Commentary: Lava. Pele and the Divine Willies

Yesterday, after an afternoon of pedaling around sweltering Hilo on various errands, I pulled into the stop across from the County Building to catch my ride home. I spent a half-hour waiting at the stop, which was occupied only by myself and two individuals who’d been coping with the heat with the aid of copious amounts of beer. One of them was still swigging from a can at the stop–which, btw, is illegal, but although we were within a hundred yards from the courthouse, there weren’t any cops around.
After asking me if I had any pot and getting a negative answer, the imbiber  went back to talking with his crony, and began ranting about how Pele was coming down to punish “da haoles, ’cause dey got no respect. Always dumping trash around. Respect is EVERYTING. You no respect, I going bus’ you up.” Oddly enough, he exempted his companion, who was obviously of Caucasian ancestry: “You are not a haole, man! You served your country!”
I glanced at my bike, which was loaded with road-kill clothing I’d picked up along the highway on my way down from Volcano–I launder it and give it to charity, if it’s salvageable–and firmly told myself, in my best internal Captain Picard voice, “Do NOT engage.”
The two drunks finally boarded the Keaukaha bus, leaving  blessed silence.
Folks, so far, in addition to littering haoles, I’ve heard HELCO, PGV, GM papaya, Longs Drugs, and various Pahoa developers all blamed for Madame Pele’s wrath. I vividly remember, back when Kalapana was going under, Haunani-Kay Trask going on a national TV show and saying that Pele was angry because of geothermal development. But then, instead of burning out PGV, Pele inundated Kalapana and Kaimu and the homes of a lot of Kanaka Maoli families (many of whom, btw,were still waiting for Hawaiian Homelands to finish a promised new subdivision for them, last time I checked).  This time, so far, she’s mainly taken out native forests.
If Pele exists outside our own minds, then she was here long before humans, and there’s precious little evidence that she takes any particular interest in us at all (with the possible exception, perhaps, of her forbearance from taking Uncle Robert’s compound). She just needs someplace to put some lava.
Not that Pele is the only god whose name gets taken in vain this way. Throughout history, humans have used natural phenomena as supernatural  signs to grind their axes–often literally–against various opponents. Christianity, if anything, has been especially notorious in this regard; the hate-mongers at Westboro Baptist Church are only the latest in a long line of Ku Klux Klanners, witch hunters, Papal inquisitors and crusaders stretching all the way back to Constantine, who claimed he saw a sign in the heavens that he should smite his enemies in the name of Jesus. But it’s not just a Christian problem. The whole notion of karma, for instance, is that if something bad happens to you, you deserve it–if not for something you’ve done, then for something you did back when you were someone else. That notion can be spiritually consoling, but it also provides a theological foundation for caste privilege and institutionalized poverty.
It’s time we outgrew this impulse. Using disasters to invoke divine endorsement for whatever cause you’re into is both disrespectful of the divine and, more importantly, disrespectful to the actual victims of disaster. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep repeating it: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. IT’S NOT ABOUT ANYBODY YOU DISLIKE.
–Alan McNarie

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