Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Genocide in the Promised Land: A Sixteenth-Century Debate

The Bible is our richest source on genocide in the ancient world.  We get sparse and scattered evidence of mass murder in the historical record from other Near Eastern and Greco-Roman civilizations.  One thinks of Thucydides’ account of the Athenians wiping out the people of Melos during the Peloponnesian War or the Romans destroying the city of Carthage in the Third Punic War, allegedly sowing salt into the ground to prevent future agriculture in the region.  The bas-relief panels of the Assyrian capital at Nineveh, discovered in the nineteenth century, give grandiloquent testimony to the sadistic killing of subjugated peoples.  However, the candid narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures depicts in detail a military takeover and campaign of ethnic cleansing that purportedly took place in the Transjordan under Moses and the Western region of modern-day Palestine under Joshua.  Often the siege of a city ended with the slaughter of the men, enslavement and sexual exploitation of the women, destruction of the town, and the allotment of spoils and territory to the tribes of Israel.  Armed with an ideology of divine providence, the Chosen People conquered the peoples of Canaan, turning the “land flowing with milk and honey” into a gushing river of blood.

The lessons of divinely sanctioned mass murder were not lost on the Spanish colonists in the New World, eager to justify the brutal subjugation of the Amerindian population.  In August of 1550 two men, Aristotelian scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, gathered at the court in Valladolid to debate whether the Spanish crown could in fact wage war on native people who have not yet heard the Gospel.  Imperial policy was weighed in the balance, as these Spaniards drew different applications from the biblical account.

I use Las Casas’s defense of the Amerindians as a key text in a comparative genocide course.  While I devote most of the semester to five cases of genocide in the twentieth century, I spend the opening weeks providing an overview of mass killing in pre-modern times.  I know best the early modern period (1500-1800), when Europe underwent a “military revolution” and war casualties increased exponentially.  Maritime powers established vast overseas empires, taking advantage of more sophisticated weaponry and leaving behind a trail of corpses: remnants of those who resisted European expansion on the march.  I should state at the outset that I am not an Iberian scholar, much less a Lascasista.  My research has focused on the German Reformation the religious wars it unleashed. I am presenting here mostly a pedagogical perspective based on a working knowledge of the primary and secondary literature in English translation.  Teaching Las Casas in the classroom is my theme.  I plan to explain my learning objectives, provide background and context to the “Valladolid debate,” discuss the Dominicans exegesis of the controversial biblical passages, and situate the Las Casas-Sepúlveda polemic within research trends in genocide studies today.

The principal source I have students read is chapter 13 of Las Casas’s Defense Against the Persecutors and Slanderers of the Peoples of the New World Discovered Across the Seas.  The author refutes Sepúlveda’s use of the Old Testament in defending the record of Spanish conquest in the New World.  The text allows me to accomplish five objectives.  First, it provides a nice chronological segue from the first week’s overview of genocide in the ancient and medieval eras to discussion of the twentieth century.  Second, students read and interpret primary sources—the Bible, Las Casas’ Defense, and selections from the Dominican’s better known A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

Third, in interpreting the past, students appreciate the cultural context and intellectual milieu of a bygone era before making a hasty value judgment.  While Las Casas and Sepúlveda differ on their arguments and objectives, they share certain assumptions about the world around them; for instance, both of them rely on biblical, patristic, and ecclesiastical precedents to determine ethical practice and government policy.  Fourth, after reading about Las Casas and the handful of contemporaries in his camp, students realize that people of the “dark ages” were not predisposed to behave as brutes; rather, they made decisions in spite of moral objections expressed by some of their contemporaries.  These individuals criticized or at least expressed severe misgivings about Spanish policy overseas.  Finally, students assess the applicability of the term genocide to the destruction of the Indies, during and beyond Las Casas’s lifetime.  The question of intent to kill massive amounts of people in connection with the spread of deadly European diseases lends itself to the search for an operational definition.

The presentation of diverse viewpoints at Valladolid was less a debate in the conventional sense and more a hearing of the issues before theological and legal experts, the Council of Fourteen,at the behest of a conscientious Charles V.  The disputation consisted of two sessions, one occurring in August and September of 1550 and the other taking place in the spring of 1551.  Las Casas and Sepúlveda never met face to face, but presented their case for and against the harsh treatment of Amerindians separately.  Well-schooled in Aristotelian thought, Sepúlveda had claimed in his treatise Democrates Alter and other writings that, given their supposed intellectual and cultural inferiority, the indigenous people of America were slaves by nature.  He argued that wars against the Amerindians were necessary to subdue and even Christianize them. 

Las Casas countered with a carefully researched point-by-point refutation of Sepúlveda’s arguments.  His experiences in Mexico and the Caribbean turned him into an implacable foe of the conquistadors and an ardent proponent of peaceful persuasion. Unable to access his adversary’s published treatise, Las Casas consulted various manuscript versions available in Spanish and relied largely on a summary of Sepúlveda’s views.  He read his enormous handwritten Defense word for word over a five-day period during the first session.  One of the judges drew up a helpful summary of the issues for the panel to work through.  They agreed to reconvene to make a decision after about a four-month recess.

Rare are those moments in history when an exchange of scholarly viewpoints can effect so much change.  Luther's defense of his views at the Diet of Worms three decades earlier was one such event, but the Valladolid debate was unique.  "Probably never before, or since," writes historian Lewis Hanke, "has a mighty emperor...ordered his conquests to cease until it was decided if they were just."   The Spanish crown was taking a keen interest in reports of abuse overseas.  The encomienda system had allotted a certain number of natives to government and military officials for the purpose of protecting and educating them; in return, the natives would pay in gold or labor.  Unfortunately, those who enforced and benefited from this system were more interested in exacting tribute than Christianizing the overworked Amerindians in their care.  When the grantees subjected the natives to hard labor and de facto enslavement, the government, encouraged by Las Casas and other whistleblowers, issued the New Laws of 1542 to prevent exploitation and ultimately abolish the abusive practice.  In the decade leading up to Valladolid, the encomenderos, defending their rights forcefully in the courts, had successfully thwarted these legal blocks.

As Bishop of Chiapa in southern Mexico, Las Casas made no friends among the conquistadors.  He refused last rites to those who failed to express deathbed contrition for their crimes against the natives.    Upon his return to Spain he continued on as a legal advocate for the Amerindians, but he would have his work cut out for him.  The encomenderos, having already circumvented the New Laws, argued hard that they should be able to hold their grants (of natives) in perpetuity.  The stakes couldn't be higher in this debate, and for this reason both scholars, Las Casas and Sepúlveda,  drew upon the Bible, church law, the church fathers, and ancient philosophers to convince the panel of experts that their position had the weight of authority behind it.

Las Casas’ argument in the aforementioned chapter of his Defense centers on the biblical precedent of mass slaughter.  On the basis of Deuteronomy and Joshua, Sepúlveda defended Spain’s subjugation of Amerindian populations: God was punishing the Indians for their crimes in the same way that God destroyed the idolatrous Canaanites.  In short, the Spanish humanist likened the Conquistadors to the Israelites as dispensers of divine judgment and the rightful possessors of a Promised Land.  The mandate to annihilate the current occupants, Las Casas counters, applied only to the “seven nations” of Canaan.  God did not command the Israelites to exterminate heathens in other lands; rather, the destruction had a particular purpose: to displace these people from the land that God had promised the Hebrews.

God made an exception for two nations outside of Canaan: the Midianites and Amalekites, who respectively led Israelite men astray and twice provoked a war.  God wanted the Israelites to avenge these wrongs.  Outside of these exceptions, the war against the seven nations is a legitimate undertaking.  (We can almost hear Las Casas using a phrase coined millennia later: manifest destiny.)  “The rigorous precept against the Canaanite nations was very special,” he writes, “and consequently, the foregoing passages commanding the massacre of idolaters must be admitted only in reference to those who lived in the Promise Land.”  By today's standard, Las Casas drew hardly a better moral lesson from these embarrassing passages of the Old Testament than did his opponent, despite his noble intention of protecting the Indians from Spanish aggression.

A skilled advocate and biblical exegete, Las Casas doesn’t pull any punches when describing his opposition's hermeneutic.  He questions Sepúlveda’s ability as an expositor of the Bible. He faults him for a selective use of biblical passages, disregard for context, a deficient method of interpretation, insufficient knowledge, and even malice.  Sepúlveda makes a general rule out of specific historic circumstances and applies it to any situation.  To use modern parlance, the Hebrew account of territorial conquest was for Las Casas more description than prescription.  If Sepúlveda claims to follow the biblical paradigm, should not the conquistadors kill everyone and draft animals as well?

While the humanist scholar cites Deuteronomy 7 to justify the slaughter of pagans, he omits reference to Deuteronomy 20 wherein God offers peace to peoples living outside the Promised Land.  Sepúlveda ought to show that divine sanction to kill the seven nations of Canaan did not extend to all idolatrous people throughout the world.  The Israelites received no marching orders to destroy the Edomites and the Egyptians, the one considered a brother and the other a host.  Such passages, explains Las Casas, “agree more with the teaching of the gospel, with the gentleness, meekness, and charity of Christ.”  Christians “in this era of grace” should behave in accordance with New Testament.  For Las Casas, the debate is essentially about biblical interpretation and Christian morality; he is less interested in Sepúlveda’s use of Aristotle.  Sepúlveda’s citations of the church fathers are likewise faulty and selective.  Did Las Casas and his polemic sparring partner twist Scriptural passages to fit their respective objectives or did their biblical hermeneutic force them to reach their conclusions?  This question has yielded good discussion in the classroom.

In the beginning of chapter 13, Las Casas justifies the biblical massacres, even if his main concern is to show that the slaughter of other idolaters, be they Edomites or Amerindians, are immoral. He also legitimates war against apostates who once affirmed the Christian faith but have returned to their pagan beliefs.  From our point of view, his defense is hardly a more moral position. He adds three additional points that explain why killing the Canaanites was a special situation that God mandated other than that these people stood in the way of a future Israel. Perhaps Las Casas wanted to buttress his argument with more points to demolish Sepúlveda’s use of these passages or perhaps he had moral compunction to provide a great rationale for such slaughter. First, with help from Gratian, he explains that the iniquity of the Canaanites had reached its peak (conveniently, we might add, as the Hebrews are exiting Egypt and in need of a homeland). In this sense the Hebrews carried out a death sentence for nations who had committed crimes against God; they were merely “executor of his will.” Second, Las Casas adds that the Hebrews, “especially prone to idolatry,” needed to remove the source of their temptations, namely women and graven images, even if God’s Chosen People could intermarry with pagan nations outside Canaan. Finally, Las Casas, citing the church fathers, argues that the special command, or “riguroso precepto,” to wipe out these peoples would be the restoration of an ancient injustice: namely, the descendants of Noah’s son Ham expelling the descendants of Noah’s son Shem, who happens to be the forefather of the Hebrews. So the Israelites were simply retaking the land possessed by their ancestors.

Sepúlveda’s failure to distinguish between the Old and New Testaments does grievous harm. He focuses on precepts from the Old Law and virtually ignores the grace and mercy of Christ.  He “opens the way for tyrants and plunderers to cruel invasion, oppression, spoliation, and harsh enslavement of harmless nations” that do not know Christ.  Again, Las Casas charges his opponent with taking description for prescription. The Hebrew Bible contains stories to learn from but they don’t necessarily serve as moral examples to follow.  Las Casas solidifies his case with quotations from Pope Gregory and Augustine.  Samuel butchered the Amalekite king, Phineas speared a Jew and Midianite woman during intercourse, and the prophet Hosea shacked up with a prostitute.  In a subsequent chapter of his Defense, he mentions the story of Elisha having a bear tear children apart.  What was once lawful then, such as polygamy, is no longer.

What both Las Casas and Sepúlveda failed to consider of course is whether the biblical account is historically accurateArchaeology does not substantiate any of the narrative of destruction in the Old Testament.  One of the most famous stories of the Old Testament is the destruction of Jericho.  After the Lord promised to deliver the city into the hands of his people, the Israelites marched around the city for six days and, after seven times around the city on the seventh day, “the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city” (Joshua 6:20). Often neglected is the next verse that records the wholesale slaughter of men, women, children, and livestock. The mound that was once ancient Jericho has yielded scant information to conform the biblical story.  Radio carbon dating shows that the city’s famous walls, dating back to the Early Bronze Age, came tumbling down long before even Abraham came onto the scene. The most plausible explanation of the biblical Jericho is that it is an etiological saga designed not only to explain the ruins that the Israelites saw around them, but it also provided a national folktale to give confidence to this small nomadic people.  Most scholars think the Israelites entered Canaan not by conquest, but by a peaceful “pastoral infiltration” of transhumance over many years.

In addition to archeology, the Biblical text itself sometimes subverts its own account of genocide. Las Casas refers to the Amalekites.  They were one of the first peoples to attack the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt. The Lord wanted vengeance. “Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both men, and women, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (Deuteronomy 25). Jehovah promised moreover to blot out the memory of Amalek forever. However, the Amalekites keep reappearing in the Biblical record, leaving the task of killing them to later patriarchs. As if to account for the continual presence of a people that should have been destroyed, Exodus 17 has Jehovah vowing to make war against the Amalekites “from generation to generation.” To wit, Israel’s first king Saul “utterly destroyed all the people [Amalekites] with the edge of the sword” (1 Samuel 15:2-8). The Amalekites leave the biblical record only after a further encounter with no less than King David, who “smote them from the twilight even into the evening of the next day” so that only 400 young men escaped (1 Samuel 30). Initially, God’s vengeance was to wipe them out but, perhaps due to technical difficulties—the refusal of these wily people to die en masse—God’s vengeance was transmuted into an incessant persecution "from generation to generation.”

If these events did not take place, one must of course ask, why would Jewish scribes fabricate these stories centuries later? Why brag about such foul deeds if they didnt occur? One historian has postulated that the Biblical writers were employing the “rhetoric of genocide”in order to give the impression that their forefathers had massacred the Canaanites. The Israelites wanted to instill fear in neighboring communities, essentially indicating to them what would happen if they didnt relinquish their lands or at least cease from taking up arms. This propaganda, designed to avoid or minimize conflict, was later recorded in Scripture, giving the impression that these events had actually occurred.  The ongoing saga of the Amalekites shows that the earlier statement about wiping out this people was just rhetoric, for they kept reappearing in the Biblical record.

Las Casas’ account of atrocities in the colonies formed the basis of the Black Legend, a narrative of Spanish cruelty propagated by Spain’s imperial rivals.  Competition on the high seas for lucrative trade routes, coupled with religious differences, made Spain an irresistible target for English publishers.  In more recent decades, the label Black Legend has given way to an equally problematic and propagandistic term: American Holocaust.  Reference to genocide doesn’t settle the matter, however.  If conquistadors killed indigenous people by the thousands, microbial invaders in their wake took out millions.  Though Las Casas had seen firsthand the impact of epidemics in the Caribbean, he omitted any mention of them at Valladolid.  In his major work, The History of the Indies, he conflates mass slaughter and pestilence: God sent the latter to liberate Amerindians from earthly oppression and deprive their rapacious overlords of a labor force.  Las Casas knew that massive deaths due to disease would weaken his case against the cruelties of the encomienda system.  Too often proponents of an American Holocaust subsume deaths from disease under genocide, as if every colonist and slave trader were a General Jeffrey Amherst, the oft-cited British commander who approved a plan to spread smallpox to “this Execrable Race” during the French and Indian War.

Heretofore I’ve been using the term genocide loosely and anachronistically.  No such word existed until Polish émigré Raphael Lemkin coined it at the end of World War II.  The UN definition is specific: “acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”  Whether the devastation of the population and cultures of the Americas for over four centuries qualifies as genocide is an open question.  Unsatisfied with the UN’s emphasis on intent, social scientists have weighed in with caveats and qualifications.  Historian Frank Chalk and sociologist Kurt Jonassohn explain that “an action is ‘intended’ even when it is carried out for different purposes but the perpetrator is likely to know that genocide is the inevitable or probable by-product of a planned action.”  With this interpretation of intention, does the word genocide apply to the countless deaths via European diseases in the New World?  Also, one must be able to discern outright genocide from ethnic cleansing, the forceful removal of a people from one area to another, or what Chalk and Jonassohn call “genocidal massacre” and sociologist Michael Mann calls “exemplary repression.”  The latter phrases refer to a government’s attempt at control over a religious or ethnic minority through brutal suppression.

I don’t get into all of the background details and historiographical debates with students, for such lengthy discussion would take us outside the purview of the course.  What  I hope they come away with, though, is the realization that while Sepúlveda’s view found acceptance among the encomenderos and their advocates, it did not meet approval with many of the Dominican priests on the ground or with theological opinion in the universities.  Moreover, Charles V had severe misgivings about imperial policy when he heard relaciones about abuse.  While Las Casas stands out as an ardent defender of Amerindians, and rightly so, he was not a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

The undergraduate has a notion of the distant past as an era of darkness, superstition and brutality, but the American Holocaust resulted more from cool minds not prevailing and of business interests and imperial policy tipping the scales than from benighted and xenophobic peoples of Europe bent on the destruction of another civilization. How will future generations view us four centuries from now?  After all, the world community has looked on within recent memory as genocides erupted in Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Darfur; all the while the United Nations, United States, and humanitarian groups have expressed concern and promised “never again.”  We see ourselves as a humane civilization, and so did the proud subjects of the Spanish crown.

Pondering such moral complexities in the classroom has elicited insightful comments from students. My ultimate goal as an instructor in the humanities is to help students think, read and write critically about the complexities of the human experience.  I provide them the tools with which they can establish a frame of reference, formulate their own questions, and seek answers to those questions.  As students grapple with Las Casas’ writings, they distinguish fact from fiction, rhetoric from reality, and propaganda from perception.  His portrait of victims at times borders on hagiography and he paints the perpetrators with a broad dark brushstroke.  They understand that they’re seeing Sepúlveda’s views through Las Casas’ eyes.  A Spanish theologian in the last century wrote: “The contents of the works and writings of Las Casas are limited and determined by the arguments of his adversaries.  They are books and writings of battle.”  Students recognize that Las Casas was at heart an activist, not a dispassionate chronicler of events, as he wanted the Spanish crown to treat the Amerindians like a Christian nation should.  

Homines sapientes have been committing genocide since time immemorial.  State-sponsored killing in the Bronze Age turned localized tribal conflict into large-scale ethnic cleansing, and authoritarian governments have not departed from this extreme form of territorial expansion ever since.  Social science has much to tell us about this horrific phenomenon in human history, but I discuss with students relevant studies in the biological sciences as well.  The extermination of other groups appears to be an adaptation in our species firmly ensconced in the human genome.  How do we reverse the curse of our evolutionary heritage?  First, we identify the problem and find language to articulate it.  We can thank Mr. Lemkin for his services in this regard.  Second, we look to another gene hardwired within us for a way out of the darkness: empathy. Bartolomé de las Casas has already lit this path for us to follow.