by Samuel Escobar
The 500th anniversary of Hispanic presence in the New World has ignited debate virtually everywhere.
"Church sponsored racism, the enslavement of the native inhabitants, and moral decadence were introduced into the hemisphere." This is what Christopher Columbus brought to the Americas in 1492, according to the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. In America, the magazine of the Jesuit order in the U.S., Roman Catholic historian James Muldoon has responded to the NCC's statement, saying that "(it) does deserve some serious attention because of the way in which it distorts the historical record, in order to justify its charge of collective guilt.
The 500th anniversary of Hispanic presence in the New World has ignited debate virtually everywhere. According to Uruguayan Methodist pastor Emilio Castro, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, "From a European perspective, a Te Deum could be called for; from the perspective of the oppressed people of the Americas, the survivors of the original inhabitants of those countries, it will be the occasion for a Requiem."
The Iberian conquest and evangelization of the Americas in the 16th century has frequently been perceived through a highly critical and even hostile lens. The vast amount of literature produced from this perspective has been called a "Black Legend" by the defenders of Spain and Portugal. Historian Charles Gibson said that "Here the term legend' is applied to the traditional literature that criticizes the people, history, and national character of Spain, in part for cruelty in the conquest of native America, and in part for bigotry, pride, hypocrisy, and other more or less undesirable attributes."
Evangelical missionaries to Latin America in the past were inclined to accept the Black Legend uncritically. In 1932 John A. Mackay, Presbyterian missionary to Peru, scholar, and ecumenical leader, published The Other Spanish Christ, a classic interpretation of the spiritual condition of Latin America, which included an extended study of 16th century Iberian evangelization. He was among the relatively few missionaries who were well acquainted with the history and culture of the Iberian nations because he had studied in Spain prior to going to Peru, where among other things, he was appointed to chair the philosophy department in the National University of San Marcos.
His more sympathetic work showed that, as in other historical events, post-1492 developments were a mixture of light and shadows. For instance, one of those who provided the bulk of the artillery against Spain in the 16th century was Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566), a Spanish Dominican priest. He wrote extensively and critically about the abuses of the conquistadores. Many others like him searched for missionary methods closer to the model of Jesus Christ than to that of the Crusaders.
In recent years historians have contributed an incredible amount of data about Catholic missions during the conquest and colonial domination that followed Columbus' arrival. Included are classic studies about missionary methods, such as those by Robert Ricard and Lewis Hanke, and more recent studies by Manuel Marzal and Pedro Borges. These works are filled with lessons for today's missionary.
Liberation theologians, such as Enrique Dussel, with their look at church history from the perspective of the poor, have emphasized the interaction of religious history with socioeconomic factors. However, in some cases the use of Marxist presuppositions and categories of analysis may end by offering a picture of history in which events like 16th-century evangelization appear as little more than the religious cover-up for military conquest and political domination.
Missionaries should be thankful for the flood of materials about missionary work from Spain and Portugal. Whether apologetic or controversial, such materials help to clarify our understanding of this important chapter in the history of missions. In 1979, following their assembly at Puebla, Mexico, Roman Catholic bishops sought to balance the record: "It is true that in its work of evangelization the Church had to bear the weight of its lapses, its acts of complicity with the earthly powers, its incomplete pastoral vision, and the destructive force of sin. But we must also recognize that evangelization, which makes Latin America a 'continent of hope,' has been far more powerful than the dark shadows that unfortunately accompanied it in the historical context through which it had to live.
As a Latin American evangelical myself, although I may not see the outcome as positive as the bishops did, I do recognize that 16th-century evangelization has to be evaluated from not just a sociological perspective, but from missiological and theological perspectives as well. Our first duty as evangelicals is to find the facts beyond the "black" and "white" legends. One important reason is that Catholic and Marxist historians have developed a new Black Legend about Protestant missionary work of the last two centuries, and especially about evangelicals. Conservative Catholics and Marxists concur in picturing Latin America's Protestant growth as a CIA-inspired plot against liberation theologians, or as an effort by large U.S. corporations to manipulate Latin America's poor. Uninformed journalists and the mass media repeat these charges ad nauseam. We have to avoid a similar approach in our treatment of 16th-century Roman Catholic missions.
More importantly, what can we learn that impinges on modern missions? First, evangelization supported by military conquest will not produce an indigenous, deeply rooted community. When mission depends on political alliances, the missionary becomes an instrument of the politician and the ruling class. That is a precarious position in times of change. After the 18th century, the alliance of Protestant missions and imperialism was not as open and explicit as in Catholic missions in the 16th century. However, even today we still face a great temptation to depend too much on technological and financial power.
Second, the Catholic missionary process was not completed. While some missionaries saw the need for a deep work of conversion and discipleship, others simply served the colonial administrators and started parishes as soon as possible, so they could tax the converts with tithes and tributes for the church and the crown. The political and financial interests of the sending nation became more important than the glory of God and the spiritual welfare of the receiving peoples.
Today we face an obsession in some quarters for numerical growth, for the sake of statistical success or institutional public relations, at the expense of careful, contextual disciple-ship. This is what I call managerial missiology, in which technology displaces theology, and obsession with statistics replaces concern for obedience to the whole counsel of God.
Third, sacrificial service to the poor, in spite of its cost and seeming inefficiency, is a powerful testimony to the transforming power of truth and love. Among the dark records of the 16th century we see people like Las Casas, fighting against the colonial injustices, and Pedro Claver, serving among the slaves of Cartagena. They help us to see God at work in the midst of human madness.
We need to see more evangelical missionaries practicing an incarnational ministry of this kind. At a time when it's most important to remember this truth, we tend to forget the example of our early Protestant pioneer missionaries, such as the Moravians, who followed a sacrificial, incarnational approach. Too often our affluence distances us from the people we seek to serve, and we can find rationalizations to defend us. In some ways, Catholic missionaries who take vows of poverty and celibacy seem better fitted to work among the poor.
Fourth, mission and evangelization that depend too much on a specialized clergy produce passive Christians, and lay people become mere consumers of religion. As Catholics themselves now acknowledge, an important reason for evangelical growth in Latin America is the mobilization of the laity. The inability of Roman Catholics to do the same can be traced to the missionary style of the 16th century, centered almost exclusively on the clergy. Evangelicals have managed to keep alive the doctrine of the universal priesthood of the believer, which was applied in their early missionary methods.
However, the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus and the beginning of Catholic mission in Latin America is not a time for Protestant triumphalism. It is, rather, a time for sober evaluation and a new commitment to biblical missionary work. We must distance ourselves as much as possible from the type of alliance with political or financial powers, which started under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century and culminated in the Catholic evangelization of Latin America. This Constantinian temptation is ever alive. Note, for example, the connections of the CIA with Oliver North and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, or the efforts of the Washington-based Institute for Religion and Democracy to manipulate some evangelical pastors in Nicaragua. Unreached people will not be attracted to Jesus Christ by the sword of political, financial, or technical power, but by the cross and the spirit of the incarnation of Jesus.
I have noticed in several continents that some Catholic missionaries are trying to learn from the past. They are trying to correct theories and practices of mission, while searching for more biblical methods. While our evangelical missions have flourished in recent decades, it would seem wise and desirable if we would also be open to corrections, and be willing to explore new patterns in light of the lessons of history.
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