Columbus Day. Let’s see, that means ‘no mail today’ and school is out.
Forty-two years ago almost to the day, I nearly suffered a serious accident on the farm in Alberta, Canada, where I worked. The land was frozen and snow lay on the ground, and almost white-out conditions, yes, a blizzard, made it nearly impossible to see the road before me as I drove a front-loading tractor back to the barn. My wispy beard and moustache hung with breath-fog icicles, and my spectacles spotted with frozen droplets, I couldn’t wait to get back to the house, and warmth. I felt the tractor tilt as it started to slide off the road into a drainage ditch, all but invisible in all that whiteness.
A shiver of fright worse than the shivers of cold I had been feeling came over me, and reflex action, instinctive and automatic, somehow straightened out the tractor’s trajectory, and I avoided rolling it into the ditch, as I had rolled my dad’s new car into a ditch a few years earlier. I stiffened up for the remainder of the drive back to the barn, crying not tears of joy and thanks for having been spared what would have been an embarrassing and nasty accident, but lamenting my fate of being a landless, misguided hippie trying to be a farmer in a frozen wasteland. So much for my new life in Canada. I wanted to go home.
And I did go home, sort of. Not quite two years later, we arrived in sunny, warm, leafy Oregon, at the beginning of autumn—we three, self, wife, and infant son—the eve of the Jewish new year feast, Rosh Hashanah, and stayed our first night with some friends who took us, the next morning, to the synagogue in Salem, for the service. A most fitting beginning, I’ve always thought. Life never seems to exhaust itself of beginnings, I muse, seeing that this day too, an almost anonymous Monday in October, marks also a beginning. Columbus Day, the twelfth of October. A beginning, but I wonder, did anyone know what they were in store for?
Certainly not the native peoples who gradually became familiar to the first starry-eyed European adventurers, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, French, Dutch and English. So familiar, in fact, that these newcomers somehow came to believe that they owned them, along with all the lands they lived on. A few of these original inhabitants were taken back to Europe as curiosities to entertain and amuse, most without their consent, and few ever returned home. The justification for the plunder and conquest of the continent I am now living in was humanitarian, the cultural and ethical superiority of the conquerors.
The book I was perusing at breakfast time, published in 1910, fleshes out this justification nicely, when it compares the ethical foundations of the West to those of non-Western peoples. In the paragraph below it even includes the ancient Hebrews in this latter category, and contrasts them with the Greeks, for whom it makes great claims. But of other races and religious groups, it has the same opinions, that they are incomplete, inferior, and destined to be replaced. It seems to me that what is termed ‘Replacement Theology,’ that the Church replaces Israel in God’s eyes, is the ‘manifest destiny thesis’ of the West.
‘… Ethics, pure and simple, finds its first true origin among the Greeks. In the lower culture-steps high morality is neither inculcated by the priests nor attributed to the spirits or gods. Even to races merely barbaric and outside the strict pale of savagism divine goodness means nothing more or less than personal favoritism. The ancient Jews, it will be remembered, regarded it as a signal mark of divine wisdom that the sun should be stayed from its course in order that they might ruthlessly massacre and cut to pieces a hostile army; which, moreover, was seeking its homeland, stolen from them by the rapacity of the Semitic invaders’ (ibid., p. 238).
The depth of irony in the above passage is that while disparaging the ancient Hebrews in their occupation of Canaan, the author of this chapter doesn’t seem to have made the connexion that for all our ‘high morality’ the West hasn’t behaved any better or more ethically than the peoples it claims are inferior. I suppose here as everywhere else, the West imposes a ‘sliding scale’ that makes itself look good, and though we may look back with a patronizing shudder at the colonization of the American continents, we still follow the same principles and continue to do the same in similar circumstances.
However, this is not symptomatic of the West, but of humanity in general. We live in a world where we can only say ‘what would have been’ but we cannot change the present to conform to it. Lost civilizations are gone forever, at least on this side of the general resurrection, and few today would be able to live in their hypothetical pasts. As for ethics, though, no one culture or people has a corner on the subject, none is more ethical than any other given the same circumstances. Only one course of ethics is convincingly true, that is the ethics of Jesus Christ, and not anyone’s interpretation of it.
Because the ethics of Jesus Christ cannot be interpreted, only applied, and any attempts to deduce from it anything different from what the Lord intended are doomed to failure. This is what history teaches us, if nothing else. This is what validates Jesus Christ among a host of other ‘religious teachers.’ This is why Jesus Christ is still the most active person in the history of the world. This is why heaven and earth may pass away, but His words will never pass away. Ethics, real ethics, are solider than the big bang and all that followed from it, and everything that exists can be said to be the outcome of holy and divine ethics.
But what of Columbus Day—or, if you’re a Canadian, of ‘Thanksgiving Day’? For the native Americans, this is a day of infamy, a day for great sorrow. Yes, how can we disagree, but there’s nothing we can do now, is there? We are all victims of the irreformable past, if we take it upon ourselves to be. No one people is any more glorious or deserving of special honor than any other. The lovely life that ancient native Americans lived, that is gone forever. What has replaced it for their descendants is still a dream in the making, part of the greater destiny of the whole race, on this or on any continent or island.
In the life of the world to come—here I do not mean the ‘dying and going to heaven’ world, but the future of the human race—every people has a glorious and honorable share. Every people shall be acknowledged for the greatness sown in them by the Creator, which bore good and abundant fruit. Every excellence shall be proclaimed worthy when the Son of Man reigns in a world where He is now mostly crucified. That world begins now, begins whenever we want it to, when we hear and keep the words of Jesus, when we finally build our house on the rock, when ethics is what is seen, not only heard.
That we are free, not by our own struggles alone, but by the ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God, free to live in a beautiful way, in an honest and just way, yielding ourselves to one another in brotherly love which is the cornerstone of all ethics, this is what we are thankful for, this is the new world that still waits to be discovered, and it’s all about beginnings, this day and every other.