Heather Mellquist Lehto, Arizona State University

The Hawai’i Blessing: Media, Land, Nation

Unlike other versions of The Blessing, The Hawai’i Blessing was not produced in order to participate in the global media event, nor should it be seen as part of a globalizing Christian project. Because “the global” tends to ignore emplacement, or at the very least, to conceive of places as inanimate, generic, and even interchangeable across the globe, it does not resonate with Christian communities that are influenced by indigenous politics. In particular, globalizing projects cannot account for the co-constitution of people in relation to certain places, which is central to many indigenous cosmologies. Furthermore, to the extent that one might say that this video cultivates Christian nationalism, it is notable that this nationalism does not even extend to America, the nation-state of which the islands are a part geopolitically. The video’s organizing pastor Dan Chun stressed this as he described the subtle audio cues that the team used to signal Hawai’i’s particularity. “A little subconscious Hawaiian thing: you hear these Hawaiian drums at the beginning. So this is not England.” Instead, Chun continued, “This is native Hawaiian. This is for our people.”

Image from The Hawai'i Blessing. Used by permission.

The Hawai’i Blessing was created as a fundraiser for the Hawai’i foodbank because the pandemic has been devastating for local residents. In March 2020, the state government quickly initiated a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the state. The fragility of the healthcare system made such severe public health restrictions necessary, as the Hawai’ian islands only had 340 intensive care units to serve a population of almost 1.5 million people. But halting tourism has had dire economic consequences. Over a third of Hawai’i’s residents have filed for unemployment during the pandemic. To address the growing need, The Hawai’i Blessing has helped to raise over $23,000 in 2020.

The literal translation of the Hawaiian word for land, ‘āina, is “that which feeds,” making the land a fitting participant in this fundraising project. The Hawai’i Blessing foregrounds the land and ocean, and their images and sounds swell cyclically throughout the video. In several frames, no humans can be seen or heard on the islands—it is only the wind and waves lapping against the shores.

Image from The Hawai'i Blessing. Used by permission.

I asked pastor Chun if this was intentional. “The wind was [in the audio] because, for me, the Spirit of God—The Holy Spirit—I imagined going over the islands, blessing [them]. It’s the blessing over the land. In other Blessing [videos], it’s just soloist after soloist… and I said, ‘No, this is a blessing over the land and our ocean, and I wanted to show that. That was very deliberate.” 

Image from The Hawai'i Blessing. Used by permission.

In contrast to theories of nationalism that have tended to cast communities into the realm of imagination, The Hawai’i Blessing insists that communities are not merely a human, social production. A community is not a group of people independent from the place of their dwelling, nor is “place” something which humans have made out of empty “space” through social signs and symbols. Instead, particular places have an active role in the making of the people, a fact that the pandemic’s restrictions on our movement have laid bare.

The pandemic has not been the hardship for the land and ocean that it has been for its residents. It might, indeed, be called something of a blessing. It was a reprieve from human interventions in the local ecology and the pollution of its land and seas. Researchers at Hanauma Bay—one of O’ahu’s most popular beaches—say that the water appears 64 percent clearer after its nine-month closure. As the president of the Friends of Hanauma Bay describes it, “For the first time in over 40 years, there’s no sunscreen haze on the water, there is no artificial sedimentation in the water so that corals aren’t being drowned from snorkelers and swimmers.” While economic concerns remain, pausing regular exchanges with the mainland has renewed an appreciation for the interdependence of human and more-than-human flourishing.

In this respect, the shutdown of Hawai’i was another episode in a much longer challenge of trying to balance the island’s human and more-than-human ecological health with the financial lure of unfettered exchange. There is, of course, significant contention over the complicated relationship between Hawaiian nationalism and Christianity, and J. Kehaulani Kauanui’s (2018) work usefully demonstrates the varied ways in which Christianity has both supported and undermined forms of indigeneity throughout Hawai’ian struggles against U.S. settler colonialism. But, as is always the case, national projects are dynamic. The Hawai’i Blessing maintains that in these projects the land is not just one’s geographic location nor is it property over which nations (understood as merely imagined, social forms) bargain. It is also not an empty stage for the performance of Christian universalism. The land is ‘āina: a living entity, a relative, that which feeds.