Social Justice

Posted on March 22, 2022


“Social justice” is a phrase bandied about these days, largely by politicians and idealogues of the Left when trying to come to grips with what they believe and espouse. Those of the Right also have their challenges when defining terms like liberty and freedom. Most of these words like justice, freedom, liberty, etc. have lots of meanings usually depending upon the context, or how they are used.

What is really entertaining is how many of these words are “discovered” by new generations who apparently find them suitable to describe both their realities and what they hope for in the future. Occasionally they dip into the past, what we call history, for earlier examples of those who fought for, or enjoyed, or tried to do away with justice, liberty, and freedom in the name of other human attributes, like law, order, anarchy, and authority. They all have meanings.

Little did I know that about half a century ago I would “discover” for myself the pioneer of social justice in the Western Hemisphere. I am still not entirely sure what social justice means other than correcting wrongs in our world, or bringing “justice” to our society, ergo social justice.

Justice of course also appears in Christian Scripture in dozens of verses. It is often associated with righteousness, and, in fact, in the Spanish language Bibles I often read, justice and righteousness are both rendered as “justicia,” the same word.

I am not a Biblical scholar, but my sense is that justice is associated with doing the right thing by God. A “just” ruler for example follows God’s principles and rules as they appear in Scripture. “Social justice” is extending just rule across society. David was a just ruler in old Israel. Saul wasn’t. David had his flaws and sinned occasionally, but he always asked for God’s forgiveness, and he returned to the fold and God’s embrace.

Ok, let’s jump to the sixteenth century, or about a millennium and a half after Jesus walked the earth. One Advent Sunday in 1511 in the new city—really not much more than a frontier town in this early period—of Santo Domingo on the island of Española which today is where the Dominican Republic and Haiti are located, a Spanish Dominican friar, Antonio de Montesinos, preached a sermon to the local Spanish settlers and conquistadors on the island. This sermon is the iconic foundation of social justice in the New World.

Who was Antonio de Montesinos? He was a Catholic priest, a member of the Dominican Order, and only one of four Dominicans on the island. They had witnessed the barbarity and cruelty inflicted by the Spanish settlers on the native peoples of the island, the Tainos. They agreed someone had to make this clear to the settlers and they picked Montesinos, the best speaker. He nailed them in the most famous sermon preached in the Western Hemisphere.

“Tell me,” Montesinos warmed up to his message, “by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?” Many were only half listening, as so happens in a church service. What’s this priest yelling about?

“On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day?”

By now he had their attention. The stirring and mumbling only emboldened Montesinos. He would have his say as his brother friars had agreed.

“And what care do you take that they receive religious instruction and come to know their God and creator, or that they be baptized, hear mass, or observe holidays and Sundays? Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? How can you lie in such profound and lethargic slumber? Be sure that in your present state you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks who do not have and do not want the faith of Jesus Christ.”

What was the priest saying?! We are no better than Moors!?

When Montesinos finished, he walked out with his dignity and his fellow Dominicans.

Another priest on the island heard about the famous, or infamous, sermon. He may have been in the congregation. No matter. He was moved and transformed by what Montesinos had said.

That priest, Bartolomé de las Casas later published the sermon and saved it for posterity in his multi-volume history of the conquest. And Las Casas also became a Dominican a few years later and devoted his life to living out that sermon, condemning his fellow Spaniards for their calamitous violations of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. He, along with Montesinos and his fellow Dominicans on the island, were the first champions of social justice in the New World. If you are curious, read about it in Bartolomé de las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas (2010).

Published as “Sermon served as foundation for idea of social justice,” in the Tuscaloosa News, Sunday March 5, 2022.