October 5, 2003

HISTORY LESSONS

“God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Acts 10:34-35

Christopher Columbus was a sailor who believed the world was round when almost everyone else of his time thought it was flat—at least that’s a popular myth. But the truth is that 1,300 years before Columbus, Ptolemy of Alexandria was teaching that the world was round, and people in Columbus’s time knew the world was round. Several centuries after Columbus, author Washington Irving made up a story of Columbus arguing with scholars who said the earth was flat. Thanks to Irving’s fiction, many people to this day believe Columbus was a pioneer of belief in a round earth—but he wasn’t.

Another common error about Columbus is that he was the first explorer to discover the Americas. But other explorers came before Columbus. Some people from Indonesia and Japan may have come to South America at some point. Some artifacts and customs from these far-apart cultures appear very similar.

Some African adventurers may have come to Central America. The Mayans of Central America had stone quarries, pyramids, and huge statues much like ancient Egypt. Statues in southeastern Mexico have faces that look African. How did the Olmec Indians carve statues with such features? Had they seen actual Africans? Scholars don’t all agree what to make of the evidence, but there are fascinating hints that people from various continents visited the Americas long before Columbus did.

Almost all scholars agree that some Vikings came centuries before Columbus. The Vikings established settlements on Greenland and Iceland, and from there Viking sailors reached various parts of North America: Labrador, Newfoundland, perhaps New England. Stories in Scandinavia long told of such voyages, but many historians were skeptical—until archeological discoveries in Newfoundland proved the Vikings had been there. The first Vikings probably arrived in what is now Canada around the year 1005, roughly 500 years before Columbus. They were still shipping wood from Labrador to Greenland 350 years later.

Besides these voyagers who traveled from other continents to the Americas before Columbus did, millions of people were already living in the Americas before Columbus arrived. We sometimes say that on October 12, 1492, Columbus discovered America, but another perspective says, “In 1492 the Native Americans discovered Columbus invading their territory.”

Columbus was an exceptional man. He was brave. He was visionary. He was a brilliant navigator and sailor. He led daring voyages. He had a big impact on world history. But Columbus did not reveal to people the earth’s roundness; they already knew that. He was not the first explorer to cross the seas to America; others had done that before. And though he was bold and strong, he was not kind—as native people found out.

The Untold Story

There’s a lot we didn’t learn in our history lessons. Historian James Loewen, in his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, points out that school textbooks usually emphasize Columbus the heroic explorer but don’t tell students what Columbus did with the people he found. In 1495 the Spanish under Columbus’ leadership rounded up 1,500 Arawak natives. They chose the 500 best physical specimens for shipment to Spain as slaves. 200 died on the way. But Columbus was optimistic and exclaimed, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” Columbus shipped about 5,000 native slaves back to Europe. He forced many others into slavery for Spanish masters who remained on the Caribbean islands.

The enslavement involved not just work but sex. Columbus spoke of the buying and selling of girls and women as sex slaves. He noted, “There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”

Columbus and his men took whatever they wanted. Natives 14 and up had to bring a tribute of gold dust or 25 pounds of cotton every three months. Columbus’s son Ferdinand explained, “Whenever an Indian delivered his tribute, he was to receive a brass or copper token which he must wear about his neck as proof that he had made his payment. Any Indian found without such a token was to be punished.” The punishment was to cut off the person’s hands. For other minor offenses, the Spaniards cut off ears or noses. Some natives were so terrorized that they killed themselves rather than live under such rulers.

Columbus mistreated people who weren’t of his racial background—and the more he mistreated them, the more racist he became. Racism leads to cruelty, but the reverse is also true: cruelty leads to more racism. When you mistreat people, you need excuses. If you can look down on them as members of an inferior race who aren’t worth treating well, you can feel less guilty about being so nasty to them. James Loewen points out that when Columbus first met natives, he wrote that they were “well built” and had “quick intelligence.” He wrote, “They have very good customs,” and he commented, “They have good memories.” Later, after enslaving, mutilating, and killing many of them, Columbus spoke of them as “cruel” and “stupid” and criticized their customs. As Loewen says, “It is always useful to think badly about people one has exploited or plans to exploit.”

If you wanted land occupied by Native American Indians, you felt better if you could say, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Some Europeans considered it a blessing of God when thousands of Indians died of diseases which they caught from early settlers. Sometimes over 90 percent of the native population would perish in these epidemics. In the early 1600s, King James of England thanked “Almighty God for his great goodness and bounty towards us” for “this wonderful plague among the savages,” which enabled British colonists to settle in areas where natives had previously lived and farmed.

The first case of chemical warfare in the American colonies occurred in 1623. The British were negotiating a treaty with tribes near the Potomac River. To seal the treaty, the British proposed a toast “symbolizing eternal friendship.” The chief, his family, advisors, and two hundred others drank the toast and dropped dead of poison. When you treat people that way, it’s most convenient not to see them as people at all.

Biological warfare was also used against natives. Jeffrey Amherst commanded British forces in North America and helped secure Canada for England. In 1763 Amherst and officers under his command approved of using biological warfare against Indians by sending smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs. Amherst wrote of “measures to be taken as would bring about the Total Extirpation of those Indian Nations” and “put a most Effectual Stop to their very Being.”

The natives of the Americas weren’t perfectly holy and happy before white newcomers showed up from Europe. Some natives were guilty of sacrificing humans to their gods. Some enslaved other tribes. Some tribes who lost power and land to European settlers had previously taken that territory from other tribes. Some were as cruel to the settlers as the settlers were to them.

But the fact remains that many Europeans who claimed to be Christians did not treat native people as Jesus commanded. Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Instead of obeying Jesus’ Golden Rule, Columbus and others lusted for gold and wanted to rule, and they did to others what nobody wanted done to them. Not all European newcomers were killers and slavers. Some were honest and friendly to natives. But far too many disobeyed Jesus’ teaching and treated natives with cruelty and contempt.

Native Achievements

History lessons in school tend to side with their country’s dominant culture and tend to downplay cruelties committed by their country’s government and by people the majority wants to see as heroes. History books also downplay the achievements of those who aren’t part of the dominant race or culture.

Many people think that before Europeans came to the Americas, the natives knew nothing about farming and had no worthwhile ideas about governing. But here’s the truth about farming: more than half of the food crops grown around the world were first domesticated by natives of the Americas. As for government, no less a leader than Benjamin Franklin praised freedoms enjoyed among some native tribes as something Europeans could learn from. Franklin could be a racist, but he also opposed slavery and admired the achievements of some native peoples. Already more than twenty years before the thirteen American colonies banded together to form a nation, Franklin spoke of the Iroquois confederation of tribes as a model for uniting the colonies. Natives of the Americas weren’t just savages or victims. They had valuable insights about food, freedom, and other vital matters.

Colonists and natives sometimes benefited each other through commercial trading and through exchange of ideas, but there was also much racism and exploitation. This was true not just in North and South America but also in Africa and in India and other parts of Asia. This is not just a matter of “white guilt” or of bemoaning colonialism. Conflict among various tribes and people groups has always been a serious problem. You don’t have to be white to be racist. The tendency to despise and mistreat people of a different race, tribe, or nationality seems to be as widespread as sin itself.

When different people groups have encountered each other, they have often had troubles. Unable to avoid each other, they have sometimes harmed each other, sometimes learned from each other. One lesson of history is how important it is to see every human being of every background as a person who matters to God.

“God created man in his own image,” says the Bible (Genesis 1:27). “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). All people in every place are related to each other and bear God’s image. God shapes our times and places, our history and geography. He judges sins but also brings good even out of evils that have stained history and shaped national boundaries. We must learn from history and not repeat past sins. At the same time, we must be grateful for God’s redemptive hand in history.

Rather than live in guilt for how some of our ancestors may have wronged others, we can live by God’s grace. Rather than live in bitterness as perpetual victims of what some of our ancestors may have suffered at the hands of others, we can live by God’s grace. Rather than blaming our problems on those who came before us, we can live by God’s grace and be responsible for our own attitudes and actions. Living by grace does not mean forgetting history or ignoring past evils. It means facing the truth and trusting God’s mercy and goodness in Jesus Christ to reconcile us with him and with each other. Facing unpleasant facts of history is not a matter of being politically correct but of becoming historically correct and spiritually wise.

Slavery and Hypocrisy

The Back to God Hour reaches many countries that have a history of racism, colonialism, even slavery. We’ve looked at some things that colonists starting with Columbus did to natives of the Americas, killing, enslaving, or relocating many.

Another of history’s great crimes was the enslavement of black Africans. Many died on long ocean voyages even before they could be sold as slaves. Those who survived often spent the rest of their lives in bondage, while their masters got rich.

Slavery was not just a problem in the American South. James Loewen points out, “The first colony to legalize slavery was not Virginia but Massachusetts.” In 1720 about one of every four residents of New York City was a slave.

Slavery was not just a problem in the colonies that would become the United States. Slavery was legal in Canada until 1834, when the British Parliament abolished the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire. Slavery was legal in Brazil until 1888. In Latin America, in the Caribbean, in colonies around the world, Africans and native peoples were forced into slavery. All the major European powers took part in the slave trade. Slave traders shipped as many as 17 million slaves to the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa. Even in black Africa itself, some African rulers made big money and political power by selling fellow Africans into slavery. Slavery was not unique to one country or one era. It was a problem in many places at many points in history.

Still, it was especially grievous when people claimed to be Christian and proclaimed the importance of freedom and human rights (for themselves) but enslaved people who weren’t of their racial background. Jesus taught, “You have only one Master, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8). How could anyone hear those words and claim to follow Jesus, yet enslave other people? One way was to become racist and to see enslaved peoples as less than human. The French philosopher Montesquieu remarked ironically, “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.”

Some great champions of political liberty owned slaves. The first draft of America’s Declaration of Independence condemned King George III for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But that part of the declaration was removed before the final version was adopted—not surprising, since almost half the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders. British author Samuel Johnson asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

Patrick Henry argued in favor of American independence, saying, “I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery.” Then he thundered, “Give me liberty or give me death!” But Patrick Henry himself owned slaves. Was he just a man of his time who didn’t know better? No, Patrick Henry called slavery “as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive of liberty.” But he kept buying slaves and never freed them. He wondered, “Would anyone believe that I am a Master of Slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves, depriving them of liberty and happiness. Jefferson knew the evils of slavery, and he feared God would judge the new nation, which trumpeted liberty but enslaved so many. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Jefferson was willing to try almost anything to solve the slave problem—except free his own slaves. He was a big spender, was constantly running up debts, and he needed the unpaid labor of his slaves to keep him afloat financially. When George Washington died, his will directed that his slaves be freed and that some proceeds from his estate be used to help them financially. But when Thomas Jefferson died, even his will did not free his slaves, and they were sold to help pay his debts.

Deadly Compromise

Some of those who fought for American independence did not own slaves. John Adams, a founding father and second president of the United States had no slaves and called slavery “an evil of colossal magnitude.” His wife, Abigail Adams said it was “a most iniquitous scheme to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” Elbridge Gerry, a delegate at the Constitutional Convention and later Vice President of the United States, wrote his wife, “I am exceedingly distressed at the proceedings of the Convention—being… almost sure, they will … lay the foundation of a Civil War.”

The majority of the framers of the United States Constitution decided to compromise on slavery. Many talked as though it could continue for a time but would then fade away gradually as people became more enlightened. It’s easy to say such things when you’re not a slave but are benefiting from slavery, either as a slaveholder or as a purchaser of goods that were cheap thanks to slave labor. For those in bondage, talk of gradual change was not comforting. An entire lifetime could and did pass without “gradual change” freeing them. Seventy years later, slavery was still not fading away. Rather, some were trying to expand slavery into new territories and were not speaking of it as a temporary evil but as a permanent cornerstone of society established by God himself. The nation, which had chosen compromise over making the hard choice to do right, went through a bloody civil war.

Those who defended slavery sometimes appealed to abstract principles such as states’ rights, but the concrete result was millions of people who toiled and died as slaves. Even today, some still claim that the Confederate States were standing for states’ rights, not standing for slavery. But listen to the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. He declared, “Our new government’s foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

Even many who fought against slavery believed in racial superiority and segregation. Guess what politician made the following statement: “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the white and black races which … will probably forever forbid their living together in terms of social and political equality, … and I am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” The man who said that was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln saw blacks as fellow humans and wanted to end slavery. He was a great man in many respects, and he learned as he went. But he still had a hard time seeing blacks as equals who could live side by side with whites in the same society. Even Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared freedom only for slaves in rebel territory, not for those in states under Lincoln’s authority.

Lord of All Nations

Maybe you’re thinking, “Aren’t preachers supposed to talk about the Bible and leave history to the historians and politics to the politicians?” Well, that’s a convenient approach if you don’t see God as the judge of history and the ruler of nations. In the past this approach was convenient for churchgoers who wanted to keep sermons and hymns in one compartment and have their racism and support of slavery in a different compartment. But Jesus is Lord over all of history, and we must apply his truth to all of life. To understand Columbus or colonialism or constitutions or race relations or ourselves and decide how to live today, we must know the facts and think biblically.

The Bible stands against the racism that has harmed so many people. The apostle Peter said, “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). The apostle Paul wrote, “Here there is no Greek or Jew… barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:11-12). The apostle John had a vision of an “angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 14:6). John saw in heaven in heaven “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne” (Revelation 7:9). John heard those in heaven singing to Jesus, “You were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

Slaves and former slaves heard this gospel and believed in the Savior who suffered and died for the salvation of all nations and tribes. Their faith in Jesus sustained them during their terrible sufferings, and their faith emboldened them to claim their standing as sons and daughters of God, no less valuable or loved by God than anyone else. Some churches despised them, some people oppressed them, but they persevered, and God used their perseverance to change their churches, their society, and their world. They sang, “We shall overcome,” and with the help of God, they did overcome.

As we mark the anniversary of Columbus coming to the Americas, we’ve noted some ugly facts of history, but let’s also note that the lessons of history and the hand of God have brought us a long way in race relations. We still have far go, and Satan will always try to poison relationships with racism and tribalism. But we’ve learned that people of different skin color and national origin can live together and flourish together better than they could if they remained totally separated. This is no time for recrimination but for reconciliation.

Sometimes, when we learn about history, we don’t want to take the blame for the evils of those who came before us, but we do want take credit for their achievements. But let’s not take too much credit or too much blame for the past. Instead, let’s take responsibility for the present. Let’s build on the insights of people who went before us, and let’s also learn from their evils and errors not to repeat the same sins.

You and I are living now. We are responsible for the choices we make now. Those who lived before us did some bad, some good, and their actions helped shape the sort of world we live in. But one of our most important history lessons is that we are not trapped by the past. Jesus gives freedom to choose now to live according to God’s pattern and to trust God for the future. Let’s learn our history lessons, not in order to blame others or blame ourselves for what happened long ago but in order to understand human nature better, to appreciate God’s providence and salvation more, to honor Jesus as Lord of all nations, and to show his love to people of every nationality.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.