ON EASTER ISLAND
I am approaching a major milestone, that of having been around for sixty Christmases. However, in those Christmas observances still to be enjoyed, I suspect that I will never have a more memorable one than the one spent on Easter Island this past Christmas. I thought the juxtaposition of the sound of being on Easter Island during Christmas was cute. Therefore, I intentionally scheduled my trip to the South Pacific to have my wife and me there during Christmas.
I have written extensively on Easter Island moais and other attractions on this South Pacific island paradise. However, attending mass on Christmas Eve was a real high point for me. The service began at 10pm. We got there twenty minutes before the service officially began in order to get a seat. However, the singers and musicians couldn't wait for the service to begin. They had been playing for sometime before we arrived; we could hear their singing as we drove into the small parking lot of the church.
When the service began, they lead the congregation with several rhythmic musical responses and hymns. As a WASP who is steeped in that lifeless musical heritage, I was really into the religious excitement of the islanders. I watched other visitors like my wife and I; there were Japanese, Europeans, and a number of Chileans all mixed together with the Rapa Nui residents. There we all were at a Christian worship service lead by natives of Isle of Pascua.
While parts of the service were in three languages: English, Spanish, and Rapa Nuian, most was in the later. I found myself into the music and drifted off to my personal thoughts when the priest was speaking, since I hadn't any Rapa Nuian when in college. Both the musical and thought parts of my experience were meaningful to me. I have never experienced the power of religious music to set the tone for worship as I experienced Christmas Eve on Easter Island.
I regretted pauses in the music for the mass, but these interruptions from my religious experience allowed me to reflect. Since I teach history and religion, I am well aware of the horrific things that the church has done in the name of the Gospel while we decry the militaristic religions of others like the present-day Muslim extremists. I'm embarrassed for what the Spanish did as military conquerors and missionaries when they brought their religious and cultural imperialism to the New World. The invaders, first from Spain, then France and England swept over the Americas carrying the cross and the sword. Obviously, they didn't understand the concept of the separation of church and state, to say nothing of the concept of love and basic humanity. They conquered and killed convinced of their virtuousness and the less than human natures of the people that they subjugated.
Less someone might think me anti-Spanish and to a lesser extent French or English in my Weltanschauung about subjugation of peoples, I am equally embarrassed by what we did to African slaves when it was America's time to exploit in the name of the nation and God. We enslaved and then forced them into cotton plantations and Christianity. Did Jesus really want the Spanish or Americans to force others into Western religions and culture? I seriously doubt that the God of love viewed either what the Spanish did to the natives in the New World or what we did to Africans in our world as anything but abject sinfulness worthy of the wrath of God himself. Needless to say, Allah doesn't condone jihad in his need either.
Why God hasn't outright condemned us and others with anathemas that could be heard two galaxies from here, I don't know. What I do know is that those that were more often than not coerced into Christianity by the European colonial powers and later by Americans are the ones that practice our religion far better then we have ever practiced it. If any Christians have truly understood the message, it is ironically those that were abused. The simple but true faith expressed by the descendents those killed or coerced by the Spanish has much to say to the Catholic church today. The Gospel is spoken, sung, and practiced more clearly in Hanga Roa, Easter Island than it is in Boston or the Vatican. The beauty and irony is that those who we thought were too primitive and ignorant are in the final analysis the church's last best hope for its own redemption. It seems a strange twist of fate that we will be lead to fuller understanding of the message of God by those upon whom we forced our faith.
What is true of those of Rapa Nui is equally true when it comes to African-Americans. We forced our faith down their throats and destroyed the religions of their homelands. Our hands drip in sinful blood as do those that conquered the New World centuries before, and yet, both groups who we have treated so wrongly will lead us to the true message of love and forgiveness. God sure acts in funny ways to get us to see the light. I saw the light at a Christmas Eve mass on Easter Island in the year of our Lord, 2002.