Every second Monday of October, residents of the United States celebrate “Columbus Day,” a commemoration of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. For many who live in this country, it marks the beginning of our history, the start of European settling in the Western Hemisphere.
For many others, however, the date and commemoration are not things to celebrate. Besides the fact that the Americas were “discovered” thousands of years earlier by the people who had called it home when Columbus arrived, his arrival marked not the beginning of our history but the end of theirs. In the decades that followed, many native nations were assimilated, thrown into slavery, or wiped out, witness to horrible atrocities that would continue into the 20th century. Today, 1492 represents a terrible memory—both for the remaining native people and for European-descended Christians who lament our first ancestors’ actions—of the evil that is possible when greed leads us.
Like all of history, though, it’s a mixed bag that leaves us sitting uncomfortably in the middle without a correct answer. Was Columbus a “bad” guy? I’m not willing to say that outright. As easy as it is to see the actions of a particular historical figure and judge them from the perspective of our current moral lens, doing so is not prudent or fair. While the actions of a historical figure may not be permissible today, we must always remember that we are where we are and know what we know precisely because of the lived experience—and major failures—of those who have gone before us. To impose our value system on a historical situation that was acting under completely different historical situations and values—essentially holding two people to the same rules even though they’re playing a different game—is not a beneficial way to look at history. While I do think that many of the acts committed against the native peoples were objectively against the will of God, we must remember, as in all cases, that our social context, systems of injustice, societal expectations, and limited worldview restrict our ability to freely choose the good.
For that reason, I spend this Columbus Day—or Indigenous People’s Day—or First Nations Day—or the Second Monday of October… day—not focusing on the evil committed by someone of history and accepted as normal by the people of his day; someone acting the way that most acted in their day is not worth commemorating, good or bad. Instead, I spend this day focused on a man who stood against what was normal and accepted in his day, a man who risked his life and reputation to stand for something that was unpopular and unheard of. That man? Dominican Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, the “Protector of the Indians.”
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