Contradictions to Christ: Columbus’s Imperialism in America

This week, in continuing on in the “Katie’s Controversial Writings” realm – I’d like to share with you an essay I wrote my sophomore year of college. It was the final for a class called Post Colonial Anglophone Literature. Throughout the semester, I wrestled with the claims of my professor and classmates who were convinced that Christianity was the catalyst, and even justification for, the genocide of Native Americans… I struggled to wrap my mind around it because the Jesus that I had come to know and love did not seem to mesh with the “Christian” representative who was credited for centuries with discovering America. But, honestly, for the most part- my professor and classmates seemed to be right. That is, until I had an opportunity to really seek the Lord and dig into some further research for this final paper. Below you’ll find out where I landed after really what was years of questioning Christopher Columbus and his ties to Christianity… 

Contradictions to Christ: Columbus’s Imperialism in America

Throughout history, many have justified imperialism with their religious doctrine. Christianity may be the religion most famous, or one may believe infamous, for such endeavors. In Christopher Columbus’s letter on the discovery of America, he often references conquering in honor of “the name of the blessed Saviour” (Desai & Nair, 2007, p. 18). However, the language Columbus uses to describe the Native Americans he encountered and the way he interacts with them does not seem to support the virtues Jesus Christ proclaimed. Jesus did say to his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, NLT).

So, if Jesus himself were to fulfill the Great Commission- how would he go about it, specifically in reference to the discovery of America?

Columbus: First Encounter
Photo Cred: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In Christianity, one of the most widely known staples is the Ten Commandments. Often people see these and the Bible in general, as merely a bunch of rules. However, when asked what the most important commandments are, Jesus is able to sum up his message with two main points. Jesus states in Mark 12:29 that “The most important commandment is this; ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (NLT). Upon arriving in the name of Jesus, “on whose aid relying” Columbus and his crew immediately contradicted such a command. Columbus states, “I had learned from certain Indians, whom I had seized there, that this country was indeed an island…” (Desai & Nair, 2007, p. 18 – emphasis mine).

The Apostle Paul, considered the most important Apostle and one of the most influential preachers of the Gospel, reiterates in Colossians 3:12,14 the commands of Jesus: “…clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.” Thus, Columbus’s actions are in stark contrast to Jesus’ most important virtue. It is also interesting to note that Columbus gives this description of the Indians: “They show greater love for all others than for themselves…” (Desai & Nair, 2007, p.18). The irony: the Indians, who Columbus says he wants to make into “worshippers of Christ,” seem to better display Christ’s characteristics.

Columbus also violated the other aspect of what Jesus stated as the most important commandment- “The Lord your God shall be your one and only God.” Columbus wrote in his letter:

“I seized by force several Indians on the first island, in order that they might learn from us, and in like manner tell us about those things in these lands of which they themselves had knowledge; and the plan succeeded, for in a short time we understood them and they us, sometimes by gestures and signs, sometimes by words: and it was a great advantage to us. They are coming with me now, yet always believing that I descended from heaven…” (Desai & Nair, 2007, 20).

Paul, who preached for Christ throughout the Roman Empire on three missionary journeys, emphasized honesty when evangelizing. He stated, “We reject all shameful deeds and underhanded methods. We don’t try to trick anyone or distort the Word of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2, NLT). Throughout Paul’s missionary trips, he was always very explicit about his purpose. In his second letter to the Corinthians he states,

“…God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” for God made Christ, who never sinned to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-21, NLT)

Thus, the purpose of Paul’s mission was clear. He was foremost concerned with people accepting salvation- he hoped that all would come to know God so that they could spend eternity with Him in heaven.

Unlike Columbus, Paul was not concerned with gaining territory for an earthly empire. Although throughout his letter Columbus claims his journey is ultimately motivated by seeing “the holy religion of Christ” expanded, his actions and words seem contradictory. Upon seeing “desirable” islands, Columbus states that he “solemnly took possession of all the others for our most invincible king, yet I especially took possession of a certain large town, in a very convenient location, and adapted to all kinds of gain and commerce”- and seemingly as an afterthought adds, “to which we give the name of our Lord of Nativity” (Desai & Nair, 2007, p. 4). Once again Columbus’s remarks not only clash with Jesus’ teaching, but completely destroy the very foundations of Christianity. The most striking example of this appears when Columbus explains how he allowed the Indians to believe that he “descended from heaven” even after they were able to communicate with each other (Desai & Nair, 2007, p. 20). Thus, Columbus was dishonest and allowed himself to be thought of as equal to God for personal gain. In Philippians 2, Paul states:

“Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privilege; he took the humble position of a servant and was born as a human being…” (Philippians 2:3-7, NLT).

jesus2Jesus was selfless, although he was all powerful. Columbus used the facade of Christianity and continuously distorted the teachings of Jesus to fulfill his desire to gain wealth and power.

In classrooms today, an anti-Christ-like depiction of Columbus is often painted; perhaps in an effort to make up for the decades of glorifying him as a hero, despite his exploitation and violence towards Native Americans. Such emphasis on Columbus’s negative attributes and actions are easily justifiable.

However, if anyone outraged by Columbus’s deeds were to have lived during his time as a European, he or she could hardly say that they would not have rejoiced with him at the “discovery” of America and would not have also thought to “give thanks to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” feeling that he had “bestowed upon [them] so great a victory and gift” (Desai & Nair, 2007, p. 6).

Despite Columbus’s extreme contradiction to the doctrine that he proclaimed during his time in America, one may defend that he was merely a product of his time.

Still, it is important to clarify that Columbus’s actions were nevertheless in stark contrast to that of Jesus Christ. In Joerg Rieger’s (2007) book, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Post Colonial Times, he conjectures that “…in a situation of empire Christ becomes part of the system to such a degree that little or no room exists for the pursuit of alternative realities of Christ. Empire displays strong tendencies to domesticate Christ and anything else that poses a challenge to its powers…” (Rieger, 2007, p.3).

Thus, Columbus, and many other self proclaimed “Christian nations” of the time (and even in recent times), merely created an image of Christ that supported their agenda. They worshipped a god that approved their actions, rather than seeking to worship Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ philosophy was founded in self-sacrifice. He stated, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else” (Mark 9:35). Columbus, on the other hand, stole from the Indians, kidnapped them, and “commanded” his own men to build a fort, “which must be completed by this time” (Desai & Nair, 2007, p. 21). In fact, Columbus almost always exemplified the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ lived and taught. Once again Jesus reiterates in Mark 10:43-45, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (NLT). Because Columbus was so intent on gaining the material wealth and knowledge of the Indians- and most likely a name for himself back in Europe, it seems that he was not a true Christ follower but rather a cultural Christian. One can make such an assertion because as Paul explains:

“… we can be sure that we know him (Jesus) if we obey his commandments. If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-6, NLT).

In this passage, Paul makes an important distinction between knowing about God and having a personal relationship with Jesus. Columbus actions failed to reflect the virtues and more than that, the lifestyle, of Jesus Christ which would have given credibility to his claims and furthermore, would have changed how he interacted with the Indians.

I feel that it is important to clarify that Jesus Christ was not a timid, soft-spoken, “lovey dovey” person, as I am afraid I am making him out to be. Although, as previously mentioned, he always acted out of love for others -in many circumstances he was thought of as radical and even a rebel. Jesus often defied societal boundaries and broke the religious laws of the day. In Matthew 15, Jesus teaches the Pharisees about inner purity as opposed to their outward forms of righteousness. According to the Charles Templeton (1973) glossary, “the Pharisees were considered the most influential religious party among the Jews during the time of Jesus. They were extremely zealous in their commitment to the Law…” In this passage the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our traditions of ceremonial hand washing before they eat” (Matt. 15:2) to which Jesus replied,

“And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of their father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. You hypocrites!” (NLT)

Jesus was not concerned about offending the religious authority of the day, and proved bold and courageous despite constant threats on his life.

Paul’s attitude was similar to that of Jesus and we see his audacity for Christ played out through his opposition to the Roman Empire and their imposed religion- which advocated the worship of pagan gods. Rieger (2007) explains in Christ & Empire that

“In the history of empire, one of the common features of the varying structures of empire has to do with the fact that they are so overpowering and so pressing that those living under their rule cannot remain neutral. They have no other choice than to develop forms of resistance, however small and insignificant, or surrent through acquiescent support, manifested often in the simple silence of a people about the reality of various empires in which they live. Resistance to empire is manifest in the lives of Jesus, of Paul, and in parts of the early church (Rieger, p.4).

Jesus resisted the religious laws of the Pharisees, later his apostle, Paul, would resist the imperial authority of the Roman Empire. Ultimately, throughout the Bible, there are examples in which followers of Christ and Christ himself, faced ethnocentrism. However, they worked tirelessly to bring a theocentric view to the world.

In the book, Empire and the Christian Tradition (2007), Tatha Wiley comments on the struggle that such a philosophy had. She states,

“We can see, perhaps more clearly than other generations, the extreme challenge of Paul’s momentous discovery of ‘the truth of the Gospel’- God’s reign as the redemptive space of inclusion and freedom, repudiation of privilege, the compassionate befriending of those in bondage, the affirmation of the dignity and equality of all, and the experience of God’s liberating humans from all forms of slavery, evil, and death” (2007).

The Roman Empire felt severely threatened by Jesus’ claims that God shows no favoritism- Jesus preached that all were sinners, not just tax collectors and prostitutes. However, Jesus’ claim that he was God fired up Roman rulers and people the most and because of this, although he broke no law, he was ultimately crucified.

It is this boldness in the face of oppressive authority that causes Rieger to ponder “Whether there is something in the reality of Jesus Christ’s refusal to acquiesce to empire that continues to inspire us in the broadest sense of the word…” (Rieger, 2007, p.4).

The point that I’m hoping to make in this paper is that for thousands of years Jesus has been misrepresented in order to fit in with the imperialistic political and economic desires of colonizing nations. Throughout history we see that colonizers have invaded countries and stripped people of their religion and their culture—every aspect of their being. Jesus did not ever take that route or endorse such actions. His words, however, have often been taken out of context to fit into certain ideologies.

I believe we can confidently state that Jesus would not have rejoiced with the nations upon seeing the actions of Columbus in America. Jesus did hope to see all people embrace their Creator and a theocentric lifestyle; however, he pleaded with believers to live like him and from doing so, people would then recognize a difference in their lives and want to know God. Peter, another apostle of Jesus Christ stated,

“…you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong!” (1 Peter 3:15-17, NLT)

Christianity is not about forced conversion; it’s about a living out your faith and having a relationship with God, which will be evident by the fruit of your life.

To directly answer the question of this paper, what would Jesus do in response to fulfilling the Great Commission if he discovered America?, I believe we can safely say it would not be colonize the Native American people, nor would he employ any of the tactics that Columbus used. Jesus wanted everyone to live in freedom, the freedom to worship God and not have to live in fear of the religious laws and restrictions imposed by the rule of an empire.

So, how does all this relate to the study of post colonialism? It is evident that throughout history many have sought to expand their kingdoms through religious empiricism- especially in the name of that famous man, Jesus Christ. However, I hope that when you read texts from now on, where figures claim to be focused on spreading Christianity, you will view the scenario with a critical eye knowing now what Jesus actually stood for. He was against the ideals of “religious folk” and for loving dangerously. Jesus didn’t care about taking over territory or conquering lands, but instead, winning back people.


4 responses to “Contradictions to Christ: Columbus’s Imperialism in America”

  1. Beautifully written, Katie! I could not agree more! :)

  2. Great report, my daughter who is attending a Christian school was asked to debate this topic. Many of your thoughts we very well made, and she appreciated your ability to express them so eloquently.

    1. Thanks so much Tom! Super exciting to hear that she was able to use this!

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