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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 4, 2002

Hawaiian culture, Christianity still at odds

 •  Organizer says selection of Hawai'i was 'God's will'

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Choir members from left, Trevor Maunakea, Christina Jahrling, Ruby Kaneao and Momi Maunakea, harmonize during practice at Kaumakapili Church.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

The subject has been one for strong debate in recent years as those who advocate the resurgence of Native Hawaiian cultural traditions are split over whether Christianity can be reconciled with these aims.

Hawaiian scholar Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, director of the University of Hawai'i-Manoa's Kamakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies and author of "Native Land and Foreign Desires," sees Christianization as playing a part in the demise of her culture.

The concept of a single deity didn't — and still doesn't — sit well with Hawaiians, she said, adding she has an affection for the 40,000 gods of her ancestors.

"I see a kukui tree, and know Lono lives here," she said. "I see goddess Kaneiawai rushing by in water. I see gods in every aspect of the world."

Today's Hawaiian Christians are either fooling themselves about giving up that part of their culture or "they live in a constant state of denial about what Christian churches are asking them to do," she said.

The Rev. David Kauweloa Kaupu, who has dedicated his life to spreading the Christian gospel, disagrees with this viewpoint. Kaupu is former chaplain of Kamehameha Schools and now is kahu (pastor) of Kaumakapili Church, a position he has held since 1995.

"I have no problems like Lilikala, trying to feel my way as a Hawaiian into my faith as Christian," he said. "... We allow many traditions of old to factor into our contemporary style of believing."

About 80 percent of today's Hawaiians have Christian leanings, estimates the Rev. Darrow Aiona, rector at St. Mark's Episcopal church in Kapahulu, who did his sociology thesis on the splintering of the Hawaiian Congregational church.

A parallel plight

Native Hawaiians' history parallels the plight of other indigenous peoples, notes Mike Carney, whose book, "Native American Higher Education and History in the U.S." was published in 1999.

When Westerners began to colonize areas inhabited by native people in the Americas, Christian missionaries and religious officials typically took responsibility for the education and conversion of the natives, he said. "Basically, church is seen as the civilizing force."

When missionaries "civilized," they treated native religions as pagan, he said.

Carney paused as he considered why Native Americans would respond by adopting the faith system of invaders.

"Maybe it was a stopgap," he said. "(They thought,) 'We're stuck with this, being overrun. We'll get into this religion business, see if their God will save us from this.' "

Carney cited, as a possible parallel, the Ghost Dance movement that started in the Dakota region in the 1870s. A self-proclaimed "messiah," Jack Wilson, took the Indian name Wovoka and began preaching that he could save Native Americans and bring back the buffalo. Paiute, Sioux, Cheyenne and some Lakota in 1890 came to Wounded Knee Creek to pray, wearing white muslin "Ghost Dance" shirts.

For the Native Americans, this experiment in hybrid religion did not have a happy ending. U.S. troops saw in this peaceful gathering a chance to capture Sitting Bull. The resulting massacre was the final defeat of the Sioux.

The colonization of Hawai'i wasn't as violent, though foreign disease nearly obliterated the native population within 100 years of the arrival of Capt. James Cook, and the Western-inspired Great Mahele (division of land) in the mid-19th century led to widespread native landlessness.

One way to ameliorate the effects of colonization was to take a Western religion and use it as a shield for protection, Kame'eleihiwa said. Her ancestors could then turn the tables on the invaders by saying "Remember compassion? Have compassion for us. Thou shalt not kill? Don't kill us," she suggested.

"If we could just get Westerners to follow Western religion, we'd be just fine," Kame'eleihiwa said.

The clothes and Calvinist customs from missionary days "were very harsh for us," Kame'eleihiwa said. "No dancing of hula? No celebration of life?" she asked. "That created a dichotomy in the Hawaiian mind about the correct thing to do."

The benefit of language

While acknowledging the power that Christian missionaries gained over Hawaiians in the 19th century, many Hawaiians point to benefits brought by these emissaries.

Kaupu noted that when missionaries first arrived, they were not readily accepted. Kamehameha II allowed them to stay on the condition they wouldn't stir up people with religious thought.

Critics of the missionaries say they used education to control the Hawaiians. "Nevertheless, they provided for us the most important thing, written language," Kaupu said.

"Missionaries came to do good and did well," he said, quoting "Hawaii" author James Michener. "The present system of government was missionary-influenced: churches, schools, government, who we are in Hawai'i today. ... Not that they came to do that, but in the process of promoting the gospel, they were able to lift up the cultural advancement of Hawaiian people."

Kumu hula John Keola Lake, a Native Hawaiian who was raised Roman Catholic and considers himself Christian, has taught college-level classes at Chaminade University and UH on the intersecting of Hawaiian and Christian spirituality.

"Missionaries who provided comfort and preventive medicine on a small scale had tremendous influence," he said.

After the death of Kamehameha the Great in 1819 came the overthrow of the 'ai kapu, a system of Hawaiian laws intermingled with religious beliefs. Led by Ka'ahumanu, Kamehameha's favorite wife, the overthrow left a vacuum for Christianity to fill, Lake said.

But Ka'ahumanu's reasons for change were not religious, Lake noted.

"She wanted to learn the letters, to read and write," he explained. "That became the task of early missionaries ... to win (converts) and Christianize" by having the Bible done in Hawaiian. "That became a plum, so to speak, in terms of moving people to Christian ways."

Tension apparent

The objective of the World Christian Gathering on Indigenous People "is to point people toward the creator, and not a religion per se," said conference organizer Kalani Po'omaihealani. For him, being Christian doesn't mean he is forsaking his culture.

"I'm Hawaiian," he said. "My love is for my people."

Po'omaihealani feels the tensions created by Hawai'i's history. "It's very difficult, sometimes, to bring people to the creator because of the stigma of what comes with Christianity. At the time of overthrow, the so-called Christian church had a great role in the overthrow," he said.

And, he knows, many Hawaiians consider missionaries and the church their enemies, he said.

"For me, there are good people and bad people everywhere, including in the church," he said.

Po'omaihealani separates the wheat from the chaff of Christianity by looking for the parallels between scripture and the chants of his ancestors.

"I could sit here for the next four hours and tell you all the parallels," he said.

As for monotheistic vs. polytheistic differencess, Po'omaihealani, like Lake and Kaupu, chooses to believe that there was a singular god at one time, perhaps long ago, who simply took on many names.

These days, Lake said, one way he works through his biculturalism is by interjecting Hawaiian chants in Christian blessings and services he's asked to preside over.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Oswald Stender, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who used his OHA newsletter column to encourage Hawaiians to attend the indigenous conference, said the important thing was religion itself.

"To believe in anything, believe in something good, good will come of it, whether that is in a form of an idol, ritual or belief," Stender said. "The color of it, shape of it, philosophy of it doesn't matter, really, if it makes you a good person."

Kame'eleihiwa sounded the same note: "I'm not going to tell people not to be Christian. Whatever makes them do good work. I implore them to make compassion the foremost of their good work. (But if they) insist other people must believe what they believe, then we are less as humans."