Reading History Correctly

Posted on October 11, 2015


Now that the Pope Francis’s visit is history let’s consider the canonization of Father Junipero Serra as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.

The controversy that arose with Serra, an eighteenth century Franciscan friar who helped bring Christianity to California is based on native Americans’ complaints that Serra persecuted their ancestors while evangelizing. So it is a travesty for the Pope and the Church to recognize what he did as “saintly.”

The Church and the Pope obviously felt differently.

I agree with the Church. The indigenous (new term for Indians) in this instance are lousy historians, and if we are going to make decisions today, and for tomorrow, based on the historical realities of the past as part of our decision-making process, then we better get the past right.

The entire issue of how badly the Europeans behaved in the discovery and conquest of the New World goes back to Christopher Columbus. The Genoese mariner was in the service of the Spanish monarchs, Isabelle of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, when, as the old poem goes, “in 1402 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Long celebrated as a hero for the voyage of discovery that led to the Spanish conquest of much of the Americas, Columbus’s reputation stubbed its toe in 1992 when the world remembered the Quincentennial, or five hundredth anniversary of that voyage.

What had been a glorious celebration of European culture and power during the four hundredth anniversary in 1892 was now turned into a condemnation of European hubris, imperialism, brutality, racism, and a veritable litany of sins was laid at the doorstep of Columbus and those Spanish conquistadors who came after him. For those of us in Alabama, think Hernando de Soto, who actually, in many ways fit the caricature portrayed by the critics of the Conquest.

There was very little kind and gentle in the Conquest of the Americas, now called the “Encounter” to soften the implications of a superior civilization—the European—bringing the native American ones to their knees.

But modern interpreters, driven by the goad of diversity, equality and politically correct thinking, went over the top in condemning everything Spanish, and, by extension, European as other countries like England, France, and the Netherlands caught up with the Spanish and Portuguese.

On the other hand, indigenous civilizations were extolled with great enthusiasm and little respect for the facts of history.

The Aztecs of Mexico sacrificed thousands by dragging the victims up the pyramids of Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City) and ripping out their hearts.

Cannibalism was common from the islands of the Caribbean to the epicurean Aztecs.
The cenotes, large natural wells, of Yucatan and Guatemala are filled with skeletons of men, women, and frightened children sacrificed by the Maya into their deep and deadly waters.

Women were flayed alive and their skins then used to dress children for sexual orgies
To exempt the indigenous of the Americas and condemn the Europeans unreservedly as the critics of the canonization of Junipero Serra are doing in California is bad history. It also is the height of effrontery, claiming the high ground when in fact all are down there looking up, Europeans and the indigenous.

Something far better existed in the world of the Conquest/Encounter than gratifying one’s self in an orgy of acquiring gold—the Europeans– or placating the gods of earth, streams, mountains, fertility and war—the indigenous—with sacrifices and carnal monstrosities.

The Europeans brought with them Christianity which itself had some rough edges in the sixteenth century. That is an understatement.

There is no way to explain away the excesses within Christianity, from the torture of the Inquisition to the demands for absolute conformity to whichever doctrine you were preaching, whether you were a Dominican priest or a John Calvin.

But the Church had another side. It also demanded that cannibalism, ritual sacrifices, and the rank paganism that governed among the indigenous be ended.

If intolerance was one face of the Church, love and forgiveness was the other. Salvation may be no big deal among a significant percentage of Americans today, but it was a big deal to the friars who brought Christianity to the New World.

Junipero Serra was among that group, although arriving only in the eighteenth century.
It may no longer be politically correct to have been a missionary for the Christian faith, even with all its warts, but the Junipero Serras brought with them the spirit of life and love, now and forever, and that transcends the spirit world of all the indigenous prior to Christianity.

That’s what happened in California, even though Father Serra may have whacked a few novices here and there on the noggin for not attending Mass. Discipline and obedience were never far from the catechism of the Church with new converts.

Published in my OpEd, The Port Rail, as Christianity Compares Well to Native Culture in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015