Parliament of the World’s Religions

Environmental Justice and the Doctrine of Discovery

By Rev. Dr. Barbara Carnegie Campbell,
Interim Pastor at Covenant PC,  Gresham, Oregon

At the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religion in Toronto, Ontario last week, I heard someone commenting that Parliament is like “organizing a gathering for interfaith dialogue on issues of justice and having the whole world show up!”

In both Salt Lake City and Toronto the Parliament was graced by many indigenous leaders who shared the spiritual gifts of their faith and inspired us in discussions of environment justice and the violence against indigenous peoples around the world that continues to this day.

Even as a 5th generation Oregonian, I was in my 50s before I really learned anything about what the reservations in Oregon really represented. As the adult leader of a youth mission trip to Warm Springs, Oregon, a town on a reservation in the Eastern Oregon high desert, I found myself in the bleachers of a football field listening to drumming and watching the dancing at the “Py-Um-Sha.” I started weeping but didn’t understand why.

Last week, I was asked to speak at a workshop on the Doctrine of Discovery. (The leader of the workshop knew I was at Parliament and part of his panel of speakers had suddenly cancelled!)

The Doctrine of Discovery is the name given to several edicts in history. In 1493 a Papal Bull was written that supported Spain’s exclusive right 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.

In 1923, The US Supreme Court voted unanimously “that the principle of such ‘discovery’ had given European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, this meant that First Nation peoples of North America had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.

Recently, after indigenous leaders met with Pope Francis requesting an end to the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican said that it would consider rescinding the 500-year-old Catholic policy.

The US Government has consistently broken its promises to indigenous First Nation people.  Again and again we forced them off their lands onto less resourceful and smaller plots where they starved to death and we executed many who tried to resist. We violently abused their children in reform school “residential homes” from which thousands of children never returned. We have continued to desecrate their spiritual homelands, drilling for oil and digging for coal to power the privilege of our lives. And all of this validated and encouraged by the twisting of Christian theology and doctrine.

Though complicit in our early missionary history, the General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessors have more recently affirmed the sovereignty and treaty rights of First Nation peoples. In 1981 the UPCUSA called the US President to develop “a national Indian policy that is consistent with the concerns of Indian people for self-determination, tribal sovereignty, economic self-sufficiency, and preservation of treaty rights.”

Two recent PCUSA documents: Churchwide Conversation on Race, Ethnicity, Racism, and Ethnocentricity and Apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, were approved by the GA in 2016. These documents include a confession and a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and a call to study the doctrine and its implications.

The challenge is still with us, however. How long will some of us continue to demand exclusive rights to holiness and salvation?  Come, Holy Spirit of earth’s waters, mountains, forests, and their creatures and teach us again to know your truth!


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