Kava's Church Battle

Each society has its own myths of kava origin. According to the Tahitians, kava was introduced to the first people by the goddess Hinanui. For traditional Hawaiians, kava was a gift of the gods Kane and Kanaloa. In Fijian mythology it is Degei, the creator of human beings who appears in the form of a snake, who gives the people kava and teaches them how to cultivate it. And Western Europeans? Well, naturally they proclaimed kava to be the devil's drink.

The growing, trading, preparation and consumption of kava has been a pillar of cultures all over the South Pacific. Kava drinking is an essential part of any ceremony, and the plant has been used medicinally to address complaints from skin infections to cystitis to toothache. Besides its array of ceremonial and healing uses, kava kava also holds great spiritual significance for South Pacific cultures: in Vanuatu and Fiji, kava has been ingested by shamans to make contact with the dead or ancestors, as well as in consecration rituals such as the naming of a male infant. Hawaiian priests once consumed kava in religious ceremonies to speak with the gods and divine auspicious courses of action, and a form of this divination practice has survived to this day in the Hawaiian Islands. Much of kava's sanctity derived from stories of its origin that connected kava kava to indigenous gods such as those mentioned above.

For the missionaries who arrived in the South Pacific in the early to mid-1800s, the connection between kava and native gods was part of the trappings of idolatry that had to be torn down before the indigenous people could be converted to Christianity. Across the South Pacific, missions took action first to restrict and then eventually to ban kava drinking not just among their own converts, but in the indigenous societies that surrounded them. South Pacific islanders' struggle to protect kava and the rituals surrounding it from missionary influence parallels conflict in other regions of the world after European contact. For instance, Christian missionaries in Mexico and Guatemala made similar efforts to ban a traditional Mayan drink called balche. Believed by the Maya to be essential to good health, balche drinking was as ingrained to the culture in this region of Mesoamerica as kava is in the South Pacific. And like the arguments used against balche, missionaries to the South Pacific argued that drinking kava dulled the mind, made people "stupid" and "lazy", and most egregiously of all, allowed the devil into the mind.

It is known today that, far from causing mental dullness, kava may actually improve mental focus* and promote feelings of calm and tranquility without sacrificing mental alertness*. However, at the time of European contact with the South Pacific, it would be at least a hundred years before kava's medicinal benefits to body and mind were recorded in Western scientific literature. Christian missionaries made strenuous efforts to eradicate kava use from South Pacific cultures not just because of its supposed "degenerative" effects, but also in an attempt to erase kava's ancestral links to the native religions of the region, which the church saw as a hindrance to their proselytization efforts.

Initially, bans on drinking kava were generally limited to converts to Christianity. However, in many cases these prohibitions crept into other areas of indigenous society outside the missionaries' purview. Over time, European efforts to colonize the South Pacific and impose laws on indigenous societies began to include restrictions on how kava was harvested and transported, and when it could be consumed. For instance, on the island of Tanna, laws were enacted that prohibited the transportation of kava along roads from one village to another. Because kava had to be transported to villages without nearby kava crops before almost any ritual or ceremonial occasion, this law represented a huge threat to Tanna's indigenous culture. On Tanna, kava must be drunk in rituals to welcome guests, at holidays, consecrations, and many other occasions. By restricting the ways kava could be handled, the Christian church sought to weaken a key scaffold that supported the indigenous social order.

Reactions to missionary attempts to ban kava in the South Pacific were varied, but one common feature was that many societies took steps to change the customs around kava and broaden the context in which kava could be consumed. In many cases, this meant relaxing the ritual restrictions surrounding kava and expanding the acceptable times of day when it could be used--thus transforming kava from a wholly ceremonial to a partly secular drink. Fiji, Vanuatu, Tanna, and Hawaii are all examples of South Pacific societies where kava, once strictly controlled by ritual, has now become a secularized social beverage with accepted daytime as well as evening use. The cultural repercussions of this change are still being felt in many regions of the South Pacific, as some indigenous islanders feel that the secularization of kava has diluted its sacredness and ritual power.

More positively, the use of kava has become accepted by most churches in the South Pacific as an important part of native culture. A couple notable exceptions are the New Methodist Church of Fiji, which issued bans on the preparation or sale of kava on its premises. Church members are also banned from drinking kava before and after church services. The New Methodist Church's kava ban is currently under review by its Standing Committee and should be decided upon sometime in 2014. The 7th Day Adventist Church, which eschews the consumption of alcohol, coffee, tea, and other biologically active substances, also bans kava use by its members. However, across most of the blue Pacific, it seems that kava's church battle may finally have come to a happy conclusion.