Sunday, February 17, 2019
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Their names are familiar – Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky, David Hoog. But there are others – Alex Wind and Jaclyn Corin and hundreds upon hundreds of others who were at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2018 when 14 students and three educators were shot and killed and 17 others wounded.
They are the survivors. They are the ones who were at the school the day the violence erupted. They formed the group March for Our Lives, which included a march on Washington DC not long after the massacre. Hundreds of rallies were held on the same day in cities and towns around the U.S. calling for tougher gun regulations and registering young people to vote.
Soon after, the Florida legislature raised the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 and passed a so-called red-flag law allowing judge to take away the weapons of those who are considered a danger to themselves and others. The legislation also prohibited the sale of bump-stocks, which enable semi-automatic weapons to mimic automatic gunfire.
Since the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, at least 40 states have passed some kind of legislation related to guns in 2018, some imposing restrictions while others expanding gun rights. Those supporting stricter gun laws felt the marches marked a turning point in the effort to reduce every day gun violence across the U.S.
But given the current political climate across the country, many do not expect any significant changes to gun laws this year. Sadly and tragically, everyday gun violence continues. The idea that what happened at Stoneman Douglas was “school” violence is like saying the five employees who were shot and killed at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois on Friday (February 15, 2019) were the victims of “work place” violence – as though the place or location was the cause for people being killed and not the guns.
But I am much more hopeful that “the times” – to quote lyrics of an old Bob Dylan song – “they are a-changing.” It was over five decades ago that the song became the anthem for a generation. I was 14 years old at the time and the world was changing.
The world, it seemed, was in a violent upheaval. There were wars and rumors of wars. But over two centuries ago there was another war. A young Hawaiian boy named ʻŌpūkahaʻia fell victim to a brutal battle at Kaipalaoa on the north side of the Waiakea River in Hilo in 1796. In his account of the battle, Christopher L. Cook wrote: “A gruesome sight lay near the mouth of the black basal lava tube cave, about fifty paces back. There tall warriors dispatched by Kamehameha, the warrior chief who conquered and consolidated the Hawaiian Islands in the 1790s, wielding shark tooth-lined clubs, leiomanō, worked at dismembering the bodies of ʻŌpūkahaʻia’s parents. The shock of seeing his father, Ke‘au, a planter-fisherman, and Kamoho‘ula, his beloved mother, kin to Kamehameha, being brutally slaughtered traumatized ʻŌpūkahaʻia. This caused him to flee from the death scene, controlled by a primordial fear” – the need to survive (The Providential Life & Heritage of Henry Obookiah,” Christopher L. Cook, Pa‘a Studios, Waimea, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i, 2015, page 1).
ʻŌpūkahaʻia fled with his infant brother on his back. A warrior in pursuit of the children slung his short spear – a sharp, hardwood pāhoa dagger – into the infant’s back. The blow caused the young ʻŌpūkahaʻia to stumble. “Falling forward, he clutched the limp, bleeding body of his brother” (Op. cit.).
ʻŌpūkahaʻia was 12 years old when he saw his parents and his brother killed before his eyes. He was the survivor.
I can only imagine that ʻŌpūkahaʻiaʻs life, like the lives of the survivors who saw their classmates killed before their eyes at Stoneman Douglas last Valentine’s Day, would be changed forever by the trauma he experienced. The warrior who pursued ʻŌpūkahaʻia and his brother sought an order from his commander – “life or a quick death for the young boy” (Ibid., page 2).
Too young to fight back but old enough to take care of himself, the chief decided to spare his life. ʻŌpūkahaʻia was taken away to the district of Kohala to the north side of the island of Hawai‘i.
While living in Kohala, he met his mother’s brother and asked him to bring him back to Kona and it was there that he would spend his early teenage years at Napo‘opo‘o under the tutelage of his uncle, a skilled kahuna or priest who was taught by Hewahewa, the High Priest at Hikiau heiau or temple.
Five years after the Battle at Kaipalaoa, ʻŌpūkahaʻia saw the ship called the Triumph sail into the Kealakekua Bay. I imagine the trauma of the death of his parents and brother was so overwhelming, he saw an opportunity for himself to start a new life. He dove into the waters of bay, boarded the ship and became a seaman at the age of 17.
His journey would take him to China and the West Indies and finally to the American port at New Haven, Connecticut in 1810. He was taken under the care of Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University and a Congregational minister. While in Connecticut, ʻŌpūkahaʻia attended Andover Theological Seminary and mastered English, Greek and Hebrew and it was while he was there that he became a convert to Christianity.
In 1817 a missionary school was built by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Cornwall, Connecticut. ʻŌpūkahaʻia began lecturing throughout New England. Many became aware that it was his heart’s desire to return home to Hawaiʻi to share the good news of his new-found faith.
When he died in a typhoid epidemic on February 17, 1818, his dream of returning to Hawaiʻi would be fulfilled by others who would make the long journey in the following years. In 1819, the first mission company set sail from Boston and arrived in Kailua, Kona in 1820. In the three decades that were to follow more than 100 Congregational missionaries, inspired by the story of ʻŌpūkahaʻia’s life, would make the journey to our islands.
Today, our church, this church is among 45 historic Hawaiian churches that existed at the time of the overthrow of the nation of Hawai‘i in 1893 by American business interests. Next year – 2020 - will mark the bicentennial of the arrival of Congregational missionaries to Hawai‘i.
I suspect there are those will want to celebrate the triumph of the Christian mission to Hawai‘i and point out how fortunate we – the kanaka maoli, the Hawaiians - were to be saved from death and degradation. It was noted that Hiram Bingham, who was in the first company of missionaries, was convinced that that “darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the people” of Hawai‘i (A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands, Hiram Bingham, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont, 1981). But for me I will celebrate the life and witness of a young man – a 17-year-old boy – who saw the brutality, the violence that comes from weapons that destroy human life.
I will celebrate the life and witness of a young man whose faith in a God of aloha changed the course of Hawai‘i as a nation. There is no doubt in my mind that Lili‘uokalani, the last ruling monarch of our islands, knew about the impact of ʻŌpūkahaʻia’s life on the nation of Hawai‘i. As a member of Kawaiaha‘o Church in Honolulu where she was baptized, she taught Sunday School and played the organ.
In 1895, Lili‘uokalani was arraigned before a military commission and charged with treason. Over the course of her trial she was told to sign a document in which she would abdicate her position as queen. She was told that her action would save the lives of those who supported her.
“To stay the flow of blood,” she later wrote in her memoir, she signed. (The Betrayal of Liliuokalani, Helena G. Allen, Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, 1982, page 330). At her trial, she said: “To prevent the shedding of the blood of my people, natives and foreigners alike, I opposed armed interference and quietly yielded to the armed forces brought against my throne, and submitted to the arbitratement of the Government of the United States the decision of my rights and those of the Hawaiian people. Since then, as is well known to all, I have pursued the path of peace and diplomatic discussion and not that of internal strife” (Ibid., page 335).
Our readings from The Book of Isaiah and The Second Letter of Paul to Timothy were familiar to ʻŌpūkahaʻia. I would venture to say that for Lili‘uokalani and for ʻŌpūkahaʻia, God’s word to Jacob was a source of comfort and reassurance for both of them: “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off; do not fear, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:9-10).
I would also venture to say that for Lili‘uokalani and ʻŌpūkahaʻia, the words of Paul to Timothy were also a source of comfort and reassurance: “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage . . . [for] I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:2, 7).
ʻŌpūkahaʻia experienced the trauma that comes from weapons of violence when he was 12 years old. The students of Stoneman Douglas experienced the trauma that comes from every day gun violence when they were not much older than ʻŌpūkahaʻia.
I hear in his voice and in the voice of Emma, David, Cameron and others, the message that the violence must stop – “Enough is enough.” “Never again.”
ʻŌpūkahaʻia’s voice changed the course of Hawai‘i as a nation. I believe the voices of Emma, David, Cameron and others will also change the course of the United States as a nation.
We would do well to heed the words of Isaiah to Jacob; the words of Paul to Timothy and the words of Dylan to us:
Come senators, congressmen Please heed the call Don’t stand in the doorway Don’t block up the hall For he that gets hurt Will be he who has stalled There’s a battle outside And it is ragin’. It’ll soon shake your windows And rattle your walls For the times they are a-changin’. Come mothers and fathers Throughout the land And don’t criticize What you can’t understand Your sons and your daughters Are beyond your command Your old road is Rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one If you can’t lend your hand For the times they are a-changin’.