Columbus Day is always fraught with the pain of remembering that encounters between Europeans and the native peoples of this hemisphere have included profound injustices. In 2017, confronting these tensions is as important as ever.
A sermon for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring
The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister
Over the years I have grown increasingly concerned by the apprehension that a great deal of public life is driven by fantasy. It’s not that I ever believed that every policy decision, every law and every organization has been motivated primarily by shrewd and rational thinking; it would be naïve to fail to recognize that we’re all fallible beings and that any human enterprise is likely to be prompted as much (if not more) by passion or fear or unconscious impulses as by reason. But I fear I have had a habit — perhaps a commonplace one — of too easily assuming that people’s actions tend to make sense. Sometimes we make sense, but it’s dangerous for us to ignore, disregard or minimize our capacity for self-deception and denial. We do not always even know ourselves fully; what else are we likely to do but deceive ourselves from time to time? And when we deceive ourselves, any explanation we may offer for our behavior or our choices is likely to be essentially dishonest. I think that an inescapable truth of human life is that we do a great many things that we do because they somehow satisfy a sense of fantasy.
Once again we find ourselves face to face with another incomprehensibly ghastly gun massacre here in these United States. The familiarity of the rituals of public grief does not seem to make the experience any less agonizing. I really have no words of comfort. What I would add to our reflections on this horror is a question: how much of our national conversation about guns is driven by fantasies? One fantasy is the so-called “good guy with a gun” scenario. It would be incorrect to state that no person bearing a firearm ever prevented a crime — there are documented instances of such events. Whether or not the quantity of such occurrences justifies the availability of deadly weapons is another matter. Many observers have pointed out that even if any in the crowd in Las Vegas had been armed (and perhaps some were), of course they were still defenseless against a shooter firing from a nearby tall building. We could cite numerous other instances of the ineffectuality of being armed, though I doubt they would be especially helpful in promoting meaningful change. We have all the data we need on this issue; what we don’t have is a way of converting people’s hearts, and I fear that we don’t have that because we don’t want to talk about how much people cherish their fantasies. There are opponents of gun control who fear that restrictions on firearms will leave the citizenry defenseless in the face of government oppression, which would of course justify the purchase of fighter jets and tanks and nukes by civilians, an argument that no one makes. It’s a fantasy: a tyrannical government will fail in its efforts to oppress, thanks to the vigilant and death-defying might of armed civilians. These are fantasies not only of autonomy but of heroism, of defeating bullies, of vanquishing evil and taking a stand, even under life-threatening circumstances, for noble and cherished ideals. But they are still fantasies. I am not going to critique anybody’s fantasies from the pulpit of a church; individuals’ private thoughts are just that — private. But I think the conversation would be a lot more honest if we could somehow find a way of acknowledging the role of fantasy in this and in so many other aspects of public life.
And fantasy does play a significant role in public life. An event this weekend is, among other things, an annual nod to fantasy: Christopher Columbus and the national holiday that bears his name, when we are invited to fantasize about Columbus as an intrepid adventurer who dared to challenge the prevailing ignorance of his society and to boldly go where no European had gone before. Of course, the Vikings settled in Newfoundland half a millennium before Columbus; by the end of the fifteenth century, everyone knew the earth was round — indeed, Columbus persuaded the Spanish crown to finance his voyages based on his miscalculation about the circumference of the globe, which Columbus believed to be about half the size it actually is. But an even more outrageous and dangerous fantasy paints Columbus as a hero and not as the genocidal invader that he was. The government of Ferdinand and Isabella was not seeking to explore the earth for the sake of advancing human knowledge; they were pursuing riches and land and power. Columbus and the conquistadors that came after him were the willing agents of that remorseless imperialism, and other European powers then hastened beyond their corner of the world in fierce competition with one another, with terrible consequences for the peoples of every other continent on the earth. The idea of the Age of Exploration as a time of heroic journeys undertaken with indefatigable derring-do by courageous pioneers is a fantasy. It is not completely without reality, as is the case with most fantasies, but like many fantasies, it ignores complex and painful realities.
Another element to these dangerous fantasies about Columbus promotes the idea, not often spoken aloud yet undoubtedly embraced by some, that he and other Europeans who made those voyages were somehow the rightful heirs and claimants to this hemisphere. We see this in public policy debates in this country today, and we cannot escape the role that fantasy plays in some of the most conspicuous elements of the national conversation. Donald Trump’s wall of stupidity that he says he wants to build on the US-Mexico border is one of the more outrageous and preposterous fantasies in memory — but aside from its sheer ludicrousness, the fantasy is also grounded in this notion of who somehow deserves to live here and who doesn’t. Not a lot of people want to talk about how this animosity towards Mexicans and peoples from Central America is, in no small part, a hatred of First Nations peoples, the latest chapter in a long, disgraceful and cruel story of the Americas. I do not know percentages, but it is a fact that huge numbers of persons who live south of the Rio Grande have a Native American heritage. Our racist president and his racist “base” are not embracing this truly idiotic notion that a wall costing tens of billions of dollars (I suspect a more accurate figure would be hundreds of billions) because these are well-thought-out solutions to difficult issues. Aside from the obviously fantastical notion that Mexico might ever be persuaded to pay for the monstrosity, there is perhaps also a fantasy that genuinely frightening and dangerous people, such as MS-13 gang members, in their efforts to get into the United States, would simply shrug their shoulders in defeat if they were to encounter a wall at the border. (The fact that a fantasy is absurd doesn’t mean that no one fantasizes about it.) Of course, a more rational analysis would at least ask intelligent questions about border security and would approach the very complex issue of immigration with nuance and humanity and the recognition that human beings migrate, and that building walls and enacting punitive laws do not represent constructive solutions — not that they are intended to, of course. The purpose of the wall, or of the kinds of brutal measures enacted by the likes of Sherriff Joe Arpaio is not to make any of us safer or to make life in this country better. The purpose of those cruel and stupid measures is to cater to a world of fantasy. Since I don’t share in those fantasies, I can’t say for certain what they are. It appears that they include fantasies that people of European origin are somehow more deserving of being here than anyone else. Columbus Day, it seems to me, is (among many other things) an annual celebration of this fantasy. I, for one, choose not to regard that fantasy with a celebratory spirit.
Every problem that humanity has ever solved has begun with a voyage of the imagination. The question for us is what kinds of moral and spiritual voyages we might set out upon in an effort to make our world more livable. Not all fantasizing is harmful, and the line between idle fantasy and ingenious creativity is probably fuzzier than any of us would like it to be. If people engage in flights of fancy about power and domination, we ought to consider what it would take to discourage inane fantasies like that and to instead cherish and promote genuine imagination. Every movement for constructive change began when someone or some group dared to imagine that things could be different. Problems are solved when we find a way to make insipid fantasies less compelling than voyages of discovery that are grounded both in a sense of adventurous challenge of the status quo and a willingness to recognize and address real obstacles instead of trying to fantasize them out of existence. It’s an idle fantasy to imagine that racism and violence will someday just disappear on their own. It is the work of holy imagination to dare to envision a world in which racism will yield to unity and respect, and to envision an America in which gun massacres are a thing of the past. None of us has decisively answered the question as to how we create such a world. The first and most important step is for us to find the courage and the determination to make the voyages of the soul that dare to imagine what can be.