Commemoration of Bartolomé de las Casas, Missionary, Priest, Defender of the Oppressed
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.* 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful* both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, 16no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. -- Philemon 8-16.
History is usually written by the winners, but sometimes we learn more from
Bartolemé de las Casas (1474-1566) was a member of the Spanish military sent
to the West Indies in 1502 and was probably the first priest ordained in
the Americas. In 1513, probably a year or less after his ordination, he was
still involved in military activities. He saw the
effects of Spanish domination over the local native populations. He had been awarded a land grant for his military
efforts which included a number of Indian serfs, but in 1514 he
renounced his land grant and his control over the natives. It was the beginning of his
non-military campaign for a beleaguered and oppressed people.
De las Casas made several trips to Spain to report to the crown about issues
involving treatment of the natives that he had seen and heard spoken of by
others. Eventually he would write a book, A Brief Description of the
Destruction of the Indies, describing the activities and tortures the
natives had experienced at the hands of the Spanish. He wanted to create
towns where natives and Spaniards could live side-by-side and with equality for both as a form of reparation.
It was a great idea, but unfortunately too many people were against such a plan.
It threatened their way of life and their privilege. The great plan also had a great flaw. De las Casas also felt his ideas and plans were perfect and in their presentation he sometimes came across as somewhat ham-fisted which did not endear him to
the people whose support he needed. Colonists that he selected to help him
achieve this goal turned out to be less than cooperative and capable. To his
credit, de las Casas never stopped trying. He eventually returned to Spain and
became a Dominican monk, remembered for his writing and attempt to gain
equality for the natives of the Caribbean.
To achieve a goal one has to believe firmly in the value of that goal. De
las Casas firmly believed that what he intended to do was the right thing for the
native oppressed. Unfortunately, and partly because of his position on rights
for the natives, he tacitly approved and may even have encouraged the importation
and use of African slaves to do the work on the encomiendas or land
grants. It's hard to believe that such dedication to one group would also
entail an almost oblivious concern for another similarly oppressed group.
In Paul's letter to Philemon, Paul calls on an old friend to forgive what
might must have been something drastic, and to accept Onesimus back not as a
slave but as a fellow Christian and brother. It was a request for equality for
a servant who had run away and found Paul, becoming a help to him and a convert
to Christianity. Whether Paul intended for this passage to become a standard
for equality or not, it certainly gives a glimpse of what early Christianity
should accept as a new norm, namely treating fellow believers, no matter their
status, as equals in the kingdom.
There are a lot of histories where we hear of forced conversions and the treatment
of native populations who were the subject of those conversions. We know that
in the 1500s the Spaniards came to the New World not so much to convert but to
provide gold, gems, and riches for themselves and the crown that supported
them. How many were converted? I don't know, but from reading the histories,
including some of the quotes from de las Casas' book, brutality was the rule
and not the exception. Those who the Spaniards did not kill directly faced the very
real possibility of death from diseases which the Spaniards brought with them and
to which they had no immunity. Was the treatment of the imported
African slaves any better than the natives they replaced? It seems impossible to believe that it would
have been better, but anyway, nobody was focusing on them.
Onesimus should be a symbol for all who are considered lower on the social,
economic, and cultural scale. Those of us who have experienced privilege and,
whether we accept it totally or not, should see ourselves in the person of
Philemon, the one asked to receive someone as an equal. I believe that Paul
meant that all people, especially Christians and those who claim to be Christians,
should receive others as equal regardless of their status. There are those who
speak for the powerless, the voices of Americans of all ethnicities and origins, immigrants, the oppressed and tortured in
many lands, and those fighting injustice and persecution, genuine
persecution, around the world. Does this mean non-Christians as well as
Christians? In my belief there's only one answer, yes.
De las Casas was like many of us. He had a driving passion to do something
good for other people, yet he was, in his own way, flawed in his idealization
of his own ideas, whether or not they were workable or even acceptable. Each of
us should have dreams of what can be done to make the world the kingdom of God
on earth that we say we really want, and we should work to make those dreams
reality. We also need to understand how to make those changes and how to get
others on board with us. It takes a lot of sheer determination; people like Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu,
Mother Teresa, and many others, had determination, vision, and hope, but they
also had a knowledge that it wasn't going to be easy. Sometimes they would have
to step backwards where they wanted to go forward. Their approaches were varied
and, when one did not work, they tried again perhaps just a little differently.
All had flaws but also had dreams, compassion, and desire.
History will remember people like these as well as people like Bartolomé de las
Casas, and well they should be remembered. But we should also be conscious of
all who suffer oppression, persecution, or loss of power because of what group
they belong to or any other characteristic. Those guilty of heinous crimes should be incarcerated for the safety of others, but they are
still children of God and should be treated humanely. Prayers for oppressed groups
around the world, no matter what their religion or location, should be made but
in combination with active means of assistance. The voiceless should be heard
while the powerful should learn to listen and not just pontificate about what
they think is needed. And when we look to one group is deserving of attention
we should remember that where there is one there is usually a number of others
Did Philemon except Onesimus as Paul had requested? A man named Onesimus is
recorded in history as a bishop, so perhaps Philemon did welcome him back and
helped him in his new mission. Today we must be a combination of all three:
Paul to speak, Onesimus to act, and Philemon to listen and assist.
With some practice, I think it would work.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 18, 2015, under the title "Learning from history."