Monday, October 09, 2006

Columbus Day?

I'm taking a little bit of time away from my discussion at Aaron Kinney's blog Kill the Afterlife to "celebrate" that great holiday, Columbus Day. After all, why not celebrate those great events of 1492, so destructive that they are symbolically linked with Auschwitz and the Holocaust by Jewish theologian Marc H. Ellis? And, less anyone think that Ellis is radically anti-Christian, be advised that he teaches at Maryknoll School of Theology, a Catholic Institution.

1492, the year in which, as the rhyme says, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue," represents the height of Euro-centrism and the moral arrogance of Christian triumphalism. Consider this excerpt of a letter that Columbus (the Anglicized version of Cristobal Colon) sent to his "sponsors" King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain:

And thus the eternal God, Our Lord, gives to all those who walk in His way triumph over things which appear to be impossible, and this [his travels, celebrated by us today] was notably one. For, although men have talked and have written about these lands, all was conjectural, without ocular evidence, but amount only to this, that those who heard for the most part listened and judged rather by hearsay than from even a small something tangible. So that, since Our Redeemer has given the victory to our most illustrious King and Queen, and their renowned kingdoms, in so great a matter, for this all Christendom ought to feel delight and make great feasts and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity, with many solemn prayers for the great exaltation which they have in the turning of so many peoples to our holy faith, and afterwards for the temporal benefits, because not only Spain but all of Christendom will have hence refreshment and gain.

Columbus "discovered" a land which even he acknowledges in his final line here, was already populated. Of course, because the indigenous population was neither European nor yet Christian, they didn't really count as persons. Thus they had no moral standing, no legal standing, and no civil standing. They don't count as part of the population of persons mentioned earlier in this section of Columbus' letter, when he writes

For, although men have talked and have written about these lands, all was conjectural, without ocular evidence, but amount only to this, that those who heard for the most part listened and judged rather by hearsay than from even a small something tangible.

It wouldn't occur to him to think that it might be significant that the "men" (who alone he recognizes as persons) and the women already occupying the land that God's favor has allowed him to triumphally discover might indeed have "ocular evidence" for said land's existence.

But 1492 is not only the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and Columbus' journey is not the only project of Christian triumphalism funded and mandated by Ferdinand and Isabella. Also in 1492, all Jews in now Christian Spain were forced to either convert to Christianity, leave Spain, or face death. As such, according to the aforementioned Marc H. Ellis in his book Ending Auschwitz: The Future of Jewish and Christian Life, 1492, as it stand symbolically alongside Auschwitz, can serve as a source of Jewish-Christian solidarity.

This is because, as Ellis realized while teaching Catholic students from Latin America, both Christians and Jews have been the victims of the violence of Christian triumphalism. Auschwitz and the holocaust that it represents serves as the culmination of Christian attitudes towards Jews, while 1492 represents a similar culmination of Christian attitudes towards the indigenous populations of the Americas. 1492 and Auschwitz both represent, at least symbolically, a kind of attempted extermination. Auschwitz the literal attempted extermination of the Jews by a Nazi party which, while not Christian, was the product of a Christian culture; 1492 the extermination of indigenous cultures by Christian missionaries. Ellis writes:

The Christianity my non-European students carried and in some cases had converted to in their lifetime was hardly indigenous or ancient. Most of it was thoroughly Western in teaching and lifestyle. And I saw them struggle with the uprooting that the European empire and European Christianity had brought. By adopting Christianity they had been elevated above others in their societies, even within their families; often they were separated physically from their villages and culturally and spiritually by their internalization of Christian values. They were taught to look down on their own people who had not converted. But through our readings on Columbus and 1492 these students recognized that the privilege of being Christianized also masked the violence of being Christianized and that their Christianization was in many cases a thin layer of experience and values that separated them from their own people and from themselves. Over the years this was the realization that many of my students struggled toward, the dual alienation that Christianity imposed from their own culture and from the deepest memories and intuition of self.

Of course, Ellis does not see the Christianization of indigenous populations in Africa, Asia, and especially Latin America as an entirely bad thing, noting the many cultural and economic advances made in certain populations after they were contacted by Western European Christians. But he certainly doesn't see it as primarily, much less exclusively, good. This is especially true in light of the violence which has so often accompanied Christianization, especially in Africa - where the indigenous population was enslaved - and Latin America.

As Ellis encountered more Christians who were part of indigenous populations that had been forcibly concerted to Christianity, wholly subsumed by the Christians who like Columbus invaded their land, he began to see some points of solidarity between these conquered Christians and his own Jewish people, long victims of Christian triumphalism. He asks himself and his fellow Jews

Were we as Jews the victims of the same gospels under which the Native Americans, the African slaves, and the Filipinos suffered?

As we celebrate Columbus Day - especially us Euro-Americans living on land that should never have belonged to us - let us meditate on our history of violence and moral arrogance. Let us ask ourselves if the ways of Christians are the ways of Christ. And, if - as I suspect - they are not, let us vow to no longer participate in any way of being Christian that is contrary to the ways of Christ.

Violence done on behalf of a victim of violence? Oppression and exploitation in the name of one who spoke out on behalf of the oppressed and exploited. Power wielded in the name of one who made himself powerless. These are not the ways of Christ, and should not be the ways of Christians.

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