It’s Easter Sunday, and what better way to observe it than by listening to Hawaiian religious music, the music of a people of deep spirituality colonized by Protestant missionaries, who internalized the foreigners’ faith and brought to its musical expression their native melodic genius?
I listen to Kanaka Waiwai (The Rich Man), one of the most popular Hawaiian songs, and my personal favorite, often termed a “hymn” although I think it less analogous to (say) Martin Luther’s Ein Feste Burg (which is of comparable but rather different majesty, and also, to my mind, of progressive political content) than to a “Negro” spiritual for reasons that will become clear.
We don’t know who wrote this Hawaiian spiritual, Kanaka Waiwai. It’s typically listed as “traditional,” rather like “Greensleeves” or “Shenandoah.” But that’s appropriate. It’s a song of the people, perhaps modified over the course of the nineteenth century by different pens and performers. It’s based on the well-known New Testament story, contained in all three synoptic gospels, of the wealthy young man who came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus told him that he needed to obey the commandments; the youth replied that he was already doing that anyway. “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and he said, ‘There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But [the young man’s] face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth” (Mark 10:17-22 but check out the Matthew and Luke versions too. It’s all good).
Kanaka Waiwai was produced by a people who had been tricked out of the birthright of their land by missionaries (whose church, by the way, has subsequently apologized for its role in abetting the overthrow of Hawai’i’s monarchy in 1893). I’ve loved that song for many years, since first hearing it in Hawai’i. But I don’t know Hawaiian and until recently I hadn’t researched its lyrical content. There’s an English version that dilutes entirely its political content, the implicit protest against the haoles’ landgrab. Online I found a translation that persuades me that this, rather like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” is a song of a people protesting injustice and aspiring for a new world.
Its triumphant refrain echoes Jesus’ words that such people cannot obtain the Kingdom of Heaven:
E haw’awi e ha’awi lilo
Ikou mau waiwai
Huli a hahai mai ia’u
I loa’a e ke ola mau ia ‘oe
You have to give away all your possessions in order to follow me into eternal life.
Of all the stories providing material for hymns, some folks chose this one as the theme of the most moving and popular piece in the Hawaiian hymnal. Isn’t this what Christianity was all about, once upon a time, in its inception phase? Holding all things in common (Acts 2:44), pre-contact Polynesian-style?
Ludwig Feuerbach, a Hegel disciple who journeyed to atheism in the early nineteenth century, described the “essence of Christianity” as the worship and deification of the most ideal human type, the Jesus of the gospels. In his view, to posit as “God” this most attractive and admirable of mortals was a step towards overcoming the alienation from reality that religion in general requires. Feuerbach inspired Marx, whose early writings (especially his 1844 essay declaring religion “the expression of real suffering and a protest against real sufferingthe sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless worldthe soul of soulless conditionsthe opium of the people”) are essential reading for anyone seriously and objectively studying this central human phenomenon, religion. Marx and Engels and their followers into the early twentieth century (including Lenin), insightfully commented on primitive Christianity, and on the Protestant Reformation, with a degree of respect and admiration that might surprise the religious believer and/or knee-jerk anticommunist who’d never bother to read their stuff.
But back to the point. Easter celebrates the imagined rebirth of the dead god. Dimmuzi, Tammuz, Mithras, Jesus. It’s an old and very human story, perhaps the ultimate myth that suffering will someday be overcome. In the meantime, every Easter, as believers greet one another with the conviction, “He is risen!” the land grabbing and lies and exploitation continue. There is not, in my best judgment, really any inheritance of eternal life, and no treasure in heaven. Just lines drawn in the sand between the very, very rich and their global agenda, and the prospects in this real palpable life for the genuine liberation of Jesus’ poor, who continue, as they should, to derive inspiration from the crucified’s revolutionary words.
GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org