by Robert More
Pax Christi Metro DC-Baltimore
“Our national DNA clearly includes racism,” Joseph Nangle, OFM, observed in his June 4 column for Pax Christi USA. “The celebrated foundational document of our country, the Declaration of Independence, was steeped in racism.” But while our nation traces its birth to that 1776 document, the racist strain in its DNA predates the Declaration by centuries.
In recent days, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous protesters have recognized that history in attacking statues of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul, Richmond, and Boston. Columbus is our continent’s first racist, and an exceptionally brutal one at that.
Writer Bayard Johnson recounts the disturbing history of Columbus’s interactions with the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands he visited:
At every landfall, the Indians either greeted Columbus with friendship or fled into the jungle. The Spanish were never attacked or treated with hostility. In his journal, Columbus describes the Indians as “generous to a fault.” He repaid this hospitality by demanding gold and taking slaves.
In A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn describes how Columbus had his men round up 1,500 Arawak men, women, and children, then picked the 500 “best specimens” and took them to Spain to sell as slaves. Two hundred died en route.
When he returned to Haiti with more ships and men, Columbus ordered all persons 14 years of age or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. Those who failed had their hands cut off and bled to death. “The Indians had been given an impossible task,” Zinn writes. “The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and killed.” (A People’s History of the United States, p. 4.)
“Things got so bad,” Johnson says, “that Indians began committing suicide en masse.” As Indians died off from disease, malnutrition, overwork, murder, and suicide, Columbus needed a new source of labor. He “solved the problem by creating the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, importing slaves from Africa. Columbus was not only the first but also possibly the largest Trans-Atlantic slave-trader in history, bringing in over 5,000 Africans to work gold mines and plantations.” Johnson continues,
Many Columbus apologists try to excuse his crimes by saying he was a product of his times, that his values and ethics were no different from anyone else’s. This is nonsense. Several of his own contemporaries condemned his actions at the time, disgusted by his cruelty. The Spanish Crown, during some of the darkest days of the Inquisition, was so repelled by Columbus’ actions in the New World that they publicly condemned his brutality toward Indians. . . .
Another Spaniard, Bartolomé de Las Casas, came to America as a conquistador, but was so appalled by the treatment of Indians that he became a priest and lifelong advocate for Indian people. Las Casas wrote, “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.”
Given Columbus’s shocking record of racist violence, isn’t it long past time for the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization, the Knights of Columbus, to change its name? Surely many of its members would agree if they thought about the kind of person their order so honors.
While it’s at it, the organization should change the first part of its name as well. By including “Knights” in its name (and having its Fourth Degree members carry actual swords), the organization associates itself with the warrior class of medieval Europe, also known for brutality.
According to historian Richard Kaeuper, the defining characteristic of the medieval knight is violence—“sword-swinging, limb-chopping, blood-soaked carnage . . . ‘prowess,’ as it was called. . . .” Knights fought constantly against each other and used their military superiority to brutalize other segments of the population, to such an extent that “noble violence becomes the major social problem during the High Middle Ages,” according to historian Philip Daileader.
The Church initially tried to deal with the problem through the Peace and Truce of God movement, but these efforts met with limited success. Some clerics then turned to the writing of literature to reshape the warrior aristocracy. As Daileader explains,
The fables of the heroic chivalric Knights are just that, fables. The modern notion of a Knight in shining armor, who fights evil, defends the weak, and rescues maidens, is not historically factual nor is it based on any actual events. Quite contrary, the chivalric stories were in fact just another attempt at tackling the very real problem of noble violence. …
The chivalric romances tried to get Knights to internalize the chivalric code and, thereby, restrain their propensity to engage in constant violence and theft.
Constant violence and theft are obviously not gospel values. Jesus “was always a man of peace . . . totally without violence,” as Pope Benedict XVI has said. By word and example, Jesus taught a way of nonviolent love of both neighbors and enemies (e.g., Matthew 5:9, 21-24, 38-45, 22:39, 26:51-52). His gospel is peace (John 14:27; Ephesians 2:14-18, 6:15). The medieval knighthood is, therefore, the antithesis of gospel discipleship.
Recent criticism of the Knights of Columbus has focused on its hosting President Trump at the St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington, and a petition has been sent to the Knights’ Supreme Chaplain, Archbishop William Lori, calling on the organization to acknowledge its racist past, including its reported exclusion of African Americans during the Jim Crow era.
Earlier in the 20th century, however, “the order established . . . the Knights of Columbus Historical Commission which combated racism,” and it published the works “of the broad array of intellectuals,” including W. E. B. DuBois. The organization should reclaim this older, anti-racist side of its history by now choosing a more appropriate name.
No doubt the Knights of Columbus has a strong investment in its current name. But given the atrocious historical reality of both knights and Columbus, that name stands as a stark counter-witness to the gospel. Other successful businesses and organizations have changed their names and logos without giving up their core mission and activities, and the Knights of Columbus should do the same.