Page 5, 9th October 1992

9th October 1992
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Page 5, 9th October 1992 — A discovery that ushered in the age of empires and oppression
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A discovery that ushered in the age of empires and oppression

Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston argues that the Columbus anniversary marks a landmark in the exploitation of peoples CANCEL the debt, share your technology and stop the demand for cocaine. These are the words of Bishop Dammert, president of the Conference of Peruvian Bishops. They are addressed to all those in Europe and the Ameticas preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World.

For most Europeans, 1992 will mark the Single European Act, or, in more humdrum terms, the completion of the internal market and therefore the final birth pang of the European Economic Community. Those living on the other side of the Atlantic are more likely to remember Columbus, whose 'discovery' will be commemorated by visits to the Dominican Republic by the Pope and the King of Spain. The two events are not unconnected, but it is mainly of the second that I wish to speak here.

We need to be clear about what we are really celebrating. Together with other individuals and organisations, I have signed a declaration, published in the British Press, entitled /992: What Cause for Celebration? It says: 'On October 12 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. For centuries, the

inhabitants of that continent have been taught that this so-called discovery brought them civilisation. Christianity, and progress. Columbus's arrival marks the beginning of European expansion and the age of empires. For the peoples of the Americas and the Caribbean, it represents genocide and suffering; for the peoples of Africa, the beginning of the slave trade. The suffering caused by the invasion of the Americas continues today in different forms; through the payment of the external debt, the violation of human rights, the destruction of the environment and the ill treatment of refugees and immigrants from the countries of the South.'

This is not intended to be an anti-USA statement. There is a statue of Columbus in Liverpool with the following inscription: 'The Discovery of the Americas was the Maker of Liverpool.' It is, however, meant to remind us of two closely linked facts. First, the arrival of Columbus in the Americas set in motion the pillage of a continent together with the subjection and mass extermination of its inhabitants. It is estimated that, in the first 100 years alone, 90 million people died. Of the 22 million Aztecs in Mexico when Hernando Cortez arrived there in 1519, there were only a million left in 1600 perhaps the biggest genocide in human history. Nor was the genocide confined to one continent. The Atlantic slave trade pulled Africa into a triangular system of plunder on which the wealth first of Europe and then of North America was built. Over a period of four centuries, nearly 12 million slaves were deported from Africa to the Americas. At all events, to these figures have to be added those who died during the wars of captivity and the crossing itself. Africa too was devastated.

The second fact is perhaps less palatable, less widely recognised. The excesses of history, however deplorable, belong to a past that cannot be reversed. But the process of conquest and exploitation continues today. Two thirds of the population of Latin America, the majority indigenous, mestizo and African-American, live in conditions of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, disease, persecution and discrimination. The resources of the continent are still being plundered both directly and through crippling debt repayments that sustain the transfer of wealth from South to, North and constitute the new tribute that countries kept in a state of under development have to pay to their old and new masters.

ANY celebration of Columbus that ignores either of these two facts will be at the least cynical and at the worst, yet another act of aggression against peoples who have already suffered too much for too long. What needs to be celebrated is rather the continuing resistance of millions of ordinary men and women who, through the centuries, have managed to keep alive their identity and their hope of freedom.

Those of us in the wealthy countries can be part of such a celebration only if we are prepared to hear their cry and join their legitimate struggle for justice. As Christians we must reject a world in which 1.2 billion people are unable to afford the basic necessities of life, while the rich countries, with 35 percent of the world's population, consume 80 per cent of the world's resources; in which the gap between rich and poor is continually growing; in which one in six families is poorer today than a decade ago; in which one in four children goes to bed hungry. A legitimate celebration of Columbus would call for the cancellation of the Third World debt, the defence of basic human rights, the protection of immigrants and refugees, the proper use of natural resources and the environment, and for closing the scandalous gap that exists between those who have and those who have not.

WHERE is the Church in all this? Many of the early missionaries made strong stands for the rights of indigenous peoples and suffered in their cause, though few extended their concerns to the black slaves arriving from Africa. Many showed sensitivity toward the poor, but proved implacably ethnocentric when confronted with cultural differences.

But, as time went on, the Church itself became powerful and wealthy, seeking patronage from and giving legitimacy to the systems. With notable exceptions, it gradually aligned itself with the landowners and the military, the other two pillars of the establishment. There is some truth in the old complaint: When the missionaries first came, they had the Bible and we had the land; now they have the land and we have the Bible'.

Inspired by Vatican II and no longer able to ignore the deafening cry of the poor, the Latin American bishops, first at Medellin and then at Puebla, made a bold attempt to reverse the situation. They apologised for their past failure to identify with the oppressed, recognised the existence of structural injustice, which they called 'institution-alised violence', voiced a preferential option for the poor, and committed themselves to the struggle for liberation.

Their words, and the example of some, have inspired basic Christian communities, human rights movements and a theology that starts from where the majority of the people are: a situation of poverty and oppression.

This month also witnesses the fourth meeting of Latin American bishops which starts in Santo Domingo immediately after the Columbus celebrations. It is essential, not only for the Latin American Church but for Christianity as a whole, that there be no retreat from Medellin and Puebla, no watering down the commitment to work for a more just society in solidarity with the poor. More than ever befol.e, millions are looking for this commitment to be renewed in the face of retrograde governments and conservative forces within and without the Church trying to turn hack the clock.

Representatives of these forces were responsible for killing the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador, together with tens of thousands of other ordinary Christians throughout the continent. If we wish to honour their memory, to celebrate Columbus in a meaningful way, to preach and live the truth of the Gospel in contemporary society, we have no option but to take our stand alongside these new martyrs for faith and justice and to champion the causes for which they died. As we enter the decade of Evangelisation that will lead us into a new century, this should be

the agenda for all Christians in 1992, not only in Latin America and Africa hut also in North America and Europe.

Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston Si is provincial of the Jesuits in Britain. He was formerly regional co-ordinator of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Central America.




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