In 1492, Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Bahamas while searching for a sea route from Europe to Asia. The indigenous Arawak people who had inhabited the Caribbean for centuries, “emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.” They presented parrots, balls of cotton, spears and other items. According to Columbus himself, “they were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane . . . They would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Columbus and his men wasted no time in getting to their task of exploring for gold and spices: “On the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.” From the outset the colonizers used violence to control and subjugate the Arawaks, who “faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.”
A Dominican friar who participated in the original conquest of the West Indies, Bartolome de las Casas, eventually began speaking out against the subjugation by the Spanish. He became a potent voice for social reform and outspoken advocate for indigenous rights. Las Casas wrote, “our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then . . . The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.” The Spanish, continues Las Casas, "grew more conceited every day" and rather than walking, "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry. . . they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings." The newly arrived colonists, Las Casas goes on, "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." He narrates an account of when "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."
Imperial Jesus had been brought by Columbus and his compatriots to the so-called New World. In the midst of this brutality, Columbus wrote in a report back to the Spanish crown, “"Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities." The Spanish visitors had instigated a reign of terror in the name of Jesus Christ, the Messiah who had ushered in a reign of justice, freedom, and flourishing for all.
The cross and sword went hand in hand, literally and metaphorically, each escorted by the other in fulfilling the colonial task—both wielded in the name of the One who had lived and taught the way of forgiveness, nonviolence, and peace. The Christian symbol that signified the suffering Messiah, the Prince of Peace, had been co-opted by European imperialists and reverted back into a symbol of power, dominance, and colonial rule. It had once again become a Roman cross, returning to its past as a symbol of humiliation and shame. The vision of peace and prosperity through the sword entered a contemporary manifestation in the Americas. The way of empire was renewed, allegiance pledged to the crown of Spain rather than the kingdom of God. Western colonialism robbed the cross of Christ, the non-violent Prince of Peace, and returned it to its original imperial means of controlling the subjects of the foreign throne and bringing about expansion of its territory.
The violence of the sword had muted out the message of the reconciling love of the cross. The Way modeled and taught by Jesus was replaced by the way of the imperial ego. The potential expansion of God’s kingdom and the missio Dei taking root through expressions of cross-cultural shalom was aborted.
The crack in the foundation of global mission began to appear. In 1493, a year after Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, Pope Alexander XI wrote a document, known as a Papal Bull, declaring that lands not inhabited by Christians were free to be “discovered” by Christian rulers on behalf of their European monarchs. He declared “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This document was one of the centerpieces of the “Doctrine of Discovery” which authorized European claims in the Americas. Indigenous brown and black skinned people across the world—anyone who was not Western, white, and Christian—were theologized into uncivilized, uncultured, and regressive nonpersons and labeled enemies of Christ. Violence toward indigenous persons was codified by papal decree, ethnocentrism sanctified through holy writ.
The first wave of European colonization, supported by the church’s doctrine, led to the eventual conquest of the whole of the Americas. The living out of this theology was practical, egregiously so. The church had institutionalized racism and ethnocentrism through theologizing colonialism into doctrine.
Imperial Jesus continued to grow up. The fissure in the foundation of mission widened.
Ryan Kuja Bio
A global citizen with a background in international mission, relief, and development, Ryan Kuja has lived in fifteen cities and rural villages on five continents. He holds an M.A. in Theology and Culture from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology as well a Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. A spiritual director and writer, his first book, From the Inside Out: Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World, released in June 2018. Ryan is currently serving as the Field Director of Word Made Flesh in Medellin, Colombia, where he lives with his wife. You can find him online at ryankuja.com and on twitter as @ryankuja.
Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Is 9:6.
 Alexander VI, Inter Caetera.