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A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas.

Latin Americans have long been divided between those who seek their historical roots in the indigenous past and others with close ties to Iberian conquerors. The 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage sharpened rather than provided a pretext for healing these hostilities. Rivera argues that the conquest was defended on theological grounds, thereby giving Spain justification for its domination of the American continent. The central theme is that 16th-century Spanish debates on the justification of the encounter and subsequent enslavement of Indians centered on these concepts rather than on social, political, and economic motives for Iberian expansion west across the Atlantic.

R. condemns the conquest, offering the argument that there were no redeeming results of the event. The entire process from the early-16th century onward was a systematic subjugation and enslavement of millions of people. He modifies his thesis by laying out several issues that appeared in doctrinal and theoretical debates approving or condemning the conquest between clerics and the Spanish crown. He cites extensively from writings by priests and theologians on both sides of the Atlantic who utilized Scripture to defend or reproach conquistadores for their actions.

Western ethnocentrism and its imperial expansion in the 16th century is roundly condemned throughout the work. It leaves little room for explaining the historical setting of Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, particularly Iberia, which gave impetus to explorations and discovery of the Americans. Some of these factors were economic rivalries, a search for Asian wealth by sea routes, and a Spanish war on Islam.

R. argues that discovery alone meant simply expropriation and domination with papal approval. The extension of the Christian faith, he submits, became the official ideology for imperial expansion. Conversion of Native Americans to Catholicism was merely a tactic, a strategy to obliterate all vestiges of an indigenous religion. Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, e.g., is condemned for allowing Spanish monks to make Christians out of new-world people, using the encomienda and repartimiento systems as devices to enslave them. This singularly harsh and biased interpretation leaves out a critical feature of these policies and institutions. Efforts to "entrust" (encomendar) and distribute people were actually undertaken to set limits on the power and greed of the conquistadores. The Laws of Burgos (1512), the New Laws (1542), and the Compendium of the Laws of the Indies (1680) were examples of crown and clerical efforts to eliminate Indian servitude. These are given brief attention. Yet they indicate the unique effort in modern world history of an empire attempting to correct the blatant injustices resulting from its military expansion.

The proselytization of the Americas, says R., was done mainly as part of an ongoing effort begun in the early-13th century by Spain and Portugal to reconquer Islam with an exclusively messianic and providential motive. Columbus's voyages and subsequent conquests were extensions of this process of divine action, as R. correctly observes, but there were more reasons than that.

The value of this work rests largely on the use of new published works of 16-century Spanish missionairies and theologians. The appearance of these new works is a result of the renewed interests in early colonial history prompted by the 500th anniversary. The intensity of their debates are explored through subjects such as the justification of the conquest, subsequent Spanish rule, and the rights of native Americans. R. quotes extensively the Dominicans Bartholome de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria; the Jesuit naturalist, teacher, and missionary Juan de Acosta; and the Aristotelian theorist Juan Gines de Sepulveda.

R. enumerates a litany of questions which provoked intense arguments. Among them: Do Europeans have the right to take possession and conquer the lands and inhabitants of the New World? Are the natives free or servants by nature? Are they noble savages or vicious idolaters? Do they have culture or are they uncivilized? From these questions, says R., Francisco de Vitoria's modern international law was born.

R. concludes by mentioning the emergence of the theology of liberation in the 20th century. But this reflects an ongoing effort in Spanish America begun in the 16th century by many clerics who spoke for the rights of native Americans. This adds to the book's value by showing that even today, as in the 16th century, Scripture is a useful and wise source which makes "God's will for justice and love" known.
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Author:Dodd, Thomas
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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