Oh My Gosh! Last week was Columbus Day weekend, and I didn’t say anything about Columbus Day.
By the time you get through the traditional Christian holidays-- Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Palm Sunday, Easter and Pentecost -- and you add in the National Holidays -- Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King;s Birthday, Abraham Lincoln and/or George Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Flag Day, 4th of July and Labor Day, and then throw in Mother and Father’s Day -- you got a lot of the church year blocked out for you. And don’t forget some of the newer days of observation that folks promote: National Coming Out Day, Day of Transgender Remembrance, the Association Sunday, and don’t forget Pledge Sunday. There are people emotionally attached to every one of these.
But do not fear, I will get to Columbus day today, which actually fell on October 12th -- Friday. It is also the National Day of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples. A counter holiday. You have perhaps seen that little poster that says “Let’s Celebrate Columbus Day by going into someone else’s house and saying that we live there now.” I imagine that among some of the First Nation people (to use the Canadian phrase) it is also a day of solidarity against Illegal Immigration.
I am not going to talk about the absolutely disastrous result of the European conquest of the Americas has had on the peoples and nations that were there, here. I am confident that like most educated Americans you know about it. By every contemporary standard of international law, it would illegal today. It was genocidal in effect, and was intended to be so. The effects of it carry onto today. There is nobody now who defends it. It is both indefensible and irreversible. And, of course, since there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it, it is all that much easier to condemn it.
But today, I want to look at Christopher Columbus and the other explorers.
While what they did was a disaster in the Americas, what they did was remarkable in Europe. And for this overview, I am relying on Edwin H. Friedman, a rabbi and a student of systems thinking, especially as it applies beyond families to organizations, congregations, and even nations and civilization.
15th Century Europe (the 1400’s) was monolithically Catholic, recovering from the plague, and stuck. It was the age of cathedrals -- the productive and innovative powers of the continent were directed toward building cathedrals. The cathedrals were magnificent architectural representations of the unchanging cosmic order of the Universe -- they were symbols of the medieval ways of thoughts. There were scientific disputes over the shape of the cosmos, but the old systems of thinking were still in place and dominant.
16th Century Europe (the 1500‘s) saw the Reformation and the Renaissance, Michelangelo and Da Vinci and Copernicus and Galileo and Michael Servetus, one of those we claim among the first Unitarians. It was a time of new art and architecture, new science, new religion, new everything. The old medieval world view was swept away. It is interesting that in the 16th century, no new Cathedrals were begun.
Europe had been imaginatively stuck and could not even absorb and use the new information it was receiving, and suddenly it wasn’t.
Friedman asks us to consider the explorers, including Columbus, as a precipitating factor, in what we would now call a European paradigm shift. The explorers were leaders who took the risks to step outside the conventional thinking of their civilization and proved in practice that the old ways of understanding the world were just wrong.
How does a civilization, a country, a congregation, a family get imaginatively stuck? Friedman argues that it is not a lack of information, nor a lack of ideas, nor a lack of effort. A system looks stuck because it is caught up in the same questions, in circular reasoning, inside the box thinking, unresolvable contradictions. But the problem is not cognitive, its not in the thinking.
A stuck system is, first of all, stuck emotionally. It’s emotionally gridlocked. The people and institutions that make up the system have developed a stasis, a balance, which appears as a set of unchangeable and unquestioned assumptions that cannot be changed. And they are emotionally committed to some element of that stasis which makes it impossible to see outside of it. An emotionally gridlocked system is one which is highly anxious, where everyone is very afraid that something terrible is about to happen
Families get like that; congregations get like that -- especially around all the important issues: worship, money, music, children --
Nations get like that: We are like that. One sign of a stuck emotional system in the United States is that our politics gets so polarized. Our assumptions of the system limit the number of options to a few unacceptable choices. Just for example, and something to think about: the country is stuck on this question of should we tax some people more or should we cut benefits and spending. Either/Or? Meanwhile every candidate for every office from almost every party ends every speech saying that the United States is the Greatest Nation on Earth. That’s the unspoken, unquestioned assumption. And it turns out that means for most people that the United States has the world’s most powerful and expensive military in the world. So our parties argue over funding PBS but do not discuss the level of military might we need.
Again, this is not a problem of thinking: everyone knows that the Pentagon spends a huge amount of money. It’s that there is an emotional system at work here. What we spend at the Pentagon is primarily an emotional issue. It’s all tied up with pride and patriotism, with what we owe our service people and veterans and those who died in war; it’s tied up with our fears of being attacked, our pride at doing good in the world. It’s tied up with the same emotions that have us believe that every service person is a hero and that every time we engage in conflict, they are fighting for our freedoms. And it’s tied with all sorts of lesser emotions -- jobs and economic security. And our resentments and feelings toward other Americans: their wealth or lack of it and on and on.
And all those emotional factors are part of a much larger emotional system that is our politics and culture. Which is emotionally gridlocked, which now takes the form of a paralyzed polarization or a polarized paralysis.
Now, Friedman argues that it takes leaders to unstick a system. And here is the most important point: A leader is not someone who has the best idea, or the most political skills, or is the most popular or is the most eloquent -- a leader is someone who has achieved emotional independence from the emotional system that is in gridlock. That emotional independence shows up often as risk taking, but isn’t the risk taking, it is the lack of anxiety that makes for the leader to emerge.
So Europe feels stuck in the 15th century, and one of the reason that is stuck is that it feels that it cannot get to the Far East, which is wants to do. All kinds of reasons for this sense of encirclement: the repulsion of the Crusades, the Moors in North Africa and South Europe. Part of this has to be religious -- they are the homeland of the one true faith, Christianity and they are surrounded by heathens and infidels. Blah-blah-blah says Christopher Columbus and the Explorers --let’s go the other way. Never work. They said -- let’s just go take a look.
Now, I believe that it one of the callings of Liberal Religion is to create condition for each of us to become leaders -- by becoming emotionally detaching from the anxieties that are gridlocking the emotional systems in our families, in our organizations and in our country and culture. That’s what I call “self-possession” and it is an essential part of liberal religion. It’s thinking for yourself and it’s not being enslaved to the fears and anxieties are in the air and the water. And by becoming detached, we become able to make an imaginative leap into new ways of thinking and being and being together.
To bring this back around to Columbus Day. This is why I am drawn to declaring myself a celebrant of the National Day of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples rather than an observer of Columbus Day.
You see there are a whole series of emotional claims on me that are leading me to identify with Christopher Columbus when he first sets foot on the Western Hemisphere and encounters the people living there. Really, they just come down to the fact that he is the white guy in the picture. He was not representing any country that I come from -- he does not even represent Italy because the Italy we know did not even exist then. He does not represent any religion that I claim -- even his understanding of Catholicism is so different than current Catholicism. He represents the feudal aristocracy, not even emerging capitalism in Europe. He is not me and I am not him, except in this one ay -- he represent whites vs the non-whites. Our identification with him is part of an emotional system of racism, that I think we ought to be leading people away from.
Really there are just as many similarities between me and indigenous people who met Christopher Columbus as there the other way.
They were born on this continent, as was I; as were most of you. They loved this land as their own, as do you and I. They thought the people who walked the land here were more important than the gold that lay beneath the soil, as do I, and I hope you too. They sought to meet the stranger with kindness and hospitality, as I hope I do and as I have seen you do. Their home was here, as is mine, as is yours.
It is not petty, nor superficial, nor silly, nor politically correct to choose to observe this day in solidarity with the people of the First Nations. It is declaring an independence from a whole emotional system of vanities that starts with the delusion that Europeans were bringing Christianity to the natives and goes through the errand into the wilderness and Manifest Destiny to the idea that America is God’s elected nation on Earth and ends with the concern that we, as a people, might be losing faith with the idea of American Exceptionalism. Oh, to see ourselves as others see us.
Yes, one must give credit to Christopher Columbus and the other explorers for making an imaginative leap that broke open the sclerotic 15th century and brought new life and creativity to Europe. But we know that yesterday’s imaginative leap is tomorrows’ orthodoxy which must be overthrown. 500 years is long enough.
So, let us think again, and think anew, and think for ourselves and leap, leap, leap into the unknown future.