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Michael Huhn {*}

Fighter for Justice

500th Anniversary of the Advent Sermon of Antonio de Montesinos


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2011, P. 522-526
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    500 years ago in Santo Domingo the young Dominican Antonio de Montesinos protested in an Advent sermon against the enslavement of the so-called "Indians". This sermon may indeed be understood as prelude to the theology of liberation. In her commitment to the poor, the church in Latin America refers time and again to Montesinos.


It was 500 years ago, on 21 December 1511, the fourth Sunday of Advent, as something phenomenal happened on the island which in 1492 was "discovered" and named La Españiola by Christopher Columbus (now the states Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island). In Santo Domingo, the capital of the Spanish colony, Antonio de Montesinos, a then about 26-year-old Dominican who had joined the Order in 1502 and had in the previous year come to Hispaniola rose from his seat. He ascended the pulpit and gave a sermon of holy wrath to his compatriots, a sharp, bitter accusation of the enslavement of the so-called "Indians".

His confrère Bartolomé de Las Casas has handed down Montesinos' sermon in his "Historia general de las Indias" (General History of the West Indies) (translated into German in: Eberhard Schmitt [ed], Dokumente zur Geschichte der europäischen Expansion, volume 3, 1987, 491-497): "You are all in mortal sin, and live and die in it, because of the cruelty and tyranny you practice among these innocent peoples. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?



On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these peoples, who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own land? Wars in which you have destroyed such infinite numbers of them by homicides and slaughters never before heard of? Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather, you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day? And what care do you take that they should be instructed in religion, so that they may know their God and creator, may be baptized, may hear Mass, and may keep Sundays and feast days? Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? Don't you understand this? Don't you feel this. Why are you sleeping in such a profound and lethargic slumber? Be assured that in your present state you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks."

What Antonio de Montesinos so much embittered was the unchristian and inhuman treatment of the by the conquistadors subjugated population. The Spanish Crown had granted them "encomiendas" as fiefs, extensive estates including the Indians who lived there. The transfer involved the "encomendero's" obligation to baptize and to protect "his" indigenous. These were obliged to work for and to give tribute to their master, but they were legally not slaves.

The practice was different - so, as Montesinos portrays it. The policy of Ferdinand the Catholic, King of Aragón, Castile and León, towards the Indians was self-contradictory. The Spanish Crown was unable and unwilling to halt the abuse of the encomienda system, which had become a habit. When the Dominicans described the miserable conditions, even worse, the mass extinction of the indigenous people, the king was shocked. What he heard about everyday life in the New World had often gone beforehand through the information filter of the local grandees.


Prelude to the Theology of Liberation

Montesinos touches the economic foundations of the colonial system. After what he had seen of the greed and cruelty among his countrymen, he no longer believed in the "good encomienda", because he could no longer believe in the "good encomendero". He therefore demanded of them to release the Indians who had been allocated to them. Otherwise, he announced consequences, namely, to deny them absolution in confession. For he assessed their behavior as a mortal sin, and absolution requires active repentance.

Montesinos had courage. He guessed what his words would trigger in most of his compatriots: anger and hatred. For according to Las Casas, "they were extremely enraged when they heard that they were not allowed further to tyrannize over the Indians." They gathered at the home of Governor Diego Colón, the son of the discoverer, decided to intimidate the preacher, went to the Dominican monastery and demanded that Montesinos had to withdraw everything he had said: if not, they would find the appropriate remedy.

But in his sermon the following Sunday nothing of what - apart from the Dominicans - all had expected happened. Montesinos withdrew nothing, quite the reverse, "He again reproached them for the injustice of the enslavement of these tormented and afflicted peoples and repeated his insight: They should give up all hope for their salvation."

The church historian Johannes Meier aptly describes Montesinos' sermons as the prelude to the theology of liberation, not with regard to the term but the matter. "With these sermons, the Dominicans tore the crusaders mask from the face of the conquistadors, and opened the decades-long debate about the right of Spain to the conquest in America" (Die Anfänge der Kirche auf den Karibischen Inseln, Immensee 1991, 212). Hans-Jürgen Prien, Protestant researcher on the Latin American church history, wrote about the sermon, "The in the Gospel rooted human brotherhood with the natives was clearly proclaimed for the first time in this sermon - signed by all the Dominicans in solidarity" (Das Evangelium im Abendland und in der Neuen Welt, Frankfurt 2000, 171).

This sentence contains all the key words that make the importance of the sermon accessible. "First": At the time when Montesinos raised his voice, 19 years had passed since the arrival of the Spaniards in Hispaniola. Whether there had previously been prophetic protest against the crimes of the invaders has not been handed down. But now the outrageous thing had happened. Diego Colón accused Montesinos of "causing trouble" by "spreading new views" and "preaching new and noxious things", as Las Casas twice emphasizes. The label of "novelty" was a very dangerous attack.

In a time when theology had to prove its orthodoxy by not deviating from the tradition, the accusation to teach "Novissima", something completely new, could cost one's reputation, and even one's head and neck. Las Casas was responsive to it with a biting irony, "The novelty consisted in nothing else than to reinforce the fact that to kill these human beings was a greater sin than to crush bedbugs." The truth that Montesinos uttered was really no novelty. The actual novelty was that he dared to confront his countrymen with it. The crucial point is that this "first time" was not a "for the last time." Since his legendary sermon - a highlight of the Latin American church history and a turning point from its very beginning - the tradition of defending human rights and human dignity for the sake of faith and the discipleship of Jesus Christ is no longer interrupted.



The next key word is "solidarity". Knowing what would happen to him, Montesinos left on 21 December 1511 "the pulpit with scarcely bowed head. For he wanted to show no fear, because he had none. And it did not bother him much to displease his audience, as long as he did and said what was pleasing to God." The certainty to act pleasing to God was the one thing that gave him strength. The other was the support by his community. Because Montesinos was not alone. He preached on behalf of the whole convent. Even more: they had unanimously agreed on the goal of the sermon. Then they had co-authored the text, and finally they all signed the manuscript, "so that it was clear that this is not just a matter of the one who was destined for preaching but a procedure after consultation and with the consent and approval of all."

Latin American Christians who are now in Montesinos' succession say that it is not only about his concern but also about the "how", because they have learned from him not to act in isolation but to strengthen each other. This is even a help with writing a sermon.


Talking with Twofold Authority

Another keyword that makes accessible the meaning of the sermon is "from the Gospel". Antonio de Montesinos put both in the scales: on the one hand, the behavioural norms of the two main sources, namely Gospel and Law, and on the other hand, the practice of his compatriots. The weighing finds them guilty: theologically of sin, legally of injustice. What makes his argument so powerful is, among other things, the twofold authority of the divine commandment of justice and of the royal will. But the Gospel has here top priority and is the last instance.

"Brotherhood" - the next keyword: Brotherhood? With such second-class citizens? If ever they are people at all! Some of his listeners may have thought this way, when Montesinos in rhetorical questions reminded of the fact that the Indians, too, have "rational souls" just as his listeners. Pope and King had repeatedly made it clear that the "Indians" are not people of lower order. But just the fact that they had to do this, shows how little taken for granted it was. The conquerors in the West Indies contested this view and individual professors in Spain expressed doubts. A violent and an academic racism had fraternized with each other.

According to the historian Prien, Montesinos has clearly "proclaimed" the in the Gospel rooted human brotherhood with the natives: Christianity is (also) a religion of the Word. Montesinos' sermon is an outstanding example of what the word, the sermon can (and should) achieve, and this does admittedly not only apply to a member of the Order of Preachers, where it is already demanded by the name. The confidence both of preachers and listeners in the transformative power of preaching manifests itself everywhere in Latin America. Sometimes this is explained by the fact that Latin America has a "culture of orality" where more attention is given to the spoken word, and the heard word gains more credibility than the read word.

My impression is that the source of the power of preaching in Latin America is a different one: The word of the sermon is effective when and because it comes from the word of God. Montesinos has done nothing else. His starting point was the Gospel of the day and John the Baptist's information about himself, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (Jn 1:23). Montesinos' principle of the biblical foundations of preaching is no exception, but characterizes the missionary preaching in Latin America as a whole.

Half a millennium after Montesinos, the Scripture proved again its dynamism, when the base communities emerged out of the word of God by common prayer and reading. Montesinos had claimed the authority of John the Baptist for himself. In a similarly sovereign attitude - Montesinos has a lasting effect also in this respect - the Christians in Latin America read the Bible without much doubt whether they have correctly understood this or that passage at all. Their guiding question for understanding is not "What does this mean in itself?" but "What does this mean for me?" If it is applied to one's life, the Word of God today creates the same both frightening and illuminating clarity as then in Santo Domingo.


The Unchristian Selfishness of the Settlers Remained Unbroken

The question remains, is there a long-term effect of Montesinos' sermon. In the colony it was impossible to resolve the conflict between the Dominicans and the "encomenderos". Both parties appealed to a higher authority and sent to this end their representatives to the mother country. On the part of the Dominicans, Antonio de Montesinos and the Superior in Santo Domingo, Pedro de Cordoba, called on the king. Already the following year, a commission of jurists and theologians worked out the in total 35 "Leyes de Burgos" (Laws of Burgos), "a legislation for the protection of Indians (...) but without calling the system of encomienda into question", as the missiologist Michael Sievernich explains.

The new laws were determined by the ideal of coexistence between conquerors and the conquered. "The Leyes de Burgos did not take into account the well known unchristian selfishness of the settlers, their striving for power and wealth" (Johannes Meier). Thus, they remained not entirely ineffective, but too often just on paper only.



The struggle of the religious for the rights of indigenous people continued. In 1515 Montesinos had to travel once more to Spain, where he together with Pedro de Córdoba and Bartolomé de Las Casas again interceded for the indigenous people. Then he worked tirelessly as missionary on the islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, and finally at the coast of present-day Venezuela, where Antonio de Montesinos suffered martyrdom on 27 June 1540.

Much more is not known about his life. In accordance with a good early church tradition, Antonio de Montesinos made no fuss about his person. Because there was something more important: "The way of the Gospel (la evangelica via) which to teach us Christ our Lord came," as Las Casas had expressed it in a letter to the Royal Council of Indies.

Only a few sermons of Antonio de Montesinos have been handed down. He has therefore never achieved the fame of his confrère Bartolome de Las Casas, whose collected works comprise 14 mostly thick volumes. It is owed to God's grace but also to the stimulus of Montesinos' sermon four years ago that Las Casas, who like many others had come to the New World as a conquistador and settler, in 1515 experienced that radical conversion into a defender of indigenous people.

In the following centuries it was, consistently, especially his order which kept alive the memory of Antonio de Montesinos and his sermon. Then, in the seventies of the last century a renaissance began, far beyond the Dominicans and the experts in colonial history. The theology of liberation had an impact on the Latin American church historiography: The long history of the lived option for the poor and disenfranchised has been rediscovered, and thus Montesinos, too.

José Marins, the great teacher of the base communities, integrated Montesinos in the "dangerous memory of the martyrs for us today" and the "Latin American Patrology." When Pope John Paul II on the occasion of the Third General Assembly of the Latin American bishops for the first time traveled to Latin America, he made on the way to Puebla (Mexico) in Santo Domingo a stopover on 25 January 1979, and praised there at his place of activity in the first place Antonio de Montesinos as "fighters for justice". A fruit of the pope's journey, which connected the Dominican Republic with Mexico, was three years later a gift from the Mexican government to the Dominican people: an almost overpowering 15-meter high Montesinos statue at the sea promenade in Santo Domingo, made of stone and bronze by the Mexican sculptor Antonio Castellanos Basich.

At its feet the "Comisión de Estudios de la Historia de la Iglesia en América Latina" (Commission for the Study of Latin American church history - CEHILA) ended in 1989 its 15th symposium with the "Declaration of Santo Domingo". It looked already at the year of the Quinto Centenario, 1992, the 500 anniversary of the "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus, the beginning of the Spanish and Portuguese conquest, and - as the Guatemalan bishops expressed it in their pastoral letter dated 15 August 1992 - of "Sowing the Gospel."


Subjugation of the American peoples and the Christian Mission

Throughout Latin America, in view of the commemorative year a lively debate was triggered about the relation between the subjugation of the American peoples and the Christian mission. In the debates the two parties quoted Antonio de Montesinos as an authority: both as a witness for the prosecution for the crimes of the conquistadors and as one of many examples of the fact that it was precisely the "evangélica via" which motivated especially monks and nuns to side with the downtrodden and exploited. Since then, the church in Spain, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico on October 12th, the day of the landing of Columbus, commemorates Antonio de Montesinos - a liturgical day, even though he has not yet been canonized.

"Montesinos vive!" Montesinos is alive, it says often in Latin America, and rightly so. Outstanding is the pastoral letter of the Dominican Episcopal Conference of 27 February 2011 on the occasion of the Montesinos-year. In a literal allusion to the famous sermon it says: "A voice cries in the new deserts of our Dominican Republic and asks us: By what right and justice do we hold our people in such a cruel and horrible servitude?" That's the point of this pastoral letter: As Montesinos employed the Gospel for his time, the pastoral letter employs his sermon for our time.

That central question is explicated in 17 questions, which address point by point the grievances in the country: rightlessness of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, lack of drinking water supply, miserable housing conditions, unemployment, starvation wages, unrestrained enrichment of the powerful, the neglect of the schools, the concealment of violence against women and the abuse of children, injustice in the legal system, etc. This prophetic pastoral letter is point-blank as scarcely any else from Latin America for many, many years. It is a tribute to Montesinos.

At the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina the Emeritus Archbishop of Resistencia, Carmelo Juan Giaquinta, begins usually his lectures on Catholic social teaching by quoting Montesinos. Among the Dominicans of the entire Spanish-speaking world the Montesinos sermon has become a basic text of the jubilee-decade from 2006 to 2016 on the occasion of the 800 anniversary of foundation of the order. In Mexico, the Centro Antonio de Montesinos (CAM) works for a "church of the poor."



"También la lluvia" (Even the Rain), the in 2010 made, award-winning feature film by the Spanish director Icíar Bollaín, connects the struggle of Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de Las Casas with the struggle of Bolivian indigenous people for water rights in 2000.

Since the beginning of the Montesinos-year 2011, in Latin America more and more websites present Montesinos and his concern: from religious congregations, dioceses and Protestant churches up to human rights groups, political movements and lawyers, who take his commitment to the indigenous up.

The Spanish language "Facebook" page invites "to get in touch with Fray Antonio de Montesinos," fortunately not by clicking on him as a "friend" and thus clicking him off, but through long, informative articles. The list of such examples of the "Montesinos vive" could be extended by many others.

Please note, those among the Christians who stood up for the poor and downtrodden against the power of the rich and rulers were in the 500 years after Antonio de Montesinos never the majority, never the wide stream in church history. At first glance, it seems that the Montesinos-tradition has at times only been a trickle at the edge. And yet, the "Montesinians" were and are always there, in every generation: outspoken and tenacious, brave and courageous, many up to the sacrifice of their lives.


    {*} Michael Huhn (born in 1956) works since 1994 for Adveniat, inter alia as head of the Caribbean desk and head of the project department. Since 2008 he is librarian and archivist of the Catholic funding agency for Latin America.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'