The Midwestern farming community I grew up in did not celebrate Columbus Day. The reason was practical: the idea of taking a precious day off in the middle of the fall harvest season, with fields of corn and soybeans waiting to be harvested, was unthinkable. It wasn’t until I came to the East Coast I learned others celebrated the day as a holiday.
A growing number of people today, however, are deciding not to celebrate Columbus Day. Many are somberly remembering a more complete picture of the ramifications of Christopher Columbus’s arrival on the shores of the continent in 1492.
This Fall at Trinity Church we discussed an article written by Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation. His article appears in Dialogues on Race materials (2019, Sparkhouse Publishers, Minneapolis, MN) that are guiding our congregational conversations on race this fall.
In the article, we learned that when Christopher Columbus arrived in America in 1492, he did so in the shadow of a document written fifty years earlier by Pope Nicholas V in 1455 to King Alfonso of Portugal giving the king papal permission to “capture, vanquish and subdue all enemies of Christ wheresoever placed … to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery … and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”
We learned this document was the first of several Papal Bulls, collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery, in which the church of Europe gave Christian explorers the right to claim “undiscovered” lands for their Christian Monarchs and theological blessing to enslave or kill those they encountered.
As later waves of pilgrims, Puritans, and pioneers pushed the new country westward across the continent, Christians of European descent continued to give theological justification for the suppression, relocation, and forced expulsion of the Indigenous peoples they encountered. They read the bible in a way in which they saw themselves as God’s chosen people rightfully driving out of the American “promised land” the Indigenous tribes, and enemies of Christ, they encountered.
Senator Thomas Hart Benton expressed this viewpoint in 1846: “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth. The Red race has disappeared from the Atlantic coast; the tribes that resisted civilization met extinction. For my part, I cannot murmur at what seems to be the effect of divine law.”
So what do we do now?
The title of Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs’ article is American Amnesia. The article calls us out of the collective amnesia in which the pain, suffering, and death of Indigenous peoples is ignored and forgotten. Awakening from a collective amnesia, a growing number of religious communities have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, including many Roman Catholic Organizations and my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in its 2016 Churchwide Assembly.
In our conversations at Trinity, I see hopeful signs we are awakening from our own amnesia. Our conversations have led to no easy or quick answers. Even as we’ve been sobered by painful realities of past and present racism, we’ve experienced differences of opinions and reactions to the many layers of complexity involved in the discussion.
As we continue to awaken, the need to disentangle (some call it decolonize) the message of Christ from the message of colonization and exploitation is imperative. Sadly and tragically, Christians of European-descent twisted and warped the two together to produce a militant Jesus who stood with the armed oppressor that ignored the crucified Christ of the gospels who refused to participate in violence, and instead endured the cross to break the cycle of sin and death.
What if we decided to do today what our ancestors in the faith did not do centuries ago? What if we intentionally celebrated the image of God in Native American peoples today? What if we received Christ in the cultures and customs of Indigenous peoples today? What if we celebrated the image of God in everyone we encountered and together stood in fellowship around the throne of Christ actively working for a country of justice and liberty for people of all ethnicities and cultures?
You’ll find me working on Monday, October 14th. I’ll be proclaiming Christ who is not American or European, but who is God’s timeless revelation of healing and wholeness for all peoples of the world.
This article appeared as the “Keep the Faith” column in the Saturday, October 12, 2019 edition of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. I contribute to the column on a quarterly basis along with Interfaith religious leaders from Worcester and surrounding communities.