From the 2011 ForeWords archive:
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
The second Monday in October (the 10th)  was observed as Columbus Day here in the United States (several other countries in the Americas, along with Spain, also observe it on or near October 12, the date back in 1492 when Columbus first landed on one of the islands in the Caribbean). Back when I was a kid Columbus was still hailed as the intrepid mariner who first brought civilization (well, at least the European version) to the Americas. A lot has changed since then.
Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere have rightly complained about honoring the man who started a long and terrible history of decimating indigenous individuals, tribes, nations, and cultures. More recently attacks on Columbus also included consideration of his moral character. Historians point out his considerable narcissism and self-promotion, the fatal diseases he and his men introduced to natives, and the fact that with his second voyage in 1495 Columbus shipped native people back to Spain as slaves.
A century ago the opposition to honoring Columbus generally centered on anti-immigrant bigotry, fanned by fears of the power of the Italian-American Knights of Columbus. But without getting into that whole “Didn’t the Vikings actually get here first anyway?” argument, a good case can be made that from 1492 on, growing numbers of people in the rest of the world began to look upon the Americas as something of a “land flowing with milk and honey.”
That, of course, was the common description of the Israelites’ so-called Promised Land. After 40 years wandering in the Sinai Desert, Moses finally led the Hebrew tribes to its border. Ironically, Moses was not allowed to enter with the rest:
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended. –Deuteronomy 34:1-8 NRSV
History is filled with unfairness and paradox. Moses, the “servant of the Lord,” was arguably the most worthy of all the Hebrews to make it to the Promised Land but was barred from entering. Columbus was just as arguably among the least worthy to be remembered and honored for five centuries as the great bringer of civilization to the New World. Moses undoubtedly loved God. Columbus, it’s fairly safe to assume, loved himself most of all but was politically savvy enough to proclaim his actions on behalf of the Spanish King and the Catholic Church. Moses never sought power, prestige, or wealth. Columbus loved all three.
That word “love” certainly gets tossed around a lot. There’s nothing new about that. The Greeks had four different words to describe its various meanings. For Christians, of course, the most important was agape, which in essence refers to a brotherly/sisterly care and concern. Love in biblical times did not mean simply an emotion; rather, it was a conscious act. That’s what Jesus was getting at in his encounter with Sadducees and Pharisees as recorded in the 22nd chapter of Matthew. Once again, his enemies were trying to trip him up but were unsuccessful:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He [Jesus] said to him, ” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” –Matthew 22:36-40 NRSV
While this is not exactly a Cliffs Notes version of the law and prophets, it can be said that religion begins and ends with the simple yet profound command to love God and love your fellow human beings. Maybe because it appears so simple, we so easily lose sight of it.
Recent news reports from somewhere in the scientific community predict that the earth’s current population will pass the 7 billion mark by the end of October. I have no idea how that is computed but I also have no reason to doubt its reasonableness. (On the other hand, today–October 21–was once more supposed to be “Rapture Day,” so says that nutcase fundamentalist preacher who previously predicted May. Hasn’t happened yet, but the day isn’t quite over here in the Central Time Zone.)
Anyway, how is it at all possible to “love” all 7 billion inhabitants on this planet? In a “macro sense,” of course, nobody can. But we can still start small and expand the borders of our love for this planet and its population. Our actions, however small and seemingly insignificant, do matter–and they add up. Theologians have often referred to this passage from Matthew as a horizontal/vertical command: It’s impossible to love God without considering humankind. True religion is not simply a personal, private, individual matter. It requires some sense of community.