Can stones be sacred? The question came up not long ago on Maui. Contractors have been cleaning up the mess from a flood that destroyed a beloved tourist site in the ‘Iao valley adjacent to lands many Hawaiians deem sacred. A portion of the valley open to tourists is set aside as a state monument commemorating the battle of Kepaniwai in 1790 where Kamehameha’s forces defeated those of the king of Maui, thus establishing what would become the unified Kingdom of Hawaii. It’s worth noting that Kamehameha, who had become monarch of a sizable kingdom on the Big Island of Hawaii, had ships and infantry armed with European firepower and trained in the basics of European tactics. The king of Maui was still using slings and spears. The slaughter was great. Dead bodies dammed the stream, which ran red with blood. Today it is, or was before the flood, a beautiful park dedicated to remembrance, peace, and the cultural diversity that makes Hawaii such a special place. So, back to the flood.
Flash floods following torrential rains demolished trails, landscaping, parking lots, roadways, and all. Work has been underway for the last three months to rebuild and restore, where restoration is possible. Boulders driven from deep in the valley, an area technically off limits to tourists, had to be removed from the stream bed, and that’s where the trouble started. Some Hawaiians protested that the boulders were sacred because they had come from sacred ground, and they should be left where the flood put them. The mayor responded that there is no such thing as a sacred stone. The very idea is forbidden by the Ten Commandments. You can imagine how that went down. They will work it out somehow. What interests me is the question, is there such a thing as a sacred stone?
Christian theology generally holds that for something to be sacred it must be set aside to honor and serve God’s purposes in a particular way. The act of making it sacred means articulating what the setting aside means, and consecrating it through acts of blessing prayers, laying on of hands, and anointing with oil. Sacraments, offices of ordained ministry, holy scripture, and implements of worship are among the sacred. Some places where the holy is very near are also recognized as signs and symbols of the sacred. Other religious traditions have their own ideas about what sacred means, but they all share the same basic sense of things set aside, or places recognized, where the holy is made known. So, can a stone be sacred?
Scripture is filled with them. Jacob set up one stone, anointing it with oil, to mark the site of the ladder to heaven, and another to mark the place where he wrestled with God the whole night long. Joshua set up a pile of twelve stones to mark the entrance into the promised land. God announced to Moses and the Israelites that the all of Mt. Sinai was holy. In Jerusalem the altar of unhewn stones was consecrated as sacred to God. There is more, but you get the idea. Our tradition is rich with sacred stones. What about boulders washed down from an area deemed sacred by some but not all? Are there limits to what can be said to be off limits?
Despoiling the sacred has been the tactic of tribal warfare in every place at every time. Winners celebrated deliberate destruction of the loser’s sacred places and symbols to demonstrate the superiority of their gods and symbols. Missionaries have done the same. St. Boniface is said to have cut down the sacred oak of Jove (or Thor) to demonstrate that Germanic pagan gods did not exist and things devoted to them were not sacred. On the other hand, Celtic Christians took over pagan sites of worship, recognizing some of them as thin places where the holy was known to be especially present; they are revered to this day. Conquest and greed eagerly trample on what gets in their way, sacred or not. No place in the U.S. was more sacred to the Sioux Nation than the Black Hills of South Dakota. Once gold was discovered we ignored such superstition, and replaced whatever was sacred with profanity memorialized by Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Deadwood, and the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally. Preserving and protecting the sacred does not have a robust record.
Can boulders washed down a river bed be sacred? If they are to some people, should that matter to everyone else? My Anglican tradition, as expressed in the Episcopal Church, holds that God’s spirit rests in all of creation, and thus some measure of the sacred is in all things of nature. It’s a tradition honored more in recent times than centuries past, but it’s there just the same. If we once believed only Christians, and possibly Jews, were able to discern the sacred, we can no longer. We cannot limit God’s freedom to make his Spirit known to whom and through what he desires to make it known, which raises another question. What measure of background sacredness is needed to make something sacred enough to be set aside as sign and symbol of the holy? We can, as Christians, discern with generous hearts whether the whom and what of claimed sacredness is consistent with the Good News of God in Christ. That we can do. What about measuring it?
To do that, I suggest the word sacred needs some adjustment. Identifying and setting something aside for reverence as sign and symbol of the holy should not mean that nothing can be done with it by unauthorized persons. Boulders tumbling down in a flood from an area deemed sacred, are not, in and of themselves, items that were ever set aside and consecrated as sacred, never to be touched or moved except by the forces of nature. Moving them to restore safe stream flow and permit rebuilding of another place of “sacred” memorialization is not mistreating them or the tradition that holds them sacred. But whatever is done must be done with respectful reverence. The mayor, by his words, didn’t do that. As with the altar stones of the destroyed Jerusalem temple, they could be set aside in an appropriate place, likely to be elsewhere on the property, until the community can come to agreement about what comes next. I imagine it might come about through a combination of engineering, landscape design, and rites of blessing. Since the mayor cannot unsay his intemperate remarks, it may take a while. Nevertheless, it’s a process that has begun to work well in other places, including on Maui, where many construction sites must be examined to determine if there is archeological or cultural significance before much can happen. It’s time consuming, adds cost to projects, and is a pain to those who want to get on with it, but it enables due respect to be offered to the sacredness of things and places that are being disturbed.
So here’s another question. How might this local controversy on a small island in the middle of the Pacific inform our understanding of other places and circumstances where claims of sacredness are in conflict with other values and needs? It was not a question asked when we ran roughshod over the globe, imposing our will without regard for the sacredness present in the lives of others. We were the conquerors. They were the losers. We were superior. They were inferior. That’s the way it went. For the most part, we now recognize the inherent immorality of that, but we haven’t quite come to terms with what morality might look like if we are to live together in peace and harmony, not as conquerors and subjugated, but as fellow citizens and stewards of creation.