Op-Ed Essay by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Dir. SMSBF
Now that we’re fully into the “Holiday Season” – that time stretching from Halloween to New Years – and considering this is the last edition of this publication for 2020, I thought it would be worth reflecting on something that is central to the history of Westernized thinking: the Christmas story. What I’ll attempt to do in this reflection is strip away, in as much as it is possible to do so, the stuff that clings to this story, and reveal notions that ought to resonate with all of us, regardless of whether we’re materialists, or devoted to any of the myriad theological contexts available to us.
The first and perhaps most difficult thing about the Christmas story is the hypocrisy that’s been attached to it. And though this is a deep and complex problem, there are aspects to it – tip of the iceberg sorts of things – that we can open-up. Once we complete this exercise, we may be able to see our way to the core of the message, and why it’s a message that ought to be important to us, especially as business leaders and those of us who work within this system.
As history reveals, the first Christians – those who believe a human being named Jesus is the embodiment of God on Earth –lived in ways that were radically counter-cultural. We’ll get deeper into this point later. What we’ll look at here is what happened over the intervening years, between when the first Christians lived and now. This period in history is what I consider to be a “divergence” from the ideal. In other words, while many have claimed to live as Christians, it’s often hard to see evidence of this claim, especially as we come to understand what being a Christian actually means.
Looking at the period between 32 AD, when the first Christian communities formed, and the start of the New World in the 15th century, we can trace a fascinating, but largely disconcerting divergence from the Christian ideal of living. In the later part of the 15th century, we come upon a moment quite revelatory of this thinking; it’s a moment that includes the story of Christopher Columbus.
Before we go further, it’s worth noting that it’s impossible to get into the mind of Columbus, and thereby know with certainty what he thought. None of us can do this. A person’s private thoughts are just that: private. The only thing we can hope is to get an idea of what the other is thinking. This is particularly difficult when it comes to learning from history. In Columbus’s case, as a person who considered himself to be a Christian, we’re interested in understanding if his behavior was reflective of his faith, or whether he should have known better.
For this analysis, we turn to Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States 1492 – Present.
In the first pages of Zinn’s work, he reveals a history of Columbus about which many of us have no idea – at least I didn’t. Zinn relates how the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean when they first saw Columbus’s fleet of “strange big” boats, “swam out to get a closer look.” Upon finally coming ashore, Columbus and his sailors, “carrying swords” and “speaking oddly” were greeted by the Arawak, who “brought them food, water, and gifts.”
Columbus later wrote in his logs this passage, which Zinn documents:
“They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which we exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…They were well built, with good bodies and handsome features…They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
The rest, as we so often say, is history. What followed, of course, was the annihilation of the Arawak and countless other indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Zinn also recounts the writing of a priest, Bartolome de las Casas, who came to the Caribbean in the 1500’s and for a time owned a plantation there. La Casas’s writings give us a glimpse into what took place after Columbus arrived; this historian’s perspective reveals a consciousness that transcends Columbus’s exploitive worldview.
“Endless testimonies…prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives…but our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians…”
As one reads more of Zinn’s account, it’s obvious Columbus made promises to his investors that he ultimately could not fulfill. To finance his journey, Columbus did what many marketers and entrepreneurs do: He exaggerated what would come of his trip. He promised a new trade route, one that would lead to sources of gold and other valuable resources, the profits from which his investors alone would benefit. Of course, by the time Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, and it became obvious there was no gold, he pivoted and looked for other ways to repay his investors. This led to the enslavement of the Arawak. Columbus, and those who helped him, forced the Arawak to dig for gold, and whatever else may be of value to the folks back in Europe. This enslavement, and all of the grotesque cruelties that ensued, wiped out the community of people who at first welcomed Columbus with open and loving arms. As las Casas’s relates, the work of the Europeans was to “ravage, kill, mangle and destroy.” And for what? It was for the love of gold; the material; the things of “this world” that Columbus and his contemporaries were motivated to do what they did.
What is so remarkable about this story is the way in which the Arawak treated Columbus, and his abject inability to see, in this treatment, the love of neighbor by which the Christian is to live. The other and perhaps most poignant part of this story is the meaning of the name “Christopher”, which is “Christ bearer”. So, there you have it: Christopher Columbus, bearer of Christ to the New World.
Considering the way in which the Columbus story has been handed down to school children throughout the years, it’s no wonder, as we learn the truth, many of us see only hypocrisy in the Christian message. But this isn’t the whole story. While there is hypocrisy surrounding the way in which the story has been echoed through the years, there’s something of tremendous value that comes to us from the Christian message, and in particular, the way in which the first Christians lived.
To get a better sense of the Christian message, and how it ought to be lived, we look to the first records of Christian life in community. It is in these records – the stories that emerged from the cradle of Christianity – wherein we can be assured a certain authenticity. There’s no space here to go further than a cursory look. Nevertheless, a brief look at these records points to a reality that transcends all time. And despite Columbus’s mistakes, and those of countless others, including this author, the folks who first called themselves Christians lived in a way that contrasted deeply from their world, and from ours – for that matter.
This isn’t meant to suggest these ideas, or an authentic Christian life is unique – at least as the outward manifestations are concerned. Quite the contrary: The manifestations of authentic Christian living can be found in numerous other cultures and faith traditions. It is for this reason that they are worthy of our attention. These ideas have a rootedness and value that transcends the fleeting value held by money and private property. It is the sort of value Columbus overlooked when he arrived in the Caribbean. When he should have been making friends with the Arawak, a people Christian teaching would have revealed were his “neighbors”, Columbus sought to exploit them, to take advantage of them for his personal gain. This is as far from the Christian message as one could imagine.
To get a sense of how the first Christians lived, nearly 1,500 years before Columbus, we turn to a document called, “The Acts of the Apostles”. In Chapter 4 of the document, we read the following:
“The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”
The first notion that pops-out is the idea of being of “one heart and mind”; the other, of course, is the notion of having “everything in common.” Oddly enough, especially in this age, we are about as far from being of “one heart and mind” as one could imagine. And as far as having “everything in common”, the conflation of “the pursuit of happiness”, with the acquisition of private property – which was intentional, by the way – precludes even the remotest possibility for this sort of behavior on a wide-scale.
So, what would compel a community of people to organize themselves around such radical ideas? The answer is a person who taught some amazing and quite counter-cultural things; he went by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Although historians tell us this Jesus was born, most likely, in June, many of us across the globe celebrate his birthday on December 25th, a day commonly referred to as Christmas. Christ is a Greek term – Christos – meaning “anointed one”; anointed means, “of God”. So, Jesus Christ is the anointed one of God, or so the Christian believes.
When Jesus the Nazorean was asked by the largely corrupt leadership of his day, on what is the law based? his answer was this: “You shall love the Lord God with all your heart mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” If you see no reason to believe in a higher power, an intelligent designer, or a God, then leave the first part of Jesus’s answer off the table. This leaves us with the second part.
Imagine what government, business leadership and all the rest would be like if each of us sought to live as though we loved our neighbor as ourselves. For me, this strikes at the simplicity of the Christmas story, and what this story could mean as a transformative paradigm. Who knows? It may even lead to us giving up on the continual aggregation of private property; if we could do that, then we have a good chance of surviving as a species.
May you have a blessed holiday season in whatever way you safely can!