Las Casas, part one: Spain

I have been doing some research on Catholic contact—and war—with non-Catholic nations, for a small part of a book I’m writing. I thought it would be helpful for me to write out a narration, and I thought it might be interesting to some of you.

Today, the back story of Bartolomé de las Casas. Soon, more of his story.

Las Casas was one of the early Spanish Conquistadores in the Americas. He came with his father to Hispaniola (“Little Spain”), Columbus’s main island, and now the location of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 1502, the year of Columbus’s fourth voyage. He seems to have been about eighteen. We know about Las Casas primarily through his own extensive reports.

The Spanish colonists imported a system they called encomienda. Understanding it needs a brief history of pre-Columbian Spain. 1492, the year Columbus sailed, was also the end of the Reconquista, the re-conquering of Spain from the Muslims. The verbal similarity between the Re-conquista of Spain and the Conquistadores in the Americas points to the deeper legal and cultural similarities: Spain brought to America the ideas they had developed fighting Muslims in Spain.


Muhammed died in 609. For whatever reasons (beyond the scope of this post) conquering bands picked up his new religion and spread quickly. In 710-711 these Muslims invaded and conquered almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. 732 was their first major defeat, by Charles Martel (martel means “the hammer”), all the way at Tours, about three-quarters of the way through France to Paris (which is in the far north). The French nation was born of beating back the Muslims into Iberia, which they had mostly done by 759. After that, France moved on to other things.

But Spain had another seven hundred years to fight. They gradually got a foothold in the north, then expanded slightly south, century by century, until in 1492, among other things, the Spanish drove the Muslims out of their last redoubt, Granada, in the very south.

File:Reino de Asturias.jpg

Was this a just war? I may come back to that in a future post, after we (and they) have figured out what just war means. The Spanish could make the claim that they were taking back land that had been taken from them: hence they call it re-conquista: not the conquering, but the reconquering of what had been taken from them. Their case looks a little better when you watch the development: they established Asturia, in the far north, around 720, when it was clearly the Christian Visigoths retaking their land from Muslims who had invaded in the last decade. The next move south, the Kingdom of Léon, founded maybe 910, was a small expansion of Asturias against their neighbors. It was not a major invasion, just a pushing back of borders. Castile, founded about 1065, was an expansion eastward, from Léon toward Christian allies in France. And they continued to push forward their borders. Grenada, in the far south, was the last to fall (and the least obviously just war), in 1492.

I don’t want to prolong this discussion. What I do want to point out is that most of Spain’s history was forged in these wars. In fact, if you think about the dates 720 (the foundation of Asturia), 1492 (both Columbus and the final conquest of southern Spain), and 2020 (today), Spain spent 772 years fighting the Muslims, and it’s only been 528 years since they stopped. Spain is the Reconquista. And it certainly was at the time of Columbus: the only thing they had ever known was this war of (re) conquest.

So when they got to the Americas, that’s what they did. A standard method of the Reconquista was this system of encomienda.


In all of Feudal Europe, society was organized around knights: guys who could devote their whole life to learning to fight on horseback. Fighting on horseback takes a lot of skill, so it’s something you need to devote your whole life to, but before guns (and long bows), it was also incredibly effective, so everything military revolved around it. It was also expensive, so you had to be rich.

Beneath the knights, you had serfs who supported them. The knight wasn’t working the land, so he had other people work the land for him. Was it slavery? Kind of, kind of not, but that’s not our point here. The point is, knights needed people to work the land for them, so that they could ride horses.

Above the knights, kings could only be effective if they kept the knights happy. Everything revolved around these warriors on horseback. (Interesting sidenote: the same was true of the Mongols, though there they didn’t even bother with farming: similar and different.)

In Spain, where war was the entire way of life, the way a king got knights to fight for him was by offering him serfs. Encomienda means something “commendation,” “handing over.” The basic idea was: if a knight conquered an area for his king, he got control of the land—and of the people who would farm it for him. That was the way Spanish kings encouraged the knights, the re-conquistadores, and that was the way they paid them.


So, naturally, conquest and encomienda was the idea the Spanish brought to the Americas. It had no roots in anything especially Christian (or anti-Christian). It was just the way of life of the Conquistadores.

With two differences. First, where in Spain they were pushing up against their Muslim neighbors, who had previously conquered them and who, at least sometimes, could arguably be seen as agressors, in the New World the Conquistadors were completely invading someone else’s country. Though the Spanish came up with other arguments—which we shall consider later—none of the arguments for the re-conquest of Spain applied to the conquest of America.

Second, where in Spain they used encomienda for farming, in America what they wanted was gold. This has to do with Spanish materialism, which is shocking. But it also has to do with the distance from home. In Spain, they wanted to make a home. In America, the Spanish wanted to get rich and then go home. It is an interesting difference between Spanish America and English America that the English were coming here to settle (which had its own problems). The Spanish were coming here to extract gold and silver and head home.


So when Las Casas came to America, he came looking for gold. But the encomienda system was adjusted in some strange ways. In Spain, you had to prove yourself a conqueror before you got the slaves: that is how the kings urged the knights to fight. In America, you just had to take the boat ride over: that was awful enough that the king needed to offer recompensation—and the compensation was slaves.

And in Spain, the people you were conquering were people an awful lot like you, people you had fought with on equal footing for hundreds of years, and people whose technology and way of life were pretty darned similar. In America, the Indians were really different.

A key part of this difference was weapons. The Spanish had guns. They had steel armor. And, of course, they had germs. I have been reading the recent popular histories 1493 and Guns, Germs, Steel. There are some fascinating reasons, having nothing to do with cultural superiority, that gave the Spanish huge advantages. For example, the East-West orientation of Eurasia meant that germs could travel over huge areas and encounter similar climates. It also allowed the spread of farming technologies (because farming in East Asia works about the same as farming in Western France) that supported the growth of cities. Whereas the north-south orientation of the Americas meant that a germ or farming technique that thrived in Argentina would not make it north to Mexico, etc. The upshot is, Eurasia had developed much more virulent diseases, as well as immunities, than had the Americas, and it was a pretty unfair advantage. Eurasian germs laid the Indians waste. Indian germs had no effect on Europe. (Whether advances in weaponry and the willingness to use it made early-modern Europe culturally superior or inferior to the Indians is a question I will leave open.)

So settlers like Las Casas came to Hispaniola and then spent the bulk of their energy enslaving Indians and demanding that they find gold and silver. And they called it encomienda, the Spanish way.


I’ll end this post with a thought about (cue spooky music) “The Black Legend.” Anti-Spanish northern-Eurpean Protestant historians like to talk about how horrible Spain is. The Inquisition and the treatment of the Indians are exhibits one and two in anti-Spanish history.

In response, Catholics whine about “the black legend”: black because it’s bad, legend because it’s false.

One of my purposes in the study of history is to get the story right. And part of getting the story right is realizing that history is bad: the history of humanity, from a Christian perspective, is the history of fallen men, hell-bound but for the Savior. Part of the reason I am studying this Spanish history, I admit, is because I, not as an English Protestant but as a Catholic, abhor triumphalist claims that some countries are without sin. No country is without sin: not Spain, not America, not the Indians, no one.

Certainly not England. I got into this reading about the Indians reading about Anglo America’s history. I knew it was bad. When I read it carefully, it’s way worse than I thought. The United States was built on the destruction of the Indians, whose country we invaded, and whom we largely defeated not on the field of battle but by burning villages and killing women and children. (There’s a word for that . . . .) The English have nothing to brag about when they talk to Spain. And I think everyone should read Evelyn Waugh’s life of Edmund Campion, not least so that we can see that the Spanish Inquisition has some pretty stiff competition from England when it comes to horrific religious persecution.

In other words, my point isn’t to take sides with one nation against another. My point is, first, to get the history right—but even more, to think about the world like a Christian. A Christian does not look around the world and think things are fine and history is a long story of wonderful people being nice to one another. Human history is a parade of horribles. My salvation is in Jesus Christ (and his body, the Church), not in the awesomeness of Spain, England, the United States—or the Indians, for that matter.

“Black Legend”? It’s no legend that human history is black. It’s the truth. The lie is that we are fine without Jesus. A parallel lie is that whole nations are saintly: the Church rightly treats saints as the exception in human behavior, not the norm. There were saints in Spain and in the Americas, and I’m going to write about them. But encomienda and the Conquistadores? It’s no legend to say that they were not saints, they were fallen men, and their behavior was very dark, ugly, and un-Christian. I think we’d all do a lot better if we stopped treating any nation as holy, and find our identity and salvation in the Church, and in Jesus Christ.

Racism and the Good Samaritan

I’ve been silent for too long. This blog has been silent, for a variety of reasons I’ve mentioned over the past six months—including that our now-six-month old seventh child, though awfully sweet, remains a pain in the neck at bedtime.

But I’ve also been too silent about issues of race. Now is a good time to break that silence.


Race has been an important issue for me and my wife. We both grew up in very white places, but have spent our adulthood in poor, urban neighborhoods. We spent the first several years of our marriage in poor, black neighborhoods of white cities, and have spent the last eleven years in a white, working-class, immigrant neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, a predominantly black city. Race has been an issue we’ve had to think about, and we have grown more passionate about it over the years.

But it’s also an issue that is hard for American Catholics, as some recent events have shown. I won’t get into those events, but I will say: I’ve been afraid to speak up as much as I’ve known I should, and it’s time to break the silence.


My main way of thinking about this issue is in terms of the Good Samaritan. A man is bleeding on the side of the road. In the story Jesus tells, it is irrelevant whose fault the man’s plight is.

The point is that Scripture tells us to love our neighbor. In fact, in Luke 10, it is a “lawyer” (that is, an expert on the Old Testament) who asks Jesus, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer correctly answers, Love the Lord with all your heart-soul-strength-mind, and your neighbor as yourself. When the man asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the story.

He concludes, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” The lawyer answers correctly, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus says, “You go and do likewise.”


There’s an important point here about tribalism. The Jews, like all of us—especially Americans today—believed they should love their own countrymen, but hate their opponents. (The Old Law’s command to love your neighbor and hate your enemies was not a command to hate your enemies, it was a command to love at least your neighbor; the lawyer correctly quotes it not as “hate your enemies” but as “love your neighbor.” It was a mitigation of our tendency to hate even the people in our own community. Jesus does not contradict that command, but doubles down on it.)

Jesus scorns the religion of the priest and the Levite in the story, who think they can get away with religious self-righteousness while walking past a suffering neighbor. Commending the Samaritan, he commends someone who, first, is not part of the tribe, not part of the tribalist definition of what a neighbor is. Jesus is insisting that we think of neighbor not in a tribalist way, but in a loving way. Americans today are way too focused on our tribes, including our political parties. Jesus condemns that.

And second, Samaritans don’t worship right. Jesus is slapping us in the face for our tendency to self-referential religion, religion more worried about how nice our vestments are than whether we love God or neighbor. (Look, I care about liturgy—but good liturgy, even Pope Benedict will tell you, is liturgy built on love, not self-righteousness.)


I like to read Luke as a kind of commentary on Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s teaching culminates in chapter 25, his very last word of his fifth and last sermon, before going to his death: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. . . . I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

I have pondered these words over the years, and more and more they cut me to the quick. They are the greatest condemnation in all of Scripture. People who don’t read the Bible think the Old Testament, or St Paul, is full of fire and brimstone. They are wrong. There is no greater fire and brimstone in all the Bible than in what Jesus says to those who fail to see the man bleeding on the side of the road.


This is not the place for a lecture on American history, but I believe there is no greater wound in our country than what we have inflicted for the past four hundred years on African Americans. There is no other moment in history—because it was technologically impossible—in which millions of people were brought to a new continent purely to be abused, their every child marked by the color of his skin as a slave. It is one of the great evils of history, and it is certainly the great original sin of our country.

It is a sin that, of its nature, endures, by the brilliant combination of DNA and a visible distinction. Every time a cop pulls over a black man, that man bears in his skin color the mark of centuries of oppression. He is held suspect of every failure of a people born with a knee on their neck. He is held responsible for every time a black kid has responded to that violence with anger.

The coronavirus has killed vastly disproportionate numbers of black people, and the coronavirus economy has had a vastly disproporionate effect on them. There are long books to read and write about the legacy of racism in our country, but we need to look no further than the coronavirus to know that somehow—save the explanation for later, first acknolwedge the fact!—everyone who is born black in this country is bleeding on the side of the road.


Our Lord tells us, in the parable of the Good Samaritan and in Matthew 25, that the path to eternal life (“what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”) is through the man bleeding on the side of the road, because love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. He tells us that those who ignore that suffering “will go away into eternal punishment” because they have refused the Lord himself (“when did we see you?”)

The Good Samaritan is a good way to understand two very different meanings of the word “racism.” White people tend to use that word to mean personal animosity, or even direct action, against black people. If I haven’t kicked any black people today, they say, then there is no racism, and I bear no responsibility. I can walk past like the priest and the Levite.

Black people tend to use the word “racism” not to refer to personal animosity but to a Situation, the situation in which, among so many other things, black people are disproprortionately hurt by the coronavirus and its economy. However we explain the mechanisms of it, the fact is that black people are lying bleeding on the side of the road. It is because of “race”, and one of the meanings of the suffix “-ism”, says the Dictionary, is a “state, condition, or property.” There is an -ism, a condition, a status quo, about race, and it’s a problem: racism.

In the Good Samaritan and in Matthew 25, Jesus is not interested in whether you personally caused the problem. In Christianity, we are not innocent until proven guilty; Jesus does not absolve us of personal responsibility unless we’ve personally caused the man to be bleeding on the side of the road. Everyone who proclaims herself not responsible proclaims herself not a Christian. In Christianity, Jesus demands that we come to the aid of that man whether or not it’s our fault. Because Christanity calls us not to absolve ourselves of responsibility, but to love, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

To say it’s not my problem is to fail to love. Jesus condemns that attitude, because eternity without love is hell.


Loving requires opening our eyes. It is easy, especially in our suburbanized and polarized country, to cross to the other side of the road and avoid ever seeing the wounded man. Jesus calls us to get out on the road and see people. Read some books. Read some web pages. Come to our cities—get over the horrific lie that places with black people are dangerous—and see what is really going on. Open your eyes and learn to love.

This blog post is the tiniest first step I can make in binding up the wounds of my neighbor. Pray for me to do a lot more.

Please, recommend some good places to learn!