Religious Blindness, Part I
We are approaching another Columbus Day celebration, and does anyone really wonder why Native Americans don’t want to participate? Actually for many this day doesn’t mean anything, but there is a hidden message there.
Scene: A large Catholic cathedral and a group of middle-aged men standing in front of it. They are wearing regalia that identifies them as the Knights of Columbus. This is a male Catholic fraternal organization that does some charitable work and provides fellowship and support to Catholic men in various parishes. But they don’t seem to realize(or want to realize) the problematic nature of their connection to Columbus. The group was founded in Catholic Irish circles when there was a lot of discrimination against Catholics. Since Columbus was Catholic, the idea was that Catholics were “there” at the beginning of this country and it was alright to be Catholic. A most unfortunate choice, but what is more troubling is that they hang on to that name when the facts certainly point to the advisability of a change.
There is a popular, schoolbook version of Columbus–no mention is made there of a dark shadow over this man–or only a slight hint. Then there is a lengthy modern biography of Columbus that was done decades ago lauding him for courage, praising him for his great navigational skills, for his sense of adventure, etc.–and, oh yes, in a sentence or so, just in passing, he contributed to the genocide of the natives who lived on the islands he landed on. Now the facts are not the product of some radical revisionist historian, but can be gleaned from the documents of the Spanish court, from Columbus’s own letters, and from the writings of a young Dominican priest who was an eyewitness, Bartolome de las Casas. To put it in brief: Columbus himself was responsible for the enslavement of thousands of Indians; he allowed his men to rape and abuse the Indians as they please; and from all appearances, perhaps hundreds of thousands were killed in the islands that Columbus claimed for the Spanish Crown. And just to bring it home concretely let us listen to Las Casas a bit:
“The Spaniards thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas tells how “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.” Las Casas sums up: “Endless testimonies…prove the mild and pacific temperment of the natives…. But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…. The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians….” His marauding band hunted Indians for sport and profit — beating, raping, torturing, killing, and then using the Indian bodies as food for their hunting dogs. Within four years of Columbus’ arrival on Hispaniola, his men had killed or exported one-third of the original Indian population of 300,000. Within several decades whole tribes had been exterminated.
Returning now to the Knights of Columbus, it is astonishing that anyone associated with the Church would want to bear the name of “Columbus.” However, the Knights are like the pickpocket mentioned by the Sufi–they see only what seems to be in their interest. They see only the Columbus who claims Catholic allegiance, who speaks of “acting in Christ’s name,” who was sanctioned by the Church, etc. They receive approval from the institution of the Church and this makes them “feel right.” They are the victims of a profound religious blindness that afflicts many no matter what spiritual tradition they take up. People involved in religious institutions are especially prone to this because of the great claims made by religion. They find comfort in taking refuge in the “clothing,” in the customs and rituals, in the meditations, in the language of that tradition and not see reality. It is very possible. Anyone on the monk’s way be forewarned!
Now, let’s see what would be a good change of name for this group–how about: Knights of Dorothy Day! Nope, not ecclesially approved……