Samuel Ruiz Garcia, bishop emeritus of Chiapas, died last Monday at age 87 of cardio-pulmonary complications. In the United States, Ruiz was eclipsed by the more Romantic image of Subcomandante Marcos, the poster-boy guerilla of Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN). However, Ruiz’s socio-religious mission was more fundamentally radical and, among the Indians themselves, he is remembered with sorrow and gratitude.
Ruiz joins a long procession of Catholic priests and prelates who fought on behalf of the Indians for the humanity of us all. His efforts to enfranchise the indigenous Maya communities was rooted in a Christian option for the poor without which the present day struggle for “liberation” cannot be understood. The mandate of that option is at the core of the Ibero-Indian encounter and exists to provoke the torpor of the First World.
As everyone knows, Queen Isabel of Spain financed Columbus’s mission to the New World in order to evangelize whatever peoples might be encountered. But within years of 1492 the worser beasts of man’s nature had annihilated the Indians of Hispaniola and Spanish settlers were hard at work enslaving the natives of Venezuela.
The Spanish friars were appalled and, on 21 December 1511, the Dominican Antonio Montesinos pronounced his famous Advent Sermon:
“By what authority have you committed such detestable wars against these peoples who were inhabiting these lands so prosperously and pacifically? ... Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves? ... Do you not understand? Have you no senses? How can you subsist in such a deep and lethargic sleep?"
He then pronounced judgement,
“Know then that you are all in mortal sin and in sin you live and in sin will die on account of the cruelty and tyranny with which you abuse these innocent people.” 
Montesinos took his campaign to Spain and in 1512 the Crown decreed the Laws of Burgos which imposed a trusteeship (“encomienda”) on the Spanish settlers making them responsible individually and collectively for the material welfare, education and religious salvation of the indigenous people. 
Needless to say, the settlers soon found ways to abuse the encomienda so that within 20 years the same Dominicans who had proposed the system fought to abolish it.
But as important as its immediate success was the theological impetus behind the reform. In Montesino’s words inhere all the sum and substance of the Church’s present day “Liberation Theology” and of its utopianism throughout the centuries. 
Three words are key: authority, soul, sin.
The bedrock of Montesino’s denunciation was the premise that the Indian had a soul; i.e. he was a human being entitled to all the natural rights and spiritual benefits human welfare needs and human dignity desires. If seeming humans do not have souls then they are reduced to exploitable objects. Today we might prefer to speak of “empowerment” and “depersonalization” but the reality being spoken is the same. Either there is a law that applies to all nations or there isn’t; either only our tribe is human or we exist in the “other.” It is a crucible question.
Whatever side they were on, the Spanish understood that this was the most fundamental issue of all and, throughout the 16th century, they threw themselves into the fray. Jesuits like Francisco Vitoria  and Francisco Suarez revived Greco-Roman concepts of natural rights, read them into Scripture and applied them to the New World. It is to them that we are directly indebted for our present day ideas of international humanitarian law. 
In the end, the King Charles V prohibited the enslavement of the Indian (1530) and Pope Paul III reaffirmed (1537) that Indians had souls, were entitled to the Sacraments, including marriage, and were, in short, citizens. 
The Pope’s decree went further and denounced “the enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds” and who had inspired his minions to claim that the Indians “should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.”
But that was not the end of it. If the natives had souls and had been living peaceably among themselves (as noted by Pope Alexander V in 1493), the next question was: by what authority were the Spaniards setting foot on these American lands at all? 
The Battle over “authority” was taken up by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Ruiz’s first predecessor as Bishop of Chiapas. Politically correct academics have completely misunderstood what Las Casas was about. Taking his reports of cruelties at face value, they have sought to fit the events into the mold of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This distortion satisfies three urges: a paternalistic desire to rescue the Indian (a sentimental variant of the white man’s burden), indulgence in Anglo-American prejudice against the Spaniard or, alternatively, a resentful victimology against all Europeans.
Las Casas never published a ‘history’. He wrote a brief, which Cromwellian spies got ahold of and published by way of propaganda salvo to justify the English ‘liberation’ of Jamaica -- a liberation which immediately resulted in the importation into Jamaica of thousands of African slaves. 
As pointed out by Kenneth Pennnington, Las Casas was a lawyer and he was making an argument in the King’s council against Spanish authority in the New World. Under medieval law, unjust war acquired no rights. In order for war or conquest to acquire lawful possession it had to be waged on just provocation against occupiers who themselves had committed some wrong. If on the other hand, the original occupiers had been “wholly innocent” then conquest was unjust and no authority was thereby acquired. 
It was a stunning gambit. Las Casas was telling the King that his writ did not run to America. But if not the King’s, whose writ then? Las Casas was clear: the Church as trustee (encomendero) for the Indian over all the Americas.
It has to be remembered that, in this critical and transitional period, the nation state had not yet been fully birthed. The world was governed by “competent authorities” each in their own sphere. Church versus Crown had been at it for 1000 years and Las Casas was going for the ultimate gold.
As good lawyers do, Las Casas ‘adjusted’ his facts to the legal theory of his case. Not only was the Indian ‘wholly innocent’ but the Spaniard was ‘entirely sinful’. Thus had it to be if the Church were to establish a Brave New Theocracy -- the Civitas Dei -- in the New World.
To say as much is not to deny that abuses and cruelties were committed; it is only to say that a very mixed reality was turned into a legal polemic.
This is also not to say that Las Casas did not really care about the Indian -- he most emphatically did. It is rather to say that he was not fighting for a species of charity but for a broader more fundamental concept of the state.
Las Casas did not win his brief, but the ‘consolation’ prize was nothing to sneer at. Montesinos and Las Casas established a moral benchmark that power lacked legitimacy in direct correlation to its oppression of the weak.
Throughout the colonial period, church radicals would invoke this standard which ultimately become became known as the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” and a key tenet of 20th Liberation Theology.
It bears emphasis that when Montesinos or Las Casas coupled 'authority' with 'sin 'and 'tyranny' they were not speaking solely in individual terms. They were indicting collective action and social constructs that denied reciprocity of rights and aspirations to an entire class of people.
A sort of stupid Voltairian literalism blinds us to what our ancestors were saying. Although the talk is of souls, sacraments and sins the subject matter was what it is today: human dignity within an ordered system of social justice.
Nevertheless, in the intervening 500 years, the record of the Church as a whole was nothing if not equivocal. It appears that the clergy identified with whichever flock they happened to be closest to. The hierarchy in the cities and capitals identified with the oligarchical establishment; the clergy in the fields and villages with the poor and the oppressed. It could be said, very generally, that the urban hierarchy proved itself as obscenely reactionary as the clerical “Jacobins” were heroically humanistic.
Among the radicals were the likes of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga of Michoacan who established (1536) indigenous communities modeled on Thomas Moore’s Utopia and later 18th century Jesuit millenarians who revived the agenda with the ‘Reductions’ of Bolivia and Paraguay (popularized by the movie The Mission). , 
Sometimes clerics got too radical. Although Mexico’s post-Revolution, pro-atheist ruling party, the PRI, did its best to gloss over the fact, the twin heroes of the Mexican War of Independence, Hidalgo and Morelos, were both priests who had resorted to the sword.
It was precisely that resort that had the Vatican worried. Although the “preferential option for the poor” became official Church policy in 1983 , the Vatican’s condemnation of Liberation Theology was made on the ground that if the sins of the rich were interpreted collectively so as to give rise to a postulated endemic class conflict then the Church’s “preferential option” became simply a code word for a resort to violence. 
The worry arose precisely because the ‘sin’ of the system is so utterly obscene. The poverty is so desperate, so revolting, that is almost impossible for a man or woman of good will not to feel that opting for the poor impels a resort to arms, like Jesus’ outrage at the Temple money changers or Yaweh’s collective punishment of Sodom’s “prosperous ease, which did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
How is class war avoidable if, as Paul III wrote, the oppressors are the minions of the enemy of the human race?
The dilemma got catalyzed in Yucatan and Guatemala, because the history of the Maya is among the worst in Indo-Ibero relations.
After 12 years of bloody warfare, the Spanish conquered most of Yucatan in 1541. Almost immediately the settlers began to enslave the Indians and just as immediately the Franciscans began their abolitionist agitation resulting in yet another royal decree (1549) prohibiting slavery in the peninsula.
But exploitation ensued by other means triggering uprisings in 1610-33, 1636-44, 1653, 1669, 1670. The principal grievance was the burden and abuse of fees, taxes and conscript labor (‘repartimiento’) -- the same types of abuses that led to the French Revolution.
Arriving in 1722, and moved by the Maya’s pitiful complaints, Bishop Juan Gomez Parada initiated a successful campaign to reform and mitigate the servitudes. In 1728, beloved by the Indians whom he had defended, Parada died. Within years the former harsh conditions were reimposed triggering another revolt in 1761 which was brutally suppressed. 
In 1847 Yucatecan Maya rose up again, setting in motion the 75 year, intermittent "War of the Castes." For a while, the Maya almost took over the entire peninsula but, in 1901, the Mexican Army launched a major campaign and re-established national control. 
Following the 1910-1920 Revolution, Mexico’s corporatist, quasi social-democratic government adopted a new approach aimed at incorporating the Maya into the broader economy and national life. Of key importance was the teaching of Spanish. The Maya didn’t bite. From their perspective, the “Mexican” government was just as foreign as the “Spanish” and being “incorporated” was noting they were interested in. The result was a “benign oppression” under the banner of reform and rehabilitation which was simply a modern, secular version of forced conversion.
Because forced conversions of any sort treat the subject of rehabilitation as an object they are heteronomously self-defeating. Even if subjectively well intentioned, they only compound the underlying oppression.
It was the same ol’ same ol’. The ultimate result of the PRI’s interventions was the promotion of industrial agriculture at the expense of campesinos and the fragmentation of the Maya into those who got coopted into government policies and those who resisted being dispossessed from their communal land holdings (ejidos).
It was into this historical and theological “dialectic” that Ruiz walked as very young newly appointed bishop in 1960.
Ruiz came from Guanajuato, one of Mexico’s more conservative and Spanish cities. Appointed by Pope John Paul II, he himself was theologically conservative. By his own account, he was radicalized almost over night seeing Indians used as beasts of burden and at the same time being prohibited from walking on sidewalks.
However, Ruiz rejected the paternalistic paradigm. He began the fight against material poverty by recognizing the freedom and dignity of the Maya to express his Catholic faith in an “autochthonous” (self-originating) indigenous manner. (Ruiz, Indian Theology.) 
risky innovations.  Ruiz revived these earlier liturgies and juxtaposed Gregorian chants with zampango rythms and prayers in Tztotzil and Tzeltal. 
In line with his concept of a grass roots “Indian Theology,” Ruiz ordained 300 married deacons to assist in the process of evangelization. It was Ruiz’s expectation that these deacons would become the vanguard of a communitarian self-awareness which, thus legitimized, could coalesce around political and economic objectives of its own making. (Ruiz, Hora de Gracia § 5.1) The ecclessial Church, with its expertise, contacts and resources, could then assist in the process political self-expression, economic development and social assistance. (§ 5.3) 
It was all a post-Vatican II variant of “The Mission”.
The almost automatic reflex of well-disposed outsiders is to eulogize Ruiz as having helped ‘marginalized’ Indians. To say as much incorrectly assumes that the end-game was to ‘incorporate’ the Maya into the globalized economy of the capitalist nation state. Ruiz’s aim was rather for the larger society to recognize the cultural, political and economic legitimacy of the indigenous communities.
Equally short of the mark are encomiums which laud Ruiz for ‘mediating’ between the Government and the Indians. In some instances Ruiz’s role did indeed fall into the normal context of brokering between rival factions or parties. What tends to get overlooked in the North is that, where the goal of one party is the annihilation of the other, negotiation is, in itself, a victory.
It is sometimes forgotten that, throughout Central America in the second half of the 20th century, the War of the Castes was continued by other means with CIA-backed, ‘anti-communist’ dictatorships slaughtering literally hundreds of thousands of Maya. 
Thus, when in 1995 a Chase Manhattan Bank memo advised that "[t]he government will have to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy,” it was no small matter to get the government to sit at a table instead. 
Nor was it an “incidental” matter to work for the unity and reconciliation among the rival groups in Chiapas, given that to do so ran exactly counter to the PRI’s divisive policies.
Ruiz himself rejected being characterized as an advocate for any one faction or even on behalf of “the” Indians. “The so called ‘Indian problem’," he said, “is an international problem.”
Ruiz was proved right when, ensuing upon the passage of NAFTA, world corn prices fell through the floor and the Mexican farmer -- Maya and other - were driven into destitution. He supported the political theater of the Zapatistas to the extent that their aim was “to shake up the socio-political conscience” of Mexican citizens and world opinion as a whole.
In all of this, Ruiz skillfully played off his opponents. Needless to say, the reactionary church hierarchy in Mexico City tried to snag him into heresy and get him deposed. But Ruiz never broke the envelope and for every accusation, he wryly quoted some supportive passage from Canon Law or a papal encyclical. When the Vatican was on the verge of recalling him, 20,000 Indians demonstrated in his favor. It was too much for the Curia and the end result was a palaver of favorable words from John Paul II himself.
In a way the best eulogy of Ruiz came from Subcomandante Marcos himself. A university educated “niño bien” ('fair haired boy'), Marcos arrived in La Selva with a back-pack full of socialist wisdom and a burning desire to “enlighten” the natives. The result was a series of long “Declarations” in the usual “dialectal style” that had a devoted readership among a certain class in Mexico City, Berkeley, Paris and perhaps Barcelona. But Marcos was more than a mere dogmatic. He later confessed “I came thinking I had something to teach the Indians, when in fact it was they who had something to teach us.”
Did Ruiz succeed? In an immediate sense? Of course not. In Hispanic America only “the enemy” succeeds. But he continued a long and vigorous tradition of opting for the poor and in doing so he cleared a path for Indians to reclaim their dignity. That was no small victory.
©Woodchip Gazette, 2011
URL's to Notes
 Advent Sermon:
 Laws of Burgos
Summary : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_Burgos
 Liberation Theology;
Concise History of Liberation Theology: http://www.landreform.org/boff2.htm
 Francisco Vitoria
 De Indiis
 Sublime Deus:
 Inter Caetera
 Donovan: Las Casas as Polemicist
Medieval Law http://classes.maxwell.syr.edu/His381/LasCasas2.html
 Vasco de Quiroga
 Canon Law (Autochthonous Prayer & Option for Poor):
 Ratzinger in Opposition
 Chronology Maya
 Cast War
 Ruiz Indian Theology
 Teponazcuicatl (Aztec 16th Cent.)
 Revived Liturgies (Maya, 20th Cent.)
 EstaHora De Gracia (1993)
 U.S. Interventions In Central America
David Batstone Bishop Samuel Ruiz and the Zapatistas