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The Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery
A Biblical Reflection
As part of the implementation of the General Synod 29 resolution, the joint working group of Council for American Indian Ministries (CAIM) and Justice and Witness Ministries (JWM) offer this resource for our churches to take up with prayer. To download the study, click HERE. Additional video resources:
For an introduction to the topic, see the video clip "Discovered, or Stolen?" For the history of the Doctrine of Discovery, see here for a 18-min. presentation by Dr. Roxanne Gould, All Nations Church UCC, Minneapolis, MN. See the same video (starting at the 18:40 mark) for Doctrine of Discovery and being a "pilgrim" today, a 10-min. mediation by the Rev. Emily Goldthwaite Fries.
Many Americans grow up learning that this continent was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. The concept of discovery, as if the land was empty prior to arrival and its indigenous inhabitants were somehow “less than” the explorers is, at its heart, racism and cultural superiority.
The doctrine of discovery, a concept of public international law expounded by the United States Supreme Court in a series of decisions, originated from various church documents in Christian Europe in the mid-1400s to justify the pattern of domination and oppression by European monarchies as they invasively arrived in the Western hemisphere. It theologically asserted the right to claim the indigenous lands, territories, and resources on behalf of Christendom, and to subjugate native peoples around the world.
The U.S. Supreme Court used the doctrine to assert that the United States, as the successor of Great Britain, had inherited authority over all lands within our claimed boundaries. This decision allowed our government to legally ignore or invalidate any native claims to property and resources. To this day courts continue to cite this legal precedent. It is still being used by courts to decide property rights cases brought by Native Americans against the U.S. and against non-Natives.
The repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery by General Synod 29 provides an invaluable teaching moment for our congregations to understand systemic and continuous impact of racism on the daily lives of indigenous peoples in the U.S.
Learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery
What is the Doctrine of Discovery?
The discovery concept has basically has two separate references. Theologically, it provided the spiritual rationale for Europeans since the times of the Crusades to conquer and confiscate other lands, including what is now the United States. There were papal documents which laid the groundwork that, later, Protestants adopted. It treated the indigenous peoples as if they were animals; they had no (European) title to the land on which they lived. Thus, the Church justified removing and killing them.
Legally, the discovery concept was written into United States law as a doctrine to deny land rights to American Indians, through the Supreme Court case known as Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. The decision stripped American Indians from the right of their own independence, providing a rationale for taking land away from the indigenous peoples, with the support of United States federal law. As a concept of public international law, it continues to be cited as recently as 2005. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues noted that the Doctrine of Discovery “was the foundation of the violation of their (Indigenous peoples) human rights."
Excessive poverty, teenage suicides that outpaced all other ethnicities, extreme incidences of Type II diabetes, unemployment rates that rank among the highest – these are but a few of the contemporary cultural, communal, and individual damages experienced by indigenous peoples in the U.S., due to the generational impact resulted from the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.
UCC Perspectives on the Doctrine of Discovery
Witness for Justice: Doctrine of Discovery
July 9, 2012
The Doctrine of Discovery: Why it still matters today
November 2, 2013
Rethinking Columbus Day according to the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A
October 12, 2014
On December 14th, 2012, the community in which I serve was plunged into trauma and grief by the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The cries of a heartbroken world rose up as twenty children and six educators were lost in a horrific event of gun violence. Many UCC clergy and congregations reached out to our congregation here in Newtown offering spiritual, emotional and various forms of tangible support.
One UCC laywoman who telephoned me soon after the event commented, “Things like this just should not happen.” But Sandy Hook happens every week in America. In fact, it happens several times over. Every week in the United States more than 50 of our children and youth die due to gun violence and many dozens more are injured. Most of us just aren’t paying attention.
That’s why I want to invite you, my fellow UCC brothers and sisters, to help one another and our nation to “pay attention.” Please join me in taking part in the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath sponsored by Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, which is scheduled for the weekend of December 14-18. Commit yourself and your community to pray about, learn about and act upon an issue that is claiming far too many of our fellow citizens.
On that weekend, please remember my beloved Newtown community but also remember and honor all of the precious lives lost to gun violence. (Since President John F. Kennedy was shot, more US citizens have died in our homes, in our schools and on our streets than have died in ALL of our wars - Revolutionary through Afghanistan/Iraq - combined.)
Friends, this issue of justice reaches to the very core of our faith. According to a recent Gallup poll, 60% of all people who have recently purchased a gun listed “personal safety” as the reason for their purchase. However, statistics from the Center for Disease Control tell us that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a homicide, injury, assault or suicide than to be used to defend oneself. The gun promises safety but far more often delivers grief.
For people of faith this is not Second Amendment issue, it is a Second Commandment crisis.
The near infatuation with the gun is moving dangerously close to becoming a full-blown worship of a false idol. We live in a time when common sense gun safety legislation - like the strengthening of our national background check system cannot pass Congress – even through nearly 90 percent of our citizens support such a law. We have allowed fear and apathy to rule when it comes to guns in America. We have allowed the status quo to become perfectly acceptable. As a result, every year 30,000 precious lives - each one created in God’s image - are added to a tally that is already far too high.
On the weekend of December 14-18 let us commit ourselves to another way of living – let us trust that “perfect love casts out all fear.” And let us follow in the way of the One we call the Prince of Peace.
Rev. Matt Crebbin
Newtown Congregational Church, UCC
“A comfortable faith, or a gut-wrenching one?”Read more
"God said to him, 'Your name is Jacob, no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.'"Read more
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