Las Casas, a massacre, and the power of scripture

According to the Agenda Latinoamericana 2014, today is the five hundredth anniversary of the conversion of Bartolomé de las Casas.

Las Casas is well known as a Dominican bishop who was a defender of the indigenous peoples in the New World. But this did not come all that easily for him.

He arrived in the New World in 1502 and stayed here for four years. He returned to Spain to study for the priesthood and was ordained in Rome in 1507.

He returned to the New World where he was given an encomienda, a right to have native peoples as slaves to work for him. The Dominicans in Hispañola had condemned slave-holding, but Las Casas did not think they were correct in refusing absolution to anyone who held slaves.

In 1514, accompanying a group of Spaniards on a pacifying mission in Cuba, led by a friend of his, Las Casas witnessed the massacre of indigenous peoples.

Soon after, while preparing his sermon for Pentecost, Las Casas came upon these verses from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 34:

Unclean is the offering sacrificed by an oppressor. [Such] mockeries of the unjust are not pleasing [toGod]. The Lord is pleased only by those who keep to the way of truth and justice… The one whose sacrifice comes from the goods of the poor is like one who kills his neighbor. The one who sheds blood and the one who defrauds the laborer are kin and kind.

Reflecting on these words, Las Casas concluded that “everything done to the Indians in these Indies was unjust and tyrannical.”

He eventually divested himself of his slaves, He joined the Dominicans and became an advocate of the indigenous.

It took an atrocity to open Las Casas’ heart to the injustice all around him. The blood of the people at the massacre of Caonao, Cuba, moved him to listen attentively to the Word of God.

So much blood is being poured out all around us – but do we let it touch our hearts as it touches the heart of God?

May the example of Bartolomé de Las Casas open our hearts to the cries of the oppressed.

—–
The translation of Sirach is from Francis Patrick Sullivan’s introduction of Indian Freedom: The Cause of Bartolomé de las Casa, 1484-1566: A Reader, pp. 3-4.

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