Montesinos and the Birth of Brown Theology,1511


Montesinos and the Birth of Brown Theology, 1511

Brown Theology was born in 1511 on the Sunday before Christmas on the Island of Hispaniola.

On that day, in a straw thatched church, Dominican Friar Antonio de Montesinos preached the first fiery sermon condemning the Spanish Conquest.  Invoking the prophetic words and ministry of John the Baptist, Montesinos declared, "I am the voice of one crying in the desert.”

He continued:

"I have ascended here to cause you to know those sins, I who am the voice of Christ in the desert of this island. Therefore it is fitting that you listen to this voice, not with careless attention, but with all your heart and senses. For this voice will be the strangest you ever heard, the harshest and hardest, most fearful and most dangerous you ever thought to hear."

"This voice…declares that you are all in mortal sin, and live and die in it, because of the cruelty and tyranny you practice among these innocent peoples.

"Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these peoples, who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own land? Wars in which you have destroyed such infinite numbers of them by homicides and slaughters never before heard of?

Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather, you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day?

"And what care do you take that they should be instructed in religion, so that they may know their God and creator, may be baptized, may hear Mass, and may keep Sundays and feast days? Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? Don't you understand this? Don't you feel this. Why are you sleeping in such a profound and lethargic slumber?"

This sermon, titled, “Are Not the Indians Men?,” gave birth to Brown Theology and the Brown Church.  It was the start of a 500 year Latin@ tradition of social justice theology in Latin America and the United States.   From that day in 1511 to the present, two Latin@ churches have existed.  The Church of the Status Quo and The Brown Church.   The Brown Church has condemned racism and social injustice, in a myriad of forms and expressions too numerous to count, by appealing to the moral authority of the Word of God.  Drawing upon this moral authority and the inspiration of Christ, the Brown Church has challenged conquest, forced labor systems, colonization in Latin America and the United States, neo-colonialism and military dictatorships, Jim Crow segregation, exploitation in the fields, and the abuse of undocumented immigrants.  As a natural outgrowth of its prophetic advocacy efforts, the Brown Church has developed a unique and consistent and systematic body of theology based upon the Christian Scriptures which may be called Brown Theology.

Montesinos’ famous sermon not only founded Brown Theology and the Brown Church—it also gave birth to the racial social justice movement of the Americas!  Montesinos was the first to speak of racial and social injustice as we know it today.   He was the first theologian to question the military conquest and colonization of People of Color and to challenge the exploitation of Brown bodies.  When we talk about social justice we often think about the recent civil rights movement-- Brown vs. Board of Education, the NAACP, the 1960’s, Rev. Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Saul Castro, Vietnam War protests, and hippies.   In fact many activists today view social justice in purely secular terms and will say that Christianity is a racist, classist, and sexist religion that stands opposed to racial equality.  They don’t know their history.  This 500 year old sermon by Montesinos started it all.  Boy, may God grant me the amazing privilege of preaching a sermon that will be remembered for 500 years and send racial justice shockwaves across the planet.

As you can imagine, Montesinos’ sermon did not go over well.  Nonetheless, he left the pulpit head held high and retreated to his straw thatched hut.   In the words of Latin American historian Lewis Hanke, “Montesinos thereupon strode out of the church…leaving a muttering crowd of colonists and officials behind him, who were astounded, but not one was converted.  He came as near to convincing his hearers of their wrongdoing as would a theological student in our day who delivered a soapbox philippic in Wall Street on the biblical text, ‘Sell that which thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’”  The Spanish colonists were pissed!  They met together in the house of Diego Columbus (the Governor, and son, of, yes, Christopher Columbus) and condemned the sermon as a treasonous act against  King Ferdinand of Spain.  They also sent a delegation to the Dominican monastery to demand an apology and recantation of the contents of the sermon.  Undeterred, Montesinos returned the next Sunday to a crowded audience of leading Spanish officials and colonists and preached another sermon, even more infuriating than the last.  He declared, “Suffer me a little, and I will show thee that I have yet to speak on God’s behalf.”   Then, putting them on blast, he compared them to highway robbers and told them that they would be denied confession and absolution from that point on until they repented and changed their ways.

It would be like a leading pastor from a prominent church in Orange County telling her/his congregants:  “You are not welcome at church any longer until you stop exploiting Latino immigrants.  The salvation of your souls depends on it.  Are not undocumented immigrants and their children human beings deeply loved by God and made in God’s image?  Do they not deserve to be paid a living wage that can support their family? Do they not deserve decent, affordable housing? Do they not deserve to see a doctor when they get sick, break their bones, or get cancer? Do their kids not deserve the right to get a quality education and go to U.C. Irvine when they graduate? Or, is that only for you and your children?  Are Brown people just non-humans who exist only to do the cheap labor that no one else wants to do and make White folk rich?” If you really know Jesus, why do you exploit them?

This is Brown Theology. 

Robert Chao Romero




Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America.