Sunday, October 12, 2014

Repentance, All the Way Down: A Columbus Day Meditation

By Myles Werntz

One of the questions which a day like Columbus Day presents is not whether or not Columbus should be celebrated, but what should be done instead of celebration. Columbus’ diaries and the historical record speak abundantly to the reasons for not celebrating Columbus, but should we perhaps celebrate another exemplar? Should we, as Seattle has recently done, reform the day into Indigenous People’s Day?  Or should there be perhaps another exemplar celebrated, such as Bartolome de las Casas?

In looking at this day from the perspective of nonviolence, there seems to be no easy answer, and certainly no perfect exemplar. Columbus, as the historical record attests, engaged in slavery, forced labor, and dismemberment of the indigenous people. The indigenous people were no pacifists, engaging in skirmishes with their neighbors. De las Casas, while famously advocating against the Spanish enslavement of the indigenous people, initially proposed that the Spanish enslave Africans instead of the North American natives. Any alternate celebration, while moving away from Columbus, only appears to celebrate violence again in a different form. 

As Robert McAfee Brown observed, one of nonviolence’s great vices is that it can tend toward this kind of myopia, simply moving the problem to a different area, that nonviolence is advocated at the expense of those who cannot raise that voice. Though Brown advocated against war and for nonviolent resolution to conflict, his critique is a stinging reminder that the cessation of violence is often done by concealing the costs of such action. In a world where there are no clean hands, does this mean that no celebration can be made, that we are to have the second Monday of October as an aporia on the calendar?

Another possibility emerges, however, regardless of what name we find on the calendar: penitence. By establishing a national day of penitence, a space is created which is not a statement, but a question mark, both on the violence concealed in our national celebrations and on all attempts at finding a blameless exemplar. This is not to say that nonviolence should be renounced as yet another failed measure to restrain war in the world, but that nonviolence must proceed penitently if it is to proceed at all. Late in life, de las Casas recognized that, in the attempt to free one people, he had consigned another people to lives of agony, writing that he hoped, in the end, he could be forgiven for his good attempt. On Columbus Day, let us take today as an opportunity to ask for both clean hands and clear eyes, that our actions would be just, that our intent would be free of illusions, and that our words would be full of penitence both for what we have not done and what we will do unwittingly.

Myles Werntz is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University. His most recent book, Bodies of Peace: Nonviolence, Ecclesiology, Witness (Fortress Press) comes out next month.

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