We Are All Christopher Columbus

Columbus Day was two weeks ago here in America, and that meant two things: federal government workers (those not affected by the shutdown) got the day off, and white guilt ran rampant on social media.

For whatever reason, we enlightened folks of the 21st century have found the need to demonize Christopher Columbus. Maybe it makes us feel better about ourselves at some level — a new form of slactivism, doing nothing and feeling like a better person for it. Maybe we think it makes us appear more sensitive and knowledgeable to our followers on Twitter and Facebook. Who knows.

What I do know is whenever someone would trash Columbus, I would get offended — and I didn’t understand why. After having a few days to process and research, I came to this conclusion:

We are all Christopher Columbus.

To say Columbus is not worth celebrating — or worse, that he ought to be vilified and remembered as a monster — is to say that none of us is worth celebrating.

Let me explain.

First, we need to ratchet down the rhetoric used against Columbus a little bit. This year’s guilt parade was led by the popular (and usually really great) web comic The Oatmeal. They published this rant against Columbus, which everyone dutifully reposted. To say the diatribe was a little misleading would be a gross understatement, however. Here’s a quick rundown of just a few of the facts that The Oatmeal got just a little off:

  • Gold (or “cheddar”) became Columbus’ primary objective after his first voyage. Um, no. Did Christopher want gold? Of course. Did gold turn him into a bloodthirsty tyrant? Not even close. Columbus left that first island (with the gold on it) behind after just a couple weeks and explored several other islands on that first journey. Gold didn’t interest him as much as exploration, observation, and yes, the Christianization of the native population. In fact, he made much more of converting the natives than of finding gold.
  • “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men and govern them as I please.” The Oatmeal presents this quote from Columbus’ journal as evidence of his tyrant-like monster qualities. They completely ignore the context of that quote: Columbus notices scars on many of the Lucayan natives while conversing with and observing them. When he asks about the scars, the natives indicate to him that another tribe from a nearby island continually attack them and try to capture them. Columbus pieces together the rest of the story: the natives try to fight back the best they can, but they have little in the way of weaponry or technology with which to defend themselves. Columbus’ note about how easy it would be to conquer them seems to be born almost out of pity rather than a desire to do so. Also, in that same space Columbus makes mention of his desire to convert them to Christianity — again, what seems to be his driving force at this point (not gold or killing natives).
  • Columbus returned to the New World with 1,500 men armed to the teeth in order to slaughter the natives. Again, not even remotely close. Columbus returned on his second journey with around 1,200 men — and most of them were farmers and priests. Farmers and priests! The 1,200 men did include soldiers as well, but they were intended to protect the colonies that were begun in the name of Spain – to defend, not to attack. The stated goal of this second journey — the overtly, easy to find mission which The Oatmeal blatantly ignored — was to create “colonies of settlement” from which to convert the natives to Christianity. Nothing about gold.
  • When the Lucayans refused to give Columbus gold and their women, Columbus had all of their ears and noses cut off. False, false, false, false. Here’s the real story: one man was found guilty of stealing loads of corn from Columbus’ crew. As punishment for his crime, Columbus ordered his ears and nose be cut off. It was not a group of natives, but one man. It was not in response to not giving them gold and women, but a punishment for stealing. Was the punishment barbaric? Absolutely. Was it anything close to what The Oatmeal piece fabricated it to be? Absolutely not.
  • Columbus wanted even more gold, so he demanded tribute from the natives to fulfill his greed. Wrong again. On Columbus’ first voyage, he left 39 men behind to set up a colony in the New World. When Columbus visited that colony on his second voyage, he found that the natives had overtaken Columbus’ men, killed them, and destroyed the settlement. In retaliation for murdering his men, Columbus did demand gold or cotton as payment from the natives. Those who refused to bring the gold or cotton had their hands cut off (not to wear around their neck, but to force them to bleed to death). It was a brutal punishment, true. But it wasn’t for the purpose of getting gold (otherwise, why would he have accepted cotton instead of gold?) — it was for the purpose of avenging what Columbus saw as the murder of his countrymen.
  • Columbus Day isn’t a tradition – honoring Columbus only came about in the 1930s because of political pressure from the Knights of Columbus group. Wrong again. Honoring Columbus in America began in 1738 when “Columbia” (in honor of Columbus) was used as a synonym for “America” in the British Parliament. The first Columbus Day celebration in America took place in 1792 in New York. The District of Columbia (Washington, DC) was named in honor of Columbus. The capitols of Ohio and South Carolina were named in honor of Columbus. Columbus Day is celebrated in Spain and throughout North and South America, not just in the United States.

Okay, so there’s that. I’m glad we got all that out of the way, so we can get a more realistic picture of who Christopher Columbus was. Make no mistake — Columbus was not an angel or a perfect guy by any means. When he returned to rule as governor of the New World settlements after his voyages, he ruled with a very harsh iron fist. He did dole out punishments like cutting off a guy’s nose and ears, or like cutting off people’s hands and watching them bleed to death. He was no saintly leader by any means. But he was also far from the monster he is portrayed as by most guilty white people on social media.

Here’s the bigger issue to me, though — and why I got worked up whenever people ragged on Columbus on that Monday: Columbus is no different from the rest of us. The story of Christopher Columbus ought to teach us one vitally important lesson about humanity: morality exists in shades of color, not in black and white. To declare Columbus bad and dismiss his accomplishments is to grossly oversimplify humanity and the human condition.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Crash because it has as its core message that same idea, using racism as a vehicle to explore it. Everybody in the movie displays racist tendencies toward someone at some time at some level. It takes the oversimplified question, “Are you racist?” and demolishes it, leaving in its place the much more uneasy question, “How are you racist?”

When we look at Columbus, then, the question ought not be, “Was he good?” as much as it should be, “How was he good, and how was he bad?” Because that is the question we all must ask of ourselves as well.

None of us is wholly good, and none of us is wholly bad, either. We all live our lives in some uneasy mixture of putrid evil and beautiful good, and anyone could point to the dark sides of who we are as reason to not celebrate anything we accomplish — especially if that darkness is exaggerated and lied about (as the Oatmeal did).

Don’t believe me? Then where are the groups of folks protesting Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Or have we forgotten that MLK was a serial adulterer who destroyed his marriage by sleeping around with women while he was traveling giving his inspirational speeches? Why do we celebrate George Washington? Have we forgotten that he owned hundreds upon hundreds of slaves, and that he treated them harshly, authorizing them to be whipped and beaten?

Or maybe… just maybe… we believe that the good they accomplished was worth celebrating despite their glaring flaws. Maybe because we recognize nobody is perfect, including ourselves.

It’s difficult to extend that grace to ourselves, let alone to the people around us. So we project onto celebrities or famous people we know we will never meet, never realizing that we are vicariously condemning those around us.

It’s easy to sit in our enlightened, privileged seats of judgment and dismiss anyone we don’t find worthy of recognition. But when it comes down to it, we are all jacked up people just trying to figure out the best way to live on this spinning ball of rocks. Your failures do not define you. Neither do they define those around you, no matter how superior it makes you feel to believe otherwise. In love, extend grace and mercy. We can suffer imperfect heroes, but we cannot suffer those who demand perfection.

In Which I, a Progressive Evangelical, Applaud the Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptists are catching a lot of flak for approving an official resolution yesterday “condemning” the Boy Scouts of America. But the folks attending the annual Southern Baptist Convention deserve applause for several other resolutions they voted on yesterday, which are unfortunately being overshadowed by the Boy Scouts brouhaha.

First, the SBC approved a resolution that calls “on all Southern Baptists to report allegations of child abuse to authorities.” That such a resolution is even needed speaks volumes to the climate of our churches (certainly not just Southern Baptists) – but the SBC decisively came down on the right side of this issue. Sexual abuse is a crime – a heinous one at that – and I was telling a good friend just yesterday that child abusers test my limits of forgiveness. The fact that churches ever thought it was just a spiritual issue that could be handled in-house is now, in hindsight, disgusting. The way this resolution came about offers encouragement: a group of churches called Sovereign Grace Ministries has been embroiled in a number of child abuse scandals that have made headlines this year. The main charges against them: ministry leaders covered up child abuse, actively refused to report abuse to the authorities, and counseled victims not to seek legal recourse or report it to the authorities. Several prominent Southern Baptist leaders made headlines when they issued statements of support for Sovereign Grace Ministries and their handling of the abuse cases. This resolution then, though it never overtly says it, is largely in response to that scandal. And for saying that church leaders need to report child abuse to the proper authorities, rather than believing spiritual counseling will solve the problem, the SBC deserves kudos.

Next up came a resolution and a couple amendments regarding mental health issues, and the SBC deserves praise on how they handled all three of them. First, an amendment was introduced declaring Scripture to be the final authority on all mental health issues. Thankfully, it was “overwhelmingly defeated” – as was the second amendment which declared Scripture to be “sufficient for counseling all phases of the human condition.” For a conservative denomination such as the SBC to vote down those two amendments speaks volumes of encouragement and hope for anyone struggling with mental illness and for the future of our faith. We are finally recognizing that mental illness has a biological and physiological side to it in addition to whatever is going on spiritually with someone, and hopefully the overwhelming defeat of these two amendments will remove some of the negative stigma surrounding mental illness in our churches.

The actual resolution, which passed easily, was supported by Rick Warren, whose son suffered from mental illness and committed suicide earlier this year. This resolution “opposes all stigmatization and prejudice” of those suffering from mental illness and “supports the wise use of medical intervention” for treatment of such illness. The resolution specifically identified autism, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, among others, as illnesses which should not be stigmatized and may require medical treatment. For such clear and specific language regarding the fight against mental health issues, the SBC again deserves praise for taking huge steps forward.

Unfortunately, all those strides forward are being overlooked by the media and my fellow progressives, which seem interested only in reporting on the Boy Scouts resolution. In fact, there were two Boy Scout resolutions at the SBC, and the first one which called for a boycott and a complete severing of ties with the Scouts failed. The resolution that passed was much more even-keeled, asking churches who continue to sponsor Scout troops to work with the Boy Scouts to change the new policy and asking those who choose to sever ties with the Scouts to continue offering some sort of ministry to boys. Even the “condemnation” that is being reported was nothing stronger than expressing “disappointment in the decision of the Boy Scouts of America to change its membership policy” and then expressing “concern” about the future of the Boy Scouts regarding this policy.

To be sure, I disagree with that resolution personally, but you can hardly hold it against the SBC to stand up for their deeply held spiritual beliefs – and to do so in such a measured way. To hear some media outlets and other progressives report it, you’d think the SBC called down a holy crusade against the Boy Scouts (when in fact the “crusade” resolution was soundly defeated). I don’t agree with the idea that boys who are struggling with their sexuality ought to be excluded from anything, because what they need most is love and a safe place to work those questions out. To exclude them from church-sponsored groups, or to declare them unwanted, simply sends a message that they’re not good enough for us or for God. But the resolution which passed yesterday is not the resolution that would have passed 15 or 10 or perhaps even 5 years ago. (See Disney, Boycott of.)

In fact, all these resolutions paint a picture of a denomination that is moving forward, rather than desperately clinging to the past. The SBC isn’t perfect, but then again, none of us are. Strides are being made, and rather than earning the scorn of the media and other progressives, the Southern Baptists deserve applause and support for it.

Healing Our One Big Jacked Up Family

This thing we call the “church” — this group of folks who have been called out from our comfortable, self-focused lives for the cause of Jesus and his kingdom — is far less than perfect. On that point, there can be no argument. It is also much more ideologically diverse than any of us actually wants it to be. Go ahead and argue that if you’d like, but I imagine if you stop and consider it for a moment you’ll find that it’s true.

My pastor and friend Adam Coop likes to say that as a church, we are one big jacked up family. It’s true, and the more you hear people’s stories and backgrounds and struggles the more true it becomes. And if that’s true for our little local community, it’s even more true for the Church, capital “c”. We are so jacked up and dysfunctional, it’s only through God’s grace we are able to band together and accomplish anything meaningful.

Think about it. If we had a huge family reunion for this thing called the church, on one side of the room would stand John Piper and Mark Driscoll (and further down the wall, Fred Phelps and this guy). On the other side would stand Rob Bell, Brian McClaren, and Doug Pagitt. These folks don’t only not get along, they often take their heated and passionate disagreements public.

In one corner of the room, drinking all the wine, you’d have the Catholics. In another corner, drinking all the expired grape juice, you’d have the tee-totaling Baptists. The two groups don’t get along, what with the Baptists claiming the Pope as the False Prophet of the Antichrist and saying Catholics are probably going to Hell and all. And over in another corner, distrustful of both groups, would be the charismatics who, though generally evangelical theologically speaking, war with the Baptists over sign gifts. And dancing.

Yes, we are jacked up. We are one body with many parts, and oftentimes those parts act ashamed of one another, try to hide one another, or even hit and bruise one another.

What do we do when Ted Haggard has a lurid affair with a male prostitute?

What do we do when Mark Driscoll publicly says Ted Haggard’s wife is at fault for it because pastor’s wives tend to let themselves go?

What do we do when Catholic priests sexually abuse children, and the Church attempts to cover it up rather than solve the problem?

What do we do when evangelical leaders like Eddie Long sexually abuse young men?

What do we do when progressives like Rob Bell asks uncomfortable questions about what the Scriptures say?

What do we do when conservatives like Piper react harshly and publicly to those questions?

What do we do when our dysfunction is put on display for God and the world to see?

I know what we should do. You know what we should do. But it’s not what we really do. What happens is we distance ourselves as far as possible from the offending party. Progressives love to attack Mark Driscoll. He’s a pretty easy target. Conservatives love to attack Rob Bell. He’s a pretty easy target, too. When Catholics are involved in sexual abuse headlines, evangelicals love to say, “How’s that whole celibacy thing working for you?” When evangelicals are involved in sexual abuse headlines, Catholics love to say, “How are those family values working for you?”

We are quick to announce to the world, “We are not like them.”

Progressives are embarrassed by Tim Tebow. Conservatives are embarrassed by people who like Harry Potter. And we are quick to distance ourselves.

Not just holding people at arm’s length – it becomes a race to see who can denounce the others in the harshest, most public manner possible. “Open letters” are posted, interviews are given, sermons full of warnings and labels and epithets are delivered, websites are launched.

Websites exist for the sole purpose of Christians denouncing other Christians.

We are jacked up.

Look, I used to be solidly on the conservative evangelical side of things, and now I find myself more on the progressive end of discussions — so I understand the tension. But here’s my plea: can we please stop distancing ourselves from one another, and instead band together to help one another?

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend on the more progressive blogs I read: attacking Mark Driscoll and John Piper seems to be en vogue. Of course, none of these bloggers personally know Driscoll or Piper, or know their hearts or have sat down with them and talked with them as a brother or sister about any of the things they are attacking them for. They just know it feels good to rail on him, and it makes their readers respond with “huzzahs” of agreement. And I’ve noticed a disturbing trend on the more conservative blogs I come across as well: attacking “emergent preachers” like Brian McClaren and Rob Bell is still the hip thing to do. In the name of “protecting” doctrine people will rip these folks apart, and readers will raise fists of approval. And of course, nobody has actually contacted these evil heretics and listened to their hearts, either.

The Jewish men of Jesus’ time had an absurd prayer they loved to pray: “Blessed are you, eternal God, who has not made me a Gentile, a woman, or a dog.”

How is it that we think we are reaching the world with the message of Jesus and his Kingdom by playing this same game of exclusionary comparisons?

“Hey world who needs love! Guess what? I am totally not like that person over there who claims to be a Christian! In fact, I am so not like them I am going to expend my energy telling you why they are wrong!”

Yep, that’ll work.

Blessed are you, eternal God, who has not made me a (conservative/progressive), a (Calvinist/Arminian), an (evangelical/emergent), a (traditionalist/authoritarian), a (young-earther/old-earther), a (fill in the blank)…

Pick your poison. And maybe thank him for making you a judgmental hypocrite while you’re at it.

Hey, we all are. Might as well admit it.

Jesus invited us to enjoy life in his kingdom. And in his kingdom, the driving force is restoration. Wholeness. Peace. Love. Instead, we look across the room at our jacked up family members and promote distance and division. We make more pieces, sometimes forcefully and harshly, rather than putting pieces back together. We shatter rather than renew. By our “standing up for truth” or “protecting doctrine” or whatever else we call our misplaced zeal, we become the antithesis of what Jesus called us to.

And the world does not see what his kingdom is supposed to be like.

I understand you want people to see you are not like Mark Driscoll. I understand you want people to see you are not like Rob Bell. I understand you want people to see you are not like Ted Haggard or Eddie Long or Catholic priests.

So rather than rant and condemn, show them.

And love those whom you are not like.

Maybe in that process, you’ll realize you are more like them than you care to admit. And you’ll realize we all need help and are all in this together. As one big jacked up family.

That, more than open letters posted on blogs, is what will bring healing. That is what will bring life. That is what will prove that you believe in the sovereignty and power of God more than you trust human’s abilities to screw things up.

And yes, I know that last one is a more difficult thing to believe than it should be.

When John Piper flies off the handle and says something offensive again, I will not condemn him. I will pray for him and for the community who knows him and can speak into his life. When Rob Bell says something borderline heretical again, I will not condemn him. I will pray for him and for the community who knows him and can speak into his life. When somebody is revealed as having an affair, I will not distance myself from them and proclaim myself holier than he is. I will pray for him and for his family and for healing to come from their community.

The world doesn’t need to know what we believe. They don’t care about purity of dogma. They need to know we love. They don’t need to know who we are not like. They need to know who we are like… and all of us — all of us — are aspiring to be like Jesus. Yes, even Driscoll. Even Bell. Even Haggard. Even Catholic priests. We are all jacked up, but we are all trying to follow Jesus.

And Jesus was love – shouldn’t we be as well?