On Doing the Right Thing

Posted on June 17, 2018


Not too long ago I read a sweet piece in the WSJ by the distinguished historian David McCullough’s doctor. One quote struck me as so truth-filled that I share it with you.

“…things worked out [back then],” McCullough said, “because individuals behaved in certain ways, with integrity and resilience.”

I thought, yes, how true. Then McCullough hits a home run. “They figured out how to work with other people, and they tried to do the right thing.”

To do the right thing.  So, being the historian that I am, I thought, who have I studied that “did the right thing?” As I put myself into the company of McCullough, the American historian of my generation who ranks in my top five of those I admire, I thought, well, I do have someone.

Years ago, I ran across a fiery sermon preached in 1511 by a Dominican friar, Antonio de Montesinos, in the newly founded Spanish city of Santo Domingo on the island of Española which today is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Later, when teaching at UA, I read excerpts from Montesinos’s sermon when I reached that point in my classes on the conquest of the Americas, and it—invariably–moved my students deeply.

Montesinos took as his Scripture reading from John the Baptist: “In the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the desert, Make straight the way for the Lord.” (John 1:23)

Montesinos was loaded for bear. Both Isaiah and John the Baptist called on people to repent to make way for the coming of the Messiah. Without repentance there was no forgiveness. And without forgiveness, the hardhearted were doomed to eternal perdition.

The Spanish conquistadors of Hispaniola were in danger of eternal damnation if they continued to plague and enslave Indians. They had to be warned, explicitly, with courage and absolute conviction. Montesinos was called upon to do the right thing.

“You are in mortal danger of condemnation,” Montesinos warmed to his message, “not realizing the grave sins you are committing with such insensitivity. You are immersed in them and dying in them.”

“I want you to know that I have come to this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ on the desert of this island. And you had better pay attention, not just listen, but heed with all your heart and all your mind. For this will be something you never heard before, the hardest, harshest, most terrifying news you ever expected to hear.”

“This voice,” Montesinos started quietly, “says you are in mortal sin. You live and die for the cruelty and tyranny which you inflict on these innocent people.”

“By what right,” Montesinos picked up the strength of his voice, “By what right and by what law do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude?”

“By whose authority have you made such detestable war on these people who lived peacefully in their lands?”

“How can you hold them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them food nor curing their illnesses? They die daily from the work you demand of them.”

“Let me be perfectly clear. You are killing them to get the gold you so crave!”

Momentarily, Montesinos’ hearers were stunned into silence by this prophetic indictment hurled at them.

“And who among you is taking care to teach them about God the creator? Who is baptizing them, leading them to mass, celebrating holidays and Sundays?”

Montesinos thundered from the pulpit. “Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves! Don’t you understand this? Don’t you see this? How can you be in such a profound and lethargic sleep? Be assured that in your state you can no more be saved than Moors or Turks who lack and don’t want the faith of Jesus Christ.”

The congregation was shocked, then outraged that this Dominican friar was telling them they were no better than infidels, moral Moors, the Spanish word for Muslims in Spain.

When Montesinos finished, he stepped away from the pulpit and left, his head held high among the murmurs and evil looks.

The settlers later went as a group, a mob really, led by the Governor Diego Columbus, to demand a retraction from this rabid priest. They got more than they bargained for, which you can read about in a little book Bartolomé de las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas where the entire story is told.

Montesinos did the right thing.

Published Sunday May 6, 2018 in The Tuscaloosa News as “A powerful lesson on doing the right thing.”