The Spiritual Legacy of Christopher Columbus

We used to celebrate Columbus Day. Now we celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. The ambivalent legacy of Christopher Columbus and how it affects great swaths of Global social location, identity, and cultural understanding.

“The Spiritual Legacy of Christopher Columbus”

This past week we celebrated Columbus Day. I want to preach on it. Columbus Day is a holiday about which many people are deeply ambivalent. And I want to make three points:

  1. Columbus was pretty typically European, just as are the majority of us in this room;
  2. This has its positive as well as negative aspects: the upside and the downside of Western culture’s celebration of the ego; and
  3. It’s in embracing the whole—i.e., both aspects of this legacy—that we find both the truth and, I think, insight regarding the human condition and how to move forward politically.

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It’s been 527 years since Columbus’s so-called “discovery.” It was really an invasion with accompanying genocide. We can be thankful for the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish historian, social reformer, and Dominican friar who meticulously recorded the disaster. Columbus was a master mariner—fearless and indomitable. But those same qualities rendered him rigid and unsuccessful on dry land. He made landfall in the Bahamas this week in 1492. Several indigenous Awawak “Indians” (as he named them) met him on the beach. On subsequent voyages Columbus “discovered” Cuba and Hispaniola. To his dying day Christopher Columbus believed all of these places were in the East Indies, not the Caribbean. He was interested in gold and employed the harshest measures to get it. Within two years of his arrival half of the 250,000 Indians on Hispaniola had died. When it became clear that there actually wasn’t much gold to be had, Columbus instituted slavery—a second best kind of rip-off—with centuries of disastrous results. By 1650 (less than 60 years from his initial landfall) the Arawaks were all dead.

In any case, it is no longer possible to simply celebrate Columbus’ “discovery” as our ancestors did. In truth, however, it wasn’t until the 20th century that we celebrated Columbus Day at all. Americans, as a whole, have never been very interested in history. As Henry Ford famously put it: “History is bunk.” Our countrymen and women have more often looked to the future than the past. It was in 1937 that Italian-Americans organized to make October 12 a holiday.

My point is that Christopher Columbus is a touchstone for conflicting values. As the late Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes put it, “Columbus Day not an occasion to deplore or celebrate. It’s an occasion to reflect.”

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Most of us know something something about Christopher Columbus. He was visionary, daring, persistent, brave, and an absolutely brilliant sailor. He epitomizes in his person European values: Western culture’s best and worst aspects. The good: individual initiative. The bad (more or less the other half of the same attribute): virtually no consciousness whatsoever of other people’s rights. He planted the flag and claimed wherever he’d landed for Spain. Indians were condemned by preexisting [Roman Catholic] theory to be resources for exploitation and spiritual objects to be saved. That is to say Indians’ status as members of an independent community or nation was formally denied even when easily and repeatedly demonstrated by force of arms. European conquest began and continued unabated with absolutely zero recognition of native rights whatsoever.

This isn’t to put Indian culture on a pedestal. In fact, Native American societies warred upon, tortured, and enslaved each other almost as piteously as did the Europeans. Cortez conquered Mexico in no small part because other Indians helped him depose the over lording, imperialistic Aztecs. What would have happened if the European conquest had not occurred? It’s hard to say. The Incas and the Aztecs would probably have abandoned human sacrifice and become literate, but would they have abandoned their collectivist cultures and their conviction that individuals have no legitimacy outside the theocratic state? Unlikely. In any case, Aztec and Inca traditions offer little hope for the status of women, equality before the law, religious tolerance, civil liberties, or other values that all of us hold dear and that derive almost exclusively from European culture.

Indeed, we can be thankful, all of us, not to be alive in pre-Columbian Mexico or Peru. Pre-Columbian America was no paradise. But it was no heathen hellhole either and it did not deserve to be stamped out. In their zeal to convert the natives, missionaries apparently forgot certain parts of their Bible… like Matthew 20:16 about how “the last will be first, and the first will be last. “ Or five chapters later [Matthew 25] when it reminds the reader that come the Day of Judgment it’s not how many converts you’ve made but how you’ve treated “the least among you.” The cry of the poor and dispossessed is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you’ll never know what justice is.

Of all the legacies bequeathed by Columbus the biggest and most lasting is the creation of a single world linked by a single international relations—a world dominated by Europeans and European ideas and maintained by force and firepower.  Just as 500 conquistadors conquered Mexico, so, today, a small fraction of the world’s people—a high percentage of them white males living in London and Frankfort, and Santa Barbara, Medina, Westchester County, NY and Georgetown—control, with force of arms and armies, 99% of the globe.

And ambitious adventurers curry their favor. Just as Columbus needed Isabella, Henry Kissinger needed Nelson Rockefeller and then Richard Nixon, to make it big. And just as Isabella needed her army and navy to establish Spain as the preeminent world power, Rockefeller, Kissinger, et al have needed America’s military power to solidify their modern empires. And have needed compliant citizens to help them accomplish these goals.

America for the last seventy years, like Spain following Columbus, has been the reigning superpower on a now single earth. We are now increasingly challenged by the Communist Chinese. Moreover, it seems to me, we’ve enshrined in our country many of the contradictory and ambivalent values so poignantly exemplified by Columbus himself. Negatively that means political arrogance, an over-reliance on military power, and an imperialistic lack of understanding and respect for other cultures. Until three years ago that has been tempered by what we must recognize as good qualities: vision, courage, persistence and hard work, daring, and a commitment to modernity. Make no mistake about it: for good or ill, we are all heirs in debt to Christopher Columbus. In the wake of his “discovery,” pre-Columbian America was obliterated. But all of us here, including Native Americans, have been transformed, and most of us—at this point—can be thankful. My people first came to America in 1620. My ancestor, William Brewster, wrote the Mayflower Compact. When I served a church in Santa Fe I met folks whose ancestors had been here longer than that; Mary Ellen Gonzales—who I saw at General Assembly–is a fifteenth generation American, and the families of many of the Indians who were part of my sweat lodge circle have been on North America for far longer—at least 13, 000 years. When trying to sort out America’s current immigration mess, it’s worth keeping in mind that almost all the people streaming to our borders from Central America are mestizos—i.e., Indians. Natives, whose ancestors were here long before most of ours. Pilgrim forebears notwithstanding, most of my ancestors arrived on these shores far later, among the 35,000,000 who came between 1830 and 1924. Some people arrived this morning. Some were carried by their parents. All were looking for a better chance in life, for greater opportunity and freedom. Looking, one way or another, for “the promised land” described in Deuteronomy and read earlier by this morning’s Worship Associate. It’s clear to me: we’re all immigrants here.

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A man of tremendous ego, Christopher Columbus exemplified much that is good and simultaneously a great deal that is dangerous and reckless and out of balance—and that typically comes along with excessive egoism. And so—naturally—do each of us exemplify many of these same characteristics. It’s a complicated legacy. In respect and humility, let us pray.

O Source of Life and Love:

Strengthen in us our resolve to recognize and seek to resolve wounds and injustices of the past while preserving what is good. Help us to see that imperialism and racial hatred are still with us today, evils in our current life that weaken us, and do injustice to all that we hold beautiful and sacred. Enable us to eliminate these evils both in each of our hearts and in our world. Preserve in us a clearer vision of wholeness, that we may faithfully support just, humane, and wholesome efforts in all walks of our busy lives—at home, in our work places, and in our communities. May we be appropriately prideful and competent in all our endeavors. May we find the strength and support to be full, responsible citizens and faithful stewards of our earth, and of our country and our culture’s best traditions. Beginning now.

So may it be.      Shalom.      Namaste.