The Battle over Columbus
This weekend we commemorate 500 years since Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage to the New World. But not everyone is joining in the celebration.
In Minneapolis, the City Council adopted a resolution condemning Columbus for opening a door to genocide and enslavement of the American Indians.
In the Dominican Republic, where Columbus first came ashore, the past weeks have been marked by violent protests denouncing Columbus as an invader. Protesters set up barricades of burning tires and threw gasoline bombs.
As far away as Japan, university students staged a mock trial, in which Columbus was found guilty of murder, plunder, and destruction of the native culture.
These are pretty extreme reactions--and that ought to tell us something deeper is going on here. These aren't debates over historical facts about Christopher Columbus as an individual.
No, the anniversary has turned into a battle of symbols: with Columbus as a symbol for Western, European culture, and the natives representing non-Western culture.
What's more, the symbols are so over-simplified they have all the marks of a second-rate morality play. The natives are presented as goodness incarnate, living in an uncorrupted Garden
of Eden. The Europeans are the serpent that invades the Garden. A movie about Columbus is even called "The Conquest of Paradise." Well, as Christians we know paradise was lost long before, with Adam and Eve. Since that time, every culture has been marked by sin and corruption. Every culture, apart from the redeeming grace of God, falls into cruelty and injustice.
There's no question that the Europeans broke their treaties with the Indians and mistreated them miserably. But Indian culture had its barbarism, too. Some of the first natives Columbus encountered were cannibals. The word "cannibalism" even derives from their tribal name.
So let's get away from the battle over symbols. No culture has a monopoly on evil and corruption. When we study history, the real question isn't who was the good guy or the bad guy. The real question is, How can any culture aspire to higher things?
What are the true and universal values that serve as a guide for all cultures?
The irony is that the universal values most critics use to denounce European culture came from Europe--from the Christian faith that spread first across the European continent. Christianity teaches a universalist ethic that demands respect and love toward all people, not just those of the clan or tribe. Europeans haven't always followed the Christian ethic, of course. But the reason we all recognize their failings is that we've accepted the Christian values they brought to the world.
So when the political correctness thought police attack Western culture, go ahead and agree with them. We freely admit the weaknesses of European culture.
But don't stop there. Ask them how they know a culture is good or bad--by what standard do they judge? The values they use to condemn the sins of the Europeans are values imported from Europe.
And that's something worth celebrating.