By MATT SEDDON
Rector of Christ Church Mexico City
In 1514, five years before Hernán Cortés arrived on the shores of what is now México, the first Spanish priest ordained in the Americas, Bartolomé de las Casas, realized something was terribly wrong. He had benefited from the Spanish colonial encomienda system, which granted the labor of natives to the Spanish. He had seen the terrible atrocities committed by the Spaniards under this system and the virtual slavery of the native Mexicans. By 1515, he had given up his encomienda and traveled to Spain to try to talk the Spanish king into discontinuing the terrible abuse of the indigenous people of New Spain.
The efforts of De las Casas to bring an end to the Spanish abuse of native Mexicans are particularly interesting in terms of President Andrés Manuel López Obredor’s (AMLO) recent request to Spanish King Felipe VI to apologize for his country’s conquest of what is now México. This request comes as we enter the 500th anniversary of these transformative historical events. AMLO’s request has resulted in an explosion of memes – from the funny to the vicious, all ridiculing his efforts to seek reconciliation.
But is the president’s request completely insane? AMLO’s request is rather precise. He wants Spain to seek forgiveness for the abuse and killing of indigenous peoples and their subjugation under the sword and the cross. He asks for an apology for the Spanish empire’s deadly mix of religion and state power.
Spain has bluntly rejected this request, saying the country’s past deeds shouldn’t be judged by present values. And I can understand this position somewhat. As a former archaeologist, I can agree that all empires – that of Spain, of England, of the United States, of the Mexica (Aztec), of the Maya, of the Inca, and so on – used state violence and religion to achieve domination. In this regard, Spain is no worse and no better than any other.
However, that doesn’t make what happened right. And making things right is something I believe as an Anglican priest to be of paramount importance. According to the Catechism of the Anglican Church of Mexico, the mission of the Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Achieving this kind of restoration is called “reconciliation,” which is specifically what AMLO is seeking.
Reconciliation is related to, but different from, forgiveness. An injured party may forgive the one(s) who injured them without the offending parties doing anything. But for reconciliation, the offending party has to own up to their offense in order for both parties to create a new relationship grounded in love and hope.
Given that many of Spain’s own colonists, beginning with De las Casas, recognized years before Cortés began his killing spree that what was happening to the natives of New Spain was wrong, it doesn’t seem to me to be ridiculous for AMLO to extend an offer seeking reconciliation and atonement for those acts.
And it is not without precedent. In 1997, the Episcopal Church (the branch of the Anglican Church in America) began a 10-year process of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation for the many ways the Church colluded with power to oppress and subjugate Native Americans.
It is possible, and even good, to seek forgiveness for the sins of your ancestors, especially when you have benefitted, directly or indirectly, from those sins.
I wish that Spain had taken a little more time to reflect on AMLOs request, instead of rejecting it outright. They could have begun a really fruitful dialogue and, ultimately, a true healing of wounds. But we, at least, can perhaps explore this issue with open and gracious minds and not simply hurl memes at each other across the internet.
It is Lent, after all, a time to take accountability for the wrongs we have done and to seek reconciliation. I suggest we fast from hurling memes and instead try to have honest and open conversations about ways to heal the wounds of colonization in Mexico.
Rev. Matt Seddon spent half of his life as an archaeologist working in Peru, Bolivia and the western United States, and is currently a priest in the Anglican Church and rector of Christ Church Parish in Mexico City.