Chief Seattle, who gave his name to the city in the State of Washington (and who died on June 7, 1866, at the age of 90 – a mere year after the end of the U.S. Civil War), was a pure Native American. A mighty warrior, he essentially eliminated the rival Chimakum tribe in a battle on what is now the Quimper Peninsula. Like other native chiefs, he owned slaves. And he was (interestingly enough) a convert, probably in his fifties, to Roman Catholicism. Seattle’s story shows how complex, to say the least, are our individual lives – and how false and disrespectful of those lives it is to use past historical figures in what are manufactured, simple-minded, ideological morality plays.
According to the prevailing cultural narrative, Native Americans are not supposed to have been violent, like “white men.” Or at least not against other Native Americans, because all those different peoples must have been One Harmonious peaceful community. Right? And Chief Seattle’s tribe (as “people of color”) couldn’t have owned slaves or perpetrated “genocide” against another tribe. Right? Yet he was hardly unique in these and many other ways. And, properly understood, is still a great and noteworthy figure whose name (and statue) should, I believe, remain, undisturbed, in the city of Seattle. We are all fallen creatures (so says the New Testament and the theological Tradition of the Church), in need of forgiveness and mercy, not least those who are unaware of these divinely revealed facts. I say this not out of any desire to deny Seattle’s – or anyone’s – sins, but to point out that he was more than those faults, even than the slavery.
Some things never change. Especially the largely ignorant, suicidal rage that is now a regular recurrence in American culture, and which has spread to other Western countries. We have (I believe) lost the Christian – and human – truth that we are all imperfect beings. And that without a capacity for sympathizing with one another’s foibles and ultimately a chance at forgiveness, it is simply impossible for us to continue to live together in any semblance of coherence. Puritanical absolutism used to be the hallmark of extremist religious and political groups; now it has come to infest the very places that should be most aware of differences and contexts, namely our universities and the media. There were and are good historians, amateur and academic. Broad-brush condemnations, however, which blur essential moral distinctions, are what now get virtually every second of airtime.
Christopher Columbus on Trial
Christopher Columbus (since 1992 – the 500th anniversary of his landing in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492) has been the fall guy for the sins of slavery, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, the rape of natural resources and most of the legal, financial, and territorial abuses that followed the first European steps in the New World. His accusers have all but eliminated Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day. Columbus is a 15th-century man in a 21st-century court, and the jury is stacked with self-righteous, injured parties who have 20-20 hindsight. Vilifying him will not change the unfairness of history, but it will delegitimize the outright and undeniable contributions of Western Civilization. Tearing down statues of Columbus will not undo the damage from two worlds colliding, but it will denigrate the progress and achievements that emerged from two worlds converging.
Columbus was the explorer who completed four recorded voyages across the Atlantic, showing tremendous courage, determination, and skill. His audacity and vision revolutionized worldwide human migration. Hundreds of millions of immigrants have followed his brave example over the course of more than five centuries. Today, his legacy endures through every immigrant who seeks opportunity and a better life.
Critics assign Columbus the most malicious of personal motives. Yet noted cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney points out that Columbus himself never owned a slave and adopted an indigenous child as his son. Why must he shoulder the guilt for the entire 15th century? Slavery was already here in the New World. So were cannibalism and human sacrifice, neither of which (by the way) were tolerated in the 15th century Old World. But the forces that shaped the New World were out of the hands of any single man. The Doctrine of Discovery, human greed, free enterprise, international competition spurred by Old World mercantilism, abuse of power — all unleashed on a playing field without rules. We are currently facing unprecedentedly dangerous days for our republic. We are being pitted against one another as never before, weakening the pillars of our rational but still imperfect democracy. The endless attacks on Columbus continuously feed into that conflict.
Thanks to Christopher Columbus’ efforts, the floodgates of immigration were opened. We were granted the “possibility of a world” … a new and just one. Countless others have worked hard since then, but particularly over the 245 years since July 4, 1776, to make that possibility real. The fact is, we are all immigrants. Whether we walked across an iced-over Bering Strait with our Native American ancestors some 13,000 years ago or we were forced here in chains or came in desperation or hope from Africa, Europe, or Asia, we are all immigrants. Columbus was something other than a “white” conqueror; despite the unprecedented difficulties he faced in the new cultures he encountered, there were remarkably few instances of his mistreating anyone and some touching moments of understanding. He was more typically uncertain about how to proceed, as we ourselves often are. The Dominican Priest and missionary to the Americas Bartolome de Las Casas said of Columbus, “Truly. I would not dare blame the admiral’s intentions for I knew him well and I knew his intentions were good.” Yet, despite such firsthand evidence, Columbus has become our ultimate cultural whipping boy.
It’s curious that those who want to blame Columbus for every human evil that followed 1492 would never dream of giving him credit for all the marvelous things that have happened in the Americas since he joined two very different worlds previously unknown to one another. We might even want to extend some credit to the overall legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill, and many other great men of history currently being threatened with banishment from society. Decent people do not judge others now living by groups – black, white, female, Jewish, Asian, etc., etc., etc. And it is only right to attempt getting individual historical figures, even early Europeans who came to the Americas, in clear focus.
In a way, this is no great surprise because Columbus was a serious, almost obsessive, Christian. Indeed, there’s considerable evidence that he had some sort of revelation about making his first voyage, even though he probably knew through his scientific studies that “the Indies” were farther than he let on. He finished his days on this earth dressed in his habit as a member of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor. These and similar facts are well known to historians. But you would never know it from public discussions over the last thirty years. Why? Because we have forgotten what little we once knew and have thrown away much of the human decency we still possess. And there are many furiously busy today trying to make sure we never tell the whole truth. But when you cut the roots, it is only a matter of time before the whole tree comes crashing down. In that day brothers and sisters, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:14).
Cutting the Tree at the Roots
Except for the few near-pure monsters in history, great cultural figures are a mixed breed, like all of us. And we are very much in a position towards them like that of children who have come to recognize the sins and shortcomings of parents. Even when their flaws are quite large, we can still honor the good things they gave us, too numerous and deeply woven into our very being even to spell out. That is why right after the Commandment to worship God alone, we have “Honor thy father and mother.” We have a debt to those who gave us life and nurtured it.
Not so long ago, we used to foam-at-the-mouth over the fact that students were graduating from high school and even college without knowing in what century the Civil War happened or the dates of World War II. Now we allow a small number of radicals, given a big media megaphone, to make cosmic moral claims and counterclaims ignorant of the winding paths of human history. Debate and even a certain amount of division are natural to democracy, but not the current demonizing. It is legitimate to study (and argue about) the life and brilliance of figures like Robert E. Lee. It is even useful to examine the record – not to deface monuments — but think critically. The previously mentioned Father Las Casas was also able to say of Columbus and other explorers that they “performed astounding feats never before invented or dreamed of.” People suffering from cultural amnesia and self-deceived about their own moral purity cannot be allowed to set the terms of debate.
We, amongst the remnant of biblically orthodox Christians in the land, are going to have to be the people of memory, especially of how our civilization came to be, and how to defend it, despite imperfections. In fact, we define those imperfections largely in terms of the Western Christian tradition, the only real basis for our creed of the dignity of all human beings, rooted in our being made in the image and likeness of God. Destroy that tradition and the ultimate war of all against all will follow. Indeed, it already has.
I do not sympathize at all with the animus of BLM and the anarchy the Marxist group promotes. Why not? Because of a Catholic theological foundation (which as a biblically orthodox Anglican) undergirds my life, the Faith which taught me that I should detest my own sins more than the sins of others, especially more than the sins of people who last committed those sins more than 150 years ago. As a priest of twenty-six years, I have in hearing persons’ confessions (thankfully) never know anyone to say, “Bless me, Father. While I have no recent sins of my own, it would be remiss of me not to tell you about the many sins committed by General Robert E. Lee.” Thus, I have never responded to such bogusness by saying, “For your penance, go recycle three aluminum cans and then, additionally, go tear down three Confederate monuments.”
Tearing down Confederate statues (or those of Christopher Columbus), it seems to me, is little more than self-righteous virtue-signaling. Yet, although I abhor the practice, I understand it, for I live in a nation that now abounds in self-righteous virtue-signalers. In our country nearly a million unborn babies in the womb are killed every year, but our nation is fortunate in that most all pro-abortion voices are exceptionally self-righteous, virtuous persons. I know this because they tell me (us) – with a straight face at every opportunity – constantly that it is so.
As scant is my sympathy for tearing down Confederate statues, far more immeasurable is my sympathy for destroying the legacy of Christopher Columbus. Columbus was one of the great figures in the history of the human-race. He was perhaps the most unprecedented adventurer of human history, who contributed enormously to the progress of mankind. His critics seem to think that it would have been much better for all concerned if America had been discovered by the president of the ACLU. His critics denigrate his greatness by pointing out that if Columbus had not discovered America, it would have been discovered by somebody else. True. In an age of exploration, the New World could have never remained hidden. The analogy, however, is a silly one. It is the equivalent of denigrating the accomplishments of Sir Isaac Newton by arguing that if Newton had become a politician instead of a mathematician somebody else would have discovered the Universal Law of Gravity.
Columbus is a symbol, and I believe that by hating the symbol self-righteous progressives are hating what he symbolizes. And what is it he symbolizes? Primarily two things: the virtue of courage, and Western Civilization itself. Was there ever a more courageous man than Columbus? Perhaps, but not many. In recent decades, courage has not been greatly admired by our moral pacesetters. Men who come out as gay, and women who come out as lesbian, and persons who come out as bisexual, and above all persons who come out as transgender – people like this may be called “courageous.” But Columbus? Oh no! Forget about that! He is a mere model of toxic masculinity.
Several decades past now we began by getting rid of college courses in “Western Civilization,” and we downgraded the status of such dreadful dead “white” male writers of the past as Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy. The time has now arrived, at last, according to the self-righteous virtue-signalers, to get rid Western Civilization itself.
It is not just that these self-righteous are at the gates; they have already been there for fifty years. Now they are inside the gates. Indeed, they have seized control of the city. They are building a new civilization based on Marxist atheism and a hatred (an absolute hatred) of the right to life from the moment of conception to natural death. The latter follows logically from the former. “The [morally corrupt] city,” the prophet Isaiah said long ago, would in time become “a heap.” Indeed, the once “fortified city” of liberty is “a ruin” (Isaiah 25:2). For if you get rid of God, you will not need to pay much respect to men, women and children that are made in His divine image and likeness. Lord, have mercy upon us.