On Columbus Day I posted a PragerU video about Christopher Columbus and the significance of Columbus Day. My son-in-law, Erik, then posted a response that gave a wider view of Columbus, including information written by Columbus in his own journals about some of the things he and his crew engaged in that you and I, today, would be appalled at. I’ve seen these kinds of things before and used to dismiss them because, as a conservative, I’ve looked at flawed men like Columbus and said the standard conservative mantra, “Columbus was a man of his time,” therefore, we shouldn’t judge him by modern standards. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is an excuse.
Do we judge Hitler as a, “Man of his time?” How about Stalin, or Alexander the Great, or Genesis Khan? We can apply this statement to almost any person of history and end up excusing what they did, saying we should not judge historical figures by our modern sensibilities because they were not as culturally advanced as we are. Yet, this argument is as equally flawed as the revisionist history we sometimes read about these figures. Why? For one simple reason.
We judge our historical figures based upon ancient morality, not modern. These are the same values that Columbus and his men were familiar with, as well as many figures through history.
Where do our values come from? As a Christian I must default to the values espoused in scripture. From the 4,000 year old Ten Commandments to Jesus’ teachings from 2,000 years ago, the foundation of our values are ancient, not modern. We judge someone a liar because a 4,000-year old commandment condemns lying. Not because we suddenly discovered a modern reason for condemning lying. And this is true for all of the commandments. Thus, if in fact Columbus enslaved some people, we should not excuse it by saying he was a man of his time. Should we say the same of Washington or Jefferson? These were truly great men who achieved something world-changing in the American experiment. But they were also slave-holders. We shouldn’t diminish their greatness. But nor should we excuse their sin. As Christians we should examine them in the light of scripture, praising what is good and condemning what is evil. And we should also do this about ourselves. For none of us is completely clean in our values, behaviors, and beliefs.
Now, I know as I write this that some will protest and say I’ve bought into revisionist history. I have not. History is history and Columbus wrote it. This does not diminish his great accomplishments, but nor should we dismiss his sins. Great things are achieved by great men who also have great flaws. We should judge rightly both sides of a person’s greatness. God did this with King David. God said of David that, “I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth” (II Samuel 7:9). He called David a man after his own heart (Acts 13:22). Yet, David was also an adulterer and murderer. He was forbidden from building the temple, “Because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth” (I Chronicles 22:8). We admire David for his greatness and heart for God, but we sometimes forget that he had another side to him, one that if he was not praised in scripture we might condemn along with other brutal figures of history.
There is only one figure of history that we cannot condemn because he had no flaws to color his personality or achievements, Jesus Christ. He led no conquering army, bedded no women, shed no blood, nor was any lie found in his mouth (I Peter 2:22). He spoke only the truth about himself and us. He was condemned and took his punishment. He was a true victim of his age, but he never adopted the victim mentality. Thus, Jesus became the one we should emulate. If we wish to be great like Columbus we must excuse his flaws. The same is true with every other figure of history, but not Jesus. If we emulate him we have no need to excuse his flaws or sins because he had none. And he has none today. He is the commandments of God, wrapped in flesh, and so much more.
Columbus was a great man, but he had terrible sins and flaws. We can celebrate his achievements, but let us not overstate them. Jesus was also a great man, the Son of God. We can also celebrate his achievements. And his achievements can never be overstated.
And finally, let’s look at our heroes and so-called heroes with a bit more realism using our ancient values. Because it’s those values that should define who is truly heroic and truly great.