The staff of the Festival Center are off today though not to celebrate Christopher Columbus, but rather, to remember and center indigenous people. Though far too many on the far right would love to point to us as too easily influenced by “cancel culture,” I would like to point out that we are actually not the ones banning books or criminalizing the teaching of history. No, we are not canceling Columbus for I believe we should remember him and the legacy he has sadly left to far too much of the church.
One thing we should remember about Columbus is that he was very much influenced by his faith, at least in how he understood his faith. He refused to use profanity (which is admirable considering he was a sailor!) and he insisted on his voyages that his crews strictly observed Christian rituals. He also read Scripture and sought direction from the Bible for his journeys.
Yet, in spite of his personal piety, Columbus also is responsible for being one in a very long line of oppressors and brutalizers to the worlds and the peoples he encountered. While he saw himself as something of an evangelist, his form of evangelism was forced through enslavement and murder.
There are continuing arguments between historians as to the role he played in decimating indigenous peoples, but even the History Channel reports that, throughout his years in the New World, Columbus enacted policies of forced labor in which natives were put to work for the sake of profits. Later, Columbus sent thousands of peaceful Taino “Indians” from the island of Hispaniola to Spain to be sold. Many died en route. Those left behind were forced to search for gold in mines and work on plantations. Within 60 years after Columbus landed, only a few hundred of what may have been 250,000 Taino were left on their island.
Dehumanization, destruction, genocide. How could Columbus call himself a Christian? Well, if we want to be really honest, there are many, many troubling stories in the Bible about “God’s people” taking the land and lives of others, justifying it all the while because they identify themselves as “God’s people.” These stories are mostly located in the Old Testament, which does not lessen their importance, but it is good to remember that Jesus, through his teachings, life, and ministry, wholeheartedly refutes this kind of public engagement.
The reason why we cannot just wipe Columbus away from history is that there are many today who commit all kinds of injustices, human rights abuses, and illegalities because they identify themselves as “God’s people.” In fact, the majority of those who stormed the Capitol and tried to overthrow the government on January 6 very much saw themselves as defenders of Christianity, with many pausing to pray or sing praise songs as they took control of certain parts of the Capitol.
So, Columbus is not the first person to claim Christ and commit acts that are antithetical to the way of Jesus. And he definitely was not the last. I believe we should remember the life of Columbus as an example of what can be done – of what has been done throughout history – by people who want to identify themselves as “God’s people” not because they want to love others, but rather, because they want to dominate others.
So today, while so many in our country, and in the church, remember the life of Columbus, let us rather center the lives of indigenous people. One way we can do so is by reading the history and writings of first peoples. Some of my favorite writers are Randy Woodley (Christian theologian and missiologist) and Dee Brown (historian). We must also recommit ourselves to holding sacred the earth and her resources, standing against continued exploitative practices by corporations and the government in this country and in so many others. As we do so we reject the oppressive ways of Columbus and we follow the way of Jesus. In that spirit let celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.