Guatemala: A brief history of Christian conversion by force

In July of 2012 my wife and I visited Guatemala.  We traveled around the country and visited ancient ruins, religious sites, and learned much about the history and culture of the people living there.

One phenomena I found especially interesting was a unique form of Christianity practiced throughout the region – especially prevalent in the rural regions of the country. This form of Christianity incorporated Christian and Mayan traditions and symbols – a unique and beautiful presentation of religious history right there in front of us.

History: Christianity brought to Guatemala by the Spaniards

Much of the Spanish inquisition of Central America centered around greed, not religion. Spanish explorers used religion as an excuse to pillage and destroy villages for resources, land, and glory – rather than in the name of Christianity.

None-the-less religious leaders permitted this behavior in the name of God and Christianity was spread by forced conversion – a convenient  mechanism for the Spaniards to promote their imperialistic goals in and around Guatemala.

“Maya communities under immediate pressure to conform to imperial designs…Under the policy of congregacion…thousands of native families were coerced from their homes in the mountains into new settlements built around churches…For the Spaniards, congregacion promoted more effective civil administration, facilitated the conversion of Indians to Christianity, and created centralized pools of labor to meet imperial objectives.” [Source]

In all, hundreds of thousands of Mayans were killed, millions displaced from their homes, and incalculable history destroyed. “Mayan-Christianity” persist to this day.

Guatemala religion

Mayan Christianity

And though most Guatemalans in these rural villages consider themselves Christian -traditions left over from native Mayan culture remain potent. One example is the Mayan headdress and shirt (shown above) worn by only the elder women in Santioago Atitlan. The fashion is fading away, but remains one of the clearest examples of local culture entrenching itself into modern Christianity.

Spanish Priests also incorporated Mayan symbolism into the churches (shown below). My local tour guide pointed out the altarpiece inside the church:

“Maya traditionalists familiar with this structure merge the Christian symbols in this large carved wood sculpture with their traditional worldviews. The altarpiece is seen concurrently as “a sacred mountain from which divine beings emerge,” the three volcanoes surrounding Santiago Atitlan, and, in the broadest sense, a referent to ancient Maya temples and architecture” [Source]

Guatemala relgions 2

Modern Guatemala

Modern Guatemala is a mashup of native and imported traditions. In the small town of Antigua, Guatemala, for example, there are nearly 40 churches representing different Christian denominations. Each a beautiful, yet painful reminder of the costs of imperialism and religious zealotry.

Note: All photos belong to me.

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3 thoughts on “Guatemala: A brief history of Christian conversion by force

  1. Holden

    Nice post and a great reminder that despite Christianity being considered a religion of love and pacifism, its spread worldwide has been characterized by anything but love and pacifism.

    Reply
  2. trueandreasonable

    “The U.S. government often supported the repressive regimes as a part of its anti-Communist policies during the Cold War. The violence faced by the Mayan people peaked between 1978 and 1986. Catholic priests and nuns also often faced violence as they supported the rights of the Mayan people.”

    Seems misplaced to point the finger at religion for that one.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Why does religion exist and why does it matter? | BlogTruth

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