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A Christian Reflection on ‘Columbus Day’

Whether or not we can at this point in history refer any longer to America as a “Christian nation” does not change the fact that the myth of America is laden with Judeo-Christian language. That is, the American myth is in many ways a retelling of the myths that define two major world religions. Specifically, the American narrative is one of a new exodus of God’s people from oppression into the Promised Land of liberty and opportunity. The myth of America is that this country is that “city of a hill” of which Jesus spoke.

It is easy to criticize this country for continuing to use explicitly religious language to propagate its ideology and protect its political and financial interests. But perhaps it is more fruitful to go back to the founding myth.

One of the most repugnant developments in the Hebrew Bible is what happens after the Israelite exodus from Egypt. The story begins as one of the most inspiring: the vulnerable descendants of Abraham are forced to travel to Egypt because of a famine, and eventually settle there. They are immigrants. Over time, this immigrant population becomes too populous, and the Egyptians get nervous, and so the Israelites are forced into slavery. That is, the Egyptians fear that they will lose political and financial power because of the Israelites, and so they force the Israelites into labor so that they can expand their power and increase their profit margins. But God hears their cries, and through Moses comes to liberate the oppressed. God leads the Israelites from slavery toward the Promised Land. And on their journey, God gives them the Law, and the whole Law is wrapped up in the language of exodus, explaining that they must not treat others as they had been treated in Egypt. It appears that God is on the side of the oppressed, the slave, the refugee, the immigrant.

And then these liberated people do to others things far worse than were done to them. They commit genocide, and the men take the virgins for themselves as concubines—sex slaves. And where is God in all of this? According to the text, God has switched sides, and is now on the side of the oppressor, the slave master, the aggressor, the colonialist.

This shift in the narrative is nothing less than a Gestalt Switch, an advent of an entirely new, perverse theological paradigm. In a certain sense, large sections of the Hebrew Bible can be read as a struggle between the ethics of the Exodus and the ethics of the Conquest. And the texts of scripture are written by people who, seemingly, identified the God of liberation as the same as the God of conquest. It is at this point that the faithful reading of the text is the reading that resists the text. At this point we must say, “No.” To do otherwise is unethical. We must insist that the prayers of slaves and the prayers of slave-masters are not directed to the same deities. When we read the twist in the narrative of the liberated Israelites, we must insist that this twist is a turn to idolatry.

Skip way ahead. Jesus enters the scene. By this time Israel has become a nation in its own right, having inhabited the land their ancestors had conquered after the exodus. Only now, they have been enslaved yet again, this time by the political occupation of the Roman Empire. God, who had once led them through the wilderness, and dwelled among them in a tabernacle, had abandoned the Temple. Israel was, yet again, in need of liberation. And Jesus enters the scene—the new Moses, the new exodus. And yet again, Jesus is on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the slave, the refugee, the immigrant. But this time, instead of calling down plagues on their oppressors, Jesus subverts oppression with self-donation. The Way of Jesus is to love their enemies, to walk a second mile when forced to walk one, to stand together as a community. Jesus teaches them—the oppressed—that they are to be a city shining on a hill which cannot be hidden. This is their liberation, and we who are Christians believe that Jesus was more than a second Moses, but was God himself who came to lead this oppressed people into liberty and freedom.

The morally reprehensible turn in Christian history is when the community of Jesus, the body of Christ, who was from its beginning the poor and oppressed, was hijacked by the imperial elites. When the church of those who had been liberated from the empire themselves became the empire, the light of the city on the hill grew dim.

As I reflect on the fact that these narratives shaped the American narrative, I am reminded that Christians in America ought not run from this founding myth, but hold our country to it. Let us learn lessons from the mistakes of the past: let our voices be heard, that this land of exodus must repent from our sins of conquest, that this city on a hill must restore its light by caring for the poor and the oppressed. Let us repent of our colonialism and our imperialism, of our commitment to an economy that increases the wealth of the wealthy and deepens the poverty of the poor. Let us be a land of Promise, a city shining on a hill.

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