Sunday, October 20, 2019
Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Children’s Sabbath & Laity Sunday
Dr. Keola Donaghy is the faculty coordinator of Music Studies and the Institute of Hawaiian Music at the University of Hawai‘i – Maui College. In speaking of the Hawaiian language, Donaghy asserts that the ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i or the Hawaiian language has an oral tradition as rich as any language on earth. Prior to the arrival of westerners in the late 1700s, it was the only language spoken in the Hawaiian archipelago (‘Õlelo Hawai‘i: A Rich Oral History, A Bright Digital Future,” Keola Donaghy, Cultural Survival Magazine, December 1997).
When the first company of American missionaries found their way from Massachusetts to Hawai‘i island in 1820, they found a nation whose collective memory was preserved in the oral not written tradition of the oli and mo‘olelo – the chants and stories that were passed down from one generation to the next. After having been assigned Latin characters by the early missionaries, the language continued to flourished in its written form.
At one point Hawai‘i became one of the most literate nations in the world. But three years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian nation in 1893 by American business interests, the Hawaiian language was outlawed. English replaced Hawaiian as the language of education, government and commerce.
Authorities resisted any attempts by parents to perpetuate the language in the home. “Children were punished in school and parents were reprimanded for speaking Hawaiian to their children” (Op. cit.). Such punishments and reprimands, coupled with the racial and cultural bias of the “Americans,” led to a steep decline in the number of Hawaiian speakers as parents and grandparents chose not to pass on their mother tongue to future generations.
Even after having lived in Hawai‘i for 21 years, Hiram Bingham had already concluded, decades earlier, that oli and mo’ōleo – the chants and stories – oral, not written accounts, were of little value. Bingham was among those who were in the first missionary company to arrive in Hawai‘i.
He wrote, “Darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the people. The nation has no written language, no records either hieroglyphic, syllabic, alphabetic or monumental, no ideas of literature before their discovery by Europeans, and so far appears, no tradition that their ancestors ever possessed any. In place of authentic history,” he continued, “they had obscure oral traditions, national and party songs, rude narratives of the succession of kings, wars, victories, exploits of gods, heroes, priests, sorcerers, the giants of iniquity and antiquity, embracing conjecture, romances and the general absurdities of polytheism. (A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands, Hiram Bingham, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo, Japan, 1981, page 17). Whatever biases Bingham may have had in his assessment of the oral tradition of our Hawaiian ancestors, we cannot discount or dismiss the chants and stories that were passed down from one generation to the next as inferior to the written tradition. In his second letter to Timothy, a co-worker and missionary companion, the Apostle Paul reminds Timothy . . . “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:14).
As important as what we were taught is the person who taught us. “Remember who your teachers were (2 Timothy 3:14),” Paul tells Timothy. “Remember it was your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice who taught you “ (2 Timothy 1:5; Acts 16:1). Paul does not denigrate their presence in Timothy’s life. But he does make clear that Lois and Eunice were important because of the ‘ike or knowledge they passed on to Timothy in both traditions – oral and written.
When Paul declares that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof; for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 2:16), he is referencing sacred Scripture found in the written accounts recorded in the Old Testament. After all, the New Testament writings had not yet been collected (Preaching Through the Christian Year C, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity Press International, 1994, page 445).
It is in the sacred text that we look for guidance and instruction (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11). Paul makes the point that Scripture – the written word – has the “power to make [us] wise and lead[us] to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:15). Scripture not only speaks of God but God speaks through it.
But just as in the collected oracles or utterances of the spoken words of the prophets in whom God has acted and through whom God has spoken, so Scripture also speaks to us uniquely of God. The message we proclaim, then, comes out of both the oral and written traditions of our faith.
In that sense, Bingham was wrong to denigrate the oral tradition of our Hawaiian ancestors. Some have said that Bingham was not an ethnologist, sociologist, anthropologist or archaeologist. He was by one person’s account, someone who wanted “to save souls and civilize the Hawaiians in the way he believed was right” (Op. cit.).
Whatever Timothy learned from Lois and Eunice, we also learned from our kūpuna. In the same way that Lois and Eunice spoke to Timothy, so it was that our mothers and grandmothers spoke to us, passing on their ‘ike, their knowledge to us of God’s saving grace and for that we give thanks to God. Amen.