Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566)

The other day I picked up a book I bought many years ago but never read: Witness: Writings of Bartolomé de las Casas, edited by George Sanderlin. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992). Nevertheless, I brought it down here to Honduras thinking I should read it some day. The day has come and fortuitously.

Bartolomé de las Casas came to the “New World” a few years after Columbus “discovered” it. Even though he was a priest he eventually settled in Cuba with land and Indian servants in an encomienda. Well, God works in strange ways and, reading a passage from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), chapter 34, he realized he had to give up this privilege and began to preach against the enslavement of the native peoples.

Eventually he became a Dominican, went to the Spanish court and interceded for the native peoples. He tried to start a Utopian experiment on the northern coast of what is now Venezuela, but it failed – mostly due to the rapacity of Spanish settlers.

Eventually he was appointed the bishop of Chiapas in what is now southern Mexico. He got in trouble here when he preached against slave holding and forbade his priests to grant absolution to any slaveholders, unless they gave up their slaves.

Things got so bad he went to the Audiencia de los Confines in Gracias a Dios, currently Gracias, Lempira. The president of the Audiencia, a sort of royal court, called Las Casas a “lunatic,” and didn’t really help him.

Las Casas also made a visit to Gracias in November 1544 to ordain his fellow Dominican Antonio Valdivieso as bishop of León, in current day Nicaragua. Valdivieso was martyred February 26, 1550, by Spanish settlers in Leon for his defense of the native peoples.

Las Casas gave up his bishopric and returned to Spain where he spent many years in controversies over the native peoples of the Americas and writing about the “Destruction of the Indies,” and many other topics.

What struck me was a book where he defended the “rationality” of these “Indian peoples. Las Casas defended them and praised their political prudence as well as their sanguine temperament.

He might have been a little overenthusiastic but he saw the good and the capacities of these peoples, as well as their possibilities. One commentator called his work an “anthropology of hope.”

This stuck me because I have learned, especially in the last year, the great capacities and possibilities of the people in the countryside here. I have also been frustrated by those who would denigrate them and see them only as victims of injustice or poverty. These include some groups who come from the US to “help” the people here, without realizing that the people here have capabilities.

I have also been frustrated by those who see education as “the way” to develop the lives of the people and don’t spend enough time learning from the people and their native knowledge. Many of these don’t see that the lack of “development” here is not due to the lack of outside help – thousands come here from the US each year and there are hundreds of non-governmental organizations working here. But many of these fail to see the unjust structures and the tremendous disparity of wealth and land-tenure that keep people poor.

And so it was refreshing to read Bartolomé de las Casas. It was also refreshing to hear a recent visitor reflect on his trip to the countryside, noting that the people know how to plant on slopes that would possibly provide headaches for many US farmers and agronomists.

And so our work as “outsiders’ is to accompany the people in their journey toward a just society where all may eat. At times we bring resources – material as well as intellectual, but we must remember that the people here also have resources, material, intellectual and SPIRITUAL.

And so, let’s work together, learn from each other, in solidarity.

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