The more I listen to the news media, the more I realize how timely and necessary is our work at Ministry Fair this year. Yesterday’s reporting of Malia Obama’s admission to Harvard elicited such sickening, racist comments that even Fox News had to shut down their comment line. As a nation, we are far from respectful of others whose race, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion, age, size, and ability differs from our own. How our Lord must be pained watching and hearing what we do and say to one another. The conversations that will occur on Saturday are another way we, as members of the Jesus Movement, can grow in our understanding so that we might go out from there and make a difference with what we say and do. Please, please join us.
Our history of discrimination goes way back. If we look at the history of our country – which began not that long ago – we’ll see examples of European elitism from the start. The Doctrine of Discovery is one example of this attitude. General Convention 2015 passed Resolution A024: Direct Dioceses to Examine the Impact of the Doctrine of Discovery which reads:
Resolved, That the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, in accordance with our Baptismal Covenant and in the spirit of being inclusive, reaffirm and renew the directive to all dioceses, made by the 76th and 77th General Conventions, to examine the impact, including acts of racial discrimination, racial profiling, and other race-based acts of oppression, that the repudiated Doctrine of Discovery, as well as the related Doctrine of Manifest Destiny, has had on all people, especially on people of color and indigenous peoples.
Case law goes back to the 1823 US Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. McIntosh in which Chief Justice John Marshall decided “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.:”
On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe … as they were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession. … The history of America, from its discovery to the present day, proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles
The court’s decision was based upon papal bulls of the 15th century. On January 8, 1454, Pope Nicholas V decreed in “Romanus Pontifex” that:
We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery… http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/index.htm
A later bull, “Inter Caetera,” issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493 granted Spain exclusive rights to the lands “discovered” by Columbus the previous year:
The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “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.”
According to a factsheet prepared by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Doctrine of Discovery includes:
- Criteria for claiming land.
- European monarchies treated indigenous land as “unoccupied,” as long as Christians were not present. Status of a “human” was based on religion.
- Land deemed “unoccupied” were therefore “discovered” as if it had been previously unknown to humankind, and the land thus claimed by the “discovering” Christian European “sovereign.”
- Transfer of the land. A Christian government’s claim to sovereignty over the territory of an indigenous nation or people could be transferred by a treaty with another Christian government, such as treaty between the British Crown and the United States.
- Government by agent or proxy. Sovereign monarchs gave royal charters of “discovery” to companies or individuals to delegate the work of claiming Indigenous lands.
- Coercion and subjugation of whole peoples. The Christian European governments sought to subdue, enslave and convert peoples.
- Incorporation of a diminished and impermanent status into secular laws. In the 1823 US Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. M’Intosh, the Supreme Court ruled that Indian nations had no legal title to their lands and were entitled only to the right of “occupancy.”
- Double standard among international conventions. The Doctrine of Discovery is used to diminish validity and significance of international treaties between Indigenous Nations and the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
I think it’s hard for us to imagine today how followers of Jesus could have agreed to this oppression and yet all we have to do is turn on the TV and we see continued evidence of our treatment of “the other.” We have much to consider. And, although this Doctrine may seem a relic of another time, its effects are far-reaching and still current:
- The Doctrine of Discovery’s assumption about who is sovereign allows policies to develop without the full knowledge and prior informed consent of indigenous peoples.
- Diminished protection of human rights is evident. e.g. There is no indigenous jurisdiction over crimes committed on their reservations by non-natives.
- The diminished and impermanent status of indigenous peoples under the Doctrine of Discovery is contrary to the right of Indigenous peoples to sustain themselves in perpetuity as distinct peoples, a right affirmed in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
- The Doctrine’s concept of occupancy (“Indian title”) is inconsistent with the constitutional status of treaties. Treaties are the highest law of the land, equal to the constitution. Treaties are made between sovereign states.
- Self-determination of indigenous peoples brings them in conflict with governments and corporations that rely on the legal lineage of the Doctrine to assert claims to natural resources, such as coal, oil, uranium, natural gas and water. http://www.nyym.org/?q=doc_of_disc_factsheet
The Episcopal Church website has many informative resources in its archives about the resolve within the Church to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Let me suggest that you take a few minutes to watch this video which will give more background on this issue:
In 2012 former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a pastoral letter to the Church:
Pastoral Letter on the Doctrine of Discovery and Indigenous Peoples
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
The first biblical creation story tells of the creation of earth, sky, waters, creatures, and gives human beings dominion over the rest. God pronounces what has been created good. At the end of the original week of creation, with the advent of human beings, God blesses all of it, and pronounces the work very good.
The second creation story tells of what goes wrong – the first two earth creatures eat what they have been forbidden to eat, and are then expelled from the garden. They have misunderstood what it means to exercise dominion toward life in the garden. Through the millennia, many of their offspring have continued to misunderstand dominion, or to willfully twist the divine intent of dominion toward the conceit of domination. Through the ages, human beings have too often insisted that what exists has been made for their individual use, and that force may be used against anyone who seems to compete for a particular created resource. The result has been enormous destruction, death, despair, and downright evil – what is more commonly called “sin.”
The blessings of creation are meant to be stewarded, in the way of husbanding and housekeeping, for the true meaning of dominion is tied to the constellation of meanings around house and household. There have been strands of the biblical tradition which have kept this sacred understanding alive, but the unholy quest for domination has sought to quench it, in favor of wanton accumulation and exclusive possession of the goods of creation for an individual or a small part of the blessed family of God.
After that eviction from the primordial garden, the biblical stories are mostly about how human communities strive to return to a homeland that will be a source of blessing for the community. Through the long centuries, the prophetic understanding of that community broadens to include all the nations of the earth. Even so, the seemingly eternal struggle between dominators and stewards has continued to the present day.
Most of the passages in the Bible that talk about land are yearning for a fertile place, where people are able to grow crops, tend flocks, and live in peace. The offspring of those first human beings gave rise to peoples who hungered for land, and many of them did a great deal of violence through the ages in order to occupy and possess it. They weren’t alone, for the empires of Alexander, Rome, and Genghis Khan were also the result of amassing conquered territory. The Christian empires of Europe were consumed with battles over land for centuries, and eventually sent military expeditions across the Mediterranean in a quest to re-establish a Christian claim on what they called the Holy Land.
The explorers who set out from Christian Europe in the 15th century went with even broader motivations, in search of riches and abundantly fertile lands. They also went with religious warrants, papal bulls which permitted and even encouraged the subjugation and permanent enslavement of any non-Christian peoples they encountered, as well as the expropriation of any territories not governed by Christians. Western Christian religious authorities settled competitions over these conquests by dividing up the geography that could be claimed among the various European nations.
These religious warrants led to the wholesale slaughter, rape, and enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Americas, as well as in Africa, Asia, and the islands of the Pacific, and the African slave trade was based on these same principles. Death, dispossession, and enslavement were followed by rapid depopulation as a result of introduced and epidemic disease. Yet death and dispossession of lands and resources were not a singular occurrence that can be laid up to the depredations of benighted medieval warriors. They are not akin to Viking raids in the British Isles, or ancient struggles between neighboring tribes in Europe or Africa. These acts of “Discovery” have had persistent effects on marginalized, transported, and disenfranchised peoples.
The ongoing dispossession of indigenous peoples is the result of legal systems throughout the “developed” world that continue to base land ownership on these religious warrants for colonial occupation from half a millennium ago. These legal bases collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery underlie U.S. decisions about who owns these lands. The dispossession of First Peoples continues to wreak havoc on basic human dignity. These principles give the lie to biblical understandings that all human beings reflect the image of God, for those who have been thrown out of their homeland, had their cultures largely erased, and sent into exile, are still grieving their loss of identity, lifeways, and territory. All humanity should be grieving, for our sisters and brothers are suffering the injustice of generations. The sins of our forebears are being visited on the children of indigenous peoples, even to the seventh generation.
There will be no peace or healing until we attend to that injustice. The prophets of ancient Israel cried out for justice when their ability to live in the land they saw as home was threatened. A day laborer named Amos challenged those around him with the word of God, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Where there is no justice, there can be no peace for anyone.
In the North American context, the poorest of the poor live on Native reservations. The depth of poverty there is closely followed by the poverty among ghettoized descendants of the indigenous peoples of Africa who were transported to these shores as slaves. That kind of poverty is also frequent in other parts of the world where indigenous people have been dispossessed and displaced. Healing is not possible, it is not even imaginable, until the truth is told and current reality confronted. The basic dignity and human rights of first peoples have been repeatedly transgressed, and the outcome is grievous – poverty, cultural destruction, and multi-generational consequences. The legacy of grief that continues unresolved is visible in skyrocketing suicide rates, rampant hopelessness, and deep anger. In many contexts it amounts to pathological or impacted grief – for when hope is absent, healing is impossible.
The legacy of domination includes frightful evil – the intentional destruction of food sources and cultural centers like the herds of North American bison, the intentional introduction of disease and poisoning of water sources, wanton disregard of starvation and illness, the abuse and enslavement of women and children, the murder of those with the courage to protest inhumane treatment, the repeated dispossession of natural resources, land, and water, as well as chronically inadequate Federal management and defense of Native rights and resources.
There have been some glimmers of justice in decisions that have returned Native fishing and hunting rights, and some improvements in tribal rights to self-determination. There is a very small and slow return of bison to the prairie, and wolves have begun to return in places where they are not immediately hunted down. Yet many of these recoveries continue to be strenuously resisted by powerful non-Native commercial interests.
There are signs of hope in returning cultural treasures to their communities of origin, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is returning remains for dignified burial. The legacy of cultural genocide is slowly being addressed as indigenous traditions, languages, and cultural skills are taught to new generations.
The Episcopal Church has been present and ministering with Native peoples in North America for several centuries. That history of accompaniment and solidarity has hardly been perfect, yet we continue to seek greater justice and deeper healing.
The Episcopal Church’s relationship with Native peoples in the Americas begins with the first English colonists. We remember the story of Manteo, a Croatan of what is now North Carolina. He traveled to England in 1584 and helped a colleague of Sir Walter Raleigh learn to speak Algonquin. He returned here the next year, became something of an ambassador between the two peoples, was baptized, and is counted a saint of this church.
Episcopal missionaries have served in a variety of indigenous communities and contexts. Henry Benjamin Whipple was Bishop of Minnesota in 1862, and his powerful petition to Abraham Lincoln saved the lives of some 265 of the Dakota men sentenced to hang the day after Christmas in Mankato. The Dakota people called him “Straight Tongue.” Today many Dakota and Lakota people are part of this Episcopal tradition.
This Church has stood in solidarity with native peoples in Alaska, Hawai’i, and the American southwest, especially the Diné (Navajo), as well as in urban Indian communities. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians (in Alabama) achieved federal recognition in the 1980s with the aid of baptismal records maintained by this Church, which also assisted in returning a piece of land to the Poarch Band.. A large group of indigenous people in Ecuador is seeking recognition as worshiping communities in the Episcopal tradition, and we have other indigenous members and communities in Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, and Micronesia. Our historical presence in the Philippines began with the indigenous Igorot peoples of the mountains and highlands.
Healing work continues across The Episcopal Church. In 1997 Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning apologized for the enormities that began with the colony in Jamestown. Today our understanding of mission has changed. We believe that God’s mission is about healing brokenness in the world around us – broken relationships between human beings and the Creator, broken relationships between peoples, and damaged relationships between human beings and the rest of creation. We seek to partner in God’s mission through proclaiming a vision of a healed world; forming Christians as partners in that mission; responding to human suffering around us; reversing structural and systemic injustice; and caring for this earthly garden. We partner with any and all who share a common vision for healing, whether Episcopalian or Christian or not.
Work with indigenous peoples in recent years has been intensely focused on issues of poverty and the generational consequences of cultural destruction, the reality of food deserts and diabetes rates on reservations, unemployment and inadequate educational resources, as well as the ongoing reality of racism and exclusion in the larger society. Mission and development work in Native communities is locally directed, honoring the gifts and assets already present, and moves toward a vision of healed community. We partner with White Bison in community organizing that develops training programs for community healing. This is a historic development, the first such partnership between a traditional Native American non-profit and The Episcopal Church.
This Church has worked to alleviate systemic and structural injustice in many ways, and our repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery in 2009 is a recent example. Since at least 1976, our advocacy work has included support for First Nations land claims in Canada, advocacy with the U.S. government for improved health care, religious freedom, preservation of burial sites and repatriation of remains and cultural resources, increased Federal tribal recognition, and critical Federal Government self-examination around Native American rights. We have affirmed and reaffirmed our desire to strengthen relationships with Native peoples by remembering the past, recognizing the deficits and gifts in our historic and current relationships, and continued work toward healing. We are currently advocating for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, with provisions directly affecting Native women.
The Doctrine of Discovery work of this Church is focused on education, dismantling the structures and policies based on that ancient evil, support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and challenging governments around the world to support self-determination for indigenous peoples.
We seek to address the need for healing in all parts of society, and we stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples globally to acknowledge and address the legacy of colonial occupation and policies of domination. Our Christian heritage has taught us that a healed community of peace is only possible in the presence of justice for all peoples. We seek to build such a beloved community that can be a sacred household for all creation, a society of right relationships.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.
We pray that God will give us the strength and courage to do this work together for the good of all our relations, in the belief that Christ Jesus ends hostility and brings together those who were once divided.
We have need for much healing and reconciliation but that cannot happen until we acknowledge the evils perpetrated on others in the past and in the present. As I was typing this, the little song “Let There Be Peace on Earth” seemed stuck in my head and, while I don’t find it particularly deep, the words “let it begin with me” seem quite appropriate. May we each recognize that this work must begin with each of us.
Let us pray…
A Prayer for Healing and Hope
O Great Spirit, God of all people and every tribe,
through whom all people are related;
Call us to the kinship of all your people.
Grant us vision to see
through the lens of our Baptismal Covenant,
the brokenness of the past;
Help us to listen to you and to one-another,
in order to heal the wounds of the present;
And, give us courage, patience and wisdom to work together for healing and hope with all of your people, now and in the future.
Mend the hoop of our hearts and let us live in
justice and peace,
through Jesus Christ,
the One who comes to all people
that we might live in dignity. Amen.
(from “Seeking God’s Justice for All” – http://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/downloads/dod_lent_2012.pdf)
~ The Rev Deacon Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee