Recently, an army of angry protesters descended on Grant Park in Chicago. Their protest would bring them into violent confrontation with the Chicago Police Department. The protest resulted in 18 police officers being sent to the hospital and 12 protesters being arrested. At least one protester claimed to be brutalized by the police in the melee.
What instigated the fight? On this particular day it was a 90 year old statue of a man who has been dead for over 500 years. We all know the rhyme. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and everything has been awful ever since.” Or something like that. According to one protester, this isn’t far from the truth. “He’s a signal of the beginning of genocide. We know his actions when he did arrive to this land were the basis to chattel slavery and are a huge factor in the creation of America as we know it today.”
Never mind the history of this particular statue. It was erected in 1933 as a part of Chicago’s 100th anniversary and the “Century of Progress World’s Fair.” It was funded by an Italian-American organization dedicated to celebrating the heritage of that community – a community with its own checkered past. Italian immigrants themselves were subject to decades of harassment and racial prejudice upon arriving in this country. But of course, Italian-American organizations from the 1930’s in the city of Chicago also can’t escape the association (fair or unfair) with organized crime.
But the history of the statue doesn’t matter. Columbus is the villain who must be exhumed from his eternal rest and subjected to his woke Inquisition 500 years after he ruined everything. Now, we must admit that Columbus is a complicated figure. Historians still fight about his legacy. He was a Christian of a particular apocalyptic flavor. He was convinced of his providential role in helping to usher in the end times. Some have argued Columbus was motivated principally by wealth and was eager to exploit and abuse in order to acquire as much as possible. In his own words, however, he was serving the grand purposes of God.* His role in bringing slavery to the new world is almost certainly exaggerated although there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that he participated in the slave trade to some degree. Far from a saint, late in his life as governor of Hispaniola, he was punished for his harsh rule. It is also true that a great many indigenous people (and not a small number of Spanish explorers) succumbed to disease after Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Calling that genocide is to give that word a new and foreign meaning. What’s more likely is that Columbus, in the eyes of many who protest him, is guilty by association. Because he was first European to impose himself on this “new” world, he is also the worst.
This whole situation is illustrative of the larger problem we are currently having with coming to terms with our history. History is messy and complicated, populated with messy and complicated people. Looking at history – especially through the lens of contemporary, “enlightened” society – is very often uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable not only because of how it might shatter our simplistic understanding of the world but also because of what it might reveal about our own legacy.
This is the feeling I had while reading Tom Holland’s (not that Tom Holland) book Dominion. Holland, an agnostic, has written a 600-page book on the history of Christianity. It is a difficult read, not because of its length or its style, but because of its subject. I was at times embarrassed, other times appalled, and quite often furious because of the stories of bloodshed, cruelty, and shameful hypocrisy committed under the banner of Christ by those I would call brothers and sisters. Yet this was not at all the point of Holland’s book.
It’s hard to summarize such a book in a sentence, but Holland demonstrates that Christian history, which is also the history of what some call “western civilization,” is punctuated by the the constant push and pull of power and reform. What is surprising about Christian history, he maintains, isn’t the abuse of the powerful. There is nothing so common in history as the abuse of powerful men. What is surprising about Christian history is the regular triumph of the weak over the strong. As one example, it is true that many slavers used Christianity as a justification. It is equally true that slavery was only abolished because of certain heroes willing to passionately live out their faith and call others to account.
Holland argues that the seeds of Christian belief have so fundamentally changed the course of history that even those who have abandoned Christian belief still cannot help but conduct themselves according to Christian values. Towards the end of the book, he says:
Christianity, it seemed, had no need of actual Christians for its assumptions still to flourish. Whether this was an illusion, or whether the power held by victims over their victimisers would survive the myth that had given it birth, only time would tell. As it was, the retreat of Christian belief did not seem to imply any necessary retreat of Christian values. Quite the contrary. Even in Europe–a continent with churches far emptier than those in the United States–the trace elements of Christianity continued to infuse people’s morals and presumptions so utterly that many failed even to detect their presence. Like dust particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, they were breathed in equally by everyone: believers, atheists, and those who never paused so much as to think about religion.
We have come to accept it as a fact of the universal that things like human rights exist as “self-evident,” but there is no such thing as a human right without Christianity. Even our precious “secularism” which some have come to understand as a god-less political and social structure could not exist without the influence of Christianity.** Holland, far from playing the role of undertaker, is instead announcing that Christianity cannot be killed even if all her churches sit empty. People who claim to have abandoned Christianity as a myth can’t help but live as if it is true. His closes his book this way:
Crucifixion was not merely a punishment. It was a means to achieving dominance: a dominance felt as a dread in the guts of the subdued. Terror of power was the index of power. That was how it had always been, and always would be. It was the way of the world. For two thousand years, thought, Christians have disputed this. Many of them, over the course of this time, have themselves become agents of terror. They have put the weak in their shadow; they have brought suffering, and persecution, and slavery in their wake. Yet the standards by which they stand condemned for this are themselves Christian; nor, even if churches across the West continue to empty, does it seem likely that these standards will quickly change. ‘God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’ This is the myth that we in the West still persist in clinging to. Christendom, in that sense, remains Christendom still.
God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. You could argue with the manner of the protests. You could argue that they’ve gotten the history wrong. You could argue that toppling a statue of an Italian explorer is a lousy and ineffective way to bring about needed social change. I agree with all those arguments. But the irony is that the same gospel that informed and shaped Columbus’ life is also at work in the protesters. The protest was rooted in two assumptions, both of which are inescapably Christian: that the violation of human rights is unjust and that those who are in power should listen to those who are weak. The protesters demanding the removal of this Christian colonizer could not help but express values rooted in the story of Christianity.
I guess that’s the point. How do we reconcile ourselves with our history? How do we understand our history without cringing? Holland has argued convincingly in this book that the cringe itself is unmistakably and inescapably Christian. That we can look at history and feel ashamed, embarrassed, or outraged is evidence of the triumph of Christianity.
*”God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of Saint John after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah. And he showed me the spot where to find it.”
**Holland says this is our problem when dealing with Islamists. We assume that secularism is the default position of all peoples but fail to recognize that secularism is built upon Christian assumptions. When western nations impose secularism on Muslim nations, they are essentially requiring a type of conversion to Christianity.