Bartolomé de las Casas
“Check Your Privilege” is a phrase that is being said more and more in today’s world. Often, I think, privilege can be seen as something to feel shameful about. However, considering our own personal privilege can provide an opportunity for thoughtful conversation. Being able to recognize our own opportunities, advantages, challenges and disadvantages can offer insight on how we might be able to advocate for others in far worse circumstances.
Bartolome de las Casas was born in 16th century Spain and was very much a man of his time. He was given a land grant in Hispaniola, which included enslaved indigenous people that had been conquered in military campaigns. Las Casas himself participated in the campaigns and slave raids that further oppressed the people on the islands. In 1510 he would be ordained to the priesthood and still would advocate for the justice of the Encomienda (a labor system in which large land grants and a set number of indigenous slaves were given as rewards to Spaniards).
As time went on, Las Casas would witness many atrocities committed by the Spanish Government, of which he dutifully participated and was awarded his own Encomienda. However in 1514, Las Casas was reflecting on this passage of scripture in preparation for Pentecost:
If one sacrifices from what has been wrongfully obtained, the offering is blemished;
the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.
The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly;
and he is not propitiated for sins by a multitude of sacrifices.
Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes
is the man who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor.
The bread of the needy is the life of the poor;
whoever deprives them of it is a man of blood.
To take away a neighbor’s living is to murder him;
to deprive an employee of his wages is to shed blood.
This passage changed his heart, and made him see that all of the actions against the indigenous people were illegal and sinful in the eyes of God. He gave up his Encomienda, freed his slaves and urged passionately that his fellow colonists do the same. Not surprisingly, his cause was met with resistance, so Las Casas would take his plight right to the Emperor, Charlies the V, who would be won over by Las Casas and demand that all enslaved people be freed in a single generation.
Bartolome de las Casas is an example of how one can be changed, if we truly listen to people whose voices are often silenced by circumstance. It is a reminder to us that we need to look beyond our own life, and find the way that God is calling us to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Las Casas’ example rings true to this very time in 2018 where division and opinions overshadow the voices of those who are oppressed. Let us tune our ears to those voices and discern how we can begin the work of serving our neighbors.