Why are we so embarrassed that Columbus ever set foot in the New World?
This year, the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, one might
have expected great commemorations and celebrations. Instead, the National Council of
Churches came out against celebrating. The city of Berkeley, California, named 1992
“Indigenous People’s Year.” The Zurich, Switzerland, newspaper Tages-Anzeiger speaks of
the “arrogance” involved when the “European West” thinks that it has “discovered” some-
thing and implies that the Spaniards and other colonizers massacred 120 million Indians.
The French demographer Pierre Chaunu, who is a Membre de l’Institut Franqais and a
Reformed pastor, speaks of a “demographic catastrophe” (though it was caused not primar-
ily by massacre, but by the unwitting introduction of diseases, such as smallpox, to which
the native South and North American populations had not developed any immunity). It is as
if the West, especially the Christian West, seems ashamed the Columbus anniversary is
taking place at all.
Examples of the West’s persistent feelings of inferiority abound. Stanford University, one of
the nation’s foremost centers of intellectual life, has “politically corrected” its required
undergraduate course in Western Civilization. Hollywood films not only attack the white
man’s militarization, but also his culture and, implicitly, his Christianity.
It seems Christian North America is, in the words of H. F. Schrader of Lorrach, Germany,
“constantly apologizing for the fact that it exists.” Europeans and white North Americans
have committed egregious wrongs—wrongs requiring repentance—but we must put the
failings in correct perspective.
Sailing the ocean blue
Fourteen-ninety-two held not only Columbus’s discovery of what would be called America,
but in the same year, Columbus’s patrons, the monarchs of the newly united Spanish
kingdoms, Ferdinand and Isabella, succeeded in driving the Muslims and Jews out of the
Iberian peninsula. Romantic historians speak of a fruitful Christian-Muslim-Jewish
symbiosis in Spain before 1492, which was smashed by the aggressive “Christianizing”
efforts of the victorious Spanish monarchs. But inasmuch as world history is a long and
bloody tale, of invasion, conquest, migration, and expulsion—and even, at times, of
extermination—it is hard to say who belongs exactly where. The Jews entered Spain, or the
Iberian peninsula, peacefully, in the context of the Jewish Diaspora, but the Moors came by
conquest. The invasions of the Christian West, unleashed by the followers of Muhammad,
carried them up to Tours, in the north of France, almost to the English Channel, before they
were turned back by the armies of Charles Martel in 732.
Why single out Christians? What business did the Muslims have carrying the crescent,
with fire and sword, through the Christian lands of what is now Spain and France? We can
ask what business the Christian Crusaders had in the Holy Land—but what business did the
Arab conquerors have there four centuries earlier? What business did the Ottoman Turks
have taking Constantinople in 1453 and ending a Christian Greek-speaking civilization that
was over a millennium old? And indeed, what business did Lawrence of Arabia have in
Arabia and modem Iraq, driving out the Ottoman Turks, with the perhaps unintentional
result that those nations became oil-rich and aggressive toward one another and Israel? In
other parts of the world, what business did the Mongols have in destroying the Christian
civilization of Kievan Russia in 1242? Or the pagan Angles and Saxons in overrunning
Romanized Christian Britain?
As the late Roman Catholic philosopher of history Christopher Dawson has pointed out,
“Western civilization” does not represent the imposition of the West on the rest of the
world, but is largely the transformation of Greco-Roman, Hellenistic culture by the gospel,
by Christianity. We cannot repudiate Western civilization and dissociate ourselves from it
without at the same time moving ourselves away from Christianity, and potentially from
Christ himself. The implications of the Stanford undergraduates’ chant, “Hey, hey, ho, ho,
Western Civ has got to go!” are not a universalism in the sense of “making disciples of all
nations,” but the repudiation of the gospel and of the One of whom it tells.
The place for self-respect
There is no place in Christianity for racism, ethnocentrism, or illusions of racial, national,
or ethnic superiority or inferiority, just as there is no place for individual pride, arrogance,
and contempt for others. The second of the two “great commandments” directs us to love
our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Implicit in the commandment is the presupposition that we will not hate or have contempt
for ourselves. This in no way contradicts the concept that each of us is a sinner who needs to
The very facts that we are made, each one of us, in the image of God, and that God has
sent his only Son into the world so that, through faith in him, we might obtain eternal life,
demonstrate that we are not to be objects of hatred or contempt—not in the eyes of God,
and therefore not in our own. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought,” Paul
writes (Rom. 12:3, NW). A certain level of self-respect is appropriate. We are not worthless
nothings, for, as the late Orthodox scholar Georges Florovsky used to say, “God did not
send his Son to die for nothing.”
Americans—Christians and non-Christians alike—often look at the rest of the world with
a curious mixture of conceit and inferiority feelings. During the years between World War
II and the Vietnam War, feelings of conceit tended to predominate; since Vietnam, we have
tended to think of ourselves as losers. Europeans are less inclined than North Americans to
think of themselves as inferior, but here, too, such “end of an era” feelings are growing, as
the recent Tages-Anzeiger article shows.
After 70 years, during which an atheistic, materialistic, totalitarian system sought to crush
Christianity and to spread its own power across the world, that awful menace has vanished.
In the formerly Communist countries, there is now a call in many quarters for Christian
values. How ironic it is that in the land that has, since World War II, been so dynamic in
evangelism and world missions, we lose our sense of calling and mission. The poison
coursing through the veins of our culture is not Marxism, but a kind of listlessness of the
spirit, crippling even convinced Christians and paralyzing those without clear spiritual
Compared to the standards of the New Testament and the principles by which we are
called to live, individual Christians as well as the societies and governments that call
themselves Christian have much for which to repent and to atone. However, viewed against
the background of world history—the melancholy account of fallen humanity—Christianity
and the Christian West should not be singled out for censure. The primary means by which
the gospel spread was missions, not imperialism.
Christianity has its charlatans and those who have exploited religion to become wealthy.
But Christian missionaries who have gone to other cultures have almost invariably done so
at great personal sacrifice, not to garner immense profits and live in luxury, like the
notorious Bhagwan or the Guru Maharaj Ji. There are slums and poverty-stricken people in
Albania, but it was the Catholic Christian Mother Teresa who went to Calcutta, not an
Indian who went to Tirana. When the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations threw off
their Communist regimes, it has been the Christian West (plus Japan) that has been willing
to undertake massive financial aid. It was not, to cite one example, the fabulously oil-rich
Muslim Arab states. For at least 40 years, the Communist powers have sought to undermine
and to overthrow the Western democracies, yet nevertheless, we now are seeking to help
their successors. There is no nation in the West that claims—or will admit—to be inspired
by Christian motives, but this conduct is consistent with Jesus’ words in Luke 6:27—28:
“Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat
Writing of Britons who seemed so ashamed of their imperial past that they were virtually
paralyzed when it came to making sensible decisions in their own day, historian Lawrence
Van der Post spoke of the “poison of shame.”
The apostle Paul speaks of a “godly sorrow” that leads to repentance without “regret” and
to salvation, and warns of “the worldly sorrow” that brings death (2 Cor. 7:10). The sort of
thing that causes us to act, as a culture or as a nation, as though we regret Columbus’s
voyage, Western Christian civilization and, indeed, our own existence on this planet, is a
“worldly sorrow” caused by Van der Post’s “poison of shame,” It dishonors not only our-
selves and our Christian teachers and forebears, but also the Lord whom they served and
whom we are supposed to love and follow, and, indeed, in the long run, it produces death.
Harold O.J. Brown is professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
CHRISTIANITY TODAY October 5, 1992