To Celebrate or Not

Columbus Day

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”

So begins the first line of the poem a lot of us learned in school about the man who got a day named after him – today.  Columbus Day.

Columbus was presented as a hero.  A Christian hero at that!  And Christians warmly embraced him. I had a book in my library for years that extolled the virtues of Columbus: The Light and the Glory.  Just look at his name!  Christopher Columbus.  We can’t miss the “Christ” in there, can we? 

“Christopher” means “Christ-bearer” and Columbus understood his name as his destiny to carry the gospel(good news) of Christ to far-off lands.  Sounds honorable, doesn’t it?

Christopher Columbus.  The man who discovered America with the purpose of telling people about Jesus.  Who wouldn’t celebrate this man?

But, as Paul Harvey used to say, there is “The Rest of the Story.”  And it’s not pretty.  Not honorable.  Not worth celebrating.  

What we celebrate reveals our character.  Paul tells us that “Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness” (1 Corinthians 13:6)…

“isn’t happy with injustice”  Common English Bible

“does not rejoice at wrongdoing”  English Standard Version

“is not happy with evil” Good News Translation

“does not delight in evil” New International Version

I don’t celebrate Columbus but I do think we should study and learn from him.  Here’s why:

*Let’s be clear,  Columbus did not discover America.  People were already here.  You can’t  discover lands where people are already living.   But that’s what Columbus, much of Europe, early American colonists and the USA did.  The operative word here is “people.”  Columbus and other “discoverers” didn’t see the inhabitants of this land as “people.” 

“Savages”  “Pagan”  “Enemies of Christ,” but not “human.”  It’s easier to dominate, hurt, and kills someone when that someone is dehumanized.  Seeing someone as less than we is the essence of racism.  

Even if someone wanted to credit Europeans with “discovering” America, the prize would go to Viking explorer Leif Ereicson  who “found” the New World 500 years before Columbus set sail.

BTW – Columbus didn’t land on the higher 48.  He landed in what is present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  

*Columbus discovered America like a meteor discovered dinasours.  Columbus was awful. 

Columbus initiated the two greatest crimes in the history of the Western Hemisphere – the Atlantic slave trade and the American Indian genocide.  Bartolome De Las Casas, a former slave owner who became Bishop of Chiapas described the exploits of Columbus and his troops, “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel.  My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”  

*Here’s the clincher.  This is really tough for me to understand.  The treatment of the indigenious people was not justified primarily by race, but by religion.  Spanish colonizers, relying on Pople Nicholas V’s papal decree, enslaved people because they were “enemies of Christ.”

Typically, after “discovering” an island and encountering the people living there, the Spaniards would read aloud – in Spanish – what came to be called “The Requirement.”    What’s up with that? Did they intentionally not want the people to understand what was being read?   It went something like this:

“I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates.  If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all.  I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty.  I will take your women and children and make them slaves…The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me.”  

Christopher (Christ-bearer) Columbus wanted to take the “good news” to the people.

I don’t think they heard these words as “good news”.

“Convert or die.”  “Convert or become slaves.”  That’s one way to grow a church.  

Columbus used the name of Jesus as a rationale to cheat, rob, rape, enslave and murder people who had been made in God’s image.  

Schools in Germany are required to teach the holocaust, so that they will never repeat it.  

So, let’s not celebrate Columbus.  But, let’s learn from Columbus and other periods and persons that tell stories of injustice so that we will grow, mature, and truly:

  •  “form a more perfect union,”  (from Preamble of the U.S. Constitution), and
  • represent the person of Jesus.
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