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Proper 24 (29), Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
17 October 2021
I became a permanent resident in 1992. Jackie and I moved to Saskatoon where I continued my studies at the seminary of our church. The door to professor John Kleiner’s office greeted visitors with a poster that bore the inscription: In 1492 American Indians discovered Columbus on their shores.
Of course, 1992 was the 500 year anniversary of that event.
We do not observe Columbus Day. The second Monday in October is our Day of Thanksgiving. And yet, our story too is one of conquest and immigration.
Last Monday the LA Times published an opinion piece by Alan Mikhail, head of Yale University’s history department.1
Mikhail writes that Columbus was raised on tales of the crusades and the territorial losses his hometown of Genoa had suffered after the Ottoman Empire’s capture of Constantinople in 1453.
As a young man some of Columbus’ first maritime voyages brought him face to face with the Ottoman Empire in the Aegean and of other Muslim states in North Africa. His later voyages down the coast of West Africa impressed upon him that Islam was everywhere, surrounding Christendom. When he returned to Europe, he joined Spain’s fight against the Muslims in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. This was only six months before he set off across the Atlantic.
Mikhail’s basic thesis is that Columbus wanted to discover an alternate trade route to Asia, one that would eliminate contact with Islam. When to his surprise he arrived in the Americas, his anti-Islamic sentiment made him see everything foreign he encountered as if it were an expression of Islam. In the Caribbean Columbus called the weapons of the Indigenous Tainos alfanjes, a Spanish word derived from Arabic for a curved metal scimitar inscribed with verses from the Quran, used by Muslim soldiers in battle, as if there had been Muslims in the Caribbean. Later, when Columbus first saw the scarves of a group of Indigenous women, he thought they were related through trade or some other form of contact to what he termed Moorish sashes.
Mikhail argues that for their whole lives Columbus and his contemporaries had learned that Muslims were their foremost enemies. That is the frame of understanding onto which they fell back when they encountered the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Furthermore, Mikhail believes that an anti-Islamic worldview was the mold of the European understanding of race and ethnicity and which can explain much of the tragic history that followed.
Although I believe that Mikhail’s thesis is worth contemplating, including regarding our own history of conquest, not being a historian I am ill qualified to assess its merits.
My point is that the stories with which we are raised, the stories which we embrace, will shape the way we encounter the world. That, I believe, Mikhail has right, regardless of how his peers will assess his main thesis.
That raises the question as to the stories that shape the way we approach the world.
For James and John who ask to be seated to Jesus’s left and right when Jesus comes into his glory, their stories may have been the stories of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, or of King David’s wars and expansive kingdom, or of the Maccabean Revolt when the Seleucid monarchy of Syria was pushed back into Syria and the temple was liberated. This is what Hanukkah remembers.
When I was 20 I visited London (England) and St Paul’s Cathedral where the memory of Admiral Nelson figured prominently, not only in the Nelson Chamber which can be rented for events with up to 250 people.
Humanity seems unable to tell the history of a nation without its wars, including our own history in which WW I is referenced as the event that defined us as a nation.
Now, if James and John’s view of the reign of God was shaped by stories of conquest and the associated glory of victorious wars, we must not be surprised because these stories are part of the biblical witness.
However, even Jewish tradition has qualms about the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. We learn in the Talmud that On seeing the drowning Egyptians, the angels were about to break into song but God silenced them declaring, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b).2
(Or think of today’s Psalm that declares that God will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent God will trample under foot 91:13, and compare this to Isaiah 11, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. … The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea).
Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah gives us a different vision. It does not see glory in terms of conquest of military victories. Since the beginning of the church the passages we call the suffering servant songs have been identified with Jesus who was wounded for our transgressions and by whose wounds we are healed. (v.5) At the same time, we would no be far off if we understood these passages as a critique of
– the scapegoating of individuals or of peoples, as in the way Columbus is to have regarded Muslims and cultures foreign to him,
– as well as of the sacrificial cult at the Jerusalem temple as the prophets do on many occasions (“I desire justice not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6).3
Whatever the suffering servant songs are about, they offer a different way. Restoration, healing, forgiveness, righteousness, the things we all need, whether we admit it or not, come not by way of conquest and violence, but through the suffering of the servant.
This is a different story than the Israelites’ stories of war and conquest, and it is a different story than our stories of war and conquest. It is also a different story than the one Columbus learned when he was growing up, for the story of restoration, healing, forgiveness, and righteousness contains no hatred or no fear of others.
Lutherans are no literalists and one of Luther’s gifts was to read the scriptures through the cross of Christ. Only the things in the scriptures that conform to and proclaim the Good News of Jesus are the things that are relevant to the life of Christians.
James and John had not gotten there yet. Of course, Jesus had not died yet. James and John still defined glory the way emperors do. And yet the story of Columbus gives us warning as to the stories we inhabit and which narrate our lives. Stories of violence will produce violence.4
This does not mean that we should not know other stories, but that we must know that the only story which we inhabit is the story of Jesus who gave his life for the life of the world and who asks us to follow.
To James and John and to us, Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
And this command is anchored in the life of Jesus, because this is how Jesus is, this is how God is. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is our story, the story that wants to write all of our stories. A story that speaks of self-giving love and a story that knows the resurrection.
1 Columbus’ Fear of Islam, rooted in Europe’s Crusades, shaped his view of Native Americans by Alan Mikhail https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-10-11/columbus-islam-european-views-crusades-indigenous-americans
3 See S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice – A Theology of the Cross, Grand Rapids, MI: 2006 Eerdman’s, p.93ff
4 Socrates believed that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it.