This weekend I heard a creative and challenging sermon linking our celebration of Columbus Day to the Biblical story of the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. Our preacher acknowledged the human impulse to create a tangible symbol of connection to the God we love. With Moses up on the mountain and God seemingly silent, a people adrift in a strange land needed an anchor for their devotion. This embodied imagination is the source of great religious art, but paradoxically, it can also create hindrances to knowing God. We mistake our concepts for the real God, who actually exceeds our comprehension. God became angry with the Israelites because He was trying to move them forward from concrete and magical thinking, toward openness to His infinite mystery.
The stories that we tell about ourselves as a people, said our preacher, can become an idol as well. Like the golden calf, the celebration of Columbus’s “discovery of America” helped unify and reassure a nation of displaced immigrants seeking a new common identity. But like the calf, this story is limited and distorts reality, erasing the genocide of Native Americans and implicitly judging their nomadic occupation of the land as less than its highest and best use.
I’m not content to leave this analysis with an easy moral, as both admirers and detractors of Columbus are wont to do. Had the Europeans not arrived at (discovered, colonized, civilized, exploited) the continent we call North America, later generations might not have had a refuge to survive other genocidal situations. These include my own Jewish ancestors, who fled from pogroms and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Some historians include the Irish Potato Famine as an example of genocide, citing British prejudices as a cause of the government’s inadequate response. Many Irish emigrated to America because of that disaster.
Secular, commercialized holidays simply can’t capture the tragic complexity of cross-cultural encounters in a world of scarce resources. The Bible does it better. It includes stories where the Israelites are persecuted, stories where they are rewarded for their faith, stories where they become the oppressors of the poor and the alien, and stories where they just screw up. If we read any one of these stories without the others, it becomes an idol too. Just look at the Middle East today. I believe the Jews needed a homeland after the Holocaust, and I also believe they are oppressing the Palestinians today. We like stories with heroes and villains, but maybe we should ask what it would mean for God to triumph, rather than our side.