One of the most fascinating moments in the long history of Bartolomé de las Casas’ defense of natives in the Americas on the question on human sacrifice (along with cannibalism).
Many reasons are given in the 16th century to justify the wars against and subsequent slavery and servitude of the natives: their idolatry, their inferior status, Aristotle’s notion of “natural slaves,” support for evangelization, the political rights of the Crown, etc. Las Casas, of course, argues powerfully against these justifications. Throughout his life one of Las Casas’ most fundamental principles is that the purpose of the Spanish presence in the Americas is evangelization and this must be done without coercion or violence; indeed, Christian actions were seen as the fundamental impediment to evangelization. In one chilling passage he says “the name of Christian is so abhorrent that they would rather go to hell, reasoning that there will be no Christians to associate with there, than to paradise, where they would have to be with them” (Gutiérrez, Las Casas, 75). Thus, the best thing the Spanish could do to pursue this goal would be to leave (except for some preachers, of course).
The opponents of Las Casas, in addition to sheer political and economic power and social prejudice, had another argument against him: if we are to care for the victims of this world and love our neighbor, what about the many victims of human sacrifice? Don’t these religious practices among the natives violate natural law and offend God? Don’t Christians have the duty to care for their neighbor and extend their solidarity to these innocent victims? Taking the final step, many argued that love of neighbor made conquest a duty. Las Casas’ response to this line of questions is complex, appealing to various scholastic teachings (such as Aquinas on following an erroneous conscience) and to the concrete circumstances of his time. Las Casas is clear from the beginning on a couple of points: first, the elimination of human sacrifice was not the reasons for the Spanish conquest. This is simply an attempt to justify what has occurred in the Americas after the fact. Second, many more people have died due to the idolatrous actions of the Europeans than the in the sacrificial cults of natives (against the inflated numbers thrown about in Spain). Any fear of native return to these traditions does not outweigh the destruction caused by the continued presence of the Spanish and the system of encomienda.
Nevertheless, he pushes further and mounts a defense of the sacrificial traditions themselves. He cannot appeal to the idea of “invincible ignorance” since we are dealing, in part, with natural law (which is accessible to all). Thus, Las Casas makes a bold assertion that the sacrifice of human beings to a god is not contrary to the natural law. He argues first that by natural law all people are obliged to honor God as best they can and offer their best to God in sacrifice: “it is a duty in natural law to offer sacrifice to the true God or to the one regarded as such” (180). However, Las Casas says it is left to human or “positive” law to determine what is to be sacrificed to God. In the absence of a positive law to the contrary and in the presence of an authoritative religious tradition, he goes so far as to say that human sacrifice could be considered a “moral duty” for the natives since we are obliged to offer to God what is most precious. In all of this Las Casas sees a profound religious sense within the native religious traditions.
This short presentation of Las’ Casas defense does not do justice to his reasoning and his call for toleration; nor does it answer the many questions raised by such analysis. He does not argue that these practices are good. Indeed, he says quite explicitly that they are not. His point is that the religious customs of the natives are reasonable for those without revelation rather than a sign of moral and natural inferiority.
*** A fellow Notre Dame doctoral student who is in Spain for the semester just started a blog which engages this material as part of his dissertation research into Las Casas and the School of Salamanca. For those interested in this period of Christian history, check it out!
Liberation theologians in general and Jon Sobrino in particular do not hesitate to use harsh condemnation when they see forces which oppose the rights and welfare of the poor and vulnerable. These people and structures are part of the “anti-Kingdom,” opposing the God of life by supporting idols of death (capitalism, national security, etc.). Sobrino’s writings always have a prophetic ring: the civilization of wealth is killing the poor and we must fight to uncover the truth and oppose this injustice with everything we can. Yet, it is important to note how Sobrino’s conceives of his project. He distinguishes between personal, social, historical, and transcendent salvation. In the book No Salvation outside the Poor, he says (and I think this is consistent with the majority of his writings), “here we will concentrate on the historical-social salvation of a gravely ill society” (57). This passage is key to understanding why his use of “salvation” in the rest of the text is indeed partial but not reductionistic.
What I want to point out here is the the way in which prophetic judgment on those who oppress the poor (and thus crucify Christ) functions. Just as much as salvation, judgment seems to remain on the historical-social level. We have many prophetic warnings about how the rich and powerful are actively opposing the will of God and God’s Kingdom. There is a striving for liberation that demands such condemnation. Nevertheless, it is striking how modern this move is in how it limits such warnings. This is clear when we read Bartolomé de Las Casas. In Las Casas we have anticipations of many impulses within liberation theology from someone deeply rooted in the biblical text and genuinely open to the suffering of the oppressed. Yet his warning go much further. One passage will suffice: interpreting Matthew 25 by recalling a question from Augustine he says, “If someone is damned to hellfire by Christ saying to him or her, ‘I was naked and you did not clothe me,’ to what hellfire will they be damned to whom He says, ‘I was clothed and you stripped me” (quoted in Gutiérrez, Las Casas 64). This passage is typical of Las Casas’ prophetic critique of the Spaniards and the socio-economic order they created. No wonder they didn’t like him! Here we have an intimate connection between the social-historical and the personal-transcendent, which brings out there seriousness of the social-historical all the more. I do not know where the line is between scare tactics and proclaiming the truth of what is really going on, but I find something utterly biblical, compelling, and unsettling in Las Casas’ words. The prophetic denunciation of people and and nations which oppress the poor goes all the way down – in oppressing the poor we reject God. As with most of us today I am no fan of fire-and-brimstone preaching (I’ll take Balthasar’s talk of universal hope any day), but if were going to have it I’ll take Las Casas.