Tag Archives: settler colonialism

On Canonization and Colonization: Junipero Serra

 

The canonization of Junipero Serra, who used the militaristic fort-mission system to become the Evangelizer of the West, is puzzling, paradoxical, leaving me to wonder, is it pardonable? I mean why would a pontiff who demonstrates progressive overtones, like his “Who am I to judge” statement towards gay priests; his support for women having a greater role in the Church; or his hand out onto the world political stage brokering a rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S, make such an affront to the plight of Indigenous peoples in the Americas still coping with the legacy of colonial oppression? Why on earth, would the Pontiff sanctify the role of a friar, Serra, whose missionary zeal caused irreparable damage to countless numbers of native peoples in California? Should the Pope, the first from the Americas, have been more sensitive to the shared experience of the people who bore the brunt of the Spanish crown’s imperial program and its handmaiden, the Catholic Church? The answer is both yes and no.

 

As a scholar of colonial Mexico, I can assert that when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they came in contact with an ethnically and linguistically diverse Indigenous population who had varied settlement patterns. In the areas furthest from the sedentary lifestyle of the central power, the people moved with the rhythms of the agricultural cycles and resisted domination from within or abroad. For Spanish missionaries, this posed a pastoral problem – How do you convert “barbarian” Indians when you have to chase them and they resist? Father Serra took his cue from 5th and 6th century missionaries preaching to the heathens: St. Colomba who did so to the Picts, St. Patrick to the Celts and St. Augustine of Canterbury preaching to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The titles before each speaking volumes and probably not lost on Serra. Hence he implemented a clever tactic in the ecclesiastical arsenal of preachers since the mid 16th century – the practice of Congregecíones, or congregations. This institution grouped Indians from outlying communities into a central settlement that facilitated conversion and also supplied a steady labor force. Brown robed, roped and tonsured, Serra preached, like the great Saints before him, evangelizing the neophytes. For those who did not subjugate themselves, which among the free thinking Indigenous of the Americas, there were many, they were convinced with a little help from the mighty sword.

 

Given the irreversible damage this caused to the very fabric of native life, the loss of land, the separation of families, the enslavement of an entire people at the hands of evangelical missionaries, I think the Pontiff’s choice of canonizing Junipero Serra perplexing. And then I remember, the Pope is still a man of the institution. When I look back at the millennia of ecclesiastical history, I see the church chockfull of contradictions, the human condition overwhelmed by the irony of its interdependence, the predicament of expressing free-will dysfunctional. Yes, I see the contradictions. While Serra propagated the faith this way in the 18th century, a Dominican Friar in the 16th century, Bartolomé de Las Casas, was ablaze in his criticism of the violence and injustice the Spanish conquistadors and the Church committed against the natives of Mexico.

 

I see the contradictions in Las Casas as he took pen to paper, waging a bitter invective against his coreligionists, though he himself once having profited from the very institutions he decried. I see the contradictions as he used his missionary post to speak out against the Encomienda system, the obligatory labor and tribute forced upon the Indians, the bread and butter of Spanish livelihood. I see the contradictions as Las Casas, armed only with his knowledge of Christ’s teachings and canon law, used his pulpit to advocate for the Indians, earning the title Protector of the Indians. I see the contradictions that the very same religious convictions and powers of persuasion that emboldened Serra to advocate for Congregcíones, a system like Encomienda, emboldened Bartolomé to advocate bishops, cardinals, monarchs and popes against it. Yes, I see the contradictions. And the bottom line is yes, the Pope should have been more sensitive to the political and moral climate of his decision, but the papal faux pas is pardonable.

 

I also see the contradictions in what I am saying here, so let me explain – I am no apologist for the Catholic Church, nor am I a crusader for its progressivist program. But as a scholar in the history of colonial Latin America and law, I see an institution, like most others, including our own government, reaching for a higher progressive moral ground in an ever widening, growing and evolving moral climate. And in that evolution lies exactly the problem: progressive and Institution (i.e Catholic Church) forever illusive by their very nature. Hence that expectation is a cross too heavy even for Pope Francis, the sweetheart of liberals, to bear. By liberals, I mean the hopeful: hopeful in expecting an immediate world-wide hospitable climate for gay marriage, hopeful in expecting to see world-wide respect for women (including their ordainment as priests), hopeful in expecting the amelioration of global economic inequality, hopeful for world wide vindication for native peoples who suffered the enslavement and violence of evangelization and imperialism. They probably won’t be seeing that any time soon. Although I concede that the Holy Father straddles a political tightrope within his own institution, the complexities and contingency of history compels us more than ever to bring a consciousness to the leaders we heroize. As for Bartolomé Las Casas’ Sainthood? Well, maybe when hell freezes over.

 

Maria Ornelas is a doctoral candidate in the department of History at UCLA where she is specializing in the colonial history of Mexico. Her dissertation focuses on how indigenous communities in Oaxaca used the Spanish legal system during the colonial period to challenge the abuses of power by Spanish and indigenous officials, and how indigenous communities influenced Spanish law in the process.

Photo Description: Picture of a statue of Junipero Serra, located at Mission San Antonio de Padua in Monterey County, CA. Photo found on Flickr.  

Race, Inclusion, and Unity in Christ #DisunityBook

This post is my contribution to the #DisunityBook club over at the Theology of Ferguson, a personal & theological reflection on Christena Cleveland‘s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, specifically, CHAPTERS 9 AND 10.

I dedicate this essay to Lizandra, Daisha, and Christian

It was early December. Tamir Rice, a twelve year old child who had not even gone through puberty had his life taken away. Why? because like any other boy usually, he was just playing with his toy guns. The only difference was: his skin was of a different hue. This, I mind you, was following the tumultuous summer of anti-black violence by police forces, nonviolent protestors being labelled as “rioters” and “trouble-makers” by the White Supremacist media. Having participated in protests and vigils, I was tired. Having had made sure to keep up with #Ferguson as a hashtag educational movement and news outlet, my mind was exhausted. I was in dire need of a spiritual Sabbath. I longed for a worship service where we as a congregation could celebrate Christ’s victory over the Enemy, oppression, and death. Apart from one awesome sermon at church, I did not get to hear God’s Word for the church located in a post- Mike Brown world.

Finally, an opportunity arrived. The local seminary and my alma mater invited the community to join the faculty and students for an “Advent of Justice Event,” a memorial for victims of racial profiling and police murders. I was pumped, I needed a renewed energy and to be in God’s presence. I even invited my good friend Ryan who is a local community organizer, activist and I must say, a really good blogger that Christians should listen to. We decided to go along with a few teen-aged members of Ryan’s at-risk youth non-profit organization. There we were, Ryan who is White, myself Black, a Mexican-American teen, a Jamaican American, and a bi-racial high schooler walking into a white walled chapel, picking up our black and white glossy bulletins and (used, yes used) white candles. We were asked to come to the front in a nearly empty chapel, and so we sat in the front pews, stuffed, not really able to move around, limited to clapping really. And then it happened. The (White, male, progressive) school president took the stand and began to pray that this service would remind whites like himself of THEIR PRIVILEGE. On one hand, it was nice to see this president there, showing a sign of empathy with Black victims of racial violence. On the other hand, this was the same school president who called my friends and I Nazis for our protests and petition for a more diverse curriculum. Had this president had a change of heart? Or was it more of the same?

What was supposed to be a service that memorialized the suffering of the marginated in fact became (with about a few notable exceptions), a ceremony that placed Whiteness and White Privilege at the forefront. “Everyone wants diversity, but no one wants to actually be diverse” (Cleveland, 184). Dr. Cleveland goes on to observe that calls for unity can oftentimes be confused cries for more hegemony by the dominant culture,

“Similarly I’ve witnessed plenty of so-called unity events in the body of Christ that are so heavily influenced by white culture that any other collaborating cultures are rendered invisible. This typically happens when the majority culture takes an “our way or the highway” approach and requires minority culture to assimilate to the majority culture. This can be unintentional but it has grave consequence, not only because it is oppressive but also because it leaves no room for much-needed diverse cultural expression” (Cleveland, 170).

This “Advent of Justice” event was exactly what Cleveland had described: a progressive pep rally for unity rather than a liberating shout for solidarity and justice. It all began with a member of the dominant culture (with a problematic history of opposing diversity initiatives) making the service service about his feelings, his experience, his place in the world rather than those who are outcasts. The worship style throughout the service was mainline Protestant, Euro-centric and exclusive. The urban youth who had accompanied Ryan and I were made to feel uncomfortable. The liturgy was unwelcoming not because of any words that were spoken, but the invisible forces that went unseen and unspoken of. As a Progressive seminary, my alma mater prides itself on being ecumenical, and even to some extent multicultural with Black Church Studies, Jewish Studies, Latin@ Church Studies, and Asian (Korean) Church studies programs. Yet it is only willing to accept diversity if it is on White Mainline liberal terms. Thus the decline of the presence of People of Color on campus (their visible absence) has much to do with the invisible structures of institutional racism. A reality check is needed: anyone who works in the school district knows that in less than a decade, Fort Worth will be a majority-minority population; populations neither of the local seminaries (conservative or liberal) have any long term investment in.

Cleveland argues that the creation of “positive cross-cultural interactions” starts with the debunking of our biases that objectify others. In chapter 3, Cleveland points to Orientalism (seeing all Asians as the same, for example page 53) and anti-Black racism (viewing all black males as inherently violent, for example) as part of the cultural biases of being a part of Western Society. White Supremacy is a very divisive system; that is why Andy Smith argues that orientalism/war, genocide/colonialism, and anti-Black racism/slavery the Three Pillar of White Supremacy. The quest of liberation and reconciliation go hand and in; along with persons like Miroslav Volf, as well as black theologians such as J. Deotis Roberts, contrary to populist NeoAnaBaptist opinion, the emancipation of the oppressed IS NOT opposed to Church unity; on the contrary, it is part and parcel to it.  As followers of Jesus, if Christ’s promise is to be with us and to keep teaching us in the midst of the homeless, the hungry, and the prisoner, the least of these (Matthew 25), then our notions of church unity cannot be separated from solidarity with the oppressed. The Church cannot exist without Christ, and therefore the Church finds its very being right in the middle of those who society scorns.

One of the other solutions that Cleveland suggests is for those of us who want to work for reconciliation is for us to use the inclusive language of “we.” I think that this was part of my thinking when I talked about Inclusive Language as part of Jesus’ “Going the Second Mile” Ethic.  I not only learned this from my engagement with pacifist theologians like [ TW ]  John Howard Yoder, but also my first mentor, Womanist ethicist Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas.  I remember distinctly in my classes at seminary that some of my classmates were afraid of taking her classes.  Were they afraid of having their White Supremacist narratives challenged by “the Angry Black Woman?” Did they have this fret that they were going to be excluded and silenced in the class discussions? Interestingly, much like Cleveland emphasized using “we” to be inclusive and affirming of others’ subjectivity and humanity, so did Floyd-Thomas in our classroom assignments, and in her book Mining The Motherlode: Methods In Womanist Ethics:

“Essential to naming the moral dilemma is the researcher specifically articulating her context and the community, (We,  as_______ ) as a community of which she is a part which is both responsible for the perpetuation of the problem and accountable for resolving the crisis.”

Indeed, the advantages of using “we/us” terminology has its advantages, and I do find this part of Cleveland’s work to be the most challenging. There is an advantage to the inclusiveness of Womanist valuing of traditional communalism (inclusiveness).  However, there needs to be caution taken for there are those, as my friend Sarah Moon has pointed out, who abuse the language of “we”, the practice of forced teaming in order to stifle real differences and legitimate dissent.  What balances out this universalism is a politics of difference where the radical subjectivity of the false notions of objectivity and essentialism are replaced with an ethic of responsibility.

What should unity look like? Christena Cleveland rightly points us to Jesus the Liberator, who in his life taught us how to engage others nonviolently and cross-culturally. I would go further than Cleveland however when she suggests that we embrace dual identities with our identity in Christ as a primary identity. In the Epistles, the apostle Paul can be a Pharisee, a Jewish Christian, a Roman citizen, and the apostle to the Gentiles. As for myself, I can be a Christian, a Black Christian, a Black Critical Race Theorist, an avid Chicago White Sox fan, the firstborn son and grandson for one side of my family, and  a DC Comics fan (Green Arrow, YEAH!) I would argue that we have multiple identities since we are held accountable to multiple communities  and that while our identity in Christ de-stablizes all of these identities, the Holy Trinity works in us by conforming us to be like Christ to each of those communities by the power of the Holy Spirit.