Christopher Columbus, Culture and Conversions
October 13, 2014 0 comments
Today is Columbus Day, which means it’s a great day for historians and historiography. By now, the controversy about the way that Christopher Columbus is taught or understood is as popular as actually teaching or understanding Christopher Columbus.
Here are a couple of tweets and Facebook status I have seen today:
“If stores are advertising Columbus Day sales, does that mean I can walk in and take anything I want?”
“It’s a little ironic that we’re spending this Columbus Day worried about foreigners traveling overseas and bringing diseases and death to our country.” (This status could make the same point about incoming immigrants).
They speak to a newer post-70’s perspective on Columbus. Previously, he was generally taught merely as the explorer who discovered the United States (he didn’t). Too often ignored was his purposeful killing and enslaving of the Native Americans (who he called Indians, showing exactly how skillful of an explorer and navigator he was) and the fact that Columbus and his boys were at least partially (and maybe mostly) to blame for the diseases that came from Europe (against which the Native Americans had no developed immunity) that led to the death of countless others. Columbus was the first in a long, awful tradition of systematically displacing and killing the Native Americans.
In the last two generations, that narrative has gradually replaced the older, perhaps more naïve interpretation. And that’s probably a good thing; as a history student, it is undeniably annoying to see textbooks that continue to make Columbus a hero without really even mentioning the devastating effect that he had on the Native population. On the other hand, the anti-Columbus fervor is probably becoming a little extreme; context, after all, is important. He wasn’t any particularly better or worse (from a moral or ethical standpoint) than other explorers at the time. The 15th and 16th centuries were a brutal time – Native Americans don’t exactly have an excellent track record in how they treated each other. And of course it’s hardly fair to blame Columbus for not knowing that intricacies and efficacy of the human body’s ability to fight off foreign diseases and germs. Correcting an unfairly positive remembrance of Columbus is good; pretending he was some sort of monster smacks of judging a historical culture through the lens of our modern culture.
Having said that, Columbus does have one unfortunate tendency that is instructive for Christians today: cultural conversions. Columbus fell into the temptation that many Christians have faced over the centuries; placing greater value in cultural assimilation (including religious assimilation) rather than in actually seeing people confess and acknowledge Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Historians often talk about the “forced conversions” of the Native Americans by Columbus, often focusing on the fact that it was culturally superior of Columbus. And maybe it was, and maybe that’s a bad thing. But the religious conversions only reflected the broader forced cultural assimilation.
We can learn from Columbus’ mistakes. Our temptation can be to evaluate the efficacy of people’s conversions by how well they begin to reflect our own constructed Christian subcultures. If someone begins to talk and dress and act like us, we feel pretty good about ourselves (and their salvific status). But our goal shouldn’t be to see people fit into our own subculture. Our goal shouldn’t be that people being to talk and dress and act like us. Our goal is that they should begin to act like Christ. And most likely acting like Christ has very little to do with looking like us.
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