The wonderful thing about studying historical theology is that we can sometimes lose ourselves in the past and forget about the constant stream of superficial tripe that dominates the media. But, we often find the past impinges on the present in countless ways. Today marks “Columbus Day,” and I have no desire to delve into the political furor that surrounds it. I’d rather just quote a contemporary source. Martin Bucer (1491-1551) labored as a pastor in Strasbourg, trying to “reform,” or re-shape, the church according to his understanding of what the Bible taught.
Bucer, like most of the other Protestant reformers, had a deep appreciation for church history and the church fathers, and so he also found inspiration for his activism through his encounter with the past. Bucer also labored strenuously to bring factions within the Christian world together. He wrote Concerning the True Care of Souls (Von der waren Seelsorge) in 1538, to encourage the city authorities in Strasbourg to take seriously their role in promoting moral purity and holiness in their churches, and in their city.
Part of Bucer’s agenda, of course, was to demonstrate the short-comings of the Roman church, which had previously held sway in Strasbourg and throughout medieval Europe. Seeing God at work in historical events was part of the sixteenth-century mindset, on all sides. Harsh criticism across religious lines was also the norm (the relative constancy of human nature is another fact we learn from the study of history!). So, Bucer routinely condemns the Roman church for their lack of true spiritual concern and for their preoccupation with worldly wealth and political power. We do not have to completely agree with Bucer’s diagnosis in order to appreciate his point of view. On this “Columbus Day,” his critique of colonial conquest (by countries which were still faithful to Roman church–primarily Spain) are particularly interesting. Bucer writes:
“The severe wrath of God is also to be found in the discovery and conquest of new lands and islands, which people exult over so much, as if by this means Christendom was being greatly increased; in fact all that happens is that the poor people are deprived first of body and possessions, and then of soul through the false superstition which they are taught by the mendicant monks” (87-88). Of course, Bucer’s anti-Roman polemical intent is obvious, but he continues to sharply criticize the colonial project itself:
“I have heard Jean Glapion, His Imperial Majesty’s confessor complain in front of important people that the Spaniards in the newly discovered lands so forced and tortured the poor people to make them work to find gold and other things for them, that they could not bear the work and torture and took their own lives. Secondly, what is achieved as far as our own people are concerned? How many fine people are lost on the voyages, and when it is said that much has been achieved, all they can offer is the occasions and allurements of terrible wars, splendour and arrogance, and the oppression of the poor ordinary people; for through all this trade and conquest just a few get hold of all the world’s goods and possessions and then use it to impose all sorts of mischief and power on the rest, many of whom can scarcely earn a dry crust by their hard and bitter labours. And then they call this the increase of Christendom. The Lord grant our princes and rulers the understanding and will to increase and improve Christendom in the right way” (88).
Bucer’s criticism of the oppression and subjugation of the indigenous populations stands in stark contrast to many conservatives and Christians, who extol the European conquest as either the judgment of God against the “pagan” native Americans, or who focus on Columbus’s “Christian” and missionary ideals, while down-playing the violence and tragedy which marked the arrival of Europeans in the New World. This short post can’t begin to sort out the complexities involved here, but this short foray into an obscure text and a little known early modern pastor hopefully shows us that not all Christians applauded the European colonization of the Americas.
For further reading, consult Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (1984.) [Disclaimer: I haven’t finished this book, and I don’t like to recommend a book prematurely. However, Todorov treats the encounter (clash!) of European and Native cultures philosophically and theologically. Todorov is well-aware of the classical background and Christian understanding of Columbus and other European colonists, but he also sympathetically helps us enter into the worldview of the Aztecs and other native peoples. He does not downplay the violence on either side of the clash of cultures.]
I must also admit that this is not my area of expertise. What resources would you recommend?