Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbus Day: Genocide and Curiosity

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Like many American children, I learned this little rhyme when I was in grade school. I also learned that Christopher Columbus set off with his three ships to find a new trade route to the Orient. Being a man ahead of his time, Columbus sailed west to get east, believing that the world was round even though it was common knowledge that the world was flat. He didn't make it to his intended destination, but instead discovered America.

This didn't sit well with me as a child. I wondered how Columbus could discover a continent that was already populated. Several years ago I read a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen that left me feeling even more uncomfortable with Christopher Columbus. The book states that "American history books present Columbus pretty much without precedent, and they portray him as American's first great hero." That seems to fit with what I remember learning in school. Unfortunately, many details about Columbus's work are left out of history books, replaced with stories to make him seem more heroic.

One common misconception in history books is that Columbus bravely dared to sail west when everyone of his time knew that this meant he would fall off of the edge of our flat Earth. In the middle ages, people did believe that the world was flat, but by Columbus's day it was common knowledge that the Earth is round. Columbus was not on an ideological quest to prove that the earth was round; he was searching for wealth. In a letter to the king and queen of Spain he wrote, "Gold is most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world..." This was the common motivator for many "explorers" that children learn about in school, but since this sounds base and materialistic, more heroic reasons were fabricated.

A more disturbing omission from history books is the treatment of the native people by Columbus and his crew. From Lies My Teacher Told Me: "When Columbus and his men returned to Haiti in 1493, they demanded food, gold, spun cotton -- whatever the Indians had that they wanted, including sex with their women." He also enslaved about 5,000 native people and sent them across the Atlantic to Europe. When the native people rebelled in 1495, Columbus declared war. The native people did not stand a chance of survival against the European guns and cannons. Ferdinand Columbus's biography of his father describes the event: "The [European] soldiers mowed down dozens [of native people] with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and with God's aid soon gained complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed."

They committed genocide. "Yet only one of the twelve textbooks...mentions the extermination. None mentions Columbus's role in it" (Lies My Teacher Told Me).

Why don't we teach our children the truth? The truth is terrible, certainly, but it is true. It is history. I understand the need for heroes, for figures to inspire children, but why fabricate stories to create heroes instead of simply teaching children about real historical heroes?

I wrestled with myself as to whether I should write this post. The name of this blog comes from the words of Mohondas Ghandi: "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." Writing a post about the atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus will not inspire positive change. I think that positive lessons can be learned from this, though. I think it is important to foster curiosity, to challenge ourselves to dig deeper and learn more. It is important to foster curiosity, but not cynicism. There are terrible things that have happened and are happening, but that doesn't mean that everything is terrible. We learn about the terrible things so that we can ensure that they never happen again, so that we can be the change we wish to see.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Brother Francis

Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and so I am sharing my most recent article from my church's newsletter, the Spire.

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Brother Francis and the Friendly Beasts by Margaret Hodges with pictures by Ted Lewin is a children’s picture book about the life of Francis of Assisi. Francis was born into a wealthy family in Italy, but when he was a young man he renounced his wealth to serve the poor. He traveled the Italian countryside preaching God’s word and helping those in need. As he went, “he saw the beauty and grace of animals, of birds singing as they flew, of silvery fish darting in clear water. He heard the hum of insects in the roadside grass, and they, too, were beautiful. God was the father of all living things, and all were brothers and sisters. They gave him joy, and he sang for joy as he walked the roads.”

In Catholicism, Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals and the environment. Every October 4th, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi is celebrated with a Franciscan Blessing of Pets, a custom that honors Francis’s love for all of God’s creatures. This is one of the prayers from the blessing service:

“The animals of God's creation inhabit the skies, the earth, and the sea. They share in the ways of human beings. They have a part in our lives. Francis of Assisi recognized this when he called the animals, wild and tame, his brothers and sisters. Remembering Francis' love for these brothers and sisters of ours, we invoke God's blessing on these animals, and we thank God for letting us share the earth with all the creatures.”

Check out Brother Francis and the Friendly Beasts from the church library to learn more about Francis and help instill a love of God’s creatures in your children.

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While I'm on the subject of St. Francis, check out the new single from Tree Anthem's (my husband's band) new St. Francis-themed CD, Lady Poverty. It rocks! (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.)