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Las Casas: Hope in Sin's Darkness

Bartolomé de las Casas

For the modern theologian, Bartolomé de las Casas presents quite a number of difficulties. Las Casas’ turn from a participant and supporter of the Spanish encomienda system of Indian enslaved labor to an ardent opponent and the theology behind it is to be greatly admired. Las Casas’ theological anthropology provides a foundation for a theology whose trajectory points to the imago Dei within each human being and the equality of value of all within the Kingdom of God and all who the Kingdom looks upon. However, in the same era of his life that las Casas was fighting in word and action for the liberation of the Indians and their recognition ontologically and theologically as human beings of equal worth to Spaniards, las Casas continued to support the enslavement of Africans and others. The struggle for those engaging with las Casas is how to recognize the light and surplus of his theology without “tainting” the engagement with the deathly theologies and worldviews that support enslavement. Las Casas’ turn of heart towards African slavery later in his life presents a platform to reevaluate his theological anthropologies directed towards Indians. Starting at a point of grace, las Casas’ change of opinion towards African slavery presents a path towards talking about race in theology and to a hope of reconciliation between theological opponents.

Early in his struggle against the enslavement of Indian people, las Casas suggested to Spain’s King Charles that he, “issue a license to bring Negro slaves to the Indies.”1 Las Casas thought that, “if [the American settlers] could each get licenses to bring a few dozen Negro slaves from Spain or Africa it would go better with the Indians.”2 This request, for the majority of historians and theologians, is the start of the slave trade in North America. This system ravaged the African continent, tore apart cultures and families, and caused reverberations that continue into the present age.

Slavery in the American context is the impetus of Western ideas of race, racial theologies of death, war, oppression, bias, devaluation of humans, division, and many other sins. Along with gender and sexuality, race sits at the forefront of contemporary politics, culture, academics, and theology. In the culture of contemporary academic and theological life, to have “incorrect” views on race is to be anathematized and removed from accepted discourse. Given the horrors death-dealing theologies of race birthed in the West — American slavery, the Holocaust, and Apartheid to name only a few — this is no surprise.

The task of historians over the last many decades has been to reclaim and document the histories of the oppressed and excluded. The task of theologians has been to unwind the sin of racism that had intertwined itself so deeply into the Western Church and to make sense of racisms’ deadly aftermaths in the light of God. And yet, because of the severity of the consequences politically and culturally for talk of and on race, it has become of topic of fear for many.

In the case of las Casas, especially, I find it troubling how difficult it is to engage with his good theology for fear of being associated with a catalyzing agent of the North American slave trade. There is so much surplus and good in las Casas’ engagement with what it means to be human and what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. The good, however — per the Zeitgeist of our modern era — does not and cannot outweigh the bad. Transgressions against the dominant cultural views of race can seemingly only be punished by charges of secular heresy that lead to exclusion. This, to me, is an untapped source of theological surplus that las Casas can point us towards.

Later in his life, las Casas stayed in Lisbon en route to Spain. While there he came into contact with the realities of the slave trade. Las Casas wrote that the Portuguese, “took slaves in every evil and wicked way they could. And blacks, when they saw the Portuguese so eager on the hunt for slaves, they themselves used unjust wars and other lawless means to steal and sell to the Portuguese.”3 Lawrence Clayton goes deeper into the historical context in his already cited journal entry Bartolomé de las Casas and the African Slave Trade4, but suffice it to say that las Casas had based his earlier recommendations to use slaves from Africa or Spain precisely because he thought they were “justly” enslaved. Without addressing the theological issues inherent in “just” enslavement or even a “just” war, the surplus in this event is las Casas’ change of heart towards slavery when presented with new information.

“This suggestion to issue a license to bring Negro slaves to the Indies was made first,” las Casas would say, “not seeing how unjust the Portuguese were in taking slaves.”5 Las Casas quickly realized, “how unjustly and tyrannically Africans were taken slaves, in the same fashion as Indians.”6 As he further reflected, las Casas would come to see that he and the American economic system founded on slavery were, “the cause of all the sins the one [the Portuguese] and the other [the Africans] commit, in addition to what we commit in buying them.”7 Las Casas, here, is an early discoverer of the deepness the sins of racism and ownership of human beings go.8 Slavery and its eventual child racism, divides and categorizes humans and creates social and economic systems where sin grows among and entwines itself around even those who wish good — las Casas with the Indians — and those who are unaware of the sins of the system — las Casas, the Spaniard, who accepted “just” enslavement as a part of the economy and society.

Without sympathizing with or attempting to justify or explain away las Casas and his contemporaries’ views on slavery and war, I do think las Casas’ conversion to seeing Africans in the same light as Indians provides the seeds for a framework of fruitful and graceful contemporary engagement with issues of race. Las Casas gives me hope that even those deeply embedded in and profiting from systems of oppression can, through God’s grace, be persuaded towards looking at things in a new way. The Holy Spirit can move and prompt people — in his own good time — towards greater theological light.

As las Casas reflected on the impact of the enslavement of Africans for the benefit of Western efforts in America he realized that the, “intention or results,” of his suggestion for the sake of the Indians did not, “make up for the monumental injustice” committed against enslaved Africans.9 Given the opportunity for theological reflection, las Casas came to recognize the depravity of the situation. What he had intended for good, was covered in death because of slavery’s sin. He realized that his participation in the system had not only harmed his soul and being, but it had injured Christ and his Holy Church. There would be few converts to Christianity among the African slaves for, “what love, affection, esteem, reverence, would they have, could they have for the faith, for Christian religion, so as to covert [sic] to it, those who wept as they did, who grieved, who raised their eyes, their hands to heaven, who saw themselves, against of the law of nature, against all human reason, stripped of their liberty, of their wives and children, of their homeland, of their peace?”10 In the accounts of the enslaved, las Casas was able to see the image of humans and of the God who created them.

A deep theology of sin and humanity’s total depravity is often required to engage with the aftermaths of racism and slavery. Las Casas was no different. As he, “regretted the advice he [las Casas] gave the king,” on the matter of using African salves he, “judged himself culpable through inadvertence.”11 In a completely fallen world, it is not possible to rely on “good” systems for judgment. Las Casas learned this the hard way and the repercussions were brutal. The wages of sin are indeed death. Death of the innocence of an economic system, death of the human bodies killed in war, transportation, and labor in service of sin and sin’s god, Mammon.

The framework of las Casas’ life is one of observing one’s surroundings in the light of God, being open to new information, reflecting on new observations as they arrive, understanding sins stain on all our assumptions — even upon “justness” —, and admitting and addressing fault when one’s participation in systems of death are discovered. Further, las Casas presents a framework for the opposition. It is a framework of grace and patience; a framework of providing information and space for theological reflection. How many las Casas conversions does the current Zeitgeist of anathemas hinder?

Las Casas shows that there is always hope for theological light to break into a situation. Las Casas’ teachings on the image of God, applies even to those whom we disagree with. We do not have to fully approve of someone’s full program to recognize and benefit from the light they received. Theologians contemporary to las Casas — Pope Paul III in Sublimis Deus maybe most importantly — benefited from theological surplus in his work even when it was entwined in the sin of African slavery.

So, too, modern engagement with historical theologians requires a strong doctrine of Sin. All have fallen short of the glory of God and all are in need of forgiveness, redemption, and holiness. Sin covers the human condition and while we should not explain it away or refute its existence, darkness has not and cannot extinguish all the light. Like las Casas, theology in the face of fallen humanity should recognize and admit sin and participation in systems of death when they are discovered. Like Paul III, however, the existence of sin should not hinder our engagement with theological surplus where it can be found.

Las Casas, “was not certain that his ignorance and his good intentions would excuse him before the judgment of God.”12 What of good intentions from a place of knowledge that creates ignorance towards sources of light? What of our modern inclination anathematize people instead of gracefully contemplating where surplus might exist in their thought? Reconciliation and forward movement only come when sin is acknowledged, admitted, and engaged. Since covers all of our existence, even the works and the thoughts of these deemed “orthodox” by the Zeitgeist.

The work of the modern era then, it seems to me, is to create environments where true discourse and engagement can happen without fear. Las Casas provides us the hope that there are others like him on the brink of reflection that will turn them closer to God and God’s good creation. Even in opposition to “obvious” evils, it is the duty of the theologian to engage in discourse and create environment where sin can be revealed, and God’s surplus can grow to abundance. Wherever the next las Casas is, I hope she or he is in an environment where true reflection can happen, where conversation will never cease, and where recognition and admission of guilt is met with repentance, grace, and forgiveness.


Clayton, Lawrence. “Bartolomé de Las Casas and the African Slave Trade.” History Compass 7, no. 6 (n.d.): 1526–41. [].

Orique, David. “A Comparison of the Voices of the Spanish Bartolomé de Las Casas and the Portuguese Fernando Oliveira on Just War and Slavery.” e-Journal of Portuguese History 12, no. 1 (2014). [].

  1. Clayton, 1529. — All las Casas primary source quotations use the translations given by Clayton – his own or those of other scholars. The citations given point to Clayton who provides his own source citations and – where applicable – translation choices or issues. [return]
  2. Ibid., 1528. [return]
  3. Ibid., 1530. [return]
  4. Ibid. [return]
  5. Ibid., 1529. [return]
  6. Ibid. [return]
  7. Ibid., 1530. [return]
  8. Orique, 115. [return]
  9. Clayton, 1531. [return]
  10. Ibid. [return]
  11. Ibid., 1532. [return]
  12. Ibid., 1532. [return]