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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery
distributed 8/26/16 - ©2016

In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
In fourteen hundred ninety-three, the Catholic Pope made a decree.

The Papal Bull of 1493 granted to Spain any lands that it might "discover" in the New World, and expressed Pope Alexander VI's desire that the people of those lands be subjugated and brought to the Christian faith.

Portugal didn't like Spain getting all the goodies, so the very next day another bull was issued splitting the territory between two far-reaching European powers.

These statement by the Pope -- and an earlier one in 1452 dealing with all non-Christians throughout the world -- are the basis for what is called the Doctrine of Discovery. All of this might be considered quaint details about long-ago history, except for the fact that the Doctrine of Discovery has profoundly shaped US and global culture. The doctrine still has a powerful influence in US law.

Why is this still a matter of concern, and what can we do about it?

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I'd like to believe that it is very hard for people today to imagine the arrogant, racist belief system of the 15th Century doctrines -- but I'm afraid that it doesn't take a lot of imagination. The Pope gave Christian sanction to the colonial aspirations of European rulers. The European powers, both secular and religious, denied any legitimacy to the sovereignty of non-Christian peoples. Their rights to lands, property -- even their existence -- were ignored.

A cute internet graphic puts it succinctly: "Let's celebrate Columbus day by walking into someone's home and telling them we live there now." The Spanish and Portuguese -- and later the English, French and Dutch -- walked into lands full of people and with rich (if very different) cultures, and claimed it for themselves. The original inhabitants became unwilling subjects of the colonial powers.

A Native American scholar, David Wilkins, does tone down the most absolute picture of the Doctrine of Discovery. He writes that, by the mid-1500s, the Spanish did acknowledge "that Native peoples were the true owners of their lands." Thus, treaties were appropriate to define lands and rights. Those treaties, though, were rarely developed through negotiations among equal partners.

The belief system behind the Doctrine is inherent in the American notion of "manifest destiny." The superior (Christian and/or European) civilization is destined to expand across the continent, with any indigenous people being assimilated, displaced or destroyed.

If that seems like a broad brush of vague assertions (this is supposed to be a short commentary, so follow the links!), I'll point to a 1823 decision of the US Supreme Court that affirmed the Doctrine of Discovery, and laid the legal foundation for much of the nation's "Indian policy." Steve Newcomb, an American Indian of Shawnee & Lenape ancestry who has written extensively about the Doctrine, wrote in a short article that is a good introduction to the issues:

Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed 'ultimate dominion' over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that -- upon 'discovery' -- the Indians had lost 'their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,' and only retained a right of 'occupancy' in their lands. In other words, Indians nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands.

Does that still seem too old and abstract? In 2005, US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- one of the liberals on the court -- cited the Doctrine of Discovery in an opinion denying a land claim by the Oneida people.

However much we disclaim the mindset, the Doctrine of Discovery is still influential in our laws and our culture. It informs a worldview of possession, exploitation and violence that is all too present today. That doctrine espoused over 500 years ago is still with us. We need to know about it, and subject it to contemporary moral evaluation.

In 2012, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues took on the Doctrine as their theme for the year, because the Doctrine is still timely. That same year, the World Council of Churches made a strong statement on "the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples". (The on-line version of this statement has some garbled formatting and duplicated text toward the end.)

The WCC statement "Denounces the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and as a violation of the inherent human rights that all individuals and peoples have received from God". They call on their member churches "to support the continued development of theological reflections by Indigenous Peoples which promote indigenous visions of full, good and abundant life and which strengthen their own spiritual and theological reflections."

A number of faith communities in Canada and the US have taken formal stands renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery. (A partial list provides links to some of those documents.) There are diverse efforts underway urging Pope Francis to formally repudiate the Doctrine. You can sign an on-line petition to the Pope (but be aware that you'll be put on the newsletter list for the Romero Institute, an organization "protecting environmental, indigenous, & constitutional rights").

I urge you, as an individual or within a congregation, to study the history and contemporary impact of the Doctrine of Discovery. Some of the articles linked here have good background materials. The United Church of Christ has a 5-session study guide with additional resources.

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It is perhaps too easy to denounce the old statements and practices of the Doctrine of Discovery. The blatant exploitation and theft of the early conquerors, and even the mindset of manifest destiny seem brutal and foreign.

But the echoes of that doctrine are still very much with us. It shows up in our culture's pervasive and systemic racism. It underlies the notion of land, resources and people as "things" to be exploited. It figures into this year's debates about immigration policies. It shows up in the difficulty of Native Americans to block oil and gas pipelines across or near their tribal lands, with protests going on right now.

Take some time to study this powerful thread in our history. Reflect on it theologically and ethically. And then, join the movement to publically and decisively repudiate this odious doctrine.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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