Redeeming Columbus? A Reflection on the Occasion of Columbus Day

The post on Columbus Day is Written
by Ken Howard

Few figures have fallen further than Christopher Columbus in the estimation of the general public. Once lauded as a courageous explorer and the discoverer of the new world, Columbus is now lambasted as a royal toady, sucking up to Queen Isabella of Spain to garner financial and political support for an ill-planned get-rich scheme, whose avarice and racism ultimately led to the decimation of the indigenous tribal populations and the enslavement of those who survived the slaughter. Even his eponymous federal holiday has suffered from his disgrace: while few are willing to go as far as giving up a day off from work, many have lobbied their respective state legislatures to change the name of the holiday to less onerous appellations, such as “Native American Day” or the somewhat ambiguous “Discovery Day.”  Comedian John Oliver, on his weekly show Last Week Tonight once featured Columbus Day in his occasional segment, “Why is this still a thing?”

However, if we dig underneath the trending opinions of the day, we would discover that real Christopher Columbus was a mixed bag: neither saint nor Satan.  Columbus was a Christian: a closet converso, some say, whose ancestors had converted from Judaism to Christianity to escape the Papal Inquisition of the 13th century, and who was now seeking the favor of Ferdinand and Isabella not long after the two monarchs had kicked off the not-unexpected Spanish Inquisition, which focused its suspicion largely on converted Jews. So at the very least, one might credit him with a certain degree of chutzpah.

Columbus was – just like all historical figures and Columbus Day itself – a product of his age. Particularly, his thinking had fallen victim to the influence of the religious paradigm of his age, the Christendom paradigm, under which Church and Empire merged, and as the Church began to pull the levers of the Empire to achieve its ecclesiastical ends, it became something that the earliest followers of the Way would not have recognized, having transformed itself from an trans-religious movement centered in the love of Christ, to a hierarchical institution, proselytizing new members and enforcing the uniformity of its existing members through the use of power and (implicitly) violence.

Under the influence of Christendom, the process of evangelism was turned on its head, and the evangelist became the equivalent of the Roman proconsul. Dealing with potential subject nations or peoples, the proconsul would (1) present the Emperor’s terms to their leaders; (2) demand an immediate decision as to whether they would accept or reject those terms; and (3) if they accepted, make them subjects of the Roman Empire, enjoying all the benefits of Roman citizenship. If they declined, the result was war and enslavement. In the church the evangelist would (1) present the gospel; (2) ask for a decision as to whether his listeners would accept or reject Christ; and (3) if the answer was positive, offer fellowship. Rejection of Christ (or at least the image of Christ that was presented) was often said to result in eternal condemnation. To this day, imperial evangelism remains common in some areas of Christian life and expression, so strongly associated with evangelism that liberal Christians often reject evangelism itself because they can picture no other way of doing it.

This tension becomes quite obvious when we examine Columbus’s own words in his personal memoirs. On the one hand, it is hard to avoid the realization that Columbus felt a strong sense of call to share the Gospel with the peoples of the New World. Yet on the other hand, until such time as they were converted, he seemed disinclined to view them as human beings. As a result, many Caribbean natives met their death by the sword. Even after their conversions, he did not treat them as having equal humanity to Europeans like himself. It is not hard to see how this kind of thinking would soon allow conquistador and priest to work side by side in the subjugation of Central and South America. Nor is it hard to see how this would allow people who considered themselves Christians to engage in the slave trade and abuse those they owned, even after their slaves became Christians themselves, or allow Christian settlers to decimate even the Native American tribes which, like the Cherokee nation, had become Christian. Of course, it’s possible that this kind of racism would have emerged in the absence of Christendom-based evangelism. However, it’s fair to say that the two reinforced each other, something that Columbus Day does not fully acknowledge as a holiday.

This dehumanization of the other has left a legacy in the church’s present conflicts. Those who hold differing opinions about theology or worship practices often view people on the other side almost as non-Christians. They often feel free to treat their opponents with extreme disrespect, saying and doing things to them that they would ordinarily never direct toward another human being, let alone a brother or sister in Christ.

One has to wonder how the world might be different today if those who brought the cross to the New World had not been so profoundly influenced by the Christendom paradigm. In fact, one writer of popular science fiction and fantasy, Orson Scott Card, has done exactly that. In Past Watch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, Card imagines a team of time travelers who go back in time to strand Columbus on Hispaniola by sinking all his ships, thereby forcing him to live among the indigenous people for a decade and come to terms with them as equal human beings. It is a fascinating thought experiment that we would do well to consider.

Of course, we have to deal with the Columbus we have, versus the one we wish we had.  Still, if we understand the extent to which he was influenced by paradigms that still affect the Church today, perhaps we can temper our judgment of Columbus the historical figure with some compassion for Columbus the fallen human being: not all that different from us. And perhaps we can temper our judgment of the Church of his day with an understanding that it is a fallen human institution, like ours is today.  Fallen, and yet somehow God still manages to work around us – and sometimes, miraculously, even through us, despite our feet of clay.