Would Jesus Christ Mind If You Flew to Paradise on a Sunday?

The question is at the core of what may be the most remote political dispute on earth.

Imagine that a Boeing 747 is on the tarmac in Los Angeles or Tokyo ready to ferry you anywhere on earth. "Fly me out over the Pacific Ocean," you tell the pilot. "And when you're as far as possible from the problems of the Americas, Asia and Australia, start looking for an airfield."

Many hours later, you're stepping onto the tarmac in Raratonga, the capitol of The Cook Islands. Due to its circular shape, the island's 13,000 residents give directions by saying things like, "Your hotel is at 7 o'clock." To get there, you can take one of two buses: the clockwise bus or the "anti-clockwise" bus. But you're not interested in staying on an island so big that it can support two bus routes, however overlapping. So now you're on a smaller plane, and it ferries you another 40 minutes over water to a smaller island that looks just like this from the air:

aitutaki from the air.png

This is Aitutaki. The dark blue is the ocean, the white border is waves breaking on the reef, the bright blue is a protected lagoon, and the green mass in the upper-right-hand corner is the island itself. The airport is tiny. The woman who picks you up explains that you'll have no need for seat-belts. You're as far removed from the problems of the world as it's possible to be on this earth. Only now can you find out what it is that people argue about when they live on a remote paradise.

I did.

Of course, that isn't what led me there.

A couple months ago, I spent a week on Aitutaki while on my honeymoon. Do you doubt that it is a paradise?

Here is the view from the bungalow where we stayed at an idyll called Etu Moana:

beach front.png

I've never enjoyed better accommodations.

Yet the average Aitutaki resident has a view no less beautiful. The local diet includes a lot of fresh fish and tropical fruits. During dry spells the rain barrels can get low, but the water supply has always held out. There is no crime, no traffic, and a motor scooter or bicycle is sufficient for transportation. Jobs? There are few opportunities besides tourism, small scale farming, and fishing. While many are too poor to rebuild if their house is destroyed in a cyclone, there is reliable disaster relief from New Zealand, where Cook Islanders enjoy citizenship that doesn't work in reverse.  

All things considered, it is a happy island within a breathtaking lagoon, blessed in many ways besides, but with one controversy that overshadows all others. You see, it is a devoutly Christian island. And though it is heavily reliant on tourism, whether day-trippers from Raratonga intent on seeing that lagoon, or visitors like my wife and I who stay overnight in boutique accommodations, some on the island don't want anyone coming or going on the Sabbath.

Circle the landscape on a bike, as we did, and you come across any number of signs like this one:

jesus is our god sign full.jpg

As another sign put it, "The sanctity of Sabbath (Sunday) is of a higher value than the dollar - our tradition is being disrespected and violated. No Sunday Flights." Some religious people on the island feel so strongly about this issue that they've formed a dissident political party to contest the policy. They've also been known to go to the airport to protest flights that land on Sunday. More secular-minded folks think that the island has grown excessively religious over the years, and that forbidding flights on Sunday goes too far. They're unmoved by appeals to tradition, and point out that Christian missionaries nearly destroyed the ways of their Polynesian ancestors.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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