Congress has created the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. To date, twenty-two states have established similar commissions to coordinate a wide range of activities celebrating the discovery of America. The National Council of Churches (NCC) is having none of it. In May the Governing Board of the Council adopted a statement titled “A Faithful Response to the 500th Anniversary of the Arrival of Christopher Columbus.” The statement declares that “what some historians have termed a ‘discovery’ in reality was an invasion and colonization with legalized occupation, genocide, economic exploitation, and a deep level of institutional racism and moral decadence.” In a three-page statement, the “criminal” history of America since 1492 is recounted in terms of theft, “ecocide,” rape (two times), colonization (five times), racism (four times), slavery (seven times), exploitation (eight times), and genocide (nine times). Little wonder that the NCC concludes that 1992 is not a time for celebration but for “reflection and repentance.”
According to the statement, the American experience has been one of unmitigated disaster for the “indigenous peoples” of the Americas and of the “African Diaspora.” The people of modern Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines, we are told, are also the victims of the European invasion, as are Asian immigrants who were “torn from their families and cultures by false promises of economic prosperity” and found instead “labor camps, discrimination, and today’s victimization of the descendants facing anti-Asian racism.” It is altogether a sorry tale, riddled with the “complicities” of the Christian missionary effort that is guilty of “forcing conversion to European forms of Christianity,” of “the desecration of religious sites, and other crimes against the spirituality of indigenous peoples.”
The draft of the statement first came to the Governing Board in its meeting of November 1989. Many thought it “extreme” and “one sided.” By a very close vote (56 to 49) it was returned to the committee for further work. The Governing Board is not composed of radical activists from the church-and-society curias but of the responsible heads of the Protestant and Orthodox member churches and their official representatives. In November almost half of them apparently thought the draft offered an accurate account of the 500-year history of European and other non-indigenous peoples in the Americas. A comparison of the November draft and the statement adopted six months later reveals only one substantive change. This sentence was included: “What represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, depredation, and genocide for others.” In the judgment of the Governing Board, the first clause in that sentence made the revised statement more “balanced” and therefore acceptable.
The statement indicates that the European “invasion,” despite what some mistakenly thought it “represented,” has been entirely negative in its consequences, also for the Europeans. “For the descendants of the European conquerors the subsequent legacy has been the perpetuation of paternalism and racism into our cultures and times.” And, of course, for the non-Europeans the consequences were and continue to be catastrophic. As documentation for its construal of the American experience, the statement cites the arrantly leftist Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Mr. Zinn and those who mistake him for a historian passionately deny that they are anti-American. They are, they insist, “prophetically” pro-American in calling upon Americans to repent of their founding history and continuing influence in the world.
No one would deny that, in the course of the European settlement, many brutal things were done to the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere. At the same time, what the NCC statement romantically describes as the “spirituality” of the pre-European Americas included such unpleasant items as human sacrifice and the ritual slaughter of enemies. It also included the rigorous subordination of women, which may explain why this statement, uniquely among NCC documents of recent years, does not mention sexism. In making its case for the assumed superiority of indigenous cultures, the statement invokes the authority of historical fantasist Vine Deloria, author of Custer Died for Your Sins and God is Red. It is odd that the NCC should expect (if indeed it does expect) that Americans will be persuaded to repentance by the declared enemies of almost everything that constitutes their experience of America.
To be sure, the barbarity and decrepitude of indigenous cultures does not excuse the brutal deeds of European settlers. But a less simplistic account might render a better appreciation of the ambiguities involved in the interactions between peoples. There are no available criteria of justice or injustice when it comes to the massive migrations of peoples over the centuries—whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Americas. Nor does the NCC statement suggest any such criteria. It contents itself with applying retrospectively the radical rhetoric of the present, calling us to repentance for our criminal past.
There are yet deeper difficulties. “What do you mean by ‘we,’ white man?” Tonto famously asked the Lone Ranger. And so we might well ask the NCC. What does the first person plural mean in this statement? Remove blacks, Asians, Native Americans (North and South), and the contemporary people of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and who is left to do the repenting? Does repentance apply only to those who can trace their lineage in the New World to the beginnings of the European “invasion,” or is it required also of those whose forebears were Jewish or Italian immigrants in, say, 1890? In demanding repentance, the statement is wondrously silent about the NCC’s criteria for determining morally exempt groups, except that they must be non-European.
The “we” in this statement would seem to include everyone who belongs to a group on which the NCC has not bestowed victim status. It is, as a result, a very WASP statement. When the NCC says that “we Americans” must do this or that, or are guilty of this or that, “we Americans” essentially means white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. That usage reflects the touching indifference of the dominant member churches to their disestablishment and marginalization in American life. Presumably Roman Catholics, or at least those of European descent, are honorary WASPs for purposes of allocating guilt. (One remembers that Christopher Columbus and his criminal gang were Catholics, after all.) The NCC usage—intending to absolve of America’s sins those who possess victim status—excludes minorities from the definition of “we Americans.” Given the NCC’s portrayal of America, it is a compliment to be so excluded.
For those of us who are left to do the prescribed repenting, some troubling questions arise. Are we to repent of what we now do and are or of what our forebears did and were? Apparently both. And what if we did not have any forebears who indulged in slavery, rape, colonization, theft, and genocide? The suggestion is that we all did have such forebears, and, if we can’t find them, we can borrow some guilt from a (white) neighbor’s family tree. Having aligned ourselves in contrite solidarity with our putatively criminal past and present, what might it mean to repent? Repentance involves doing something about it, as in “amendment of life.” So what should we do about our sins? Should we go back to where we or our forebears came from? Or, as some suggest, should we make “reparations” by handing over to the remaining indigenous peoples the wealth and industry produced during the centuries of “colonization”? And what about blacks, Asians, Hawaiians, and others who have prospered by their “complicity” in the crimes of the Europeans—should they hand over their holdings to those who have not prospered? Should Native Americans surrender wealth from oil, minerals, and timber, all of which are of value only because of the European exploitation?
On these and other questions raised by its call to repentance, the NCC says nothing. In fact, the call to repentance is vacuous, entirely lacking in content. The only “fruit of repentance” suggested by the statement is that we should call to repentance those who are declared to be the oppressor class. Since there is no clarity about who belongs to that class, the only possible result of heeding the NCC jeremiad is that those outside the morally exempt victim categories should feel terribly bad about being Americans. Making people feel bad about themselves is, apparently, the purpose and pleasure in issuing “prophetic” pronouncements.
One news report carried the headline “NCC Condemns Arrival of Columbus.” The statement indeed does that, while also condemning all who have profited from the original “invasion.” These are very suggestive condemnations. Would the world be better off, would the indigenous peoples of the Americas be better off, if the Europeans had never arrived? Would it be better if there were no United States of America? The statement answers these questions, at least implicitly, in the affirmative. What are the alternative and morally approved ways in which the natives of the Americas might have related to the rise of the West in world history? Or should they have maintained their sovereignty and spirituality in splendid isolation from world history? And how might they have done that in the face of the economic, military, and, yes, cultural superiority of Europe?
None of these questions are addressed. Like condemning the conquests of Caesar, the rise of Charlemagne, the invention of the steam engine, or numerous other historically pivotal events, condemning the arrival of Columbus in America is nothing more than the indulgence of speculation about the “what ifs” of history. In this case, however, it is not an idle or innocent indulgence, for the entire point is to vilify the American experience. Outside a few religious and academic ghettos of frustrated radicalism, almost all Americans believe that, all things considered, the consequences of 1492 are reason to celebrate. With specific reference to the United States, they believe that, on balance and considering the alternatives, it has been and continues to be a force for good in human history. The NCC has, once again, declared that it does not believe that.
Whatever we think about other aspects of the European settlement, the statement raises one question that drives to the heart of Christian self-understanding. It calls on Christians to repent of the evangelism that, it says, destroyed native spirituality and religious beliefs. The unavoidable implication is that the thousands of missionaries who gave their lives in preaching the Gospel were wrong; in fact they were engaged in criminal activity. If that is true, it would seem to have some very large significance for redefining the Christian mission. Further, in calling “the church” to repent of its missionary activity, the statement would seem to be reading out of “the church” the overwhelming majority of the indigenous peoples who are now, and have been for generations, Christian. Just as they are excluded from the America that is condemned, so it seems that those who belong to the morally exempt victim categories are excluded from the church that is condemned. Put differently, the NCC would seem to be saying that it would have been better if the indigenous peoples had not become Christian. That is a remarkable suggestion to come from leaders of Christian churches.
The missionaries are accused of “destroying native religious beliefs [by] forcing conversion to European forms of Christianity.” The forced imposition of religion is indeed to be condemned. But as a historical generalization about what happened, especially in North America, the statement is quite inaccurate. Or perhaps the statement’s complaint is against the “European forms” of Christianity, although it is hard to know what other forms of Christianity Europeans could have preached. One also keeps in mind that most of the Europeans who now stand condemned had their “native religious beliefs” replaced in the evangelization of Europe some centuries earlier. Would the NCC really have us believe that missionaries such as Augustine, Boniface, and Cyril and Methodius were engaged in criminal activity for which somebody ought to be called to repentance? Judging by this statement, it would seem so.
The oldline churches of the National Council are in important respects the institutional bearers of the moral legacy of the Puritan and constitutional founders of the American experiment. Those earlier Christians spoke of their enterprise as an errand in the wilderness, a light on a hill, a new order for the ages. A more emphatic repudiation of their vision can hardly be imagined than this statement by the NCC.
At least the NCC cannot be accused of conforming to the Zeitgeist in this case. The statement was debated and adopted in the exhilarating months of the Revolution of 1989, the demise of communism, and the almost universal acclamation of the American experiment. People who can write and approve a document such as “A Faithful Response” obviously live in crippling alienation from their country, their culture, their religious tradition, and the promising “signs of the times.” The statement is sobering evidence, if further evidence were needed, of how far the oldline churches of Protestantism have wandered from their once responsible role in American religion and public life.
The jeremiad is a venerable genre in American public discourse. Americans need to hear, many want to hear, a considered word of moral judgment and guidance from the churches. But they will, with justice, turn a deaf ear to embittered screeds of historical falsehood, logical incoherence, and near-hysterical execration of their past and present.
Contrary to the NCC, and contrary to super-patriotic boosters as well, the observance of 1992 is not morally unambiguous. Nonetheless, it should be a time of celebration. Such celebration is not an exercise of arrogance but of gratitude. Despite the sin that mars every human endeavor, the history of the West in the New World has been, on balance, one of achievement and blessing for humankind. With specific reference to the ideas and ideals of the American experiment, that history continues to represent, in the words of a president who was not unacquainted with moral ambiguity, “the last, best hope of earth.”