Conquest in the Name of the Church
“If Jesus were alive today, he would be a freedom fighter.” These words by a prominent Protestant church official typify a trend in modern Christendom. An African bishop praises the “righteous violence” of successful revolutionaries. Protestant Churches give donations to nationalist guerrilla organizations. Priests take up arms to fight for a “theology of liberation.” Increasingly, religiously committed people appear ready to use violence to achieve their goals. Do you feel that this is right? The accompanying article discusses a historical example of such a “Christian” use of force. It contains some sobering lessons.
GOLD, glory and the Gospel. These three things are said to have sparked the colonization of the American continent. One of the colonizers confessed that he went to America “for the service of God . . . and also to get rich”!
The year 1992 will mark the 500th anniversary of the first crossing of the Atlantic by Christopher Columbus, which opened the way for that colonization. Columbus’ epic journey ushered in an exciting period of exploration of the American continent. The result? Untold riches poured back across the Atlantic to Europe, and European religion was planted in foreign soil. The cost? This was largely borne by the native Americans, who were subjugated and decimated by the vigor, the treachery, the cruelty and the unfamiliar diseases of the foreigners.
These foreigners came to be called conquistadores (conquerors). They were, as historian J. F. Bannon puts it, “a curious combination of saint and devil.” There is no denying their bravery, and some of their feats are familiar to every schoolboy.
Who has not heard of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who tramped across the Isthmus of Panama, through miles of unknown forests, mountains and swamps, to become the first white man to see the Pacific Ocean? Or Hernán Cortés, who ranged far and wide with his men to conquer the Aztecs in what is now Mexico? Then there were Francisco Pizarro and his brothers, who after more than two years of hard fighting subjugated the vast Inca Empire in what is today called Peru. Another was Pedro de Valdivia, who headed south to conquer Chile and displace the Araucanian Indians.
How were they able to conquer established empires so quickly? There were many reasons. For example, Cortés’ success against the Aztecs was probably partly due to internal unrest in the Aztec Empire. Also, for the first time Aztecs encountered European crossbows, muskets, swords and horsemen. Besides, the Aztec ruler Montezuma believed that Cortés was a returning god.
Whatever the reason, the successful conquistadores were soon followed by the “farmer, miner and priest, all equipped to create permanent homes in a new world.” But what had religion to do with the conquest?
In the Service of Their Religion
Of a truth, conversion was a prime consideration in the great adventure. In Spain, the homeland of the majority of the conquistadores, two outstanding rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, had “kindled a wave of nationalist and religious fervour” that found its greatest expression in the conquest of Latin America.—The Encyclopædia Britannica.
In 1493 Pope Alexander VI divided the world between the Portuguese and the Spanish explorers, granting Spain everything that lay to the west of an imaginary line stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole, 300 miles (480 km) west of the Cape Verde islands. This was “in return for converting the heathen.” Later, at the Treaty of Tordesillas, both powers ratified this division and amended it by moving the line farther west.
Interestingly, the effect of this papal involvement is still felt. The coast of modern-day Brazil, when it was discovered, was found to lie in the Portuguese section of the world. Hence, even today, Brazil speaks Portuguese, while the major part of the rest of South and Central America speaks Spanish.
Many of the conquistadores, it appears, kept in mind the religious side of their mission. For example, Professor P. J. Mahon and Jesuit priest J. M. Hayes write: “The conversion of the natives was an object of which Cortés never lost sight. In one of his reports to the emperor, dated 1524, he says that, ‘as many times as I have written to your Sacred Majesty, I have told your Highness of the readiness which there is in some of the natives to receive our Holy Catholic faith, and become Christians. And I have sent to supplicate your Imperial Majesty that you would have the goodness to provide for that end religious persons of good life and example.’”—Trials and Triumphs of the Catholic Church in America.
Historian William H. Prescott adds: “There was nothing which the Spanish government had more earnestly at heart than the conversion of the Indians. It forms the constant burden of their instructions, and gave to the military expeditions in this western hemisphere somewhat of the air of a crusade.” But note this: “No doubt was entertained of the efficacy of conversion, however sudden might be the change or however violent the means. The sword was a good argument, when the tongue failed.”
Nevertheless, these adventurers often went about their work of conversion with an odd mixture of sincerity and brutality. Take, for example, what happened to Atahualpa, king of the Incas.
The Conversion of Atahualpa
The conqueror of the Inca Empire was Pizarro. With only a few soldiers, Pizarro felt that the only way he could overcome the Inca Empire would be to capture Atahualpa and hold him hostage. He arranged to meet the Inca ruler in Cajamarca on November 16, 1532. But before Atahualpa arrived Pizarro secretly stationed his artillery and soldiers on three sides of the city square. Then the ruler himself arrived with more than 3,000 of his men—all unarmed except for small clubs and slings.
Historian Robert Barton gives an account of what followed: “A Dominican friar named Vicente de Valverde approached the throne with Bible in hand to explain the holy forces of Christianity. He began by describing the Creator, and spoke at greater length about Jesus Christ and His supreme sacrifice on the cross. He concluded by asking Atahualpa to renounce his own pagan religion and to acknowledge the suzerainty of Emperor Charles V who would protect him henceforth in this world just as Jesus Christ would in the next.”—A Short History of the Republic of Bolivia.
The Inca ruler must have been astonished at this discourse. According to Barton, he answered: “‘As for your God, He was put to death by the very men He created, whereas mine,’ pointing to the large red sun just then setting behind the sierras, ‘mine lives forever and protects his children. By what authority do you say these things?’” The friar pointed to the Bible and handed it to Atahualpa, who threw it to the ground. Friar Vicente, picking up his Bible, hurried to tell Pizarro what had happened. He is reported to have said: “Attack at once. I absolve you.” Pizarro gave the signal for the attack, and hundreds of the defenseless Indians were slaughtered and Atahualpa was taken prisoner.
Atahualpa negotiated with Pizarro for his release. He offered a huge ransom in gold and silver, which Pizarro agreed to accept. But when the treasure was duly delivered, Pizarro reneged on his promise. Atahualpa was brought to trial and, as an idolater, condemned to death by fire. Many of Pizarro’s advisers protested at such an act of treachery—but not the priest Valverde. Eventually, Atahualpa professed himself a Christian and was baptized. But he was killed anyway on August 29, 1533, by strangulation.
Pizarro then completed the conquest of the Inca Empire. In the course of this, “he erected churches, cast down idols, and set up crosses on the highways.” (The Trials and Triumphs of the Catholic Church in America) But do you think that the religion he was thus spreading was real Christianity?
Did It Work?
Militarily, the endeavor was a success. The small bands of conquistadores enlarged the empires of their homelands and, for the most part, reaped glory and gold for themselves. But did they achieve any Christian ends by their violence?
For a while it must have seemed so. “The priests accompanying the early expeditions righteously destroyed temples and idols, and denounced heathenism; wholesale conversions began when missionaries arrived from Spain . . . Indians accepted baptism with great zeal.” (Encyclopædia Britannica) How deep, though, were the conversions?
Historian Ruggiero Romano comments: “The natives of this country, although they have been taught the gospels for a long time, are not any more Christian now than they were at the time of the conquest, for, as far as faith is concerned, they have no more now than they had at that time . . . In present-day Bolivia and in the south of Peru, the old pagan deity Pacha-Mama (Earth-mother) still remains alive, although assimilated in the Virgin . . . In Mexico, the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe has its roots in the cult of the goddess Tonantzin (Mother of the gods).”—Mecanismos da Conquista Colonial.
The same author said: “The evangelization many times resulted in failure . . . Why? Because violence also dominates the gospel preaching. How to offer a religion that pretends love, when it is considered that ‘no one can doubt that gunpowder used against the unfaithful is like incense to the Lord’?”
No, truly Christian ends can never be gained by such violent means. Conversions at the point of the sword can never result in the changed personalities and personal commitments that true Christianity demands. Rather, the “evangelists” themselves become corrupted. Note that in many of those lands first opened up by sword-bearing, evangelical conquistadores there is still bitter conflict and division. And today some priests and nuns there promote a struggle with modern weapons for a “theology of liberation.”
Jesus’ approach was different. Do you remember his reaction on the night he was arrested when the apostle Peter tried to protect him with a sword? Jesus said: “Return your sword to its place, for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) A little later that same day, Jesus said to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is no part of this world. If my kingdom were part of this world, my attendants would have fought that I should not be delivered up to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from this source.”—John 18:36.
Those fearless and thought-provoking words show that if Jesus were a man on earth today he certainly would not be a freedom fighter resorting to arms. Hence, those who truly follow in Jesus’ footsteps cannot be involved in such violence. (1 Peter 2:21-23) Since this is so, we have to ask the question: Whose “kingdom” really was represented by warriors such as Cortés and Pizarro? And on behalf of whose “kingdom” today are those activist Protestant and Catholic ministers fighting? Clearly, it is not on behalf of the Kingdom ruled over by Jesus Christ.
[Blurb on page 18]
The conquistadores often went about their work of conversion with an odd mixture of sincerity and brutality
[Blurb on page 19]
Although they offered a religion that professed love, they viewed gunpowder used against the unfaithful as “incense to the Lord”