Sunday, July 19, 2015

History, Winners and Losers

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, yet 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. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no 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 the losers.

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 equally deserving.

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."

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