Lessons from the Conversion of Las Casas: Can we serve both God and money?
In our last essay we noted the vigorous protest of Friar Bartolomé de las Casas to the colonial Spanish forced labor regime known as the “encomienda” system. http://www.jesusforrevolutionaries.org/bartolome-de-las-casas-el-requerimiento-and-the-doctrine-of-discovery/
In this week’s post we share Las Casas’ powerful conversion narrative and ask the question: Is it possible to follow Jesus and chase wealth? The lesson of Las Casas’ story is a resounding “No.”
Bartolomé de las Casas was born in Seville, Spain in 1484. He was born to a family of “Old Christians” (as opposed to recent Christian converts of Jewish or Muslim ancestry), though it appears that he possessed some ethnic Jewish heritage (Vickery, 32-33). In 1502 he traveled to the island of Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti), to assist in the family business of supplying provisions for Spanish colonists. He also worked as a “doctrinero,” a quasi-clerical position involving the teaching of Christian doctrine to the indigenous inhabitants of the island. During this first stint in Hispaniola, Las Casas took part in brutal Spanish military campaigns against the natives, possibly serving as a type of military chaplain. In his mind, like other Spaniards, Las Casas came to get rich (Vickery 33-35).
Las Casas returned to Seville in 1506 and was ordained a priest on March 3, 1507. He returned to Hispaniola some time before 1510 and was the “first one to sing new mass in all of the Indies” (Vickery, 37-38). He returned not only as priest, however, but also as Indian slaveholder and landowner. In reward for his participation in earlier military exploits, he was granted special status as an “encomendero”—one of the economic elite of the island. In the words of Las Casas himself:
“Greed increased every day and every day Indians perished in greater numbers and the clergyman Bartolomé de las Casas…went about his concerns like the others, sending his share of Indians to work fields and gold mines, taking advantage of them as much as he could. (Las Casas, History of the Indies, 208).
At first blush, this seems paradoxical, or at least difficult to imagine. How could a missionary priest be given slaves and wealth and be part of a racist and exploitive colonial project? And yet, if we bring it into today’s context it’s really not all that hard to imagine. How many pastors in the United States earn large incomes, live in segregated suburbs, send their kids to segregated schools, and support laws and policies which embolden the racial status quo? How many pastors do this without even realizing that there is a problem?
On June 4, 1514, Las Casas experienced what scholars call his “first conversion (Vickery, 2,3).” While preparing a sermon for Pentecost Sunday, Las Casas’ conscience was stricken after reading Ecclesiasticus 34: 18 (for Protestants reading this blog, this is from the Apocrypha):
“18 The sacrifice of an offering unjustly acquired is a mockery; the gifts of the impious are unacceptable.”
Las Casas reflected upon this Scripture in light of the suffering of the indigenous peoples of the Indies and realized that he could not both follow Christ and participate in the exploitation of the natives. Las Casas speaks of this conversion experience (in the 3rd person) in History of the Indies:
“As I said, he [Las Casas] began to consider the suffering and servitude of these people and he remembered having heard that the Dominican friars of Santo Domingo could not own Indians with a clear conscience and would neither confess nor absolve Indian owners, which the said clergyman disapproved. He remembered how one day on Hispaniola, where he had owned Indians with the same carelessness and blindness as in Cuba, a Dominican friar had refused him confession…
He spent a few days in meditation on the matter until by dint of applying his readings to this and that case he was convinced Indians were being treated unjustly and tyrannically all over the Indies. He read everything in this new light and found his opinion supported; as he used to say, from the day the darkness lifted from his eyes, he never read any book in Latin or a vulgar tongue—and he read an infinite number in forty-four years—which did not in some way provide the proof of Indian rights and Spanish injustice (History of the Indies, 208-209).”
After “the darkness lifted from his eyes,” Las Casas renounced his wealth and surrendered his Indian slaves to the governor of the island. He did this in order to “preach the subject of his sermons with a clear conscience,” and that he might maintain a clear Christian witness.
Befuddled by the request of Las Casas to surrender his right to wealth and Indian labor, the governor replied, “By God, I would like to see you rich and prosperous! I do not accept the remission of Indians; instead, I will give you two weeks to think it over, at the end of which you may come and tell me your decision” (History of the Indies, 210). Unmoved by the governor’s words, Las Casas held to his commitment and retorted forcefully:
“Sir, I thank you for your good wishes and signs of appreciation, but please pretend that the two weeks are already past. If I should regret my decision and in two weeks come to you with tears of blood for the restitution of my Indians, and for the love of God you should listen, I pray God to punish you rigorously for this and never to pardon your sin” (History of the Indies, 210).
Las Casas later publically announced his conversion in a sermon. To the Spaniards in attendance, Las Casas declared unequivocally that they must act with justice and compassion towards the Indians or risk losing their eternal salvation. Again, in the third person autobiographical narrative of Las Casas:
“[H]e denounced the blindness, injustice, tyranny and cruelty committed against an innocent and gentle people. He said owners of Indians could not win salvation but should feel it a duty to liberate them and that he, knowing the dangerous state of his soul, had relinquished his…Everyone was surprised, even astonished, to hear this and some walked away remorseful while others thought that they had been dreaming—the idea of sinning because one used Indians was as incredible as saying man could not use domestic animals…(The History of the Indies, 211)”
When I reflect upon Las Casas’ conversion, it makes me think of Jesus’ words:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 6:24.
Wealth is so alluring. It’s easy to be blinded by it. The Spanish colonizers were blinded by it. So was Las Casas in his early years as a priest and doctrinero. I get blinded by it. I’ve come to understand Jesus’ teachings on money so much more after studying the life of Las Casas.
When we try to serve Jesus and money we end up serving money. And then we exploit other people so that we can make more money. And then we end up creating crazy theology to justify our exploitation of other people.
In order to justify their colonial efforts in the Americas, some Spaniards supported the notion that ‘Indians’ were natural slaves and that the Spaniards were God’s new chosen race.
During the 19th century, Americans borrowed this twisted line of theological reasoning to justify the appropriation of thousands of miles of indigenous and Mexican lands. They claimed that they were the new “chosen race” of North America and that God had ordained their military conquests based upon the notion of “Manifest Destiny.” Millions of Africans were enslaved, moreover, based upon the unbiblical belief that dark-skinned Africans bore the “mark of Cain. Today, the racial status quo is upheld through a harmful merger of American Christianity and Tea Party, Donald Trump political rhetoric.
The consequence of all this—in whatever historical time period it occurs--is that we end up tricking ourselves into thinking that we are still serving Christ when in actuality we are serving money. And then the witness of Christ is destroyed because we say we are Christians and yet we keep exploiting other people. This is what Europeans did for 500 years as they went around colonizing the globe. This is what many Christians still do today.
And when our consciousness is piqued and we decide to renounce wealth and privilege in order to follow Jesus, like Las Casas, we are told, “By God, I would like to see you rich and prosperous! I do not accept the remission of your wealth and privilege; instead, I will give you two weeks to think it over, at the end of which you may come and tell me your decision.” In today’s modern Christian parlance we get told, “There’s nothing wrong with being rich. You can serve God and make lots of money at the same time. Are you a ‘liberal’ now?”
Like Las Casas, we all have a choice to make. Will we choose to serve Jesus or will we choose to serve money? Will we choose to serve Jesus or will we choose to perpetuate economic and political policies and systems which exploit others and destroy the testimony of Christianity? This is one important lesson from the life of Las Casas, and Brown Theology.
Robert Chao Romero
Bartolomé de las Casas, The History of the Indies.
Paul Vickery, Bartolomé de las Casas: Great Prophet of the Americas.