It’s Columbus Day in America. Still. (In some places, Indigenous People’s Day, but old habits die hard.) Why is it still here? Seems to me that if the story of Columbus were as well known as the story of Hitler, I imagine we might finally consider changing it.
Some people might find that comparison odious, but consider. Columbus was both directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of some three million people (some say 12 to 15 million) who were different from him. He felt he was entitled to the slaughter and claiming their home as his own for the same reason that Hitler felt he had the right to kill the Jews and invade neighboring countries. The story that allowed him to do what he did was simple: he was a member of a superior race ordained by God to rule over his inferiors and take from them what he wanted. Everything that Columbus and Hitler did was logical and understandable within the framework of the story that drove them forward.
Were they bad people?
I’d say so.
Did they do bad things?
Ask a Jew or Taino Indian.
Is the issue as simple as calling them and their actions bad?
No, it’s not. What’s bad is the story they operated under, a story they failed to question, a story they fueled with their own desire for money and power, a story that had millions of others in its clutches.
And why is the story bad? Because it brings death and destruction to innocent people, ravages the land, gives power to small-minded people that they neither deserved nor earned and allows them to use their power to hurt others, willfully, consciously, with no trace of conscience or compassion. In my book, that’s what I call a bad story that makes bad and good people alike do bad things.
World history is one bad and sad story after another, from Mongol hordes invading to genocide of native peoples to the slave trade to sexism and homophobia and child prostitution to drug trade and the NRA and colonialism, be it military, religious or economic to corporations unaccountable to the environment or taxes to… well, the list is long. Stories that promote death-dealing values, that incite and inflame the worst of human potential, that excuse all sorts of atrocities and gives them comfortable names like “collateral damage.” Yes, there are bad people in this world, but most of the damage comes from okay people and even good people doing bad things because of the story they inherit.
What to do? Use Columbus Day to tell the truth, but don’t let it slide at vilifying Columbus. Dig deeper into the story that allowed him and his successors to do what they did, reveal the blood and gore behind sanitized terms in history textbooks like Manifest Destiny and train ourselves and the children we teach to notice all the ancestors of these stories still at work in today’s news. Expose the story at work.
And then get to work telling and building the new one. One that is built on life and liberty and happiness, on inclusion, on sustainability, on compassion. Of course, that’s a story that has been side-by-side with the others throughout history, but doesn’t play as well in the movie theaters of our collective mythologies. Why? Because to truly understand these stories, to begin to live them, takes an effort to ascend to the higher regions of the brain, to climb up the chakras on the spine, to reveal the secret recesses of the feeling heart. Power, sex, food all come for free, but love, understanding, beauty come at a price and that price is our own effort to be better than our worst selves. When a story we’re surrounded by and live in doesn’t encourage that effort, lets us be content to just shop mindlessly at the Mall, accept Fox news as true, enjoy the rants of Trump and his gang, shrug our shoulders at the news of the next police killing of a young black men, then it requires an extra effort.
Take a moment on Columbus Day to read Bartolomeo de Las Casas account of what he saw happening in Columbus’ reign of terror. He was a contemporary and a Spanish priest who inherited the same story as Christopher, but was able to rise above it and see the destruction it was causing. No matter what stories get handed down to us, it’s our responsibility to see them more clearly, to question them, to change them as needed, in service of life. If we can re-make that commitment every Columbus Day, I say our time will be well spent.