Columbus Day was once unashamedly celebrated in schools across the land, but is surrounded by controversy today. Christian school curriculums now hail him as a believer with a vision to evangelize the Indians, a man with a dream far ahead of its time. Critics point out, however, that he was not always so kind to those “Indians,” and that, like many Europeans of his day, he was bound by various forms of racism.
While home-schooling our six kids and teaching American History, I found it difficult to tell them—with the assurance of my grade-school teachers—that it was Columbus who discovered America. The land he discovered was already perhaps as populous as the Europe he came from.
In addition to the native Americans, it’s pretty well established that the Vikings were here as early as 1000 AD, or five hundred years before the voyage of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria in 1492. Furthermore, there is ample evidence, including ancient Latin and Irish ogham inscriptions from Labrador to Virginia, that seems to indicate that Irish monks, believe it or not, were here at least three hundred years earlier than the Vikings!
One of the “discoveries” I found most interesting was that of John Cabot, the first Englishman to set foot on the North American continent—this was the important event, according to my children’s history book. What makes an Englishman so much more important than a Viking, an Aztec, or a Spaniard, for that matter?
The perspective of the people writing the history. It’s as simple as that. We are all creatures of the age in which we live. That’s why we are puzzled by Christopher Columbus today. Was he a Christian? He was a Roman Catholic from Sixteenth Century Italy. No, he was not an evangelical—he’d never heard of being born again—yet references to God in his diaries and writings establish that he had a deeper-than-average relationship with the Almighty than most men of his age. He did feel that he was on a mission of God, and, yes, he was very much interested in converting the inhabitants of the New World to Christianity.
Was Columbus a racist? Most likely. Again, he was a product of his time. It simply never occurred to people back then, whether they lived in China, Africa, or Europe, that all men were created equal. If you recall, that was one of the novel innovations of our own American enterprise, not set to pen and paper until three hundred years after Columbus!
We, too, are creatures of our time. We judge people who lived hundreds of years ago according to the values that are politically correct in our own time. Columbus’ kind of racism was wrong, but he really couldn’t see clear of the cultural beliefs of his time, he couldn’t help it—and he was a lot more noble than, say, Cortez or some of the others who engaged in the wholesale slaughter of the “Indians” they found.
Americans of the early Twentieth Century made a hero of Columbus and chose to ignore the contribution of native Americans, Irishmen, and Vikings. Americans a few decades later seem over-willing to strip the Italian discoverer of any glory at all, while at the same time, painting the Amer-Indians as noble savages, instead of idolaters who daily offered hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people as bloody sacrifices to the sun god. We think and act, and interpret history, pretty much as we’re told to, according to whatever is politically correct at the time.
History is not a study of the facts, but rather, a study of the facts that the historians of the time choose to study, and in the light they choose to view them. The people of modern India refer to the 1857 uprising against their British oppressors as the first “freedom fighters,” while the British call it the “Mutiny.” The Indians point at British atrocities, while the British recall how women and children were slaughtered as well as men. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The only place you can get a true perspective is in the pages of the Bible. And the only true perspective on history is that which is viewed from heaven. A nation is not great because it can assemble enough facts to present a case for greatness, and a man is not great because he can be presented in a better light than another man. A nation or an individual are great, from God’s perspective, on the basis of their relationship with Him, and their love and service to their fellow humans.
Christians of any age are without excuse when it comes to racism, for they have the Word of truth in front of them—with all of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the subject of Jews and Gentiles being one; and the example of Moses, 1500 years before Christ, marrying an Ethiopian woman—and being unrighteously persecuted for it, too.
Christians of any age are also told not to judge, not to unnecessarily condemn others. How much more should this be true if those others lived five hundred years earlier, and have no way of defending themselves? We really have very little idea of what kind of man Columbus was. Any interpretation of him today is just that—an interpretation.
My point? Quit picking on Columbus, but also quit defending him as though he were the epitome of Christian manhood. He was neither. But he was a great and courageous man who sailed out, against public opinion and political correctness, and opened up a whole new world to his generation, and to all the generations after him. May you and I be as brave as he, and dare to open our mouths in this godless age to tell people about Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For regardless of whatever else you may accomplish in this life, no man comes to the Father except through Jesus!
Copyright © 1998 Kim Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved.