The Hawaiians are known worldwide for their “aloha.” The word “aloha” has often been translated into the English word “love.” Aloha has also been understood to mean warmth and welcome, as well as kindness, sympathy, or compassion. The word can be found in other Polynesian groups: aroha in Tahitian, alofa in Samoan, or alōfa in Tongan. The origins of the word have been lost to the distant past. However, a scholar noted that the original meaning of the Maori word “aroha” may have been “love for kin” (Kanahele p. 196).
This article is a reflection based on George Kanahele’s “The Dynamics of Aloha.” I will try to give appropriate attribution to the sources.
In ancient Hawaii, the Hawaiians showed aloha by loving their children, even in the mother’s womb. Hawaiians surround their children with a constant flow of love and affection. The loving attachment Hawaiian parents felt towards their children can be seen in the saying: “Ka lei hā`ule `ole, he keiki” (A lei that is never cast aside is one’s child). They also extended aloha to children by adoption. In Hawaii the adopted child is known as a hanai child.
The Hawaiian family was built upon the love shared by husband and wife. This ideal situation is summed up in the phrase: “Ke aloha pili pa`a o ke kā me ka wahine” (the lasting love of man and woman). Aloha in the marriage relationship meant fidelity to one’s spouse, the strengthening of marital bonds, not its loosening. Pre-contact Hawaiians did not condone flirtatious behavior despite what the early Westerners and missionaries had witnessed (Kanahele p. 199).
The early Hawaiians were known for their hospitality to strangers. This is the aloha spirt being extended beyond the ohana. The early Hawaiians would greet every passerby and offer them food and drink. There is an ancient saying: “`O ke aloha kuleana o kāhi malihini” (Love is the host in strange lands) (Kanahele p. 201).
Nonetheless, there are some uncomfortable facts about life in ancient Hawaii. One is that many of the makaʻāinana (commoner) lived in fear of the ali`i. Pre-contact Hawaii was highly stratified and maintained by a strict, harsh kapu system. What bound the makaʻāinana to the ali`i was kūpa`a (unswerving loyalty). The ali`i were admonished to be kind and open-hearted to their people, but many took advantage of those under them. The pre-contact ali`i had the right to call on commoners to fight for him in times of war or to provide corvee labor in times of peace. The aloha spirit played a limited role in commoner-nobility relations. The dynamic can be described as: love often; loyalty always (Kanahele pp. 203-204).
The priority of loyalty over aloha also applied to the ohana. One could be loyal without having much aloha, but one could not have aloha and be disloyal at the same time (Kanahele p. 204). This points to an important fact about Hawaiian culture—the priority of the group over the individual. Modern Western individualism which prioritizes self-love is contrary to and corrosive of Hawaiian identity. The individual supports the group just as the group supports its members.
New England Missionaries Come to Hawaii
The coming of Christianity revolutionized the Hawaiians’ understanding of aloha and introduced a new understanding of the supreme God (Jehovah). The early Hawaiians believed in many gods but did not associate aloha with their many akua. The early Hawaiians offered prayers and sacrifices to avoid angering the gods and to obtain a good harvest or successful hunt or battle. Many of the commoners lived in fear of the gods. The closest thing to a benevolent relation was that between the ohana and its aumakua. The Christian missionaries proclaimed to the Hawaiians that Jehovah, the Supreme God, loved them. They explained that the Christian agape love was the highest form of love. Agape love gave without expectation of receiving anything in return. The best example of this was God giving his Keiki Jesus to die on the Cross for the salvation of all, including the Hawaiians. The bible verse John 3:16 talks about God’s great love (aloha nui) for us.
16 No ka mea, ua aloha nui mai ke Akua i ko ke ao nei, no laila, ua hāʻawi mai ʻo ia i kāna Keiki hiwahiwa, i ʻole e make ka mea manaʻoʻiʻo iā ia, akā, e loaʻa iā ia ke ola mau loa. (John 3:16; emphasis added; Source)
This teaching is summed up in the phrase: Aloha ke Akua (God is love). This short, simple sentence—which can be found in 1 John 4:8—is widely known and accepted by Hawaiians today, yet it is a revolutionary teaching. It enriched and deepened one of the core values of Hawaiian identity.
The Supreme God who sent his Keiki Jesus to save us was way different then the gods of old Hawaii. Jesus wen tell his guys:
I Da Guy Dass Fo Real. I neva come so peopo can take care me. I wen come fo take care dem. (Mark 10:45, Da Jesus Book)
Jesus da Christ Guy wen mahke on top da Cross fo show how plenny love and aloha he get fo us guys. Jesus wen tell Nicodemus:
God wen get so plenny love an aloha fo da peopo inside da world, dat he wen send me, his one an ony Boy, so dat everybody dat trus me no get cut off from God, but get da real kine life dat stay to da max foeva. (John 3:16, Da Jesus Book)
Jesus do all dis cuz he love us guys. Jesus Da Boss not like da old kine akua. Befo time da Hawaiians had to make sacrifice to dea akua, but wen Jesus wen mahke on top da Cross all dat pau. No need make sacrifice. If we go trus Jesus God’s Boy den God goin hemo oua shame and make oua hearts come good insai.
The Christian message “Aloka ke akua” transformed the Hawaiian monarchy. Many of the rulers in the Hawaiian kingdom were devout Christians who sought to promote the welfare of their subjects. In the Hawaiian kingdom the ali`i were morally obligated to the commoners, unlike modern Western values which often left ordinary people to their own resources with tragic results. Inspired by the spirit of philanthropy the ali`i would establish Queens Hospital which would meet the health needs of Hawaii’s population, Lunalilo Home which would tend to the needs of the elderly, and Bishop Estate which would educate the Hawaiian youths.
While love can be found in cultures all over the world, the spirit of aloha has a distinctive unique flavor. The uniqueness of the aloha spirit has been used as a powerful marketing tool for tourism. There is the danger that the commercialization of aloha may lead to the hollowing out Hawaiian identity and Hawaii’s spiritual impoverishment. Hawaii’s physical beauty stripped of its spiritual beauty—the aloha spirit, would be tragic. The aloha spirit lives in the hearts of the kanaka maoli.
The Christian message came from the West, from North America and Europe. The Protestant Calvinist missionaries were sincere in what they taught the Hawaiians, but what they did not realize was that they were also imposing Western culture upon the Hawaiians. By the early twentieth century, especially after the 1893 Overthrow, the Hawaiians became strangers to their land, their culture, their language. Many even became strangers to themselves, having become ashamed of being Hawaiian. Thus, Western Christianity was a mixed bag for the Hawaiians.
Christianity From the East
The Christian Message can also come from the East. The East is where the sun rises and where the ancient cultures of Asia and Polynesia can be found. Christianity originally came from the Near East. Jesus and his followers were born and raised in Palestine. Many of the church groups in Hawaii are part of Western Christianity. Their roots go back to the mainland USA or Europe. In the case of the New England Calvinist missionaries, their roots only go back five hundred years. In contrast, Eastern Orthodoxy has roots that go back two thousand years. Eastern Orthodoxy has roots that go back to the first century, even to the Book of Acts (Acts 11:26, 13:1-3). This website, LocalOrthodox.com, seeks to present the ancient wisdom of Eastern Orthodoxy to the local residents of Hawaii. The spirituality of Ancient Christianity embraces the body and the spirit. It is respectful of the natural environment believing that the aina is a gift from Akua and that we are called to be caretakers of the aina for the glory of God. Orthodoxy believes that God is love and that it is the spirit of aloha that connects us to God, to one another, and to the world we live in.
We would like to say to those visiting this website: “Mahalo!” and “Hele mai e ike!” (Come and see!).
BAIBALA HEMOLELE. Kikokikona Hawaiʻi, THE HAWAIIAN BIBLE, ULUKAU: HAWAIIAN ELECTRONIC LIBRARY. Source
George H.S. Kanahele. “The Dynamics of Aloha.” In Pacific Diaspora: Island Peoples in the United States and Across the Pacific, pp. 195-210. Edited by Paul Spickard, Joanne L. Rondilla, and Debbie Hippolite Wright.