In the book How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity, Morgan Guyton includes a provocative chapter with the title, “Insiders, Not Outsiders: How We Take Sides in Conflict.” In it he refers to something known as the Valladolid debate. I had not heard of it.
It seems that in the decades following Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, the conquistadors and invading Spanish colonizers had been ruthless in their domination of the native peoples, enslaving, displacing, and slaughtering tens of thousands. Troubling reports made their way back to King Charles V, who called upon Spain’s best theologians to help think through policies for how colonists should interact with native populations in the New World.
In 1550, the Valladolid debate between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda convened to discuss the following: Were the natives beings of value and dignity deserving of respect? Or were they subhuman savages who needed to be brought under Spanish rule for their own good? It was the first moral disputation in European history to debate the rights and treatment of a colonized people by colonizers.
Las Casas was a Dominican friar who had lived among the natives of Central America. He had witnessed the cruel brutalities suffered by the natives at the hands of the Spanish invaders. Las Casas took the position that natives were beautiful human beings deserving of dignity and worth and whose culture deserved respect. He maintained that the gospel should be shared without the sword or compulsion and that natives had a right to self determination.
Sepúlveda argued that the natives were subhuman barbarians. As such, the Spaniards had the right to wage war against them and to punish and purge their pagan practices. They were fit only for slavery, and it was the divine right of the Spaniards to act like masters. The natives must be conquered and thoroughly civilized before they could even respond to the Christian gospel.
After the debate, both sides declared victory. Over time, though, attitudes softened. The Pope had declared that Indians were human, and the Spanish—unlike many of the other colonizing powers—began to take seriously the humanity of native people. Spaniards saw them as part of the community of God and recognized that they had certain rights.
In 1573, the king of Spain issued “Laws Concerning Discoveries, Pacifications and Settlements Among the Indians.” It was a small step, but it slowly set in motion more humane policies. Guyton writes:
Las Casas and Sepúlveda represent two very different postures toward the world today: A Christianity that exists to submit itself to the world’s outsiders and a Christianity that exists to validate the superiority of the world’s insiders.
Taking readers to the cross, Guyton reflects:
To take up your cross meant . . . getting stripped, beaten, and spat upon by Roman soldiers. It meant being abandoned by your friends. It meant the total loss of your status and dignity. It meant becoming a complete outsider.
I am, in many ways, an insider. So is most of the established church. Isn’t if time we submitted ourselves and truly took up our crosses?