By Jeff Mallinson –
My title is adapted from the 1987 film “North Shore,” but it could easily apply to many of the well-meaning Western Christians who tried to evangelize Hawaii. Folks of European descent received the appellation Haole, which means “no breath,” perhaps because these foreigners didn’t know how to perform an intriguing and intimate Polynesian greeting practice, where peers would touch noses in order to breathe each other’s ha, or breath. In a similar way, these missionaries often had a hard time learning to “breathe” the indigenous air, develop mutual relationships, and appropriately exhale their message into the local atmosphere. To the Hawaiians, the foreign evangelists often came across not only as people uninterested in getting to know the culture of the Hawaiians, but also as folks who seemed devoid of spirit. How then did Christianity become embraced by many native Hawaiians?
On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, we had the chance to explore this question with Clarence De Lude III, a native Hawaiian, staff member of Lutheran Indian Ministries, and descendent of Hewahewa, who was the Kahuna Nui (high priest) of Kamehameha I. Despite being a descendent of Pa`ao, who originally helped bring the kapu (taboo) system to Hawaii, Hewahewa was instrumental in overthrowing the old religious system, shortly before Christian missionaries arrived in 1820. Reminiscent of the Zurich Reformation’s affair of the sausages, Hewahewa and King Liholiho and the queens deliberately broke kapu rules: first by dining together and then by burning the heiau (temple). Hewahewa, it is said, then awaited a new theology that would bring a true understanding of what he said he’d always suspected: that there was only one great God, who lived in the skies. After discovering Christianity, Hewahewa commended it to other leaders throughout the kingdom.
The missionaries’ journals indicate that they distrusted Hewahewa, who they alleged was a drunk with a violent history (De Lude says these claims were slanderous, offensive and inconsistent). Nonetheless, he aided the missionaries’ cause by composing a pro-Jesus chant to be recited in the presence of Boki, the Royal Governor of Oahu, with whom the missionaries were scheduled to meet. One can find the text of and commentary on the chant here, along with this translation:
Stand, stand there, stand there
Stand in full rows, stand there
Lest you be in dark night there, black there
Bristly, unreceptive insides. Crowd together, stand there.
A great god, a powerful god
A living god, a lasting god
Jehovah, the main branch from the sky.
A god living in the greatest distance
On the tip of the wind
Inside the cloud rolling in the distance
On the tip of the wind
Inside the cloud rolling in the distant space
A mist standing on the earth
A rainbow circle standing on the ocean.
Jesus, our loosener of faults,
From the path of Kahiki to Hawai’i here
From the zenith to the horizon.
The rain sprays toward us from the sky
Jehovah the Highest, our desire.
Hymn [sing to] the rolling sky.
The earth chants and rejoices.
The word is obtained
Knowledge, power, life.
Meet before the face of Boki
Before the face of the lord of lasting power.
Pray correctly to Jehovah
For a powerful priest for the islands
Like a torch to see the great fault (interestingly, the word for fault is hewa; I am not qualified to assert whether this is an intentional double meaning, given the name Hewahewa)
So that we may all live
Live through Jesus.
In this story, one finds that effective missionary work involved respecting the people of Hawaii and their ability to discuss theological matters amongst each other, with respectful catechesis offered by the missionaries. The history of missionary work in Hawaii is full of good intentions gone wrong and bad intentions cloaked in religious garb. But not all of the history is lamentable.
“The quick story,” explains De Lude, “is that missions did work when the white Americans were helpful in teaching the natives and working with natives.” For example, Captain Caleb Britnall encountered a young Hawaiian named Obookiah, who was ten when enemy warriors slaughtered his family. At the lad’s request, Britnall took the orphan to New England, where he lived in various family homes near Yale University. There, a student named Edwin W. Dwight heard him complaining that no one would give him an education. Dwight responded by tutoring and befriending Obookiah and even introduced him to an important relative, Timothy Dwight IV, who was Yale’s president. The friendships and mutual learning that occurred cultivated a new generation of missionaries, including Polynesians and Native Americans who asked to return to their homelands in order to share the Gospel.
Our pressing questions—whatever our ancestry—are questions posed to all humanity.
One of those questions is how to break free from the human tendency to concoct superfluous and burdensome rituals and codes, as if jumping through artificial hoops could distract gods and men from the fact that we all consistently fail to uphold the moral law. My particular Christian tradition traces its story back to 1517, when Martin Luther worked to shake off the burdens of a graceless religious system. Similarly, Hewahewa and Obookiah sought spiritual peace by shaking off an old system that was leading to the literal death of code-breakers. Surely, the Gospel of freedom is not the exclusive property of any one culture.
As far as I can tell, there are only four options left to us regarding this matter. 1) We can try to appease divine wrath through violence, legalism, and ritual as the religious elite in both Europe and Hawaii had attempted. 2) We can adhere to a particular religion for the sake of national pride, perhaps believing it half-heartedly but defending it whole-heartedly to prove our patriotism. 3) We can reject the whole spiritual quest as superstitious and misguided. Or, 4) we can stand shoulder to shoulder with all our brothers and sisters around the world and work together to carry our broken, legalistic shackles to the foot of the Cross. Who wants to join me in picking option four?
We must repent of ways in which we allowed our law-loving and power-hungry selves to conflate the message of Jesus with cultural imperialism. We must also repent of what we’ve left undone, such as not learning enough about Hawaiian culture to know how words and actions might be perceived, thus becoming so Haole, we didn’t know we were Haole. Note that repentance does not require us to be so bashful and ashamed about past mistakes that we avoid sincere dialog about faith. To avoid sharing the hope that is within us for the sake of feigned cultural sensitivity seems either patronizing or slothful. Nonetheless, we must conduct our conversations in the context of mutual respect and true friendship.
So, I hold my nose out to you dear reader; let’s inhale and exhale together. And may the aroma of Reconciliation be ever on our breath. Mahalo.
Composed in a Hookah lounge, sipping sparkling water, between chapters of Hunter S. Thompson, The Curse of Lono.