Many Christians are actively seeking to address many of the deep social ills in our world today — only to realize that our own tradition has contributed (and continues to contribute) to these very social crises. Much public antipathy toward the Christian faith arises from the historical reality that the institutional church and the Bible have been key players in numerous forms of oppression — slavery, racism, misogyny, among others.
Yet very few Christians (more precisely, white Western Christians) are aware of one of the historical taproots of much of that oppression. The “Doctrine of Discovery” is a philosophical and legal framework dating to the 15th century that gave “Christian” governments in Europe the moral and legal rights to invade and seize indigenous lands and dominate indigenous peoples. For more than five centuries, this doctrine and the laws based upon it have legalized the theft of land, labor, and resources from across the world — crimes that continue to this day.
As Sarah Augustine, professor of sociology, describes it, the doctrine was “based on an ethical framework created by the church in the 15th century that gave racial preference to Europeans. This framework defined non-Christians as qualitatively different from Europeans. It further gave European rulers the right to ‘discover’ indigenous lands and to claim title to those lands.”
While it seems like an arcane historical concept, grounded in centuries-old papal bulls and medieval legal rulings, the Doctrine of Discovery has continued to impact political and economic policies and practices. Its legacy is the contemporary global systems of domination. It has been specifically cited in legal opinions as recently as the 1960s, and its fundamental framework is an ongoing paradigm of entitlement for western corporations that continue to seize indigenous land. The results on indigenous people and on natural resources can be summed up as enslavement, extraction, and extinction. We can look at our world today and see both the horrific legacy and continued abuses and injustices, much of which was initially enacted “in the name of Christ.”
Christians today must respond in the name of a more authentic Christ of the gospels. In August 2014, a group of Mennonite church and lay leaders came together to create the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. Rooted in their faith call to love our neighbors and in an Anabaptist understanding that seeks right relationship and reconciliation, the coalition provides education materials and resources
As part of that education and mobilization work, on Saturday, September 29, the Alternative Seminary and a group of Mennonite pastors are hosting a gathering in Philadelphia to deepen our understanding and discern our call to respond. We will be showing the 43-minute documentary Doctrine of Discovery: In the Name of Christ, in which indigenous scholars, leaders, and activists from around the world, as well as Christian theologians and pastors, unpack the pernicious history of this doctrine and its impact throughout the centuries as a key tool of imperialism and colonialism. We will explore what actions we can take to reverse this vicious form of systemic sin and injustice. Join us.
We can and must act in repentance and faith. Working with Indigenous communities, we can begin the hard but critical work of reversing the sin that our church has bred.