In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. We all know the rhyme; we all know the story. I want to suggest, however, that the stories we know about how the Americas came to be, the stories we tell ourselves about how race and culture and ethnicity affected us then and continue to affect power dynamics now, are grounded in little more than nursery rhymes. In fact, much of our collective consciousness around black and white and value and relationships are rooted in a history that is no history at all.
Long before the days of Manifest Destiny, Columbus and crew sailed with the assurance that the world was theirs for the taking. They had conquered or co-opted much of the known world; in their eyes, they had earned their cultural dominance. Even more importantly, they sailed with the full endorsement of the Catholic Church. In this early Imperial Age, the church was very much in bed with the monarchies with whom they mostly shared power. The church advanced the cause of Empire in order to expand their own power, and, crucially, they justified such expansion because it saved souls. They were merely taking the Great Commission of Christ literally. Or so they say.
What are the lasting impacts of the Church’s endorsement of the colonial endeavor? Certainly Catholic, and later Protestant churches were established all over the developing world. Perhaps they even expanded the Kingdom of God. The greatest legacy of their work, however, in my view, is what we now call the “us” and “them” mentality. It is all the rage to call this we and they paradigm out for what it is:
The playthings of those with power. The antithesis of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to earth to establish and charged us with advancing.
Here is the dirty little secret of the way America came to be: The entire Colonial system, in which European empires dominated most of every other continent on earth, was only viable because the Church endorsed an “us” and “them” mentality.
Conquering a land and controlling its people is dirty business. For the Church and Empire to successfully invade, dominate, and colonize another land and people group, much violence is required. Subjugating other human beings is difficult to rationalize. Unless—and here is the genius and the devastation of colonialism, and racism during and after it—the conqueror creates distance between himself and the conquered by dehumanizing them.
They don’t have religious rituals with which I am familiar. In that case we can enslave them.
They don’t wear clothes like I do. In that case we can enslave them.
They don’t communicate in ways I understand. In that case we can enslave them.
They don’t participate in culture, government or social structure in ways that are familiar to me. In that case we can enslave them.
The colonial endeavor demanded such differentiation. Prosperous colonization requires invading peoples to view pre-existing peoples as, essentially and ultimately, “Other.” These assumptions are found in nearly every recorded episode of colonization in our global history.
This type of thinking dehumanized vulnerable people groups, and allowed systems like slavery to prosper. The raping and pillaging of another person’s land was easy once its inhabitants were contained. This same sort of thinking, perhaps best captured by the phrase white cultural normativity, continues in 2017 to marginalize people of color whose cultures and habits fall outside what majority culture has deemed normal, and therefore safe and productive for society. This thinking has led to widespread cultural racism, to the criminalization of brown skin, and to the undervaluing of black lives as contributing, creative, compassionate leaders in our society.