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Laura Yoder

Laura Yoder

Seeing (from) the colonizers’ point of view

The week after our CACE seminar exploring Willie Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, I went to Spain for the first time.  This was part of a new Wheaton College Spanish field course on the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage more than a thousand years old, related to the person of James son of Zebedee, a disciple of Jesus.  This time in northern Spain followed many years of living in areas of Asia and Latin America where societies are still grappling with the enduring effects of Iberian colonialism.  With Jennings’ insights and challenges fresh in my head, some key lessons of our seminar reflections made me view our site visits through these lenses.  Here I discuss three places where some concepts we discussed from the book raised focused questions from what I encountered in Spanish cathedrals and their museums.  I primarily reference Chapter Two, which describes the experiences, ideologies, and perspectives of an exemplary young Spanish Jesuit, José de Acosta Porres, who undertook missionary work in Peru in the late 1500s.

My first observation came from the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, which houses the remains of a man who lived during the eleventh century and became famous for his association with various miracles that occurred in the region.  He is known as the patron saint of civil engineers and those who construct road infrastructure; a pamphlet noted that he was known for his concern for laborers, and one sculpture depicts him as a liberator of slaves.  The description of the ornate silver archway set into his tomb noted that it was made of Mexican silver, and donated in 1763.  This Cathedral’s museum was one of the few we observed in which many of the labels listed the source of the intricate objects made of gold, silver, and other precious metals and stones: “1654, from a Mexican workshop”; “gold, likely from Peru.”  Juxtaposed with descriptions of the venerated saint, these explanations invited me to ponder the working conditions for these American miners and artisans.

Jennings notes the conundrum created in the colonial contexts where “forming productive workers for the mines, encomiendas, haciendas, the obrajes, and the reducciones merged with the operation of forming theological subjects” (p. 107).  The theological work was intertwined with the treatment of colonial subjects primarily as sources of labor needed to produce the materials for the types of religious objects I was now viewing, in great quantities, in the museums of Spain.  Passing by the decorated tomb once more as I left, I wondered about how the concern for fair treatment of medieval infrastructure workers around the regions of the Cathedral took practical form, and how that concern was present or absent regarding the workers in colonial settings.

The second place, where I was starkly reminded of Jennings’ challenges about pedagogical imperialism and the evaluative form (pp. 102-116), was in the museum of the Cathedral of Pamplona.  Jennings described these concepts in which “the world’s people become perpetual students” of an entity that views itself as the civilizational center, and sees itself as forever occupying the place of teacher, expert, and the purveyor of civilization (112).  A characteristic of pedagogical imperialism is to question “the humanity of all those who do not belong to the locus of enunciation (and the geopolitics of knowledge) of those who assign the standards of classification and assign to themselves the right to classify” (114).  The historical presentation of Spanish history in the Pamplona Cathedral bears the imprint of these perspectives.  One explanatory panel stated that “In order to transform the world, it was necessary to understand it and to know how to organize it.  This is why Greek science and Roman law were revived.  Faced with the choice between paganism and Christian faith, settling on Christianity entailed a great advance of civilization, introducing the sense of progress and of history.”

My third lesson emerged from the persistent discomfiting of reading The Christian Imagination as a whole.  A central aim of the book is to interrogate how Christianity, with its clear emphasis on love as the defining quality in neighbors’ relationships, developed deeply embedded racial hierarchies that exacerbate social division and various forms of violence.  A subsequent question for Christians is how to live faithfully in light of this history.  For the colonizer and the colonized: “What kind of Christianity has been possible given the advent of the racialized structures of human existence?”  (114) 

The iconography of Santiago is ubiquitous along the entire Camino path, usually representing him in one of three forms: as the apostle and martyr, as a pilgrim, or as a knight.  The third image often portrays his heroic presence in scenes of famous battles from A.D. 844 onwards, in which the sword-wielding Santiago is depicted as a victorious soldier on a white horse with cowering or slain “infidels” at his feet, supporting the military victories of the Christian troops.  It is this image that is responsible for a designation used commonly worldwide, Santiago Matamoros (the Muslim-slayer).  Some variations of this exist; for example, the Museum of Pilgrimage in Santiago de Compostela displays a painting of Santiago Mataindios (the Indian-slayer), by an anonymous Peruvian artist in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  Sometimes, the trampled victims are strategically covered by or hidden behind flowers or cloth, as in this picture of one statue in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.  For Christians who seek to follow Jesus in practicing love of neighbor, including Muslims, the presence of these images is troubling.  I spoke with one pilgrim who flatly disowned this aspect of religious history, claiming that the existence of these images of hatred and violence did not affect his faith; he simply chose to dismiss their relevance.  But here again, Jennings’ challenge is important: he names the loss, or denial, of historical consciousness as “immoral” (115), because only as we acknowledge and then seek to understand the ways in which our very theologies are embedded within imperialist and racist matrices can we ultimately seek God’s help in addressing the multiple wounds and harm that have resulted from their imbrication.