On November 21, 1511, Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican Friar from Spain, attempting to free the Indians from the slavery to which the Spanish -- both military and clerical -- had reduced them, preached an incendiary sermon which incurred the wrath of many Spanish Catholics -- incendiary in the sense that his soul was on fire, ignited by truth. For his efforts he became an object of Spanish persecution.
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In order to make your sins known
to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the
wilderness of this island; and therefore it behooves you to listen to me, not
with indifference but with all your heart and senses; for this voice will be the
strangest, the harshest and hardest, the most terrifying that you ever heard or
expected to hear…This voice declares that you are in mortal sin, and live and
die therein by reason of the cruelty and tyranny that you practice on these
innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in
such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars
on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you
have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations?
Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or
caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labors, so that they die or
rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day? And
what care do you take that they receive religious instruction and come to know
their God and creator, or that they be baptized, hear mass, or observe holidays
and Sundays? Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not
bound to love them as you love yourselves? How can you lie in such profound and
lethargic slumber? Be sure that in your present state you can no more be saved
than the Moors or Turks who do not have and do not want the faith of Jesus
His sermon provoked great resentment among the Spanish Conquistadors, much as the anti-war, anti-corporate rhetoric of the Christian "left" and the Occupy Movement incites resentment among the modern, global Conquistador class. Montesinos was accused of preaching heresy by a church hierarchy tainted by Spanish gold. Yes, the church and the elite of society, who controlled the wealth and profited from the exploitation of the weak, called Montesino's sermon, which called for justice based on the inherent equality of the immortal soul, "heretical." The more things change, the more they stay the same.
However, after hearing Montesinos preach, a Spanish priest by the name of Bartolomeo de Las Casas had a conversion experience. He saw the truth in Montesinos's words. In 1514, he became a Dominican Friar, freed his Indian slaves, and began a quest to ban slavery and bring justice to the Americas. He condemned the use of torture and coercion in the evangelization of the people of the new world. Las Casas helped to draft laws which banned slavery. Until the end of his life, Las Casas continued to speak out but he had few supporters. I'm not surprised. Do not expect people to rally around you when you are speaking the truth about their -- and your -- common human imperfections. No one wants to hear they're doing the wrong thing. No one wants to think that God is NOT on their side.
Montesinos and Las Casas were prophets, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet, and Oscar Romero was a prophet. And prophets don't live long. To paraphrase Leo Rosten, conservatives make heroes out of prophets only after they've martyred them. Today is the anniversary of a simple man's simple message of justice. Montesinos was a prophet belonging to a preaching order with a history of fighting heresies.Today's heresies include inequality, injustice, exploitation and the ascendancy of an omnipotent self-interest over the common good.