In 1550 there was a great debate in the court of Spain between Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Sepulveda. Christopher Columbus had returned from what was called the New World. Upon hearing reports of massacres and slavery, King Charles called for a hearing to set policies for the treatment of natives in the New World.
Las Casas was a simple monk who spent most of his time in the what we call the Dominican Republic, Central America, and Mexico. He witnessed the murder of many thousands of natives. Las Casas believed that the natives were beautiful humans who deserved respect and dignity. He felt that the Spaniards should share the Gospel of Christ, but not force it upon them. Las Casa believed that, given time, they would respond to the message of the Gospel.
Sepulveda had spent his career as a theologian and philosopher in Spain. He was close friends with the explorers who were hoping to get rich off the New World. He had never been to the New World, but he did not think that the natives deserved respect. He believed in something he called the order of command and obedience. He argued that God created smart people to serve as leaders, while the less intelligent people had been created to obey the leaders. He felt that it was pointless to explain the Christian gospel to the natives. He believed that they should be taken as slaves and that if they tried to rebel, they deserved God’s punishment for going against the order.
These two men had very different views of how to treat the natives. Both of them based their beliefs on the Bible. Las Casas believed that Jesus identified with those the world called outsiders. He believed that servants of Jesus should show mercy to the natives. Sepulveda, believed that the Spaniards ability to conquer other people was a God-given gift.
We, know, of course, which side won. For the next several centuries, Europeans conquered other lands. To those like Sepulveda, the Bible made it quite clear where Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Sepulveda keyed in on the word “authority” and the phrase “make disciples”. To him, the Scripture gave Spain the authority to force their ways upon others. In the years that followed, not just the Spanish, but other Europeans took on the duty of conquering the world for Jesus. Pedro de Alvarado, one of Cortes’s lieutenants, conquered the Maya peoples in what is now Guatemala. In the years that followed, the descendants and followers of the original Spanish conquistadors acquired more and more of the land. The indigenous people became indentured servants for the coffee harvest.
As I reflect on the great debate of 1550, I am struck by the power of the lure of money. The love of money led to abuse that affected generations of indigenous families. It is especially sad that the prospect of wealth led people to twist the Scriptures to support their viewpoint. The conquest of the New World is an example of how the church can and often, does, take the wrong side of history. I am happy to say that the influence of Las Casas has not been totally lost. We, at the Weston United Methodist Church, know of once place where the body of Christ is making a difference— the area of San Lucas, Toliman in Guatemala. Fr. Greg Schaffer, who came to San Lucas Mission in 1962, had the wisdom to ask the people what their needs were. The answer he heard was that the people desired to have land of their own. Under his leadership, land ownership was dramatically altered as the church purchased land from the Spanish descendants. In recent years, under the leadership of Rogers Strickland, the Weston United Methodist Church has sent mission teams to San Lucas to construct schools, community centers, and churches. They have also helped provide simple houses and safer, more efficient wood stoves for families. It is ironic, that what I hear most often from the people returning from these mission trips is that they received so much more than they gave. They report to me that what they received was an understanding of wealth, not as material goods, but hope. The missioners return with a renewed appreciation for the bonds of family and community. They describe joy in forming relationships with these strong, caring, generous people. I think Las Casas would be proud of us.
Note: the next trip is Dec. 27th. Contact me if you are interested!