Jesus christ condemns
the conquistadors of america
picturing the reports of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas
RACHEL Emisoras Latinas is back on the air, transmitting our exclusive, controversial interviews with Jesus Christ in this his second coming to earth. Welcome once again, Jesus, to our microphones.
JESUS Thank you, Rachel, but today I have a complaint against you.
RACHEL Against me?
JESUS Whenever we talk, it’s always you who ask the questions. Why is that?
RACHEL Well, … because … because I’m the interviewer and you’re the one being interviewed.
JESUS Yes, fine, but we’ve been talking for so many days now, and I don’t know anything about you. I don’t even know where you were born. Tell me, where are you from?
RACHEL I was born in Peru, though my mother was Colombian and my father was from Bolivia.
JESUS Where are those nations? Are they in the lands beyond Egypt?
RACHEL Way beyond. How to explain it to you? They’re on the other side of the world, crossing the ocean. Those lands are known as Latin America, and that’s why our radio network is called Emisoras Latinas. Do you understand that?
JESUS I’m beginning to see…
RACHEL In fact, it’s now the continent which has the largest number of your followers.
JESUS Really? And how did they hear my message if they live so far away?
RACHEL It’s a long story. Do you want to hear it?
JESUS Of course, I’m quite interested.
RACHEL But better than my explaining it … Let me see if I have his telephone number here … Maybe I’ll find him at home in Montevideo….
GALEANO Hello, yes?
RACHEL Eduardo Galeano?
GALEANO The very same.
RACHEL Look, Galeano, I’m calling from Emisoras Latinas, and we’re broadcasting from Jerusalem. At my side is Jesus Christ.
GALEANO Jesus Christ?
RACHEL Yes, Jesus Christ in person. He wants to know how his message reached the lands of America.
GALEANO It’s a very long story …
RACHEL That’s exactly what I told him, but maybe you can abridge it a little.
GALEANO Well, you see, Jesus, the king and queen of Spain sent a certain Christopher Columbus to these lands, along with a bunch of adventurers.
RACHEL It was the discovery of America.
GALEANO Say rather the discovery of America’s gold, because these lands didn’t need to be discovered by anybody. They were already inhabited and developed.
JESUS And what happened with these new arrived people?
GALEANO They arrived with a lust for gold. Nothing and nobody was going to stop them in their search for gold and silver. Since they brought along gun powder, unfamiliar arms and unknown diseases, they wiped everything out. Entire populations were exterminated. They destroyed temples, cities, the cultures of our peoples. It was wholesale genocide.
JESUS Like the Romans used to do in my time. But what did all that have to do with my message?
GALEANO Well, what happened, Jesus, is that along with the invaders came the missionaries.
JESUS Missionaries with what kind of mission?
GALEANO They were your missionaries, with the mission of making all these people Christian. The soldiers wielded the sword, and the friars wielded the cross. They came to “evangelize” these lands, to baptize the “Indians”, since that’s what they called us.
JESUS And did the Indians want to be baptized?
GALEANO They had better want it, because otherwise they got their throats sliced.
JESUS And once they got baptized?
GALEANO Things got even worse, because then they were made slaves of the king of Spain. Their lands were taken away, their wives were raped, they were forced to work in the mines, and they died in droves. But there was one great prophet, Bartolomé de las Casas, who condemned the atrocities committed in your name, Jesus.
JESUS In my name?
GALEANO Yes, in your name. You heard right.
RACHEL Do you have any idea, Mr Galeano, of how many people were living in America when Columbus arrived?
GALEANO They calculate there were 70 million people living here, but after a century and a half of conquest barely 3 million had survived.
RACHEL Are we hearing you right or…
GALEANO And the story doesn’t stop there. Once the American Indians became scarce, they brought blacks from Africa. Men and women were torn from their lands, put in chains, and transported across the sea in ships. Their owners used to sell them like animals, and they whipped them to force them to work.
JESUS But how could they do such things? Weren’t they children of God like the owners?
GALEANO Ah, they justified their actions by saying that the Indians had no souls, and neither did the Africans.
JESUS And did the missionaries also approve such brutality?
GALEANO Most of them did, because the trade in human beings was a very profitable business. How many did they bring over from Africa? Twenty million, 40 million? Nobody really knows. Half of them died on the high seas, and their bodies were thrown overboard.
JESUS What you’re telling me, my friend, is something horrifying.
GALEANO America and Africa constitute Europe’s great sin, Jesus. These lands were bled dry, and their veins were left open, … just like your own when you were nailed to the cross.
RACHEL Thank you, Eduardo Galeano. Do you have anything more to say, Jesus?
JESUS Not really, except to condemn the people who did all that. As an ancient scripture says, because of them is God’s name blasphemed among the nations.
RACHEL Reporting from Jerusalem for all of Latin America, this is Rachel Perez.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
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The cross came with the sword
During the conquest of America and the long centuries of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule in the Americas, there were two distinct stances with regard to the indigenous cultures and religions. One was a total rejection of the native religions, with campaigns to root out idolatry, eliminate sanctuaries, abolish rites and customs, and satanize the cosmological experience of God. The other was a calculated substitution whereby native religious elements were replaced with more or less equivalent Christian elements: sacred books, feasts, rites, images, spaces, etc.
The adherents of both stances committed horrendous abuses and crimes of every type. The cross came with the sword. And behind the sword was the conquistadors’ and the colonists’ desire for gold, silver, lands and power. Thus the whole process of Christianization of the American continent was badly tarnished.
The same process took place somewhat later in the colonization of the African continent: the people were “evangelized”, and African religions and spiritualities were suppressed, all for purposes of despoilment, exploitation and genocide. South African bishop Desmond Tutu expressed it succinctly and lucidly when he said: When they came, they had the Bible, and we had the land. And they told us: Close your eyes and pray. And when we opened our eyes, they had the land, and we had the Bible.
Five centuries later: an offensive speech
In the discourse with which he inaugurated the conference of Latin American and Caribbean bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007, Pope Benedict XVI referred to the process of Christianization of America without making a single remark critical of what happened historically in past centuries.
That speech was an excellent expression of the insensitivity with which official Catholicism views that bloody historical process. The sentences that caused controversy and met widespread repudiation in all of Latin America were the following: What has the acceptance of the Catholic faith meant for the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean? For them it has meant knowing and receiving Christ, the unknown God whom their ancestors unknowingly sought in their rich religious traditions. Christ was the Savior after whom they silently longed. … The Holy Spirit has come to fecundate their cultures, purifying them and developing the many seeds and buds that the Incarnate Word had placed in them, and guiding them along the ways of the Gospel. The proclaiming of Jesus and his Gospel do not mean at any moment an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture. …
The dream of reviving the pre-Columbian religions, separating them from Christ and the universal Church, would not be a move forward, but a step backward. In reality, it would be a return to a historical moment rooted in the past. … The wisdom of the native peoples has fortunately led them to form a synthesis between their cultures and the Christian faith offered to them by the missionaries. From that synthesis was born the rich and profound folk religion in which the soul of the Latin American peoples is revealed.
One of the most horrible genocides
Among the many repudiations of the Pope’s speech we highlight one, the “Position of the Confederation of Peoples of the Kichwa Nationality of Ecuador,” which was emitted just two days after the Pontiff’s provocative words. The document states the following:
If we analyze, with basic human sensitivity and without any sort of fanaticism, the history of the invasion of Abya Yala that was carried out by the Spaniards with the complicity of the Catholic Church, we cannot help becoming indignant. Certainly the Pope fails to see that the representatives of the Catholic Church of that time were, with honorable exceptions, accomplices, concealers and beneficiaries of one of the most horrendous genocides that humanity has ever witnessed. More than 70 million persons died in the concentration camps of mines, sweatshops, and forced labor. Whole nations and peoples were wiped out. Just the case of Cuba makes this clear. And to replace the dead Indians the Spaniards brought the black peoples from Africa, who suffered a most awful fate.
They usurped the riches of our territories in order to save Europe’s economically bankrupt feudal system. Our women were raped in cowardly fashion, and thousands of children died from malnutrition and unknown diseases. They did all this under the philosophical and theological assumption that our ancestors “had no souls”. And standing alongside the murderers of our heroic leaders was always some priest or some bishop, attempting to indoctrinate those condemned to death so that they would get baptized before dying and, of course, so that they would renounce their “pagan” philosophical and theological conceptions.
It is inconceivable that still in the 21st century some people believe that God can be conceived only as defined by Europeans. The Pope should know that, before Catholic priests came to our lands with the Bible, God already existed among our peoples, and his Word was always sustaining the Life of our peoples and of Mother Earth. The Word of God cannot be contained only in a book, nor can any religion be allowed to privatize God. We Aboriginal Peoples already had civilizations, with governments and social organizations structured according to our own principles. And of course, we also had our own religions, with sacred books and rites, but our priests and priestesses were the first to be killed by those who worked as servants of the “god of greed” and not the God of Love of whom Jesus the Christ spoke.
The Pope should be informed that our religions never died. We learned to syncretize our beliefs and symbols with those of the invaders and oppressors. We continue to congregate in our temples, because we know that beneath the main Catholic churches are the foundations of our own sacred temples, which were destroyed with the hope that the new buildings would bury our beliefs. But that was not the case, since our temples were build in those places which most concentrate the great Forces that reflect the Power, the Wisdom and the Love of the Great Father and Mother Spirit of all the beings that inhabit this marvelous planet.
What remains to be said?
“Barbarous, incapable, inferior”
Every dominator despises those dominated, and he devalues and dehumanizes them in order to justify his domination. This was the case also when America was conquered by the Europeans. The Spanish conquistadors, validated by important thinkers in Spain, argued during the first decades of the 16th century that the “Indians” – the name given to the inhabitants of the recently “discovered” continent – had no souls and did not even belong to the human species. Because of their beastly condition, they could be deprived of their freedom and their lands.
The famous Spanish jurist and theologian Fray Francisco de Vitoria granted that the Amerindians had souls, but he held that they had no intelligence and so it was justifiable to dominate and rule them: Those barbarians, though they are said to be not totally incompetent, are still so close to being mentally retarded that they would not seem to be suitable subjects for establishing and administering a lawful republic within human and political norms. For such an undertaking they do not have adequate laws or magistrates, and they are not even sufficiently capable of governing their families. They are lacking in sciences and arts, both of the liberal and the mechanical sort, and they have not developed agriculture or crafts, nor do they possess many of the other comforts that might even be considered necessary for human life.
Another friar and theologian of that time, Fray Ginés de Sepúlveda, argued for waging a “just war” against the Indians since they were idolaters and sinners. Considering them to be inferior beings, he defended the obligation of the Spaniards to subject them: With perfect right do the Spaniards exercise their dominion over these barbarians of the New World and the neighboring islands. In prudence, intelligence, and every sort of virtue and human sentiment they are as inferior to the Spaniards as children are to adults, as women are to men, as cruel and inhuman persons are to gentle souls, as the excessively dissolute are to moderate, sober persons – and finally, I must say, as monkeys are to men.
The evangelization process was as prolonged and complex as was the conquest and colonization of America, but there were also to be found among the evangelizers a few true Christians who, in the midst of the horror of the Indians’ enslavement and the conquerors’ greed, struggled to make the gospel of justice a living reality.
The most renowned figure was the Dominican friar, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who arrived in America at the age of 28, in the first years of the Conquest. Even though he received grants of land in Cuba, along with the corresponding Indian slaves, he renounced all these privileges. He became acutely aware of how anti-Christian was the system he was serving and committed himself to a passionate defense of the Indians. Las Casas crossed the Atlantic 14 times, traveling back and forth between America and Spain to denounce in his homeland what was happening in “the Indies” and to refute the opinions of Spanish intellectuals who despised and belittled the Amerindians in their books, letters, sermons and pacification projects. I´d prefer to be a live, unbaptized Indian than a dead Christian Indian, was his cry. His best known work is the Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indies, addressed to the future king of Spain, Philip II. In this work he relates the horrors of the conquest, including the tortures and murders that took place and the assaults and humiliations that the native people of the continent suffered.
The tenacious efforts of Las Casas inspired a new law code for the Indies, which provided a certain protection to the native peoples. The great concern Las Casas had for the Indians, however, led him to suggest the importation of black slaves to replace the labor of the Indians, especially in the Caribbean islands, which were quickly depopulated by the devastating impact of the conquerors. Las Casas thought that the blacks were stronger than the Indians. Before dying he recognized his error and repented of having promoted such a horrendous alternative.
The slave trade
The Europeans who conquered the Americas were unable to find sufficient slave labor among the native populations, which ended up decimated in the very early years of the invasion as a result of forced labor, lethal arms and massive epidemics. It is calculated that of 70 million Native Americans who lived in the hemisphere at the time of the conquest, only 3 million were surviving a century and half later.
The scarcity of Indian labor gave rise to the large-scale slave trade which in the 16th century brought Africans to both North and South America, and especially to the Caribbean islands. Between the 16th and the 18th century there was a continual increase in the slave trade between Africa and America. From 1536 to 1848 the island of Goree, off the coast of present day Senegal, was the place from which millions of Africans were embarked, after being torn away from their families, on a one-way journey toward the unknown, and often enough toward death. At the forefront of the slave trade were the governments and merchants of Portugal and Great Britain, but Spain, France and the Netherlands also participated actively in this criminal business. All historians are agreed that this massive enslavement of Africans is what allowed Europe to accumulate the enormous wealth that made possible the development of capitalism and eventually the industrial revolution.
The blacks also have “souls”
Just as with the American Indians, the ideology that went along with the slave trade was racist, and it likewise provoke an “intellectual” debate about whether African, being black, had “souls” or not. In the countries participating in the slave trade, the Christian church authorities, both Catholic and Protestant, with a few honorable exceptions, approved of the trade, either by finding reasons to justify it or by keeping a complicit silence.
The estimates of the number of African slaves vary a great deal. There are scholars who speak of at least 60 million persons who were forcibly torn from their homelands. Some historians calculate that one quarter of the slaves died in the process of being captured, and another quarter died during the overseas journey. By portraying in graphic images a historical event that occurred in 1839 on a slave ship, Steven Spielberg’s movie “Amistad” (1997) reconstructs what those macabre journeys between Africa and America were actually like.
From the 7th to the 20th century, the Arab peoples also carried on a significant slave trade of Africans along the eastern coast of Africa, in proportions similar to or greater than the trafficking organized by the Europeans.
Starting in the 18th century, abolitionist m