progressive in relation to gender equality, particularly in relation to prohibitions of domestic violence. While there are certainly no unequivocal commitments to equality between men and women and there are notable inconsistencies in practice, Eves sees these churches as offering some positive models and pathways for reducing gender inequality and particularly gender-based violence.

Our purpose here is to show how these new evangelical churches mediate different aspects of modernity and how these may flow out into changes in the broader social imaginary of PNG in relation to gender. In a critique of aid programs dealing with gender inequality in PNG, Macintyre observed that ‘the transformation of social and cultural values occurs in ways that are indirect and often tangential to the specific value privileged’ (2012:260). We hope that this discussion will make visible some of these indirect and tangential spaces where social change may occur.

Pentecostalism and the Flows of Global Modernity

We draw on insights from Charles Taylor's (2004) work on modern social imaginaries and Ruth Marshall-Fratani's (2001) analysis of Pentecostalism as a moral mediator of modernity, particularly in developing countries. Using examples from our study of fast money schemes, we argue that Pentecostalism not only makes the global flows of modernity accessible to those who are marginal or precarious participants in the world system, but reinvigorates the promise of modernity and offers personal fulfilment to its followers. In the process, Pentecostalism cultivates particular individualized subjectivities and their corresponding ideas of society.

Marshall-Fratani (2001:84) reveals how Pentecostalism is an institutional mediator of global images for local communities in Nigeria and beyond. Global images may circulate through electronic media and migration but they can also be mediated through transnational organizations and movements. Pentecostalism provides a framework through which multiple identities can be prioritized and encompassed (Marshall-Fratani 2001:86). This allows the formation of modern subjects, ‘not so much [through] the individualism of Pentecostal conversion … , but the ways in which its projection on a global scale of images, discourses and ideas about renewal, change and salvation opens up possibilities for local actors to incorporate this into their everyday lives’ (Marshall-Fratani 2001:89).

We maintain that practices such as tithing form part of this process of incorporation. Pentecostalism's power derives from its ability to mediate the perplexing and potentially dangerous global flows of images of modern life, including consumerism, through a Christian moral filter. It also develops new ideas of self and community, not merely filtering out morally perilous aspects of a distant or foreign modernity, but embarking upon a project of intensified moral rigour that shapes new Christian persons, communities, and nations (Eves 2007).

Taylor (2004) takes morality as the foundation of ‘the modern social imaginary’, understood as a dynamic consensus of ideas and practices that constitutes social relations within any given society. Such moral dispositions and the social imaginary constantly evolve and are reconstituted. Taylor documents historical transitions of elite theories or new ideals of society as they develop into more diffuse popular social imaginaries. We take Taylor's ideas as a model for thinking about the spread of modern ideas such as gender equity (a topic Taylor himself appears to ignore). Pentecostal Christianity, as a vector of modernity, provides a means for ‘elite’ (be they educated Papua New Guinean women or foreign donors) ideas of gender to be reappropriated into a popular modern social imaginary.

Global discourses of gender equality are part of the potentially threatening global flows of ideas and images of fulfilled modernity that have entered into the PNG modern social imaginary. However, they have done so partially and inconsistently. Their adoption is fiercely contested and, as Macintyre (2012) notes, women ‘empowered’ with a new language of their rights at a gender workshop may return home to experience intensified conflict and violence. It is a commonplace observation that there is an immense gap or even essential incompatibility between international human rights discourse and Melanesian gender practices, including ideologies of culture promulgated by elite men, such as politicians, high-level public servants, and other professionals, (Spark 2011; Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1993b).

However, this gap may not be quite as unbridgeable as it at first seems. Taylor's paradigm of theory moving gradually from an elite into a broadly accepted social imaginary suggests a model for understanding a more iterative process of acceptance of gender equality in PNG. Pentecostalism may not promulgate an explicit commitment to gender equality but its images of a fulfilled modern life imply men and women who live as loving companionate spouses enjoying the freedom of life in Christ together. Further, the cultivation of subjectivities characterized by what we shall call ‘sentimental cosmopolitanism’ also implies new relationships between men and women where men are less explicitly dominant and are expected to show love and empathy towards their wives.

Hirsch and Wardlow (2006) warn that the implied equality of romance and companionate marriage does not automatically translate into lived practices of gender equity. However, the ideal of equality remains, whether the lived experience for women becomes one of trying to broker better treatment based on these ideals or simply a bitter experience of disillusionment. Therefore the argument here is about a shift that is far from entrenched and currently visible more in disappointment than in a correspondence between ideals of equity and practices. Our study of the U-Vistract scam suggests several shifts in PNG's modern social imaginary that are mediated by Pentecostal ideas and practices and which imply a place for the idea of gender equality. These include the cultivation of an affective and expansive self through financial disciplines, companionate marriage, the prohibition of male vices, and the cultivation of a cosmopolitan sentiment in relation to the ‘deserving poor’.

Scams as Articulators of the Modern Social Imaginary

Taylor divides the modern social imaginary into three realms: the economy, the public sphere, and democratic governance. Of these, he claims that the reconceptualization of social relations as an inter-connected economic system is one of the most profound changes wrought by the modern social order (2004:76). This idea is not unfamiliar to Melanesianists: Strathern (1988:135) earlier described similar relations between persons as the ‘commodity root metaphor’ of Western society, whereby individuals relate to each other as proprietors of themselves (cf. Sykes 2007a). Studies of gender and Christianity in Melanesia and elsewhere have focused on questions of morality and personhood but there is scope to resituate these insights, taking into account the central place of the economy within modern social imaginaries and the economy itself as a metaphor for social relations.

The elaborate fast money scheme U-Vistract (see below) offers a unique ethnographic grounding for such an endeavour because of its deployment of economic and religious fantasies that provided a powerful articulation of the modern Papua New Guinean social imaginary (Cox 2011, 2013). Like mass Ponzi scams elsewhere, U-Vistract's history enables us to trace and understand shifts in social and moral attitudes to wealth, money, and the economy. Anthropologists have documented these relationships elsewhere. Verdery (1995) showed how the Romanian scam, Caritas, mediated ideas of prosperity that were seen as foreign and Western and allowed Romanians to appropriate these imaginings as a new national project. This required moral re-evaluations of money, work, and capital. These processes are also noted by Borenstein (1999) in Russia, Berdahl (2010) in Germany, and Musaraj (2011) in Albania. Apter (1999) and Smith (2007) make similar observations about the place of ‘419’ scams1 in Nigeria. Scams, it seems, often speak of nations and can make explicit the aspirations of emergent ‘imagined communities’. Carvajal et al. (2009:31), writing of Caribbean pyramid schemes, observe that ‘… Ponzi and pyramid schemes are phenomena that can occur in any financial market, industrialized or developing’. Certainly the scale of the Madoff scam in New York and beyond indicates that those near global centres of finance are just as susceptible to being duped as people at the periphery of these systems. Yet the success of U-Vistract in PNG lay in its deployment of the myths of global finance – Papua New Guineans were promised that they too could access the wealth of the stock markets of London and New York (Cox 2011, 2013). But these benefits were conditional upon a transformed Christian character and indeed were the fruits of an imagined Christian reform of global finance. From the global to the nation to the person, U-Vistract told an audacious story that gave voice to the hopes of Papua New Guineans that they could live within a fulfilled, prosperous, and moral modernity.

Background: U-Vistract, Churches, and the Fast Money Rush

U-Vistract was the largest and most persistent of several fast money schemes that came to prominence in PNG in 1999. These Ponzi scams typically promised 100% monthly returns and drew in hundreds of thousands of followers from Port Moresby and around the country. People still recall the queues of people waiting to deposit their money at the height of the schemes' popularity.

Founded by the Bougainvillean, Noah Musingku, U-Vistract initially presented itself as ‘the Bank for Bougainvilleans’ and was welcomed by senior Bougainvillean leaders as a ‘window of hope’ for the war-torn province (Post-Courier 26 August 1999). High-profile Bougainvilleans were paid large sums of money, and Musingku demonstrated the efficacy of U-Vistract by hosting his own lavish wedding and chartering flights so his relatives from Bougainville could attend. This extravagance was not typical of Musingku. His reputation is rather of a somewhat other-worldly devout Christian (lotu man) of sober habits. Today, Musingku remains at large and has retreated beyond the effective reach of the PNG state in his own self-declared ‘Kingdom of Papala’ in Southern Bougainville.

U-Vistract and its associated schemes, such as Money Rain, spread very quickly through the elite circles of Port Moresby. Stories of large payments to prominent people proliferated. Prime Minister Bill Skate and his Treasurer, Iairo Lasaro, were involved with the scheme at an early stage and gave it and other ‘fast money schemes’ exemptions from the normal requirements of the Financial Institutions Act. Skate and Lasaro were among many Born Again Christians drawn into fast money schemes, which used church networks to recruit new investors. U-Vistract required investors to present letters from church ministers attesting to their worthy character.

Stories abound of pastors investing, or of church congregations putting their money into fast money schemes. Many of the large Pentecostal churches of Port Moresby embraced the scheme readily, seeing it in part as a fulfilment of their prosperity theology.

The inevitable crash of the schemes coincided with a change of government. The new Prime Minister, Mekere Morauta, gave the schemes three months to pay their investors or be declared bankrupt, provoking a new round of defences from them. Some attacked the government or claimed it was corruptly withholding investors' rightful money. Others, notably U-Vistract, also intensified their moral demands on investors, stating at a public meeting that ‘only Born Again Christians would be paid’ (Post-Courier, 31 May 2001) (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

Post-Courier 31 May 2001.

As U-Vistract began to lose access to the daily newspapers, it stepped up production of its own propaganda and distributed copies of U-Vistract News to its clients, offering alternative explanations of official attacks on the scheme. Once Musingku returned to Bougainville, this continued through a new magazine, Papala Chronicles, which presented news of payments to investors, attacks on government authorities, warnings about security and Christian homilies, and injunctions about the use of money. These newsletters and magazines are well-produced, mimicking the style of media reports by representing propaganda as news and in the third person, indicating objectivity and distance. Many U-Vistract investors read Papala Chronicles as they would a newspaper, namely as a source of information about current and forthcoming events and indeed the scam reinterpreted current affairs as explanations of why payment was taking longer than expected or as triggers for new fantasies of wealth (cf. Robbins 1998).

The Prosperity Gospel

Academic discussion of Christianity and capitalism inevitably returns to Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1976) but for Pentecostal Christianity globally, ‘prosperity gospels’ are replacing the Protestant ethic of hard work and thrift (Coleman 2000; Hunt 2000). Where older Pentecostal attitudes to money were more ascetic, prosperity theology promises that God will reward tithing and other practices with even greater material returns. This reflects a ‘magical’ approach to generation of wealth that sanctifies consumerist desires and material aspirations (Cox 2013; Robbins 2004b:137) and provides a new arena for Christian consumerism to be cultivated. Prosperity or ‘faith gospel’ thinking emerged from 1960s and 1970s American televangelists and so reflects the material abundance and faith in mass media of that context (Gifford 2001:63).

Pentecostal exegesis of Biblical passages often privileges idiosyncratic literal meanings over conventional metaphorical readings. Writing of the Swedish Faith Church, Coleman gives the example of Mark 11:23–4 where Jesus teaches that believers have the power to cast a mountain into the sea if they are free from doubt (Coleman 2006:45–7). For Faith Christians, this is a model for ‘the embodiment of local Prosperity identity’ through the demonstration of faith in performance of the spoken (and efficacious) word. Such exhortations encourage an ambitious belief, confident enough to put aside and even denounce conventional understandings of how the world works. True believers expect miracles from a powerful God who can release them from the traditional spiritual and attitudinal constraints that trap people in a ‘spirit of poverty’ (Maxwell 1998:358). Breaking the boundaries of possibility and dismissing worldly common sense and historical experience refashions the Christian subject into one now characterized by ambition and expansiveness, even entrepreneurialism. Caroline, a bank teller, exemplified this in her use of the parable of the mustard seed (usually interpreted as a metaphor for the growth of the Christian church) explaining her success in a fast money scheme thus:

Jesus showed the example of big trees growing from small seeds. So my 300 Kina was a small seed and through my prayers to God it grew into 1200 Kina in two months.2

Pentecostal churches teaching ‘prosperity theology’ are growing in PNG (Bainton and Cox 2009; Gibbs 2006; Jorgensen 2005). The extent to which this signals the abandonment of older values of hard work and thrift is debatable. It is unclear that the Protestant work ethic was ever really assimilated into Melanesian ideas of money and modernity, particularly as regards its valorization of hard work as ennobling. Work is just as likely to be seen as a curse requiring the sweat of the brow (Genesis 3:19) but from which there must be some escape to an easier more prosperous life (Eves 2003:531).

Prosperity gospel preachers have few qualms about how wealth is produced within the global capitalist economy. Risk-taking for entrepreneurial purposes is reinterpreted as ‘following God's guidance’ or taking a ‘leap of faith’ and therefore understood as an heroic performance of trust, demonstrating the strength of one's relationship with God. Because the prosperity paradigm is based on abundance, there is no ideology of scarcity that would make the accumulation of wealth morally or spiritually suspect as an improper impoverishment of others (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff 1999; Taussig 1980; Verdery 1995). In fact the reverse is true: wealth is seen and even expected as a sign of divine blessing.

The Papala Chronicles and other U-Vistract propaganda such as the International Bank of Meekamui website ( develop an elaborate and ingenious cosmology, drawing heavily on Neo-Pentecostal prosperity theology. The ‘Bank for Bougainvilleans’ has apparently developed into a ‘Christian ministry’ that will replace the worldly systems of global finance with a ‘Godly system’ that will bring untold prosperity to Christians and the world's poor (Fig. 2).

Figure 2.

Papala Chronicles 18.

In the article above, the vision of U-Vistract as a Christian ministry comes to the fore over its promises of making money. The moral code for investors is invoked, and the moral jeopardy of money is addressed. Money looms as a particular threat to domestic stability and so Musingku warns against men leaving their wives. Of note is the place of the nuclear family (couples, not lineage or clan) as the social unit threatened by this potential misuse of money and presumed to be the unit that should benefit from investment used properly. Other ‘immoral activities’, such as ‘rape, drunkenness and fighting’ appear to be distinctively male vices and are invoked to explain why, yet again, the promised money has not been paid to investors. We shall return to the question of male vices below but here note that the male vices appear to be not simply an individual moral peril but a threat to the social order constituted by Christian nuclear families.

Christian Subjects: Tithing, Prosperity, and Providence

The vision of wealth elaborated by the prosperity gospel and mediated by U-Vistract to its investors should not simply be equated with greed or material accumulation, or even with neoliberal economic transformations (Barker 2007; cf. Bainton and Cox 2009). Rather, it implies a Christianity that has mastered modernity and that creates a new global community of successful, prosperous, and fulfilled individuals. Debates about the ways in which Christianity generally, or Neo-Pentecostalism distinctively, might prepare or predispose non-modern subjects for integration into the capitalist economy tend to take an instrumentalist turn. For example, Pentecostals (also Seventh-Day Adventists (Jebens 2005) ) are sometimes thought to make better employees because of their personal discipline and sobriety. Repudiating vices such as gambling and drink may also allow Christians to accumulate wealth (Robbins 2004b:136). We noted Coleman's argument about the entrepreneurial self of prosperity Christianity. This is not only an adaptation to neoliberal capitalism but suggests that Pentecostalism succeeds because it offers the promise of a fuller experience of modernity that ‘can open up new horizons for developing the self’ (Josephides 2005:116).

The practice of tithing (giving ten per cent of one's income to the church) may make Pentecostal churches financially independent (Robbins 2004b:131) but it also marks a measureable commitment to the new beliefs and a test of faith that such an investment will be rewarded. Tithing is seen by Pentecostals as a spiritual discipline that brings the believer into a closer affective relationship with God. Such disciplines constitute part of a more sentimental Christian self that both undertakes surveillance of feelings, particularly anger, and cultivates empathy for others and emotional intimacy in interpersonal relationships. Nurturing such subjectivities does not automatically create the habitus of prosperity Christianity. Rather, this new, expansive self must be worked at continuously in order to remain subordinated to God and liberated from sinful desires (Eves 2007:116). In tithing generously, Pentecostals actively work on their personal disciplines in relation to money. Giving to Christian causes is elevated from mere duty to an act of spiritual intimacy, connecting the believer more closely to God as a person. Therefore, neo-Pentecostals are not mere passive beneficiaries of miraculously produced wealth. As Dorothy puts it:

For example, one of them is tithing. It's an obligatory issue. You have to give one tenth to the Lord. I knew of this in the United Church but there it's on an ad hoc basis. You give but it doesn't really matter. Boubou [the United Church practice of special fund-raising] is just a once off but tithes are every fortnight. It's spiritual, not like paying a membership fee for a club, because I'm giving to somebody who isn't seen. I'm giving it to my pastor but I believe I'm giving it to the Lord.

Dorothy, a middle aged office worker who did not invest in any fast money schemes, joined a Pentecostal church in Madang, moving from the United Church she had grown up in in Rabaul. She describes her reasons for this transition in these terms: ‘… there's a lot of truths in the Bible that I'd heard about in the United Church but they are teachings of spiritual importance that [Pentecostals] put into practice’. For Dorothy, tithing is one of these truths and characterizes the revitalized faith she has found in Pentecostalism.

I'm investing but not in fast money schemes. I'm investing in shares through BSP Capital (with the bank). It's better to buy shares than fast money schemes. There's nothing about fast money schemes in my church. Nowadays they're talking about prosperity in church now. A person who's filled with the Holy Spirit: they can tell fast money schemes are not right. But you really have to study the Word of God. If the Holy Spirit is in you, he's your teacher. Some preachers they're just banking on worldly schemes to prosper. Prosperity is not worldly but has a deeper meaning. I mean, you wake up in the morning and come to work: that's prosperity; just the joy of life.

Dorothy is aware of popular characterizations of Pentecostals as avaricious. Her own church had an incident where the pastor stole large sums of money from the congregation. However, while this might typify Pentecostals as far as outsiders are concerned, for Dorothy, this is simply an instance of sinful behaviour that contradicts the true spiritual teaching that has drawn her into the Pentecostal church. She is prosperous enough to have a surplus that she invests in shares and has mastered the modern disciplines of working, earning, saving, and even investing but the ‘joy of life’ is the true meaning of prosperity, even if others are seduced by worldly desires.

Ambrose, a faithful U-Vistract investor, also from Madang makes a similar point:

We have teachings on stewardship. How to look after your money, how to share, how to use money how to give back to God. If my wife gets 1K from the market, she gives 10t to God. 90t to us but 10% to God. We give it and that is it, we don't ask. We say ‘Thank you God for giving us this money’.

How we use money in the village: we make sure we have kerosene, soap, salt, sugar, tea. We use money wisely: no drinking, gambling, woman, unnecessary things. Have to save for brideprice, funerals and compensation. I should be ready. So I save for brideprice. The husband himself has to save up but the whole family will come together with whatever they have: food, money, clothes. The girl's parents set the price. We help relatives of the deceased buy clothes, food, money to feed to mourners, often transport. The pastor will help with funeral costs and so on. The congregation contributes.

Do not let money control your lives. You'll have to control money, so you don't fall into temptation. It is good in itself, so long as we don't let it control us. You give to Him and He gives back. When you come under God's discipline, you give what he desires, then God in return gives back to us. It could be a promotion, more food in your garden, that's what we expect. God talks to people to give you something when you are in desperate need. Maybe you have no bus fare but someone pays the fare for you. God is talking to them to give – that's how we experience it.

Like Dorothy, Ambrose experiences tithing as an intimate practice as he lives under ‘God's discipline’. This discipline is personalized: God is a benign parental figure protecting his children from temptation and intervening when they have needs. However, Ambrose stresses the link between giving and receiving and reveals a calculus of entitlement that characterizes prosperity theology.

Ambrose believes he will be paid by U-Vistract and that payment is imminent. Various points of the U-Vistract story are interpreted as signs that the promised payments are finally coming. Indeed, he believes people elsewhere are already being paid – in Bougainville and even Australia. U-Vistract encouraged such thinking by referring to different phases of establishing the system and explained these in bureaucratic terms, setting in place proper systems for managing the payments and negotiating with overseas banks and financial houses (Musingku 1999).

Despite these heightened expectations, Ambrose's aspirations are actually rather humble. His talk is of stewardship rather than the realization of extraordinary wealth. God's hand is seen in small things such as being given a bus fare when you have no money. Modest expenses of soap and kerosene are mentioned; not the extravagances of hotels, big houses, cars, and travel. Ambrose finds comfort in the idea that he has a U-Vistract account of K105,000 but also believes that his simple stewardship of resources, including tithing and saving for future expenses, place him in the right relationship to God such that he can enjoy a reasonable standard of living. Gardens provide for basic needs and so allow him to take risks in enterprises such as U-Vistract. Ambrose may hope for financial transformation but, at heart, his expectations are more realistic. While all things are theologically possible through Christ, sustaining fantastical hopes of transformation is difficult in the context of daily life (cf. the Urapmin cyclical revivals in Robbins 2004a). Ambrose moves through his heightened expectations of becoming a millionaire to settle into a more familiar narrative of the thrift required to live on minimal income in the village; the importance of gardens for food production and the reassertion that only a small range of consumer goods (soap and kerosene) are necessities.

These examples of tithing demonstrate aspects of governance of the self that are typical of evangelical Christianity and extend beyond exceptional cases of generosity to everyday routines and attitudes to money. This cultivation of the Christian self is founded upon a submission to God's will and repudiation of one's own wilfulness (Robbins 2004a). The new Christian self is focused on an inner spiritual life that requires vigilant moral surveillance to avoid being spoiled ‘by feeling and expressing anger and by “pushing” others in ways that make them angry’ (Robbins 2005:55). Such dispositions implicitly undermine any residual social legitimacy for domestic violence.

However, the Christian life is not all sin and self-surveillance. Robbins's Urapmin cases emphasize the consciousness of sin where the urban Pentecostals we have spoken with stress ‘freedom in the Spirit’ and the intimacy of a relationship with God. As Dorothy puts it, Pentecostalism offers access to a fuller experience of ‘the joy of life’. Michaela, a clerk in a Port Moresby legal office, elaborated this notion further, explaining that in making decisions about her savings deposits she ‘talks with Jesus as a friend’. Gewertz and Errington (1996) argue a similar case for the charismatic Catholic fellowship group, Antioch, which was characterized by ‘a subjectivity that elicited responses of empathetic identification’. These more sentimental aspects of the self also imply Christian persons whose relationships are characterized by love and empathy and that reorient notions of male dominance, even if the logic of hierarchical complementarity more often wins out in practice over genuine respect for women.

The Gender of the Model Investor: Male Vices

In conjuring a model Christian investor, U-Vistract moved away from moral questions about the origins of money, placing the moral weight on the personal ethical qualities of investors; their worthiness before God by virtue of their proprietorship of the self. Appropriate demeanours of patience and faith, with accompanying practices of prayer for the scheme's success, modelled the positive elements of the ideal investor while negative admonitions against the ever-present temptations of drink, gambling, and womanizing served to draw boundaries and were used to explain the scheme's failure to pay or to expel transgressors from membership. Such things are forbidden in some detail (and Musingku's own sexual propriety emphasized) in a ‘Code of Work Ethics’ published in the Papala Chronicles as an example to other investors (Memoinenu 2005).

Noah Musingku emerges as a model Christian man. Many investors describe him as ‘God-fearing’, quiet, thoughtful, somewhat eccentric in his habits but not prone to violence, drunkenness, or womanizing. With the exception of his lavish wedding, he is not given to extravagance or self-aggrandisement. This claim might seem strange for someone who has anointed himself King but Musingku presents himself (e.g., Musingku 2009) as a humble servant of God, obediently fulfilling a divine plan despite the hardships and persecutions this means for him personally. This evocation of the Biblical suffering servant stands Musingku in sharp contrast to the political leaders of the nation who are widely condemned as corrupt and morally weak, not least in relation to the temptations of women, drink, and gambling.

The vices that U-Vistract sought to guard against are predominantly male. In PNG, men are often regarded as bad managers of money, prone to wasteful and careless expenditure (Sykes 2007b:259; Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1997). Alcohol in particular has a direct impact on women in the form of domestic violence (Membup and Macintyre 2000:25–6; Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1993b:67). The vices listed, emblems of men's irresponsible expenditure, represent direct threats to household budgets across the country. Macintyre (2003:126) argues that, despite an influx of money during the construction of the Lihir gold mine, there was no benefit to women because male workers shared little of their wages within the household and their labour was withdrawn from the village sphere, creating more (unpaid) work for women.

Membup and Macintyre (2000:26) found that where Lihirian men spent upwards of 50% of their wages on beer, women gave a similar proportion of their (much lower) incomes to church or women's groups. Men's indulgence is counterpointed with women's Christian sacrifice. This duality is also reflected in U-Vistract's literature and practices, raising questions of the gender of the ideal investor. U-Vistract's admonitions against male vices might serve as a signal that conventional masculinity can be contained by the scheme, marking U-Vistract as a place where women particularly can be confident of the genuine transformative power of Christianity.

These vices are located within a particular class of men as they characterize undesirable behaviour common to politicians and other ‘big shots’ (Martin 2007, 2010) or at least heads of households; men with responsibilities (cf. Gewertz and Errington 2010:114). Excessive consumption of alcohol and public drunkenness are routine practices of male sociality that affirm the participants' mastery of modernity (Macintyre 2008). Significant also are the male vices not listed: while identifiably male, there is no trace of the bravado of listless raskol youth, whose vices go beyond drinking, gambling ,and womanizing to include the even more socially destabilizing vices of intimidation, violence, robbery, guns, and drugs. U-Vistract is appealing to a type of man who has some respectability and the possibility of gaining more respect. He might attempt to pursue this goal through enhanced male sociality in drinking alcohol but U-Vistract expressly warns against this, favouring a domestic role for men as responsible heads of their households and so virtuous husbands.

Fast money schemes could also play upon male vices to make investing seem responsible. Michael explains how his Chimbu uncle was manipulated into seeing the Papalain scam (another large fast money scheme) as a morally superior activity when set against traditional male vices:

These people go around and campaign. They use arguments and language that are very convincing, so people really believed in them. My uncle told me, ‘K50! If I take it to a beer club, I'll buy twelve bottles and that's the end of it. But if I deposit it in Papalain, it's better than going to a store’. That's what they told him. It's not good for my uncle to contribute this Kina but he was convinced through this campaign so he thought it's good to contribute to the scheme. These people are cunning. They can change around to confuse the minds of the people and that's the language they use.

Michael sees his uncle as being deceived by the promise of mastering the financial disciplines of saving and investment (cf. Bainton 2011) set against modern male sociality as represented by drinking beer. A similar negative contrast of gambling and financial investment was seen by one woman as ‘an act of desperation by people who don't understand how money works …’ (Macintyre 2011:115). U-Vistract presented itself as able to curtail these male vices and redirect men into productive and fulfilling pursuits.

‘Because She's My Wife and I Love Her’: A Revitalized Christian Domestic Moral Economy

The Lihirian experience of men failing to redistribute their earnings to the household is replicated in many comparable situations around the country (Koczberski 2011). Nevertheless, some husbands do hand over their pay packets or a portion thereof to their wives in order to moderate these discretionary male expenses and establish their credentials as responsible Christian heads of their households. Indeed, Ambrose makes the following observations, noting that his evangelical conversion reoriented his relationship to his wife and their management of household monies:

In 1997, when I heard about Money Rain, I put in K2000 and then a few weeks later I heard about U-Vistract and I put in K1500. I already had some savings but I kept half. I didn't put everything in. At that time I was working as a Telikom Officer, earning about K200 or 250 a fortnight. I budget myself well on those fortnightly wages. I looked after my family, my children, myself.

I became a Christian about 1988. It was in Wewak. I was a Catholic but I joined a different denomination, the Evangelical Brotherhood Church. … When I became a Christian I knew how to look after my wife. I give money to my wife and she gives money back to me.

Women in PNG ask to see pay packets. Men are always the boss. He is the head of the family he controls everything and makes all the decisions but the wife just follows. But now people are changing due to colonisation. The husband has to change. So I changed my attitude at church. I trusted her to take full responsibility because she's my wife and I love her. She had Standard Six education. In Madang I'm Evangelical Brotherhood Church but I go to the Christian Outreach Centre.

Here risks of male dissipation are curtailed by handing responsibility to the woman as the dependable household manager, a change in relations that flows from Christian conversion. Strathern (1975:321) notes precedents among Hagen migrants in Port Moresby as pragmatic action to avoid male dissipation but without the explicitly Christian rationale Ambrose gives, nor the expectation of transformation.

However, as Ambrose himself adds, this transformation is not simply a pragmatic way of managing money more effectively. It is based on a new affective disposition where a man is expected to love his wife in a more equal conjugal relationship, an understanding of marriage that owes much to the circulation of global images, not least including Christianity (Rosi and Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1993). While not entirely free of hierarchical relationships, this Christian companionate marriage is characterized by mutual love, not male dominance. Indeed, men like Ambrose understand this love as deeply fulfilling for themselves and their wives. Wardlow (2006a:63) argues that Christian ‘love based unions’ are ‘an essential aspect of modern personhood’. In the context of PNG Anglicans, Anderson (2012:11) has identified a very similar ‘move away from the macho connotations of being a “real man” …’ to a Christian masculinity characterized by listening and spending time with other people, particularly family (cf. Wardlow 2006b:128). However, such ideals stand in considerable contrast to marriage practices prevalent across PNG, where violence against women is severe and unexceptional (Jolly 2012; Zimmer-Tamakoshi 2012), where educated men may profess ideologies of romance in courtship but expect submission in marriage (Rosi and Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1993), and where educated women increasingly reject the enforced inequalities of marriage, preferring individual freedoms and professional fulfilment (Macintyre 2011; Spark 2011, 2014).

Ambrose presents a counter-hegemonic masculinity in an adaptive mode. This contrasts with the ‘backlash’ movement in Vanuatu described by Jack Taylor as ‘struggling to cope with a profound sense of disempowerment and both personal and cultural loss stemming from what they see as large-scale socio-economic, political and ideological changes attached to neo-colonialism’ (Taylor 2008:172). If these men see gender equity as a neo-colonial imposition, Ambrose sees it as an aspect of being successfully modern. Where the Ni-Vanuatu men are threatened by the usurpation of their masculine status and power, Ambrose sees the cultivation of a more caring male self as a necessary Christian rupture with tradition and thus a stepping stone towards a more successful engagement with the modern world.

Zimmer-Tamakoshi (1993a:101) notes the role for Gende women living in Goroka of protecting their families from the ‘dangers and temptations in town like drinking, crime and prostitution’ that also redirects wasteful male expenditure to more productive aims such as children's education. In the U-Vistract case, the disciplines of handling money are certainly emphasized but, influenced by the prosperity gospel, virtuous handling of money is not simply about avoiding vice or even thrift and making productive investments. Rather the U-Vistract ethic embraces a more expansive entrepreneurial approach to money where risks must be taken in faith in order to fulfil the promise of prosperity.

U-Vistract offered not only the fulfilment of desire but the promise of transforming desires from venal male sins to respectable Christian virtues. For women this included the prospect of new men who, like Ambrose, acknowledge that ‘the husband has to change’. This is not to argue that U-Vistract has any genuinely emancipatory value for women. If the ideal investor is not prone to the national male vices, he is still implicitly a male figure, albeit a regenerate one (cf. Robbins 2004b:133 on the role of Pentecostal Christianity in condemning traditional male activities while upholding the domestic sphere).

Women as the Deserving Poor

The perils of male vices are matched with images of women occupying conservative social roles in U-Vistract propaganda. Although some women, such as the Madang agent, a rather flamboyant Bougainvillean woman, were able to take on local leadership roles in promoting the scam at a local level, the various pseudo-dignitaries (Governors and so forth) presented in Papala Chronicles are all male. Gorethy Kenneth, a journalist with the Post-Courier, recently ventured to Musingku's headquarters in Tonu and was surprised at arriving to find that she was inappropriately dressed. Wearing ‘three-quarter pants’ was inappropriate for meeting the King, and protocol officers provided her with a long skirt ‘that looked like a curtain’ (Kenneth 2010). Women wearing trousers or shorts is surprisingly controversial in contemporary PNG and is widely regarded as precociously modern if not rather indecent (Macintyre 2011:100; Spark 2014; cf. Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1993b on miniskirts). One educated Pentecostal woman recently spoke of how her boyfriend had instructed her that she would not be wearing three-quarter length pants again now that they were seeing each other. Maintaining this protocol is an indication of U-Vistract's conservative view of women as modest, sexually abstemious and obedient mothers (Fig. 3).

Figure 3.

Sapan 2005a.

On the rare occasions when women feature in U-Vistract propaganda, they are usually presented as recipients of the scheme's largesse or as micro-entrepreneurs. These roles for women are typical of the ways the male elite of PNG marginalize women's interests by consistently promoting a ‘myth of chaste and selfless village women contrasting with sexually promiscuous Westernized women living in selfish abundance in town’ (Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1993b:62). Within this gendered national framework, also shared by a large number of urban and rural women, good women exhibit the disciplines of good housekeeping (see also Strathern 1999:93) and do not waste money on frivolous personal expenditure such as Western fashions, but take pride in channelling their resources into the family (Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1993b:84).

Sapan 2005a (Fig. 3) boasts of the scheme's gender equality within the sort of idealized Christian companionate marriage affirmed by Ambrose. However, it locates the potential expenditure of women who receive U-Vistract payments squarely within the domestic realm where women are now able to ‘decide with authority what they want to buy for their families’. Here, as in Ambrose's testimony, women are trusted with responsibility for household expenditure. The article implies that the women are worthy recipients of this largesse, having suffered through the Bougainville crisis, and so represents women as the deserving rural poor for a presumed urban audience.

Cosmopolitan Sentiments

The use of the rural poor, widows, and children as worthy beneficiaries in the U-Vistract propaganda evokes Black's research into ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘a mode of belonging that implies a heightened sense of responsibility for an expanded view of community’ (Black 2009:169). Sentimentality, ‘emotionally suffused sympathy for others’ is, for Black, the key to understanding how cosmopolitanism produces affective ethical engagements that are not grounded in more familiar forms of social identity based on nationalism or ethnicity. For Sykes (2005:171), the expression of sentiment is a defining element of the ‘possessive individual’. This affective self does not simply take the form of meeting emotional needs through romantic engagements and companionate marriage but extends into moral action on behalf of others.

Black studied a high-profile American microfinance website, Kiva, where metropolitan donors from the USA and other developed countries exercise their social responsibilities by lending money to micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries. Kiva used testimonies from its clients and linked them with the programme's donors through its website. The sentimentality of these narratives fostered social connection aimed at linking donors and recipients in relationships of mutual respect. Black (2009:270) notes the use of ‘familiar sentimental tropes, such as the woman in distress, the self-sacrificial mother, and the virtuous poor’ in the Kiva narratives. U-Vistract websites and other propaganda used very similar approaches, presenting testimonies of successful investors as the deserving poor whose lives have been transformed. Papala Chronicles gave particular attention to payment of school fees by U-Vistract. Several stories described benefits to schools, parents, widows, and children. In the case of Pricilla (below), a young U-Vistract client starting a business, U-Vistract ‘guarantee[d] the financial capacity’ to help widows and orphans: the paradigmatic Biblical deserving poor (Fig. 4).

Figure 4.

Sapan 2005b.

‘Deserving poor’ narratives were designed to appeal to the cosmopolitanism of middle-class Papua New Guineans. U-Vistract's use of sentimentality re-embeds investors in a new community that will ultimately redeem the nation.

This new community is based on voluntaristic Christian moral principles, not on greed or selfishness. Schram (2010) makes a convincing case that Auhelawa tensions between ideas of business and charity reflect a ‘moral metalanguage’ that entails a distinct hierarchy of values. Money emerges not as a threat to the Auhelawa moral order but as an opportunity to remake the community as a Christian society in accordance with these values. The Christian model is based on voluntarism, not ‘the obligations of normal sociality’ (2010:465). Like the cosmopolitanism outlined above, Auhelawa enjoys a new set of social relations, ‘based on an ethic of mutuality and emotional intimacy, rather than respect and reciprocity’ (2010:464). A similar mutuality and intimacy can certainly be found in Pentecostal churches and more broadly among other Christians (e.g., Macintyre 2011:105). These dispositions stand in stark contrast to the disturbing lack of empathy towards women documented by Zorn (2012) and Hukula (2012).

In its propaganda, U-Vistract engendered a voluntaristic communalism similar to what Schram describes. Yet, as Fassin (2011) reminds us, even the ‘pure gift’ relationships of donor and worthy recipient imply hierarchical difference. The images of women, then, speak not only to Papua New Guinean national stereotypes of chaste village women but international discourses of (deserving) aid recipients that implicitly locate U-Vistract investors as aid donors enacting a cosmopolitan moral sensibility. This sentimental cosmopolitanism was highly attractive to middle-class Papua New Guineans sensitive to accusations of selfishness levelled by wantoks and perhaps discomforted by their own practices of class distinction and exclusion, including the rehearsal of individualistic ethics that relieve the middle classes from any moral obligation to the poor (or replace these obligations with systems of patronage; Cox 2009, 2011).

Gewertz and Errington (1999) note the threat that the poor pose to the middle classes in PNG. They see middle-class discourse as defensive of private property rights against claims of rural kin on the one hand and under-socialized criminal urban grassroots on the other. U-Vistract propaganda mediated these class distinctions by portraying the poor, not merely as morally deserving but as hearteningly capable of achieving their own development without making undue demands on middle-class resources. Through entrepreneurial engagements with U-Vistract, the fantasy of independent grassroots development upheld by microfinance programs and other interventions (Bainton 2011; Gewertz and Errington 1998) could be realized, validating the model and its class-based sensibilities.

Pentecostal Modernity and Moral Sentiments

We have argued here that, alongside neoliberal restructuring, rampant consumerism, and inequalities of wealth, sentimental dispositions form part of the flow of global culture and aspirational images of modern personhood. Indeed, Fassin (2011) would argue that humanitarian sentiments are now entrenched within global moral economies or social imaginaries. In PNG and elsewhere, Pentecostal discourse and practices have provided a means of encompassing these new subjectivities – in the process making them morally safe for those whose position in the modern world is unsettled and ambiguous.

U-Vistract did not succeed because it mimicked Pentecostalism, rather it constructed a parallel framework for making sense of already circulating images and ideas of money, wealth, and prosperity. These global images are bewildering, not least because of their possible moral implications. Like Pentecostalism, U-Vistract provided a Christian moral system that enabled such images to be appropriated and domesticated for a broad Papua New Guinean audience. Neo-Pentecostalism and U-Vistract both provided organizational and ideological structures through which individuals could selectively appropriate global imaginings of wealth and prosperity.

U-Vistract's success in mediating global images of prosperity lays in its ability to locate them convincingly within PNG. This required a critique that addressed popular narratives of the failure of development due to corruption and greed and because of the influence of foreign economic interests. To these national debates, U-Vistract also brought Christian moral censure of individual investors and imagined a transnational Christian community and financial system that would restore hopes for egalitarian development. At each scale, U-Vistract offered resolution of disparities. This articulation of scale-making projects re-embedded Papua New Guineans in a new Christian ecumene connected to global flows of wealth. In this way it addressed individuals' immediate desires for money but also appealed to the common good and altruism as much as to personal greed.

Gender relations characteristic of Pentecostal prosperity theology are encoded in U-Vistract's propaganda and emerge also from interviews with investors. Intrinsic to the scheme's success was its appeal to a mastered modernity: the promise of disciplined Christian investors benefiting from the prosperity they deserved. Like Pentecostalism, U-Vistract cultivated a ready-made Christian self that not only had the discipline to control anger and avoid male vices but also sufficient empathy to expand itself into cosmopolitan moral engagements with strangers. These glimpses of a masculinity that seeks to be humble, considerate, and loving to women are by no means isolated or unique to Pentecostalism. Neither are they sufficient in a context of sustained violent humiliation of women. Nor are they a complete scam, as the focus on U-Vistract in this article might imply. Rather, they point to what might be possible as a gentler masculinity articulates itself and finds its bearings in a modern social imaginary that is as yet at its beginnings in PNG.


We thank all the Papua New Guineans who agreed to participate in our research, part of a larger project entitled ‘Managing Modernity’. The research on which this article was based was funded by a Discovery Grant from the Australian Research Council.


  1. 1

    419 is the relevant clause of Nigeria's anti-fraud legislation and now a vernacular term for all fraud in Nigeria (Smith 2007:19–20).

  2. 2

    All informants have been given pseudonyms. ‘Caroline’ was interviewed in Port Moresby by Macintyre in 2002. The other interviews were with Cox in Madang in 2009.