What would you do if you realized you were participating in a great wrong? Would it be enough to stop committing that wrong and give up your ill-gotten gains? Or would you repent, seek to make restitution for your sin, and convince others to stop as well? Consider the example of Bartolome de las Casas, a sinner who saw the error of his ways and spent the rest of his life campaigning against that sin and advocating for the universal rights of humankind.
Bartolome de las Casas was born in Spain in 1484. At the age of 18, he immigrated with his merchant father to the island of Hispaniola. He became the owner of a plantation and received an encomienda, or the labor of native slaves which the Spanish believed were the reward due to conquerors.
In 1510, he was ordained as a priest; at that time, he saw no conflict between his faith and his keeping of slaves. When a group of Dominican friars arrived in Santo Domingo that year, they were appalled by the injustices they saw. One friar, Antonio de Montesinos, preached a fiery sermon against the colonists, thundering, “Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?” Las Casas argued for the justice of slavery and the encomienda system.
But in 1514, while preparing a sermon, he saw these words in the book of Sirach: “The offering of him that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, is stained… The Lord is only for them that wait upon him in the way of truth and justice.” [Sir. 34:21-22]. The words burned in his mind, and he realized that the Spanish colonists had committed great injustices.
Las Casas freed his slaves and gave up his encomienda, and preached to his fellow colonists to do likewise. For the next fifty years, he would do everything in his power to stop slavery and the mistreatment of natives in the New World.
It was a long and often lonely struggle. In 1515, he sailed to Spain and reported on the atrocities he had seen. The king sent a group of monks to take over government of the colonies. But when their reforms were too modest for las Casas’ standards, he returned to Spain to lobby again for justice.
He convinced the Spanish Crown to give him a land grant in Venezuela, where he planned to set up communities where freed natives and Spaniards would build a civilization together. But his settlement was harassed and raided repeatedly by his fellow Spaniards, and within a couple of years it was burned to the ground.
Undaunted, las Casas continued to protest encomiendas and the assault on natives. He seemed to have triumphed when the Spanish crown abolished encomiendas in 1523. But the colonists revolted, and encomiendas were brought back just three years later.
In 1536, las Casas argued in a debate with Franciscan friars that natives should be persuaded individually by reason to convert to Christianity, rather than being converted by force in mass groups. To prove his point, he went to Guatemala and attempted voluntary conversions, reasoning with the natives as equals. His approach was a great success; he converted several chiefs and got many churches built.
Returning to Spain to secure support for his mission, las Casas took the opportunity to testify to the king (now Emperor Charles V) about the horrific abuses that colonists committed against the natives. He noted that “[t]he natives are capable of Morality” and praised their “Humility and Patience,” while denouncing the Spanish for behaving “like most cruel tigers, wolves, and lions, hunger-starved” and for having “so inhumanely and barbarously butchered and harassed” the natives.
Moved by these reports, the Emperor signed the New Laws, abolishing encomiendas and calling for slaves to be freed within a generation. And las Casas returned to the New World as Bishop of Chiapas. It seemed as though his long campaign was victorious at last.
Alas, it was not to be. Once again, the colonists violently resisted the New Laws, which were repealed in 1545. And las Casas’ refusal to give absolution to slave owners unless they freed their slaves infuriated the people in his diocese, who began shooting at him. He resigned as bishop the next year and returned to Spain for good.
But he did not give up his campaign. Until his death in 1566, he worked with the imperial court, advocating on behalf of the natives and against slavery, publishing books about the atrocities committed by colonists.
There are few greater stains on the soul of humanity than slavery. But for a slave owner like Bartolome de las Casas to become a fierce advocate for justice demonstrates the great capacity for human redemption. There is no wrong so great that a committed soul, with true repentance and the grace of God, cannot make it right.
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