Evangelism and conquest: the troubling legacy of Junipero Serra

Evangelism and conquest: the troubling legacy of Junipero Serra September 28, 2015

One of the most controversial things that Pope Francis did on his trip to the US last week was to canonize Junipero Serra as a saint. Depending on who you talk to, Serra was either a heroic evangelist who shared the Christian gospel with thousands of native Americans in modern-day California or a ruthless conquistador who worked in collusion with Spanish soldiers to bring Californian natives under Spanish rule. While Francis was canonizing Junipero, native Americans in California held a vigil in protest. This controversy brings to the forefront very uncomfortable questions about our legacy as Christians. What aspects of Christian theology are implicated in the European conquest and genocide of millions of native peoples throughout the Americas, Asia, and Africa over the past five hundred years? Are Christians prepared to repudiate and repent of the aspects of our theology that justified genocide in the form that they have been passed down to us today?

It’s important to bracket one possible distraction from the get-go. Engaging in a debate over the actual personal virtue of Junipero Serra does not seem very fruitful. He was a man of his time. It seems like he tried his best to be a Christian. Some historians say that he tried to protect native peoples from the greed and cruelty of the Spanish military. Other historians say that he conscripted natives into forced labor and had them beaten when they would continue to worship according to their native traditions. According to legend, Serra was so guilt-ridden over his sins that he would actually flagellate himself in the pulpit while he was preaching.

In any case, arguing over whether Serra was a good man or not, given his context, seems beside the point. In the debate over whether Serra should be a saint, he functions as a symbol of the way that Christianity supported European conquest the same way that the fourth century Roman Emperor Constantine functions as a symbol of the way that the church became one with empire when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Whatever can be said in defense of Serra as a person does not dispense with the church’s collusion with genocide any more than defenses of Constantine’s personal story dispense with the church’s “Constantinian” corruption upon becoming imperialistic.

The real issue named within the protests against Serra is the doctrine of discovery which was established by a series of papal bulls in the 15th century. According to this doctrine, any non-Christian lands which were “discovered” by Christian explorers could be legally claimed for their Christian kings. The non-Christian beliefs of any foreign lands’ inhabitants delegitimized their claim to territorial sovereignty, according to the 15th century church. The papal bull Romanus Pontifex officially sanctioned King Alfonso of Spain “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”

Tremendous evils were committed in the name of Christ against millions of people on the basis of this “infallible” papal doctrine, and no Catholic pope has ever repudiated it. It has been repudiated by the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, and several other mainline Protestant denominations. So if the pope really wants to honor native peoples, he needs to confess that Pope Nicholas V committed a grave sin by writing that papal bull and repudiate it (which of course no pope will ever do since they are obligated to affirm the infallibility of every papal bull that has ever been issued).

What concerns me the most today as a Christian is the degree to which our evangelism is motivated by the same basic understanding of human wickedness that caused European conquerors to believe that they were doing native peoples a favor by enslaving them so they could be “christianized” and avoid eternal damnation. Many evangelical Christians today are fond of using a quote by the famous atheist magician Penn Jillette to get themselves fired up about sharing the gospel boldly with non-Christians:

I’ve always said, you know, that I don’t respect people that don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell — or not getting eternal life, or whatever — and you think that, “Well, it’s not really worth tellin’ ’em this, because it would make it socially awkward”… How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it —that truck was bearing down on you — there’s a certain point where I tackle you, and this is more important than that.

Junipero Serra and every other European conquistador would say amen to that. They believed that a “truck” was coming down on native peoples around the world, the wrath of God against their sin, and so they “tackled” them, enslaved them, and massacred them in the name of Christ. To what degree have our beliefs about evangelism today been influenced by the colonialism of five centuries of European Christendom? If believing that billions of people are hell-bound motivated centuries of conquest, slavery, and genocide, then shouldn’t that belief be called into question? What centuries of Christians did in the name of Jesus is not okay, and yet we use their passed-down theology, oblivious to its tragic direct consequences in their deeds. If I ever go back and get a doctorate, I will probably do my dissertation on the theological legacy of colonialism.

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