Spanish Christianity and Colonialism and Native Americans

This is part of a blog-a-book series on Jake Page's In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000 Year History of the American Indians. I'm curious as to what effect did Christ and his teaching have on these explorers from a devout nation and their proselytizers. Page makes some observations about this. By God's grace, a wise theologian acknowledged Spain's lack of rights to the newly discovered land, but he was slippery too and left a gaping hole in this ethical corral. Additionally, not all explorers felt bound by the philosophy of someone so far away and unable to enforce it.

The Spanish monarch, however, was an utterly devout Catholic and earnestly wished that his country follow policies in its empire building that accorded with the dictates of the church. He asked a leading theologian, Francisco de Vitoria, to ponder what rights the Spanish could claim in these new lands. Vitoria decided that the Indians truly owned the land and, merely discovering it themselves, the Spanish could not claim ownership. Ownership by discovery, he concluded, was only legitimate if the land was already unowned. Instead, the Indians could voluntarily agree to cede land to the new arrivals – unless, of course, a just war took place, and such a war could not be simply a matter of whim. Justification for a war would arise only if the Indians did not allow the newcomers to “sojourn” there, to live there, to travel, and to trade.

This became the philosophical basis, generally accepted by the other European nations as well who were nosing around the continent at the time, for dealing with Indians of at least the Northern Hemisphere. It would, of course, often be ignored by conquistadors and others on the ground thousands of miles from the enlightened courts of Europe. But in this age of rapid European expansion into other parts of the world, this position did recognize the Indian peoples as legitimate entities that should be dealt with by means of treaties, agreements, and other mutual agreements. There were good practical reasons to abide by this, particularly in the early years, when Europeans were very few and Indians were very many, but as often as not what seemed practical reasons for starting a “just war” arose as well. Rejection of Christ’s message was often seen as a good reason for hostilities. (110)

The missionaries and conquerors believed Christianity could only look like their own culture. They believed Christ's teaching was incompatible with different dress, rites, seasons, priorties, too the detriment of the kingdom of God.
As historian Wilcomb E. Washburn summarized the matter: In the first centuries after the birth of Christ, the Christian message spoke for the weak and oppressed. Its message was one of peace and love. The New Testament message might have been understood and honored by the Indians in America had it been preached as it was on the shores of Galilee. But by the time the American Indian came face to face with the doctrine of Christ it had hardened into a mold of bigotry, intolerance, militancy and greed which made it the mortal enemy of the American Indian…The new look of Christianity reflected the changed status of the sect: from that of persecuted minority to dominant majority. (111)

Please read more of my posts in book reports, Native Americans, missions, missionaries, the church, and history.


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