When Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, it was not so much a “discovery” as it was an accident. As it has been quipped, Columbus didn’t know where he was going, didn’t know where he was when he arrived, and when he returned home, couldn’t tell anyone where he had been.
Native and indigenous voices have long lamented the honor bestowed on Columbus, and with good reason. He was this hemisphere’s first colonizer, European slave trader, and génocidaire. He, and the waves of pillagers who followed, eliminated more than 90% of America’s aboriginal people and cultures.
So when hundreds of native tribes – and a few city councils and state governments – refuse to celebrate the man they view more as a villain than a victor, give them their due. How can they applaud a person who brought their ancestors nothing but sickness, massacre, and destruction?
As a person of faith, I cannot ignore the role religion – extremely toxic religion – played in this whole enterprise. Within months of Columbus’ feet striking the Caribbean sands, Pope Alexander VI issued the notorious “Doctrine of Discovery.” It was a hideous declaration, giving theological justification to economic greed and immoral colonization.
The “Doctrine of Discovery” gave Europeans carte blanche to claim all new lands and to “exalt, increase, and spread the Christian religion everywhere, so that barbarous nations be overthrown.” Europeans would arrive on American shores and deliver a speech to natives who could not understand a word of these foreign languages. In part, they declared:
“We require you to acknowledge the Church as the Ruler of the whole world. If you do so, you will do well. But, if you do not, I certify that with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and make war against you in all ways and manners that we can; and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church. We shall enslave you, your wives, and your children. We shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can. The deaths and losses which shall accrue will be your fault.”
Lest one think such actions only applied to Columbus and his contemporaries, think again. The United States Supreme Court cited the “Doctrine of Discovery” as legal justification for the removal and marginalization of Native American tribes. Chief Justice John Marshall, with an unanimous court, ruled that “the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to the New World,” concluding that aboriginal people had the right of occupancy, but not ownership.
These are not alternative facts or revisionist history. This is the truth about our past. No, we can’t undo this past, but the truth, as always, “will set us free;” if we are willing to face it, mourn it, and most importantly, learn from it. This can bring healing to our communities – for sins too long unacknowledged – and renew our commitment to life-giving faith, instead of false religion that “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”