Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thanksgiving and the Spiritual Effects on Colonizers and Natives

In the United States Thanksgiving Day approaches. Here we celebrate the blessings that God has brought us around a table full of food with our closest family and friends by our side. Even though many thanksgiving feasts were celebrated in the Americas, the American holiday has as its traditional base a celebration of the English pilgrims together with the indigenous peoples of the northeastern United States. Historians know that if it were not for the goodwill of the indigenous peoples, the pilgrims would have died that first winter in Massachusetts colony. The indigenous peoples demonstrated the virtues of love, grace, and goodness that the Christian pilgrims professed. Even though the pilgrims and the natives had a good relationship in that time, a few years later European sicknesses, mutual misunderstandings, and the arrival of more English colonists would result in the extermination of the majority of the indigenous peoples through war and illness.

The plight of the indigenous peoples in the coming years has been ignored for hundreds of years and many people today want to change the holiday, Thanksgiving, into a day of mourning for the native peoples. I, for my part, remember Thanksgiving Day as an example of what could have been—mutual friendship between two different peoples. As a Christian, I know that the plight of the Native Americans is even greater because the great majority of them did not know the gospel and the actions of the English colonists have resulted in distrust of the message of the Bible that those first pilgrims believed. The great loss of souls is the greatest tragedy of this story.

In 1599, decades before the first voyage of the pilgrims, the second edition of Two Treatises was published in London. In a sad passage, Cipriano de Valera, a displaced Spaniard, considered the spiritual consequences of the conquest of Latin America on the souls of his countrymen. 
The discovery of the Indies may, if it is well considered, have done more evil than good to the souls of the Spaniards who went there. Bishop Casaos[1], who was an eyewitness and Spaniard by birth, wrote a book about the cruelties that the Spanish did to the poor Indians. It would have pleased God if those who have gone there would have had more zeal to teach and increase the holy catholic faith contained in the Holy Scriptures than to enrich themselves and, to enrich themselves, kill and rob indiscriminately left and right[2] (as they say) those simple people who had rational souls like us and for whom Jesus Christ died. The Indians said (as Augustine de Zárate tells it in his history of Peru[3]), complaining that the Spanish took their idols and gave them idols, or images, from Spain (the crosses and Virgin Mary’s, etc.) for them to worship. They said that the Spanish took from them many women, saying that the law of Jesus Christ did not permit but one woman only and that they took them for themselves. Would that they had taught them to worship God in Spirit and in truth as he says he wants to be worshiped. Regarding idols, or images, not even the thought of them should they have mentioned, since God prohibits them in the second commandment of his holy Law[4], and especially since the Indians were so given to idolatry. If the law of Jesus Christ does not permit more than one woman according to the first institution of marriage[5], why did our Spanish have many whores and mistresses? What manner of teaching was this? If the blind leads the blind, both fall in the pit[6]. This is what has happened to our Spanish brothers and their Indians. May God send them better teachers.
(de Valera, Cipriano. Dos Tratados. 2nd Ed. 1599. English translation mine)
We should remember that the colonists—Spaniards, English, or any other nation—like the Native Americans, suffered ill spiritual effects from their participation in the destruction of the Native Americans.


[1]Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566). He published a number of works describing the barbarous treatment of the American native groups by the Spanish, the most famous of which is his Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias [A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies], published in 1552.
[2]Here I use “indiscriminately left and right” as the closest English idiomatic equivalent for the Spanish phrase “de diestro y a siniestro.” Literally rendered it says “right and sinister,” which substitutes the word “sinister” for “left” to emphasize the immoral actions of the Spanish. One might also say, “kill and rob both left and wrong,” to capture the same effect.
[3] Augustine de Zarate (1514-1560). He published his Historia del Descubrimiento y Conquista de la Provincia del Perú [A History of the Discovery and Conquest of the Province of Peru] in 1555. It was later translated into English in 1581.
[4]“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6, English Standard Version)
[5]“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:4-6)
[6] Matthew 15:14.

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