“Scrubbing” Our History

The recent disgraceful treatment of St. Junipero Serra’s memory reminds me of the main character in George Orwell’s prescient classic 1984 who worked in the Ministry of Truth. His particular job in that ministry was the constant revision of history to fit the official party line at any particular moment. The past was to be constantly readjusted so that it would always jive with the present political narrative. Welcome to our current Orwellian sequel, 2020. Today’s version of the Ministry of Truth goes by various names: Black Studies, Women’s Studies, or Native American Studies. These “truth ministries” are now a part of every major university. There, history is constantly being rewritten to fit a narrow, “victim – oppressor” narrative. Classroom study is further supplemented by disruptive activism (or virtual lab sessions) which includes pulling down or defacing monuments to any supposed “oppressor” from the past.

Fr. Serra, the great Franciscan missionary who founded nine missions up and down coastal California during the late 18th century, has been vilified and had statues vandalized and toppled amidst accusations of genocide and racism leveled against him. But the facts do not bear such charges out. Nearly 5,000 Christian Indian converts lived in relative security on mission lands because Fr. Serra fought diligently to protect them, not only from tribal enemies but also from Spanish civil authorities and colonists who, too often, cheated and brutalized the natives. Serra’s first sin, according to the identity politics view of history, was being a white European male who brought his Catholic faith to the indigenous peoples of California. He is charged with Christianizing pagan Indians, and for that grevious misdeed he will not be forgiven by modern day academics harboring deep hostility towards Christianity.

Today the “scrubbing” of our history has blossomed into a full fledged industry in the halls of academia. This novel preferred version of past events assiduously ignores such important factors as social, political, and cultural context; it sidesteps any discussion of beneficial cultural exchanges that might have transpired in between rapacious episodes of “imperialistic exploitation (the horse, wheeled carts, and beef cows all come to mind). The revisionists must also turn a blind eye to any significant provocations or atrocities committed by the so-called victim class. These include but are hardly limited to brutal torture, treacherous ambush, child sacrifice, and even ritual cannibalism, things which are justified as necessary to defend one’s turf against hostile invaders. But for the revisionists it would seem that only outrages committed by fair skinned persons (and these were substantial) are worthy to be included in the revised historical canon.

Still, history shows that Fr. Serra struggled valiantly to protect his converts from such abuses, and that they respected him for that unflagging support. They understood that without this Franciscan intermediary their lot at the hands of the civil governors would have become an unbearable one. Living and working on the mission lands afforded them a level of prosperity as well as protection they would otherwise not have enjoyed. Nor was this just another form of slavery, rather it was something much more akin to the feudal system of labor. Again, his detractors complain today that Fr. Serra permitted corporal punishment at his missions. Perhaps, but was that any different from the kind of corporal punishment we commonly find in military service? Consider that at this very same time George Washington had men executed for desertion or sedition. Serra, on the other hand, found capital punishment revolting and opposed it vigorously. The record shows that the person who received the harshest treatment at the hands of Fr. Serra was Junipero Serra, who not only flogged himself as penance but for years endured excruciating pain from walking on an infected leg.

A history that looks exclusively for the warts on historical figures while downplaying those same figures’ contributions is worse than feeble. It is a duplicitous attempt to demonize and smear the reputations of those persons for cheap political gain. The promoters of racial identity politics who incite ignorant radicals to topple monuments are suffering from acute self-righteousness. They exploit their tenured status at large universities to squelch any honest historical debate even as they indulge in their own brand of intellectual bullying and character assassination. They cherry pick minute historical anecdotes and warmed over allegations which are then offered as fully fleshed out mosaics of their posthumous human targets. Worst of all, they unapologetically hold historical persons, dating centuries back, accountable to the social and political standards of today. After all, folks in the 18th century should have realized that branding, whipping, mutilations, even capital punishment would become unacceptable modes of punishment three centuries later (unless you are Islamic in which case slavery, mutilations, decapitation, and stoning, etc. are still okay).

Deconstructionist history is unfortunately running amok in most of our universities. Its bald faced attack on the truth is producing a class of historical illiterates whose only response is to smash things they don’t understand. I suppose that those same “woke” activists think all we need is a time machine to roll back the pages of history so that a more “enlightened” class of people (such as themselves) could do it all over again, though undoubtedly better. It seems not to have occurred to these illuminated iconoclasts and their academic mentors that if those white European colonizers had all stayed at home, the paid internships and fat cushy positions and salaries they now enjoy for berating figures from the past would simply not exist. After all, Native Americans had been warring with and annihilating each other for centuries before Europeans arrived. They didn’t even have horses or guns with which to hunt the buffalo. Perhaps a return to the former stone age culture would satisfy a few in the howling academic mob, assuming they survived such conditions for very long, though I doubt it.

The moral hypocrisy of today’s professorial social activists becomes more obvious when placed in the light of the global abortion pandemic that these same tenured virtuecrats so militantly support as “woman’s rights.” But beneath all the accusations and hysterical rhetoric there lies a deep resentment of the fact that it was Christianity that changed the face of civilization, and later civilized those peoples who were for so long subjected to short, primitive, and often brutal lives. It was not a smooth process or without its own shameful episodes, but the overall trajectory has been an upward one for over 500 years now. The proof is that a land that once supported perhaps half a million persons at best has become a nation now supporting 330 million, a 600 fold increase! That great leap forward didn’t occur because a few Pueblo Indians developed better pottery techniques. So let’s give credit where credit is due, frankly, honestly and without whitewashing the facts.

The fact that it was a Catholic priest who brought not only the Gospel but a new era of prosperity to the people of California sticks mightily in the craw of today’s secular neo-pagans. Yet California would be unrecognizable from what it is today without the substantial, even heroic, contributions made by St. Junipero Serra and his devoted Franciscan brothers. It was he who first established the California wine industry, for example. Instead of being made a symbol of shame this great missionary father deserves undying recognition and gratitude. The real shame belongs to those institutions, such as Stanford University, who are now attempting to scrub Junipero Serra from historical memory. And perhaps they had better start thinking about changing their own name when it comes to light that Leland Stanford himself was quite a scalawag. Old Chinese proverb says that those who live by the sword will eventually fall upon it.

Francis J. Pierson + a.m.d.g.

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