+ THE GREAT LIE: the religious roots of colonial slavery

to read this article, click on this link: pov102_blog3

This article is semi-autobiographical.  It traces one aspect of the journey that brought me from where I was in the mid ’60’s to where I am now.  There were other elements that affected that journey.  This one had to do with the place that the Catholic belief system occupied in my life.

7 comments on “+ THE GREAT LIE: the religious roots of colonial slavery

  1. Peter Hinde says:

    Dear Tony,

    I just read your article on Western Christianity’s hubris and your own awakening; and then your analysis with the help of Freire, Liberation Theology and many others. It is a very good article and carries one right along with your passion on the subject. Don’t forget Freire’s “the oppressed interiorize the value judgments of the oppressor.”

    I have some questions. While you use Las Casas to good effect, I think you misrepresent him by saying on P.18 … whose humanity shown through the crust of his loyalty. This too is a lie.” Also what I can recall of my reading of his”Destruction of the Indies” he spoke not only for the right to life and dignity of individual peoples in “America” but for their right to their culture and self-determination, their self rule .

    Moreover, the debate with Vives Sepulvida focused, maybe not in the first instance, but at the critical point not on whether the indians have souls, but whether they were children and therefore the need for the patronato. After all if they did not have souls how could they be baptised.

    I think that your treatment of the history at points is with a bludgeon, not giving enough recognition of the process and context, the limitations set up, indeed, by the imperial structures at once political and religious that conditioned leaders as well as scholars of those times.

    I have brought up to our Carmelite experts the question of how Teresa of Avila who had an uncle and a brother conquistadores with whom she correspondeded yet never discovered the nature of the conquest, much less to protest it. She had a heightened concern to pray for the conversion of those pagan peoples and therefore for the success of the conquest. She was contemporary of the debates between Las Casas and Juan Gines Sepulveda; she dealt with the upper crust of her society for the sake of her foundations, but yet never mentions this debate taking place.

    The answer I kept getting: she was conditioned by her times and may be never heard of the debate. Now, though that doesn’t satisfy, it nevertheless does bring up a point about context and process.

    I’m glad you didn’t bring up Las Casas’ early suggestion that blacks be substituted for indians because they could survive the duress of the save labor. James Cone at one time threw that up to Liberation theologians. But Las Casas repented of that later and inserted in his later “Brevisimas … Africa” 17 chapters denouncing the enslavement of blacks as he did of the indians earier. (cf “Brevisima Relacion de la Destruccion de Africa” by Las Casas with 195 pages of introduction by Isacio Perez F ernandez, O.P. for the 78 pages of Las Casas.) Moreover, he had no direct knowledge of conditions in Africa as he did in the Indies whuch was naturally his chief concern.

    P. 19 line 20 “…worthy of a retrospective snicker.” on whose part?

    P. 20 line 18 “central doctrine of Christian belief” but also and maybe principally a political belief.

    P. 20/41 Is it not your thesis in your book [An Unknown God] that the christian mys-tics often broke out of the provincial European christian mentality?


  2. tonyequale says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful and referenced reply. I will respond to some points here. Some others may require more reflection, and I will respond later.

    First let me say that since you located the article on my BLOG, and had a hard time posting your comment, I assume that you would not be averse to my posting it on the BLOG for you and my answering it there. Here, I will re-print in italics whatever paragraph I’m responding to.

    … While you use Las Casas to good effect, I think you misrepresent him by saying on P. 18 … whose humanity shown through the crust of his loyalty. This too is a lie.” Also what I can recall of my reading of his “Destruction of the Indies” he spoke not only for the right to life and dignity of individual peoples in “America” but for their right to their culture and self-determination, their self rule.

    My issue with De las Casas is not that he didn’t thoroughly denounce the injustices of his countrymen, but that he had no structural critique. In other words, he didn’t see beyond the immoral behavior of the colonizers to the structural support given by Prince and Pope in this transparent justification for slavery and plunder. The “loyalties” I speak of are his silence in that regard. I can understand it … and as I mentioned, it may even have been strategic on his part … as perhaps also was his call that the Papal Bull of Donation be respected and the Indians be converted. But the tacit exoneration of the King and the overt reverence for Unam Sanctam ― objectively, if not intentionally ― constitutes part of the Great Lie.

    And don’t forget, De las Casas’ Historia … written at the end of his long life, was published posthumously at his own request, because even at that remove … more than a decade after he won the debates over encomienda, … his denunciations would have put him in mortal danger. Yet he never denounced or criticized the King.

    Moreover, the debate with Vives Sepulvida focused, maybe not in the first instance, but at the critical point not on whether the indians have souls, but whether they were children and therefor the need for the patronato. After all if they did not have souls how could they be baptised.

    That the Amerindians “had no souls” was the original position of beneficiaries of the encomienda system. As I noted in the article, the enslavement of “christians” was frowned upon. Therefore their first “argument” was that the indigenous people were incapable of becoming christian … at first, be-cause they had no souls, and then, when that was directly contradicted by a Papal Bull (why should that even have required clarification?), because whatever soul they may have was so totally corrupted by their millennial possession by the devil (they were unbaptized), that they required a lifetime of penitential service to “christians” before they could become christians.

    But please note … with or without “souls” everything turned on “baptism.” This is core Christian Doctrine. I’m not after proving the spanish colonizers were thieves, liars and murderers … we all know that. What I’m ultimately after is showing that Christian doctrine as formulated in the aftermath of christian Roman ascendency lent itself ineluctibly to the plunder of those people. If I were to speak to the issue theologically, I would say that it was precisely the ex opere operato and extra ecclesiam nulla salus features of “baptism” that permitted these outrages. Had baptism remained the symbol of an adult act of personal surrender, none of this would have been possible, because the majority of those spaniards would themselves never have em-braced christianity. As pro forma “christians” they showed themselves to be grossly less human than the indians. Is this what christianity accomplished after 1500 years of “cultural penetration”? Is this christian baptism?

    It’s because the 4th century needs of the Roman theocracy catapaulted baptism into a physico-juridical entity permitting imperial control over even the “souls” of people. It was used as a sigillum of membership in “God’s Rome.” Why is this so hard to see? The sacraments are human symbols of human conversion … not, as traditionally and officially presented, hydraulic pumps and cosmic branding irons! This has the Roman Empire written all over it! And it was a tool used with devastating effect by spanish imperial-ists.

    I’m sure that in the debates ― which astonishingly were held a full 20 years after the promulgation and subsequent repeal of the “New Laws” of the ‘40’s (forbidding, then permitting encomienda) ― Sepulveda restricted himself to the “infantile” argument … which, after all, was classic Aristotle. But it’s noteworthy that the Spanish Crown, which kept meticulous records of all its dealings, never published them. One may surmise it was because De las Casas’ victory was so overwhelming that, had they been made public, there would have been a firestorm of protest over the practice of encomienda … it’s not surprising Teresa knew nothing of it. But in fact, after De las Casas’ privately admitted but publicly unacknowledged triumph, encomienda continued on for another 150 years.

    More to come later.

  3. tonyequale says:

    Pete … let me continue to respond to your comment.

    1. The “retrospective snicker” was a somewhat cynical allusion to the reaction that some readers of history (like me) would have at even the suggestion that the King would actually make morality and justice a priority over wealth and power. From my perspective, it was a naive hope. Granted, a snicker is not very charitable …

    2. The central doctrines of christian belief (baptism and church membership) did not of themselves create the horrors of the conquista, but they were already structured in such a way as to be easily used for the purposes of human abasement and subjugation. That structure, I claim, is a distortion and a corruption of the original significance of baptism … a distortion introduced by the Roman Empire a thousand years earlier in order to facilitate the use of christianity as an instrument of state control and social compliance.

    3. Yes, indeed. The mystics saw through and beyond most of this stuff. But mysticism had been sidelined and relegated to the monasteries … marginated, closeted … that’s why Teresa never knew about what was going on.

  4. Bill Davis says:

    Tony– Don’t know if this is the place to write this, but congratulations on both the blog and the book! My check is in the mail for the latter.

  5. tonyequale says:


    These BLOGS have so many compartments … and they are all alike …
    Thanks for the note, Bill, it’s much appreciated. And I’m looking forward to your comments and observations, not only on the book, but on these other articles I have uploaded.

    I hope you and Kendra are well. We are all ecstatic over Obama’s victory. It will take a long time for the excitement to subside. I hope he can get a few things done … besides what he just did!


  6. bjrooney says:


    I’m just getting used to this blogging bit, but what I’ve found so far indicates great possibilities. As I’ve already mentioned, Crossan’s ‘God & Empire’ is very enlightening from a ‘perspective’ point of view. That’s why I would like to go back to the beginning… De Las Casas is interesting and important, but it’s the middle of the story. May I bring you back to the beginning?

    The info is very troublesome, of course… no NY Times available and what credence can you put in the Gospels? That being said, if we could agree on a relatively good handle on this area of the Middle East from say 200 bce to 50 ce, would such ‘handle’ provide more help as to what happened and which way should we go from this foundation? [I won’t belabor the role of myth in the writings we have and what that means].
    If we start with Crossan, we have at least three keys: 1) whoever Ye’shua was, he was against Empire and its ways. 2) the role of the various Jewish participants in his story must be re-written. 3) is not the key question: if we have a ‘good enough’ re-write of the picture of 25-35 ce, don’t we have to ask ourselves what did ye-shua want and what should we be doing?

    Do these questions or do they not rain on ‘the Bingo Parade’ of 2008? Shouldn’t we be gearing up against Empire [within and without the ‘Church?’]? Shouldn’t we be doing every thing we can to ‘get clear’ with and about the Jewish and Islamic communities. There’s no better time than now – everybody we met in Cairo had a smile for and about Obama.

    One may rightly respond to that direction as follows: don’t you think Ye-shua was all about ‘communities of the poor?’; he was not a community-organizer, not a politico, if Rome left him alone, he’d leave Rome alone, Rome you always have with you, etc.

    Bottom line: it is ALL of one piece and choices have to be made. The “Unknown God” goes to the heart of the matter and in doing so presents a fork in the road – go down the list of names and ask each one of us – are you going to stay on the same path or are you going to tool up for a very different direction. If we’re not ’empire’ who are we?? [but, of course, we ARE Empire… we who are living the good life… we who claim ‘poverty of spirit’ but are not touched by ‘poverty in fact.’ We pay people to carry the sword for us…]

    Once again, well done hermano ..


  7. tonyequale says:


    Thanks for the tips. Crossan’s book is on order. I look forward to it. I’ve found many of his books helpful and I expect this will be also.

    What’s important to me is that I know that empire is anti-human … I don’t need Jesus to tell me that … but I would certainly expect Jesus to have agreed with me … but if by some chance he didn’t, or Crossan or someone else decided he didn’t, I would not have taken it to be some sort of contrary mandate. Jesus doesn’t command … if we think of his humanity as thoroughly “divine,” he never exercised his “divinity” in that sense of issuing commandments … that is the typical “Roman” reading of divinty … and it’s completely contrary to the kenosis characteristic of Jesus’ style.

    So his “style” and my reading of the inhumanity of empire concur. This concurrence is the only support I’d expect to get from Jesus’ message … and … in turn, it serves to help us sort out what in the gospels is of Jesus … and what is later ecclesiatical overlay.

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