Preserving Voices of Change

Liberative and Opressive Manifestations of Religious Tradition

No dichotomy exists between tradition and social action.

Although individuals in a religion (especially those people who forge new religions or renovate existing ones) often take a creative part in religion, most established religions have been structured in such a way as to prevent their acting in any role other than a conservative one. “Innovation” is, in the Abrahamic religions , a dire insult nearly synonymous with (and used in conjunction with) the word “anathema.” This does not condemn new approaches to belief, but rather the introduction of new beliefs as if they were the truth all along. It is the same kind of distinction which allows soloists within a choir to embellish music with very minor fluctuation in tone, in spite of the fact that switching to a completely foreign tone is considered a misstep and the mark of a less than talented performer.

Brian Smith sets up a stark, binary opposition between progressive and conservative actions. Such dichotomy does not exist, nor is there necessarily a spectrum between the conservative and progressive extremes. That an action could be resolutely conservative in intent and radically liberative in effect is a possibility, which does not appear to have occurred to Smith in his analysis of the political implications of Catholic activity. I will explore this possibility, drawing on cases illustrating the relationship between secular and spiritual forces in the Yucatan Peninsula during the sixteenth century.

Tradition is capable of both liberation and oppresion.

I have chosen three examples of discord between the voices of the Church and of the State: “The Indian Question”, Resettlement, and Idolatry. In each case, the prevailing religious motives are evangelical while the prevailing secular motives are monetary and/or military. The third of these cases, the interrogations and trials of Mayan natives for the crime of idolatry, adds a third contrapuntal line: The voice of Maya itself.

“The Indian Question” is a pithy way of phrasing a crucial issue facing Europe during the conquest of the New World: Were Indians human, or not? If so, they could be, must be converted to Christianity and treated with at least a modicum of respect. If not, the Europeans arriving in the New World would not be obligated to treat them any better than they would treat a beast of labor.

Given the behavior of the various settlers described in Clendinnen’s book, one might be tempted to assume that this was an ongoing debate during the conquest of Maya; this is not the case. Both Pope and Crown had long settled the matter. The Pope granted land to Crowns based on their promises to bring salvation to the land. In addition, Spanish policy dictated that an Indian, once converted, was not to be enslaved or treated inhumanely (Requerimiento). The existing social values, then, demanded that cooperative Indians be treated fairly.

These ideals seem to have been too optimistic about the willingness of the Spanish settlers to recognize Indians as fellow children of God. The temptation of wealth gained by Indian labor and the forces opposing the settlers in even the simplest endeavors must have been overpowering influences on settlers’ behavior.

While the poor treatment of Mayan natives was hardly rare in the Yucatan Peninsula, it did not represent the contemporary ideal of moral behavior. Neither Spaniards nor Christians tended to be in favor of the literal or practical enslavement of members in good standing of their own societies. In order to rationalize such behavior, a settler could not be of the opinion that the Indians were potentially good Christians, Spanish subjects, and rational humans. They would, in effect, need to doubt those declarations of Pope and Crown that attributed to Indian subjects those very qualities. Inhumane treatment of Maya represented a break from traditional Spanish Catholic values derived from life in desperate circumstances, and the objections of the friars to blatant offenses were thus conservative in motivation.

Resettlement of Mayans from seclusion in the wilderness to community life in villages was dictated by L—pez Mendel of the Guatemala audiencia in 1552. This was in line with the goals of the Franciscan friars, who were concerned first with their ability to convert the Mayans, which would be greatly simplified if they were gathered in accessible communities rather than scattered around the wilderness. In addition, if the Mayans were to become proper members of society, they should conduct themselves in a manner consistent with Spanish ideas of civilization and affection for town life (Clendinnen, 56-58).

The friars proceeded to forcibly resettle the Indians in communities of the friars’ choosing. Though one would imagine the Indians themselves would have heatedly protested being forced to leave their homes, it is the indignance of the encomenderos on which Clendinnen focuses. Large numbers of their tributaries were being lost, either escaping or dying. Their outrage was primarily due to financial losses, not the hardship such actions brought on Indians (Clendinnen, 59-60).

In this case, the friars were serving to maintain the high value placed on civilization and life in orderly communities, as well as asserting their claim to control of the lives of the Mayans. Their lack of concern about the encomienda system was less a demonstration of their sympathy with Indian burdens than a declaration about their intent to preserve European ways of life even in the bush.

Idolatry continued to be practiced in the Yucatan Peninsula even by individuals who had supposedly been long converted. On this issue Clendinnen brings out a third voice (settlers and friars comprising the first two) seldom before expressed in her book; Maya is finally given the floor. The question of continued idolatry shows not one but two religions bent on self-preservation. The settlers, concerned as usual with money and the possibility of revolt, come out of the fiasco looking like protectors Ð I am more inclined to attribute this to the pragmatic, cooling effect of avarice on faith than to the altruism of the settlers.Catholicism stresses exclusive devotion to God in the form of the holy trinity. That it would be distressed to find its children regressing to pagan rituals is hardly surprising. The acts committed by the friars in their attempt to root out idolatry are a good example of the atrocities of which religions are capable in moments of desperation. That these actions were extreme does not change their essential conservatism.

So too were the ah-kines acting conservatively. Pre-conquest Mayan religion had stressed the importance of offering homage to crucial deities in order to preserve the Mayan way of life. When Franciscan friars entered the peninsula demanding adherence to this new Lord, yet failing to provide a way of thanking and pleading with the gods, Mayan religion tried to sustain itself by incorporating what was unavoidable without abandoning its prior responsibilities to the gods.

Regardless of concurrent secular agendas, religion seeks to preserve continuitu of norms.

Whether religions appear to sing a liberative, stabilizing, or oppressive tone within the multi-voiced choir of society depends not on the fundamental intentions of the religion with respect to tradition, but rather on the message of the spiritual voice in comparison with its secular counterpoint. Where spiritual and secular motives are in homophonic agreement, religion will appear to maintain social harmony. Where they are in polyphonic (sometimes even cacophonic) contrast, the religious timbre will seem either liberative or oppressive, according to the aesthetic of the audience. Without regard for the comparatively fickle movement in the secular voices, religion is the cantus firmus, the low, droning bass derived from ancient modes of thought Ð slow to change and intent on stabilizing the composite whole.

Works consulted

  • Clendinnen, Inga. Ambivalent conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • de Palacios Rubios, Juan Lopez. Requerimiento. Council of Castille, c. 1510.
  • Smith, Brian H.. “Religion and Social Change: Classical Theories and New Formulations in the Context of Recent Developments in Latin America.” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 10, No. 2. (Summer, 1975), 3-34.

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