Saturday, May 9, 2009

Why Have You Come Here: The Jesuits and the First Evangelization of Native America

By Nicholas P. Cushner, 254 pages, Oxford University Press.

“Decades before the Jesuits arrived in Mexico, controversy raged over the character of the American Indian. Who was he? Was he man or beast? Was he a rational being? Could his lands be expropriated? Could he be made to work and pay taxes? If he were a beast, why should he not be enslaved? Could the Indian be forced to become a Christian?...These questions were never fully resolved.”

As reflected in the above words, Cushner describes the early part of the European intrusion into the New World as little more than disordered chaos, and the Jesuits marched eagerly, even passionately, into this hurricane. Why Have You Come Here introduces the reader to this religious work in Florida, Peru, New France, Brazil, and Maryland, as the Jesuits worked within the various European empires.

Unlike many accounts of this nature, the author's judgment of the intentions and prejudices of the religious authorities does not judge with an underlying anti-Catholic or anti-Western ideology on us. He highlights the subtle complexities of natives-Church interactions:

“The detail with which the Jesuits related the accounts of Indian religious beliefs indicates a degree of fascination that bordered on admiration. The missionary had come face to face not with primitive animism but with a complex of beliefs that were integrated with the daily life of the Indian. There was the glimmer of a recognition that something greater than Satan was at work, but the Jesuit did not come out and say precisely that. European society of the sixteenth century, however, was convinced that the devil was behind all forms of non-Christian religion.”

Cushner also does a good job of thinking from the native side without condescension or fictionalizing things:

“The Florida Indians resented the white men who demanded a share of their corn and suggested that they change their belief system and some of their most cherished social habits while threatening them with eternal punishment if they did not.”

Why Have You Come Here attempts to show how one faith replaces another faith, and whether this happens perfectly, or whether the old gods hang on, “underneath the altar.” The books succeeds in bringing out the slow, steady decline of the native religions and the determined growth of Christianity:

“When recovery occurred in Sinaloa, it was another proof of the effectiveness of the Christian God....The European stayed with the sick and for the most part because the missionary remained unscathed, he was thus able to confirm the power of his God.”

An important undercurrent to this change, as brought out by the author, is the close relationship between culture and religion: When the Jesuits were converting the natives, they were also changing the social structures and individual personalities of the natives regarding hair length, dress, family relationships, and the economy, so that all these things would become “Christian,” which is to say, “European.”

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