On Bartolomé de las Casas

John Haldane considers the resources Christianity has for countering exploitation and injustice.



John Haldane considers the resources Christianity has for countering exploitation and injustice.


We live in a period in which people are rightly conscious, and feel some guilt about, the past of imperial powers – where they, you know, have colonised, taken over people’s lands, enslaved, and so on. And I think we’re aware of that both as an historical phenomenon but as something that goes on in the present day.

So it’s very interesting to look at Christianity and see what resources it has for engaging in addressing those questions. Now obviously we can just sort of avow Christian attitudes of charity and justice. But I think, more importantly – or as interestingly, perhaps – we can show that this in fact is not a novel discovery of the 20th century. If we look at Casas in the early part of the 16th century, this is somebody who is a cleric who first goes to what is modern-day Mexico, has a clerical position – in fact is a bishop – but in the experience of that part of the world, he comes to see the situation of the Amerindians and the way that they’ve been dealt with by the conquistadors, and he begins to argue that these people cannot be treated, as some had argued, as natural slaves. They’re not in a kind of intermediary position between animals and human beings. They are human beings, and they enjoy the rights and respect that is due to human beings.

He then … at a later stage he makes this argument, he still thinks that there’s a role for slavery but he thinks you would have to find people who were natural slaves and he doesn’t think the Amerindians fall into that category because he sees signs of their culture, their behaviour, and so on. He later actually develops his position even further, he becomes a Dominican and he actually comes to the view that all slavery is wrong. So he takes up a quite radical position, and of course this is at some cost because this is a period of imperial expansion and the exploitation both of the peoples and of the lands is a kind of rampant feature of the time.

And so he’s a very important figure, he ends up then returning to Europe and for many years plays a role as an advisor and so on, but he becomes a … really a very vocal presence in arguing the case for what we would now think of – he wouldn’t use exactly this language – but the notion of universal rights. But particularly, not just as an abstract notion, you know, because it’s easy to say well, universal human rights, but to see what the scope of those is as concerns other peoples – peoples who in that period it was not uncommon to think of as barely human. But he is really urging upon us the idea of the recognition a) of all humanity, and secondly, of the equality of all humanity, and the prohibition that that thereby introduces on exploitation both of people and of their resources.