O Brave New World: Our Ambiguous Heroes

October 10, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

READING from A People' s History of the United States Howard Zinn

The first chapter of Howard Zinn' s book is called "Columbus, The Indians and Human Progress." It' s a painful read, describing Columbus' s arrival to the Bahamas and his first thought about the remarkably friendly natives there, which was, "These people would make fine servants." He took some of them prisoner to force them to show him where the gold was, and then sailed to Hispaniola (the island which is Haiti and the Dominican Republic today), where he commented of the Indians there that they "are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it." Thus began Columbus' many expeditions for gold, enslavement of native Haitians, and the murder and torture of those who did not work hard enough in the gold mines. Zinn tells us that, "In two years, through murder, mutilation or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead." (p. 4)

And here begins the reading:

"Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning… is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure – there is no bloodshed – and Columbus Day is a celebration.
Past the elementary and high schools, there are only occasional hints of something else. Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multi-volume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced Columbus' s route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: ‘The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.'

That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. In the book' s last paragraph, Morison sums up his view of Columbus:

‘He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great – his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty, and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities – his seamanship.'

One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.

But he does something else – he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it' s not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should very little what we do in the world.

… To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves – unwittingly – to justify what was done.

My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress … that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth." (p. 8-9, abridged)


We have just dedicated a beautiful little girl to our faith tradition, blessed her and welcomed her into our covenant. What a joy there is in that: there is always something so magical about that rite of passage, and it never fails to bring out the tenderest spirit of this congregation, it is such an affirmation of hope amid any ugliness in the world outside these walls. I think of little Fiona Jane Williams and the adventures she shall have and I remember Shakespeare' s lovely line from "The Tempest," spoken by the sorcerer Prospero' s young and innocent daughter Miranda,

"O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!" (Act V, Scene I)

It is a brave new world when you' re one year old and all dressed up for your dedication day, with proud parents, family members and your pretty big sister close by loving you. It' s a brave new world and you have no idea yet how badly it' s going to need you to help fix its broken parts, and you have no idea how much help you' re going to need from friends and allies in the here and now, and how much you' re going to depend on the wisdom of those who went before to find answers and meaning as you pick your own way across the rocky path of life.

O Brave New World it is also, when you are a bold explorer named Christopher Columbus, with a head full of visions of gold and an ego full of certainty that whatever you find is yours for the taking as soon as you set your foot on any foreign shore. O brave new world when you actually believe that God has given you the go-ahead to convert anyone you meet at the edge of a sword, to consider them savages, and to enslave and execute them rather than to cooperate with or strive to understand them. O brave new world, when you first observe the kind, gentle and egalitarian nature of native peoples of the land you will later claim to have "discovered," and your first comment about them is, "These people would make good slaves."

O brave new world that has such people in it. The poet Mary Oliver tells us in one of her most wonderful and evocative lines, "whoever you are… the world offers itself to your imagination." For some, that invitation comes with a sense of awe and responsibility, a feeling that one should step carefully and reverently so as not to commit any damage. For others, that invitation comes with a sense of total permission, entitlement, as if one is the only active force and the rest of creation passively waiting to be acted upon. It occurs to me that it is often the latter personality who accomplishes historical innovations with such flaming brilliance as to earn itself a place in our pantheon of heroes.

So it is that we can sit here contemplating what Christopher Columbus did to the American Indians he encountered on his expeditions, and we can shudder, while recognizing that progress itself is, in fact, dependent on the spirit of enterprise and adventure possessed by men like him. How we remember such men and women, how we celebrate their accomplishments, how we condemn their destructiveness and how we teach their role in history to our children are all difficult ethical questions.

It seems there was a time when heroes were easy to find, and plentiful. You must have had lots of them early on, didn' t you? I did. I had Florence Nightingale and John Adams and Lena Horne and Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King. Every year of my youth it seemed I was able to add admirable men and women to my stable of heroes: Madame Curie, Shakespeare, William Wordsworth. It wasn' t merely that they changed history, they had many evident personal qualities worth emulating. Then sometime in my college years I found out that Martin Luther King had been an adulterer. And later I learned unsavory details about other of my heroes' lives. Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings. John Adams' harsh treatment of his son, John Quincy. Mother Theresa' s misguided notion of the spiritual purity of poverty, and the sense of her own sainthood that led her to channel funds away from the poorest of the poor.

But this disillusionment wasn' t just a personal experience. I realized, as my own eyes were opening, that finding the clay feet on idols was a national pastime, or seemed to be. Some of that was a result of Watergate, when many people' s notions of trust and admiration for public figures were so sadly shattered. The prolonged Vietnam crisis, of course, was a big contributor to the culture of suspicion that took hold in America and that exists to this day. But on an even broader scale, the toppling of heroes off their pedestals has been a result of a philosophical orientation called post-modernism, and we are most definitely living in a post-modern era.

It is important that we understand post-modernism not only because it helps us better grasp the prevalent intellectual orientation of our times, but because Unitarian Universalism is very much a post-modernist religious movement. So let me give you a definition of post-modernism, and I apologize to anyone who already knows this. Post-modernism supposes that the very nature of truth itself is ambiguous and complex. "There is an appreciation of the plasticity and constant change of reality and knowledge, a stress on the priority of concrete experience over fixed abstract principles, and a conviction that no single … thought system should govern belief or investigation." (Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 394) The post-modernist approach says, "hey, anything you claim to know is influenced by your particular culture, gender, physical health, status in the world, and subjective experience," so assumptions have to be questioned, and all those truths we previously believed were "self-evident" might not be so evident to everyone, and therefore cannot be regarded as eternal truths at all.

For our reflection this morning, living in a post-modern era means one thing above all: it means that when we look at history, and when we assess the actions of so-called heroic men and women within history, we are called to consider the perspective of those whose voices are traditionally unheard or ignored.

According to this commitment, we are called to recognize that history is indeed written by the winners, and that in the process of conquering, ruling, and controlling, victorious men and women necessarily squelched or distorted the experience of the human beings they conquered, ruled, controlled as they told the story of the unfolding of human history. This means that the nature of reality itself has been cast according to the prejudices and proclivities of the privileged classes throughout history. We have only just begun to deal with the consequences of this legacy of exclusion and denial.

Therefore, to be ethical in our quest to find authentic heroes and truly admirable role models, we have to consider the entire scope of their influence, even if we are tempted to close our eyes and plug our ears when we hear of a part of their lives where they oppressed, harmed or exploited others, or even one other. It does not mean that we cannot continue to love those personalities from the past (or the present) whose charisma, achievements and blazing talent bring a worshipful feeling to our breast. It does mean, however, that we should consider the perspective of others who may have suffered from their leadership, vision or accomplishment. We can temper our worshipful feelings with a good dose of appreciation for the complex stories behind those who have most influenced history.

As Howard Zinn points out, it is one thing for Columbus' s biographer, Samuel Eliot Morison, to decide that he admires Christopher Columbus' s talents as a seafarer and to hold him in high regard for his gumption in getting financing for his expeditions and in achieving his goals. It is another matter entirely to claim that his sociopathic treatment of Indians is a small matter, or a secondary matter, to his overall excellence and admirability.

I' m afraid that the age-old project of collecting heroes for one' s personal pantheon of The Admirable is going to be harder for Miss Fiona Jane Williams than it was for you or me. So how do we read history, how do we take a more truly wise and fair look at those we have vaunted as heroes and still leave enough polish on the world so that it still feels like a beautiful place, and worth our best endeavor?

We can start by cultivating an affectionate appreciation that all human beings are complex and their motives are probably impossible to fully understand, and to come to peace with the reality that it' s really actually true -- no one is perfect and neither will our heroes be. We can also remember that we are a people who do not worship external objects or persons easily. It is not part of the Unitarian Universalist tradition to teach a person what or whom to worship, but rather to approach the world and its citizens with compassion, understanding and reverence. This is helpful, I hope. With this orientation, we need not be bitter when we realize that the world offers precious few untarnished heroes for our esteem.

And here' s one other idea, and it is where I will conclude. Perhaps we have been too enamored of the big personality, the conquering victor, the charismatic achiever of enormous endeavors for our own moral good. If we shifted our vision away from that model of hero and looked in the quieter corners of the world where accomplishments are less monumental and more characterized by beauty than by grandeur; more by cooperation than by conquest, we might shake open a whole new storehouse of potential heroes and learn to leave the clearly unworthy ones behind. If we are willing to reconsider our expectations of what a hero looks like, sounds like and does, we might better distinguish between those who made a lasting impression on history and those who truly deserve the designation of "hero." They are obviously not one and the same.

This Monday, named for a very ambiguous hero whose face is familiar to many of you, I invite you not to reflect overly on that familiar image of a man in a fur stole and fancy hat, wearing a heavy gold medallion around his neck, financed in his expeditions by a king and queen who were notoriously cruel religious fanatics. Rather I hope you will meditate for a time on the vision of thousands and thousands of brown-skinned men, women and children who walked these lands long before the arrival of any Europeans, who had no idea whatsoever of the devastation that awaited them with the arrival of the explorers and later colonists, and whose way of life, point of view and cherished truths we have almost entirely lost. We know from experience what inspiration we may obtain from the usual heroes. But what inspiration, what illumination may we receive from those whose stories we have never heard, whose private thoughts we have never been privileged to know, and whose great suffering might bring us into a deeper kinship, profound understanding and a more active, engaged solidarity with more of humankind?

I leave you with this poem by Stephen Spender. I invite you to hear it with new ears, with a new sense of the definition of "heroic:"

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul' s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass,
And by the streamers of white cloud,
And whispers of wind in the listening sky;
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire' s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards
the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.