From Swimsuits to Sweaters

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It’s a warm March afternoon in Hawai’i.  I sit in shorts and a t-shirt at a sea side café watching speed boats and jet skis play.  It’s hard to imagine that in a few months, wrapped up in down jacket and wool hat I’ll be standing on a grassy coastline on a distant shore overlooking cathedral ruins and world-famous golf courses. I’m about to trade swimsuits for sweaters and make the move to Scotland. Sometimes I wonder if I’m crazy.

Aloha ‘oe e Hawai’i nei!  As I say farewell to my beautiful island home of 5 years, I consider the priceless gift of this time. I felt stirred to move here so I could listen and learn from the people of this island Kingdom so admired around the globe, yet so distressed under its hushed subjugation. To most, Hawai’i is a place of picturesque beauty and a favorite honeymoon destination.  But to those who trace their ancestry to the brave Polynesian voyagers who have lived in these islands for millennia, Hawai’i is a land groaning under military occupation, horticultural experimentation, and tourism-industry’s commodification.  As the last land colonized by Europeans just 240 years ago, Hawai’i bears more recent colonial wounds and acutely aches for restoration.

But looking beyond Hawai’i, the stories of other indigenous peoples echo the same patterns of oppression and injustice that have ripped people away from their land, resources, languages, traditional dances, and stories. From the Nosu mountain tribes of central China, to the indigenous living in Malaysia’s Sarawak, to the Native North Americans confined to reservations, to the Saami deer-herders in the upper latitudes of Scandinavia and Russia… the story of oppressive nation states and greedy corporations is repeated over and over.

After absorbing these stories shared with me by my native and indigenous friends, I went on my own journey (during my Sabbatical in 2017) to better understand the roots of European colonialism and to learn about the cultures of my ancestors who migrated from Sweden, Germany, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. While I was saddened that some of them allowed distorted theologies to shape the way they dominated the native peoples in the “New World”, I also came to appreciate their bravery, innovation, and thirst for knowledge. I saw in myself both these destructive impulses as well as restorative gifts.

Over time, my heart has formed questions: What theological distortions led the church to capitulate to the colonial enterprise which operated so counter to the Christian gospel?  How do people of European heritage not just admit complicity but humbly partner as collaborators in the healing process? What kinds of changes at the national and international level could practically free up our native and indigenous brothers and sisters to be loving stewards of the land Creator gave them for their work and worship?  With global ecosystems in distress, what can we learn about land stewardship from these indigenous communities that will help us to reverse our planet’s collective self-destruction?

Following my thought-provoking Europe journey I returned to Hawai’i and began reading theologians and political thinkers who have tried to unravel answers to these questions and inspire us to build a more hopeful post-colonial future. I appreciate the work of these academic predecessors and am also looking for the gaps that my generation can step into.  While much work has been done to expose skewed theology which led to such destructive domination, little has been developed practically to encourage the shared healing for which many like myself yearn.  I sense that my role may be in merging the theoretical with the practical so as to help take our redeemed theologies to the streets.

I was keen to study in the UK, both because I am attracted to the land and its cultures and also because I want to be closer to friends and family who live there. I accepted the offer to study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, known as the birthplace of golf and the alma mater of the heir to the British throne, it has distinguished itself as a leading institution for over 600 years.  St. Andrews has a competitive international relations program (and Scotland itself has quite a unique history of fiery resistance to oppressors). I am honored to have the opportunity to study for the MLitt (Master of Letters) in Global Social and Political Thought, a new year-long degree program being launched this fall. Along with a small cohort of about 10 fellow students, I will explore international politics through an interdisciplinary lens with respect to history, ethics, theology, etc.

As my feet leave Hawaiian soil, I am carrying these last 5 years of deep experiential knowledge forward into a year of academic pursuit.  I hope to broaden my understanding of the modes and mechanisms that could lead to greater restoration not only for the Hawaiian community but also for other indigenous communities across the globe.  Often the best way to move forward is to look back. I ka wā ma mua ka wā ma hope.

And so I will pack away my swim suits and sundresses storing them in my parent’s California attic . . . and prepare to shop for wool sweaters to insulate me from the bitter Scottish winter.  The old stone corridors of St. Andrews are calling me, and so I am crossing oceans once again to see what they have to say.

 

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