One of my most memorable visits in Hawaiʻi was to Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau, the City of Refuge on the Big Island. The online site says the following: “In old Hawaiʻi, if you had broken a law, the penalty was death… Your only option for survival was to elude your pursuers and reach the nearest pu`uhonua, or place of refuge. As you enter, the great wall rises up before you marking the boundaries between the royal grounds and the sanctuary. Many ki’i (carved wooden images) surround the Hale o Keawe, housing the bones of the chiefs that infuse the area with their power or mana. If you reached this sacred place, you would be saved”. (click photos for larger)
One can’t visit without reflecting on the issues of goodness and badness. If bad things happen to good people, and bad people get away with murder… what’s the point in being good? The hallmark of being a human being is a sense of morality, unlike animals for whom tooth and claw is the ultimate governor of behavior. Why be good? On a theological level, because we are created in God’s own image, which is one of total goodness. We are therefore called to become more and more like him, to become better, to become good. Goodness is rooted in morality; badness is rooted in the lack of morality. At the root of badness is the desire to not care, the desire to look out for only the self with no concern for others or society. And yet even animals have a sense of the “pack”. People who pursue badness recognize no reality higher than their own desires and in some sense act even lower than animals.
The old kapu system was an incarnation of the realization that good behavior is essential for societal and familial relationships, and badness threatened those relationships with chaos and anarchy. Man’s proper call to goodness is at the core of the Hawaiian values of Aloha, ʻOhana and Kuleana. Hawaiian culture is rooted in goodness and the pursuit of goodness. When one pursued badness it was met with the harshest of punishments: death. And yet Hawaiians also possessed a belief in forgiveness. If you made it to a city of refuge and went through purification by the priests your offense was forgiven and you could rejoin society… presumably now pursuing goodness.