Unfamiliar Fishes – Culture – Evangelization

“Missionaries are a bunch of strangers showing up somewhere uninvited to inform the locals they are wrong.”

Very nearly every time I encounter the term “evangelization,” this line from Sarah Vowell’s book Unfamiliar Fishes briefly pops into my head. The book covers the time period in Hawai’i from the arrival of U.S. Christian missionaries (1820), through its demise as an independent nation upon its 1898 annexation by the U.S.

The book’s title, incidentally, comes from indigenous historian David Malo, who wrote of the big, unexpected waves that would bring in the large “unfamiliar fishes” of deeper, darker ocean waters—fishes that would then gobble up the smaller fish near the shore.

I am of an age to have been taught that European Christian missionaries “brought civilization” to lands all around the world. I had to learn later that these peoples (including indigenous persons of the U.S.) already had their own civilizations and cultures in place. Along with the Gospel and some of the benefits of European life came military conquest, enforced imposition of a new religion and its liturgy, slavery, racism, and almost always—disease. (It is estimated that between the time of European contact and annexation, the islands lost nearly 90% of their population, largely to imported diseases.)

When Hawai’I and Catholicism were in the news in early August 2020, my thoughts naturally turned to Unfamiliar Fishes, along with matters of culture and inculturation that it continues to prompt in my mind. Many of these revolve around the historical lack of respect for indigenous persons and cultures. Yet I can’t help but occasionally wonder if there was also genuine benefit to some of the new ways brought in—often via the scientific knowledge or insights of Europe. It was definitely a mixture. For example:

Vowell describes the deeply-seated belief of the indigenous islanders that the closer you were in blood relation to someone, the better it was for you to marry them, because it would produce a purer bloodline. This sibling/spouse marriage was definitely practiced among island royalty. The first Christian missionaries (from New England) were shocked by this practice on moral grounds, but also for the hematological disaster it wrought. While the islanders showed the missionaries how to get beautiful feathers from the native birds without harming or killing them, missionaries chose instead the rifle. Islanders showed how to grow and harvest food by utilizing its natural growth patterns; missionaries brought planters with them, to set up farms and plantations. (It was sugar plantation owners, not wanting to pay export duty to the U.S., who were instrumental in assisting the U.S. annexation).

So . . . which cultural beliefs/practices to honor and respect, which to replace? Modern medical practitioners in West African during the Ebola epidemic encountered a similar quandary, as the deeply-embedded cultural practice of kissing a deceased loved one’s corpse emerged as a significant cause behind the spread of the disease.

Christianity in Hawai’i ran up against kapu, the religious/moral code (somewhat akin to that of Torah in its intermingling of sacral practices with those of daily living). Violation of kapu often resulted in death. Sarah Vowell focuses on the meal/table code in regard to gender: women were not allowed to eat with men, and if they did so, they would likely be put to death, often by being flung off a cliff. It can, however, be offered that this aspect of the subjugation of women in kapu is only different in degree from the same subjugation (then and now) found in Western Christianity. Most of us have encountered at least once the argument that women in the Roman rite should not be ordained because there are numbers of cultures that don’t view women and men as equals, and wouldn’t accept women priests.

At the beginning of this August, however, it was the history of the leper colony on Moloka’i that was in focus, along with St. Damiaan. Once again the troubling issues that contact of cultures brings with it surfaced in my mind.

The establishment of an isolation/quarantine space on Moloka’i preceded St. Damiaan’s arrival there. The Hawai’ian legislature, during the reign of the fifth King Kamehameha, set aside an isolated peninsula on the island to quarantine those afflicted with leprosy (another Eurasian disease the islanders had no immunity to). Those who were sent there were declared legally dead. This seems harsh, but in the accounts I’ve read, that status was truly a reflection of the islanders’ cultural values. A tightly-knit, communal society, they believed that when the bonds of family and community were somehow severed, an individual was, effectively, deceased. So the lepers on the peninsula were left largely to fend for themselves, and survive as best they could while they waited for the ravages of the disease to physically kill them.

It was into that cultural context that Pater Damiaan Jozef de Veuster came, a stranger who technically showed up uninvited, but who turned out to be there to help, not to tell the locals they were wrong, doing whatever he could to improve their lives, working to build a community—literally, as a carpenter; figuratively as a disciple of Jesus. It was paradoxically in that context—people enduring the devastation of their flesh—that he gave witness to the grace of God by incarnating it in his own flesh, eventually diseased and destroyed. He did not come with weapons or an army; was not there to be an overlord, but a companion and servant. It is no accident that he was, in modern times, adopted as the patron saint of those who minister to HIV/AIDS patients. We might do well to adopt him as a patron of evangelization as well.

I know that the current official approach to evangelization does not take the cultural dominance, I’m-saved-you’re-damned approach of earlier centuries of missionary and evangelizing activity. Yet history shows us that human rites and religions get old patterns set very deeply in their bones—which is both a strength and weakness. Friends who work with the RCIA continually speak of their frustration with the ongoing references to “instructions” that permeate their field. We liturgists have our own, similar, irritations.

Society in general continues to move through a disentangling of scientific, moral, spiritual, and social practices. Different Christian denominations, for instance, have dealt with the possibility of using gluten-free bread or hosts for communion, as understandings about (and occurrence of) Celiac disease or other gluten intolerances have become more common. As alcohol/substance abuse came to be understood better, the possibility of using alcohol-free grape juice for communion has also been explored. Venerable food/table codes and customs have altered in the light of greater scientific/medical knowledge. Of course, the cultural contact between the realms of liturgy and video/internet technology has accelerated rapidly in recent months, as many of us have experienced. The sifting of “cultural” values here will, no doubt, take time.

Most of us are called upon to be witnesses, to evangelize with and among people we may already know, not as strangers. We may not think that we are encountering new cultures or civilizations the way missionaries did in earlier times. Even more daunting, perhaps, is the way we do come in contact with cultures around us that are antithetical to the Gospel’s message of justice, joy, mutuality, equity, mercy, reconciliation, peace, and care for the least, lowly, marginalized, oppressed, and outcast—those who are often considered to be as good as dead by the world around them. In our liturgies, we must work as tirelessly as Saint Damiaan of Moloka’i to raise up and make central that Gospel vision.

Let us pray: Saint Damiaan Jozef de Veuster of Moloka’i—pray for us!

3 comments

  1. Many thanks for this reflection, Alan

    “Missionaries are a bunch of strangers showing up somewhere uninvited to inform the locals they are wrong.”

    Many years ago I was recommended to read Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan. It changed my life. As a missionary he learned through bitter experience how not to do what that terrible quote from Vowell warns us about. You can apply the same principles he developed to many aspects of life, including church life, as you point out. We are, or should be, constantly on a journey of discovering and learning new things.

  2. In my part of the world, evangelization means instructions. Funding for CCD and Sacramental Prep with stuggling teachers who may have been signed up to teach just one week before the National Catechetical Sunday kickoff. I wish that form of Missionary work was given greater attention. Fr. Damiaan (maybe I have been spelling this wrong my whole life) brought his presence down, down, down that long, long mountain path to the Lepers of Hawaii and from that, shared salvation because I suspect salvation was already there before he arrived.

    1. Ed – Damiaan is his native Flemish/Dutch way of spelling it; the anglicized version, Damien, is what you’re familiar with.

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