By Bishop Michael Rinehart
For years I believed the myth that the “pioneers” had “discovered” a pristine wilderness whose only inhabitants were roaming hunter-gatherers. In truth, the prairies had been carefully curated (including burning them in precise intervals), and the acres of corn around every Iroquois small town were tended with the knowledge of generations of small town farmers. Corn, cultivated 10,000 years ago by Native Americans, does not grow wild, and cannot survive without human cultivation.
The religious underpinnings of the confiscation of the Iroquois’ and hundreds of other nations’ land, crops, livestock, natural resources, women,and children, is well documented. They are something we must understand if those forces that allowed that to happen are not to continue in our current religious climate. All of it goes back to the first transatlantic voyage and the Columbus myth I was taught. Maybe you were too.
In 1492, something huge happened. Muslims and Jews were evicted from Spain. Muslims had controlled parts of Spain for 400 years. The movement, called the “reconquista” (reconquest), intended to “cleanse” the country of unwanted ethnicities and religious teachings. The military and judicial efforts to get this done were a sacred duty. The techniques learned to clear the land with force were the precursor of the conquest of the Americas.Outsiders could stay as long as they professed Christianity, renounced other faiths, baptized their families, and swore allegiance to the crown. All others would be deported or executed. Beating the sword was a holy crusade.
It just so happens that 1492 was the year Columbus launched his mission to find a western ocean passage to India. The myth is that Columbus was a noble, courageous, Christian man who discovered America and its inhabitants. God had intended for them to have it. The Doctrine of Discovery (a series of 15thcentury papal bulls declaring all newly discovered lands to belong to Spain and Portugal) said so. The accounts of Columbus and his men slaughtering natives, enslaving them (including children used as sex slaves) is conveniently omitted from the myth. Don’t besmirch our founding fathers.
The myths attached to all of this are enormous. Correcting them is like attacking someone’s faith. People don’t want to hear that Columbus died believing he had landed in India. They are offended to hear that Columbus never stepped foot on any part of what is not the United States. It comes as a surprise that the inhabitants of North America had governments, commerce, roads, science, agriculture, faith, diplomacy, international relations, and more. Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) was one of the largest cities in the world. It was clean, well staffed, and thriving.
The myths say explorers found a barren wilderness, when in fact they never would have survivedwithout the assistance of these inhabitants, and the existence of their water sources, corn, oyster beds, and so on.
Inspired by the Bible stories in which God gives land to Israelites, the first colonialist believed in this manifest destiny for themselves. According to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortíz, the first New England colonists brought this vision, along with a Calvinist “covenant ideology” with them. (p. 48) The Puritans drew upon Calvinist theology and ideology to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They believed certain individuals were elect and some were damned. You couldn’t know if you were elect, but evidence of election could be found in good fortune and material wealth. Bad fortune, poverty, and even dark skin was a sign of damnation. The elect followed the laws of the land (and made them). They swore oaths of allegiance to the covenants, compacts, and constitutions they created. Those who didn’t were ousted.
Just as God commanded the Israelites to massacre every Canaanite man, woman, child, and animal,in order to possess the Promised Land, so they were called to do the same.
Historians became the protectors of this myth. If you wanted to get one of the lucrative textbook publishing deals, you had to tow the party line. The conflict between settlers and the inhabitants of the land had to be a simple cultural conflict. There were good people on both sides. No one wants our country’s origin story to be based on the looting of a continent, subsequently farmed by enslaved peoples, to make its new owners rich. That’s a story so unbecoming we have to pass laws forbidding teachers to utter a word of it.
And what of our churches? Do we have a duty to tell the truth? Does not a theology of the cross require us to do so? I believe it does, but how we do it is critical. Demythologizing can be brutal, moralistically hypocritical and arrogant. I remember in seminary leaning that Paul had probably not written some of the New Testament letters under his name. There were other moments of awakening and awareness as our childhood ideas about Christianity were challenged. This was a necessary process. You don’t want ignorant pastors. But it was done caringly. You don’t ridicule other’s assumptions, to make yourself look better or smarter. You ask good questions. The goal is not shaming, but enlightenment. “No one goes to hell for believing God is an old man with a beard and a cane,” C.S. Lewis is rumored to have said.
And yet, what if some of our origin stories and assumptions belittle others and even perpetuate stereotypes that marginalize, impoverish, and even foment violence against others? Are we. Not beholden to ask pointed questions that lead people to uncomfortable places? How can we do so in love, both for those whom we are challenging, and those who suffer marginalization because of the myths?
We shouldn’t erase Columbus. He was a historical figure. We might want to update and balance our facts.Of late there has been a movement to overshadow Columbus Day (a national holiday celebrating the contribution of the explorer, held in the second Monday of October, since it is held Columbus landed October 12), with Indigenous People’s Day. This year Columbus Day is October 10. It is a federal holiday. Indigenous Peoples Day is the day before, Sunday, October 9. Maybe that would be a good day to acknowledge native Americans,who are often erased from history. Perhaps it’s a good Sunday to share stories of those who lived here before Cabeza de Vaca got shipwrecked off the coast of Galveston, and was cared for by the inhabitants of the Gulf Coast. Learn about Native American communities near you and go visit, or invite them to come and teach your people about their history and way of life. Consider taking an offering for that community. It could be that listening and learning from others could be a humble way of growing and practicing love and kindness to our neighbors.