Bartolomé de las Casas, apology for peace

Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) was a Spanish Dominican friar, writer and missionary known for defending the rights of the indigenous peoples of America during the Spanish colonisation period. He had a somewhat self-taught education, oriented towards Theology, Philosophy and Law. He went to the Indies in 1502, ten years after the discovery of America, in La Española, Santo Domingo. He was ordained a priest in 1512 and was the first to do so in the New World. He later became bishop of Chiapas, Mexico.

The controversy with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1550) on the status of indigenous people and the lawfulness of war is famous. Las Casas was a pioneer in thinking about human rights and social justice. In this controversy, Bartolomé de las Casas provides some arguments for abstaining from war and on equality, which will be discussed below in the style of Estrategia Minerva.

“In the first place, because, between two evils, if one cannot be avoided, the lesser should be chosen, according to right reason”(Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 40).

A distinction must be made between the doctrine of the lesser evil and the doctrine of the double effect. According to the former, the option that produces the worst consequences must be avoided at all cost. According to the second, when a given action is performed, there are unintended negative consequences in addition to the intended ones, which are positive. Applying the double effect assumes that the good produced by this action is greater than the evil.  

The relationship between the lesser evil and rationality is fundamental. Rationality provides the tools and analytical framework necessary to apply the lesser evil principle effectively.

“In the second place, it is manifest that more innocent people will perish in this way than those we are trying to free. Moreover, by a very strict negative precept, we are forbidden in any case to kill the innocent” (Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 40).

Innocent people, in this context, are those who do not actively participate in combat. If self-defence is usually justified under just war theories, it does not extend to innocent people.

“Third, because in war, the innocent cannot be distinguished from the guilty”(Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 40).

War is defined in one of its meanings by the Spanish Royal Academy as “armed struggle between two or more nations or between sides of the same nation”. They are usually brutal, violent situations that involve suffering and pain, damage and victims on both sides. Las Casas’ reflection is along the lines of recalling that, in these situations of armed conflict, the nuances and differences are difficult to define, especially between combatants and innocent people. The consequences in personal and material terms are often terrible.

In the final part of his work Apología, Bartholomé de las Casas argues: “the Indians are our brothers for whom Christ gave his life. Why do we persecute them without having deserved such a thing with inhuman cruelty?”(Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 63).

Facing his opponent, Ginés de Sepúlveda, in the Valladolid Controversy, Bartholomew de las Casas maintains that the indigenous are brothers of the Europeans. This, far from being an improvised principle in the face of the new situation, is at the core of Christianity. In the Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This message of equality was a novelty in Antiquity and continues to be so today and had as its antecedent the Stoics.

The best-known work of Bartolomé de las Casas is “Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias/A Very Brief Recital of the Destruction of the Indies “, published in 1552. This book had a significant impact in Europe and helped to generate a debate on the human rights of indigenous people. It is an invitation to consider otherness and rethink one’s assumptions. To be authentic, we must start with the assumption of differences, starting from the equality of human beings.

“If this is done, I am convinced that they will embrace the evangelical doctrine, for they are neither fools nor barbarians, but of innate sincerity, simple, modest, meek and, finally, such that I am sure that there are no other people more disposed of than they to embrace the Gospel, which once received by them, it is admirable with what piety, ardour, faith and charity they fulfil the precepts of Christ and venerate the sacraments; For they are docile and ingenious, and in skill and natural endowments they surpass many people of the known world (…)” (Bartolomé de las Casas, Apología, cap. 63).

Underlying Las Casas’ message is the notion of equal human dignity, the basis of human rights. A common criticism of this author is that he did not extend this concept to black people. His views need to be appropriately contextualised historically and not read from the postmodernism of some views.

Mestizaje/Mixed-race and syncretism could be vindicated from the approach close to Bartolomé de las Casas. Racists of all stripes are afraid of mixing, and what has characterised the most genuine view of Latin American history is precisely mestizaje, which is something to celebrate. Syncretism, as a fusion of cultures and/or religions, is also something positive to learn from. It can enhance the best energies of society, but as is often the case in identity politics, it can be approached in a divisive and exclusionary manner. In the face of this risk, Bartolomé de las Casas launched a universal message of equal human dignity and fraternity as the engine of social progress.