Christianity and Conquest

The effects of European exploration on this continent are said to have been uniformly evil because of the "Christian chauvinism" that dominated the world view of the West. Stories of the brutality and oppression that (supposedly) fall on a culture because of Christianity have become commonplace. Of course most of these "atrocities" cannot be substantiated, but, then again, men who hate God have never been discouraged by an absence of facts to support their assertions. They know that a lie, if repeated often enough, will eventually supplant the truth. This has happened. So complete has the triumph of The Lie been that even Christians reflexively apologize for the "multitude of evils" they have been told were committed by their brethren.

Now, surely there have been many lamentable errors, painful mistakes, and even outright crimes committed in the name of the Savior. Sin and hypocrisy are (and have ever been) sad realities and no one should seek to justify them. But, when we find that many of the "crimes" are pure fabrications or ghastly exaggerations, we need to realize something other than a "search for truth" is afoot.

Modern historical analysis often has the unspoken goal of making Christians appear not only irrational and wacky, but fiendish as well. It is not enough to accuse Christians of error or even of being a little daft, because anyone can tolerate a sincere mistake or a harmless moron. And besides, those of us who are "a few bricks shy of full load" might even excite pity from the thoughtful. But if Christians can be portrayed as schizoid, paranoid, psychotic, Ayatollah-like maniacs, they pass from the category of the mildly amusing into that of the menacing. This is the intention of these historic distortions. They are not merely good-natured, pagan gags. They are sinister to the bone.

The age of exploration has been an easy target for historical distortion for two reasons: 1. Most people know very little about the details of this period; 2. The sins of the explorers can be easily magnified to appear unspeakably repugnant to the "civilized" of our day. Plus, when this is done, you give the modern reader that indescribably exquisite feeling of "superiority." And nothing more delights men (especially perverted men) than feeling superior to the great.

All this is an overly long introduction to the topic this month: the salutary influences of Christianity on the New World. Far from being the engine of oppression, Christianity delivered thousands not only from the slavery of sin but from the tyranny of human tyrants as well. Remember, "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." Christianity always produces freedom. It did so even in the days of the "evil Conquistadors." I want to examine this by answering a number of accusations commonly leveled against the Christian exploration of the New World.

Accusation #1: "Wasn't all the talk about evangelization merely an expression of Western arrogance and a cloak for exploitation?"

Though no one ever has absolutely "pure" motives, we cannot ignore the fact that nearly all the exploration carried out in the 16th century was driven by a real desire to spread the gospel. Medieval Europe was not the ignorant, backward society it is often represented to be. It was, to the contrary, a vibrant, lively place. New inventions and discoveries were almost daily events. There was a burning desire not merely to increase the wealth and commerce of kingdoms, but to learn about the world and to spread the knowledge of Christ. Christianity prevented Europe's interest in the rest of the world from becoming predominantly selfish or exploitive.

Further, whatever pride Europeans had when surveying the world was dwarfed by the pride inherent in contemporary pagan cultures. The Chinese sense of superiority (and even that of the aborigines of North and South America) often made European pride appear the epitome of humility. Unlike pagan societies, which considered themselves the centers of the world, European maps were centered around Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the city of God, was considered both the geographical and the spiritual center of the world. This reveals the dominant mentality of most Europeans in the Middle Ages -- the world existed not for them but for the glory of God.

The Explorers exemplified this mentality more often than not. After Cortez was appointed Governor-General of Mexico, he brought in priests to instruct the natives in the Christian faith. "He requested the emperor to send out holy men to the country . . . whose lives might be a fitting commentary on their teaching." (Prescott, op. cit., p. 248) They were not to force conversions at sword-point but rather to instruct, teach, and live exemplary lives that God might bring these benighted savages to a knowledge of Himself. These priests were granted amazing success. Within a decade, over a million Mexicans had received Christian baptism.

It must be realized that Columbus and Cortez were not exceptions in their spiritual concern. Ferdinand Magellan, Coronado, Balboa, and many others partook of the same spirit. Magellan, for example, refused to forsake a Filipino chieftain (Datu Humabon) who had been converted through his witness. He insisted on staying with him, contrary to the urging of his men, to fight a rival who declared war on Humabon because of his conversion to Christianity. It would be wrong, Magellan reasoned, to forsake a brother in Christ when he faced persecution for the faith. It was in this battle to defend a new Christian that Magellan lost his life (Eidsmoe, op. cit., pp. 285-286). This and many other incidents could be cited to show that the Christianity of the explorers was not a pretext for exploitation of the natives. In spite of their sins and imperfections, the sincerity of these men was unquestionably genuine.

Accusation #2: "How can you defend the genocide of Indian cultures?"

Genocide, i.e., the planned, systematic extermination of a people or culture, never happened. The Conquistadors never engaged in "meaningless slaughter." Medieval scholar, Stafford Poole, has stated, "There are other terms to describe what happened in the Western Hemisphere, but genocide is not one of them. It is a good propaganda term in an age where slogans and shouting have replaced reflection and learning, but to use it in this context is to cheapen both the word itself and the appalling experiences of Jews and Armenians, to mention but two of the major victims of this century." (quoted in Robert Royal, 1492 And All That, p. 63) Genocide was never considered (or attempted) by any of the explorers or their royal sponsors. But, as Poole says, it makes good copy for professional propagandists.

Accusation #3: "What about the slavery introduced by the Europeans?"

First, slavery, as we have previously noted, was not introduced into this hemisphere by the Europeans. It was here for many hundreds of years before the arrival of Columbus. But secondly, the slavery that did occur was challenged and opposed by many European theologians and others. This opposition led Queen Isabella to outlaw enslavement of the natives of the New World within a decade of the first contact. This was unheard of in a day when slavery was accepted and commonplace.

Spain, very early on, began grappling with the ethical questions surrounding the relationship between the New World and the Old. This too occurred at the initiation of Christians. The labors of the Dominican theologian, Francisco de Vitoria were central in laying out just guidelines for the relationship between the Europeans and the barbarians of the New World. He founded his conclusions upon an exposition of the Great Commission (see Ruben Alvardo's "Vitoria's New World Order," Contra Mundum, No. 2, Winter, 1992).

Vitoria contended that all the policies of the Europeans must be guided by the ultimate goal of making disciples for Christ and therefore must always seek to act according to the Word of God. His formulations, which were endorsed by the crown, show how far removed from the truth is the accepted view of "age of exploration." The justice and holy restraint exemplified here was unique to the 16th century and stood in stark contrast to the policies of the Moors, Turks, and other pagan nations:

-- Europeans had no right to take land already under cultivation and inhabited by the natives.

-- The Indians may not be deprived of their goods or power on account of their social backwardness . . . or political disorganization.

-- Europeans could occupy land not already claimed by Indians, provided they did no harm to nearby natives.

-- Every man has a right to truth, to education, and to all that forms part of his cultural and spiritual development and advancement.

-- Every Indian is a man and thus capable of attaining salvation or damnation.

-- The Indians have the right not to be baptized and not to be forced to convert to Christianity against their will.

-- Spaniards may justly defend themselves against belligerent Indians so long as they stay within limits of legitimate defense; but they may not use victory as an excuse for seizing the Indians' towns or for enslaving their inhabitants;

-- Recourse to war may not serve as a pretext for slaughtering, or sacking, or occupying the towns of the Indians.

According to Vitoria, there were only a very few reasons that justified Europeans taking over the rule of natives. Prominent among those reasons were "the protection of innocents from human sacrifice and cannibalism, and native blocking of peaceful evangelization." (Royal, op. cit., pp. 78,80) All this is essentially an exposition and application of the Christian view of "just war." As Robert Royal notes, the "principles of self-defense, just cause, discrimination, proportionality, and last resort are applied to both Spaniards and Indians equally." These guidelines were followed, for the most part, both by the explorers and the missionaries to the New World.

Cortez, contrary to his ruthless reputation, showed unheard of moderation (at least for his day) in his policies toward the Mexican tribes. Whenever natives fell into his hands, they were kindly treated, their needs supplied, and "every means taken to infuse into them a spirit of conciliation" (W. H. Prescott, The Conquest of Mexico, quoted in Eidsmoe, op. cit., p. 246). Remember, this policy was followed in spite of the fact that Spaniards captured by the Aztecs had their hearts ripped from their chests.

None of this is meant to imply that there were no abuses perpetrated by the Conquistadors. But it is to say that there was a rationale that stood against these violations of Biblical justice. Furthermore, when there were abuses by the Conquistadors, there was, in nearly every case, someone who raised a voice of protest. Preeminent among the defenders of the Indians was another Dominican friar, Bartolome' de Las Casas. Las Casas was a constant, if not always a wise, defender of native rights.

The criticisms of Las Casas and the writings of Vitoria had a formative influence on Spanish policy in the New World. This policy was not perfect, but it was a far cry from the viewpoint of any other contemporary pagan culture. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has commented on the uniqueness of this policy saying that it "could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was a part, because he existed only as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality."

The idea that the policies of the king were open to critical examination is distinctively Christian as is the thought that the State can be wrong. Christians acknowledge the sovereignty of God and His authority over all earthly rulers. Thus, all rulers were subject to divine critique. God's Word, not the king's, was the final authority and the ultimate standard of justice. By contrast, in pagan cultures, the state (or King) was equivalent to God. To challenge a ruling or policy was equal to blasphemy. Pagan societies, as a result, have historically been stagnant, top-heavy, and intensely unfriendly toward calls for political reform. Change can only be brought about by force. Peaceful reformation is a distinctively Christian idea. What occurred in Spain could not have happened in a pagan nation.

There is no question that the coming of Christian Europeans brought about radical changes in this hemisphere. Many native cultures were never the same again. But, the question should be asked, "Was this detrimental or evil?" What precisely did the Indians lose because of Christianity?

We can list a few things: They lost tyranny, oppression, and ignorance. They lost the terrifying spirit-world of paganism. They lost their ferocious hatred for others that fed fierce racism and cruelty. They lost the practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism, infanticide and euthanasia, immorality and homosexuality. They lost a way of life predicated upon death and destruction.

Only in this century have such "losses" been viewed as a reason for grief. But such is our sad blindness. Death is confused with life. Slavery is called freedom. Courage is styled cowardice. Compassion is labeled condescension. Honor is made to appear odious. Good and great men are denounced and slandered while the wicked and perverse are glorified. Such are the judgments of men devoid of the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). Thus, our leaders destroy true liberty in the name of freedom and forge chains of slavery while promising equality. Unless God is pleased to revive a love for His truth, we will continue to follow these blind men and so unavoidably fall into the ditch of God's judgment.