One of the most poignant insights in the study of history to emerge in our generation is the simple truth that history is written by the powerful. Much of the narrative of history as we knew it until 20th Century was as it had been depicted by the most successful empires and colonizers history had known. This is why, for example, Christopher Columbus had been hailed as a hero of Western progress, until only recently he has instead come to be reviled as a villain and an oppressor of human rights. He was on the winning side of history for a while, and that has changed.
The history of the common pirate inhabits that space. According to unrevised history from the imperial perspective of Western civilization, pirates are villains. Despite being romanticized, they are still lawbreakers on the wrong side of that history. Even modern pirates, such as those in Somalia, are villains.
The trouble is that this overlooks a great deal of historical narrative, the perspective of the pirates themselves. The stereotype of the pirate is a Western construct, a rebellious and free-spirited scoundrel who despises the rule of law and willingly engages in piracy for the sake of romanticized and entertaining villainy. Real pirates, both historical and modern, are a bit different.
Take the Somalian pirates for example. Somalia was taken over by competing Italian and British empires and occupied, in a state of constant warfare, until as recently as the 1960’s. From there a series of failed governments has left the country in shambles. Its citizens live in severe poverty. Pretend this is you: hungry and miserable, you see a merchant ship sail by. Would you plunder a ship to feed yourself, your family, your village?
Scholarship of the golden age of piracy reveals a similar story of the scoundrels that founded Nassau including famous pirates like Calico Jack, Blackbeard, and Charles Vane. Pirate colonies attracted people who were rejects and outsiders from society due to their poverty, the color of their skin, their criminal histories, and so on.
And they weren’t all despicable. Blackbeard, real name Edward Teach, settled in Bath, North Carolina for a short time. He owned an estate where he entertained the locals, he sold rare goods to shops that caused the region to prosper economically, and his crew brought new life (drunken though it may have been) to the town. He used many of his plundered supplies, such as medicine acquired from a blockade he set up at the port of Charleston, to improve the lives of his crew and fellow pirates.
On the seas he preferred to avoid conflict if at all possible,
and if a vessel surrendered he would loot it and send it on
its way unharmed, or if the ship had been destroyed, deliver the crew safely to some destination. This desire to avoid conflict is from where the infamous part of his legacy derives: by placing lit firecrackers in his hat and beard, roaring wildly, and commanding the fear of of the enemy ship, he could procure their surrender with less bloodshed.
The point is that from a revisionist perspective, pirates were not all despicable villains who glorified wickedness and reveled in their crime. Many were unfortunate, unincorporated outcasts who were trying to make a living the best way they knew how. Many of history’s famous pirate captains were, in part, humanitarian.
There is another historical figure who engaged in somewhat similar behavior. The stories in the gospels and other ancient literature tell us how Jesus Christ attracted sinners, traitors, and outcasts to himself, favoring them over and even despising respected Jewish leaders, imperial rulers, and the wealthy.
Jesus touched the ceremonially unclean, ate with lowlifes, forgave sinners, washed his disciples’ feet, and empowered the powerless. He ransacked the Jewish temple and defied oppressive power structures.
At the end of his life Jesus was arrested on a charge of political insurrection and sentenced to hang from a cross until dead on a hill called the place of the skull. The Bible, just like history, is not without a sense of irony. The skull & cross, called a Jolly Roger, is the symbol of Christ’s death: the pirate flag is the Christian flag.
This is the critique that I take up on the blog. We live in a world that is changing so rapidly that many of the lessons of the last fifty years, century even, have not settled into our discourse yet. The insights of thinkers like Foucault or anthropologists like Mary Douglas have not yet made their way out of their niches in academic institutions and into society. The modern practice of Christianity remains based more in cultural tradition than either historical criticism or any other respectable method of biblical interpretation.
This Gospel teaches new ways to understand current events, the modern world, and ourselves. It champions a different Jesus, the one who subverted the powerful and challenged socially accepted ways of thinking, who commandeered Jewish tradition to empower both powerless Jews and Gentiles. This is the Jolly Roger Gospel. Enjoy.
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Depicted: 1736 illustration of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It is public domain.