Friar Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) is a good example of what Lutherans call a “saint and sinner.” As an immigrant fromSpain who came to the island of Hispañola in 1502, Las Casas was a colonizer who owned slaves and participated in the military expeditions against the native peoples of the Caribbean. Denied absolution by a Dominican priest who protested the mistreatment of the islanders, he began to reflect on the ethical implications of his faith. He entered seminary and in 1510 became the first Dominican priest ordained in the Americas. In this role, he led a crusade against the mistreatment of the native peoples by the colonists. After writing extensively on the subject, he helped to enact the NewLaws for colonial Spain that would protect the native peoples from mistreatment, defend their property rights and allow them to become subjects of the crown. The court of Spain officially named him the “Protector of theIndians.” He was appointed bishop of Chiapas, Mexico in 1544, a position he held until 1550.
Las Casas’ life and ministry in defense of the human rights of native peoples reflects the philosophical, theological and anthropological questions of his era. The question of whether the “Indians” had a rational soul, could govern themselves and be evangelized was up for debate. The answer to these questions would determine how the church would proceed in the evangelization of the native peoples and whether just wars could be waged against them. Las Casas argued that native peoples had the capacity for reason, a qualifier for human being, and thus could govern themselves and be evangelized. His opponents thought otherwise in large part due to the enormous economic gain that native peoples provided as free labor. In 1550, Las Casas debated these questions in a disputation before the theologians of Spain at the University of Valladolid. He was among the first theologians to argue in defense of the human rights of native peoples and is considered a forerunner of human rights theory. In a historical irony, he argued that colonists use their African slaves for labor, a position he later retracted after seeing the dehumanization of the slave markets. Whether he is the originator of the slave trade is a question for historians to elucidate.
What is evident from the historical record is that native peoples were the object of genocide and enforced labor. Since their spiritual and intellectual capacity was disputed, the defense of their humanity rested on the question of their participation in the divine Logos, the Greek concept for rational being which we translate as the Word or Verbo in Christian theology. Las Casas argued that native peoples were indeed endowed with the intellectual capacity to receive the Word and thus become a people of faith with proper catechesis. His defense of their humanity meant a defense of their human dignity, a concept which theologians trace to the Imago Dei, the image of God notion of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus, to be created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27) meant that all native peoples have an inherent dignity endowed by their Creator which no enforced labor ideology or slave-trafficking system could defy or refute. This theological framework formed in part the basis for his justice demand and defense of the original inhabitants of the Americas.
For Las Casas, the native inhabitant is a human being who is first and foremost the evangelical neighbor. These are the poor of Jesus Christ to whom the love of God is owed. In his treatise Apologia he asserts that the indigenous peoples are our siblings as Christ has given his life for them. In his Memorial de Remedios (1516) he declares that they are free and ought to be treated as such. One is obligated to love them as a brother or sister as one would love God. This is key for Las Casas for the love of God cannot exist without the love of neighbor, the love of neighbor without the love of God. Love of God, love of neighbor, these are simultaneous loves and justice is the enactment of this love.
The proclamation of the gospel was for Las Casas the sole reason for which Europeans might legitimately find themselves in the Indies. He expressed this concern in the significance that he gave for learning the language of the native inhabitants. In The Only Way (de unico vocationis), he argued for evangelization by peaceful charity and respect not by “fire and the sword.” He recommended that bishops appointed for the Indies learn the native languages with all diligence for language is an element of culture and culture is life! This is a vital lesson that the church is still learning and an imperative and directive for evangelical mission, ¡gracias a Bartolomé de las Casas!