Christianity, Conquistadors, & Identity

BY ZELINA GAYTAN, CONTIBUTING WRITER

The story of one empire conquering another is not a new one. Even so, the conquest of indigenous peoples in Latin America–the Aztecs, the Mayas, the Incas, and so on, by the Spanish empire in the early 16th century is a ghost to Latin American people. One of the most highly problematic aspects of this conquest was the treatment of indigenous peoples who were forced to convert to Christianity through violent and dehumanizing tactics.

In 1492, Columbus arrived in the Caribbean and began the expansion of the Spanish empire over most of North and South America which would span four centuries. For the Spaniards, colonization of the new world was a God-given task. In 1539, Jesuit missionary and naturalist, Jose de Acosta, wrote:

There is no lack of affirmation that it’s prophesied in the Divine Letters…that this New Orbe [new world] would be converted to Christ and by the Spanish people…the prophet himself, speaks that those who are saved shall go very far to Tarsis, to remote islands…and without a doubt we can apply that to the conversion of the people of the indies.1

  Acosta expressed the Spaniards’ belief that they were the people through whom God would spread his message of salvation. Yet, the reality was quite contrary. Another missionary, Bartolome de las Casas, recounts what would happen to those who would not convert:

…in honor and reverence to our Redeemer and the twelve disciples, laying wood and fire they burned them alive … I am a witness to all of these things and many more forms of cruelty never seen or heard before.2

This genocide was not only of human lives but of culture, too. The colonization of indigenous people by Spaniards also brought about a new ethnicity-mestizaje-which is the best word I can use to describe myself. Mestizaje or mixed, is a description for people who are not fully indigenous, nor European.

It is curious to many and frustrating to others that I would also identify myself as Christian and come to accept what is called “the gospel,” the message of salvation that the Spaniards were purportedly bringing to the Americas. I willfully converted to Christianity, and believe that I receive salvation and atonement for my sins through Jesus’s death. Yet I have not simply forgotten or denied this history. It’s clear that it was Christians who dehumanized my ancestors. I decided, though, that I would judge the Christian God by what He himself said and how he behaved. Thus, I took up reading the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life.

What I found in the New Testament accounts was perplexing. Jesus, though a man, claimed multiple times to also be God, the Creator of all. If that were true, one would imagine that Jesus could wield his power to do as he pleased, maybe doing the same things that the Conquistadors did. Yet the life of Christ testifies to something different.

He was born of peasant parents in an animal barn, and his life was characterized by humility and descent even unto his death by crucifixion. Why would a God-man limit his power in such a way?  Philippians 2:7 gives this insight:

Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

The narrative of the conquistadors is so contrary to this narrative of self-sacrificing love seen in Christ. Their actions towards indigenous people are the opposite of God’s heart as expressed in the Bible. Sometimes I wonder, then, why God let the gospel be introduced to my Indigenous ancestors through colonization, and why the gospel was manipulated so much. Though I do not know exactly why God didn’t intervene, I have good reasons to trust in Him despite that. What I see in the Christian conquistadors was not Christ-like, not the gospel. Yet, I do see the truth of the gospel in it: for the gospel first claims that humans are morally bankrupt and constantly trying to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, causing destruction to ourselves and others.

Christ offers a counter-narrative to that of the conquistadors. A narrative of love. One Bible commentator put it this way, “Human love will go far in self-abnegation and self-surrender. But divine love will make the infinite descent from the very heights of glory to the very depths of shame.”3 It was this divine love that moved me to become a follower of Christ.

1. José de Acosta – Jane E.Mangan – Walter Mignolo – Frances M.López-Morillas Duke University Press – 2002

2. Bartolomé de las Casas – Nigel Griffin – Penguin Books – 1992

3. “God’s Self-Limitations, Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism, Augustus Hopkins Strong, Christian Classics Books at BibleStudyTools.com.” Bible Study Tools. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Zelina Gaytan is a fourth-year Spanish major who loves the X-Men and Christian ska.

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