Shadows & Dust, Vol. I, Issue 6

Thanks to his now ubiquitous hymn, “Amazing Grace,” John Newton became a well known slave-trader-turned-abolitionist. Less well known, but no less fervent a convert to the cause of abolition and human rights, is the Spanish-Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, who challenged the conscience of the Spanish Empire during the sixteenth century. The story of de Las Casas also echoes that of another well-known political advocate for abolition, Englishman William Wilberforce, because de Las Casas implored the Spanish crown to change the way it colonized the New World.

  • Bartolomé de Las Casas: Great Prophet of the Americas by Paul Vickery — When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain in 1493 from his first journey to the New World, eight-year-old Bartolomé was among the Palm Sunday throng that welcomed him home. The artifacts, strange-looking natives and green parrots displayed by Columbus entranced young Bartolomé, who grew up with Juanico, a slave from the New World. De Las Casas himself made his way to the new world, where, in his own words, “We came…to serve God, and also to get rich.” In keeping with his station, he was given slaves. After a personal conversion on the Day of Pentecost in 1514, he returned his slaves to the Spanish governor and repented of his former life and its contribution to the oppressive “encomendero” system instituted in the “Indies.” He became the champion of his era for the rights of the Amerindians and the proclamation of the Christian message through the demonstration of the love of Christ, without resort to coercion. His writings, including A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, unfolded a vision far ahead of their time. If ever there were a figure that would appeal to Christians and secularists of all stripes (admittedly for different reasons), de Las Casas is that person.
  • The Mission directed by Roland Joffé — Continuing the theme of the colonization of the New World, this film pulls no punches as it presents the conflict between the gospel of love and reconciliation and the gospel of greed and inhumanity. Starring well-known actors Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro in their early days, The Mission features one of the most moving scenes of forgiveness depicted in film.
  • The Killing Fields also directed by Roland Joffé — This Oscar-winning (but graphic) film about the deaths of two million Cambodians during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979 is aptly named. The best part of this film: the brilliant character arc of supporting actor Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who plays Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist who is forced to remain in his country after its takeover by red-scarf-clad revolutionaries. Among the most chilling scenes in this film is the narration of the Khmer Rouge’s recalibration of the Cambodian calendar to “Year Zero,” in honor of their revolution. It sounded eerily like other proclamations through history by regimes and their leaders, all the way back to the Caesars, who hailed the advent of their rule as “a new age” for their people.
  • The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden by Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow — An interesting look at the cultural and economic divisions built into resort towns, through the lens of one of the most well known resort towns in the world — Aspen, Colo.
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