Living in the Tension: Columbus Day, Native Americans and a non-innocent history

Given all the Columbus Day posts I’ve been seeing in my friend circle, I figured I should resurrect this one from an earlier version of my blog. At this point, I was in my final year of seminary and regularly having my mind blown by various things. Justo González’s work was one of those things, and when Columbus day came around I posted this.

Last quarter I read Justo González’s Manana, and in it he talked about an idea that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since, the idea of a non-innocent history.

As a society (possibly as Western society, but I suspect elsewhere as well) we want to see our history as innocent. That our ancestors who struggled, fought and died, struggled against evil, fought for justice and died in a noble sacrifice. History is written by the winners, and we want to believe that the good guys won. We want our history to be innocent. But history is rarely innocent, and Columbus is a particularly powerful example of that for those of us who grew up in the “New World”.

In 1492, the legend goes, Columbus bravely set out from Spain, to do what had never been done before. He set out to defy commonly held beliefs about Sea Monsters and the flatness of the world and sail west to India. Christopher Columbus had reason on his side, and traveling further than anybody had traveled before, he discovered the resource-rich lands of Caribbean Islands, and the American continents. We learn this legend in schools, we learn that we owe what we are today to Columbus’ bravery, ingenuity, and drive to explore. It’s a good history, an innocent one, but it doesn’t stay that way for long.

We learn that the continent wasn’t “discovered”, but that were several civilizations that had lived here for thousands of years before Columbus’ arrival. We learn that these explorers delivered smallpox infested blankets that decimated these civilizations with disease. We learn that the new European settlers tried to enslave those who were already here, that they stole, or took land by force, desecrated that which the pre-existing nations considered sacred, and imported countless numbers of human slaves to these continents like herds of cattle. Our history is no longer innocent, but blood-stained.

So what do we do with this history? There are two responses that are common and, in my opinion, flawed. The first response is to ignore it. It’s in poor taste to mention those who may have suffered, and whatever evil might have been done. If this is our history, then it must be told innocently. The second response is to reject it. This history is corrupt, it is evil, and therefore I will only speak of it to condemn it, and I condemn it often. There is no good here. I believe that the ignore response and the reject response are flawed because they both stem from the same desire, the desire to see ourselves as innocent. We are connected to our history, so we believe that if we can either whitewash that history so that the history is innocent, we will be too. Or if we loudly and strongly condemn the history that is non-innocent, we can separate ourselves from it and maybe even atone for it, making ourselves innocent once again. The problem is that neither of these change the past, and like the prophet Isaiah, we find that we remain non-innocent persons, living amongst a non-innocent people.

Ultimately, I believe that, we can’t create our innocence through our own effort. We must admit our non-innocence and seek grace, not the sort of grace that says “it does not matter”, but the type of grace that looks hard at what has taken place and in spite of that, gives us a second chance, a chance to get it right.