Book study by Presbyterian Hunger Program and partners to focus on dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery

Participants will learn about historical harms against Indigenous people as well as injustices impacting their descendants, the economy and the Earth today

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Hunger Program and its Global Solidarity Network will begin a five-week book study in September to help people gain a better understanding of the Church’s complicity in colonization and the exploitation of Indigenous land, resources and people.

Anyone can sign up to participate in the study of “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery” by Sarah Augustine. The study will take place on Zoom each Tuesday from Sept. 12 through Oct. 10.

The study will be led by Presbyterian Mission Agency staffers from the Presbyterian Hunger Program, the Joining Hands initiative and Presbyterian World Mission, who will connect historical injustices, such as the Doctrine of Discovery, with ongoing harm of Indigenous people today.

“You have no doubt heard of the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of Church laws from the 15th century, but chances are, what you will learn in Sarah Augustine’s captivating book will surprise you — and hopefully, nudge us all into action,” said book study co-leader Cindy Corell, a mission co-worker in Haiti.

Mission Co-Worker Cindy Corell works with partners of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Haiti. (Photo by Michelle Lori)

Providing further insight into the study, Valery Nodem, PHP Associate for International Hunger Concerns, said, “Today, an important part of our work around the world is to support communities protecting their land, territories and resources. To be effective in that work, we need to recognize how the church has played a role in [their plight]. We need to repent and repair this historical harm that has enabled land theft as we see it today.”

For example, “the Hunger Program has been working on issues around extractive industries where you have corporations that are coming in taking the resources but also taking the land from Indigenous and First Nations peoples for the enrichment of nations that are already rich and corporations that are already rich,” said Eileen Schuhmann, a co-leader of the book study who is associate for Global Engagement and Resources for PHP. “This is happening not just overseas but also happening right here in the United States.”

The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of 15th-century papal edicts that gave Christian European governments the religious and legal justification to claim lands occupied by Indigenous peoples and to convert, enslave or kill them. It is said to have “laid the groundwork for the genocide of Indigenous peoples around the world; the colonization of Africa, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas; and the transatlantic trafficking in persons used as slave labor,” according to history on the PMA website.

Back in 2016, the 222nd General Assembly repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery and asked that recommendations be made about how congregations in the PC(USA) could support Native Americans in their ongoing efforts for sovereignty and fundamental human rights.

The Rev. Jed Koball, a mission co-worker who will be co-leading the book study, explained why it’s important for the church to go beyond the actions of 2016.

The Rev. Jed Kobell is a mission co-worker based in Peru. (Contributed photo)

“While it was important for PC(USA) to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, our work is not over, because the impact of the Doctrine of Discovery continues to shape the world we live in today,” said Koball, who serves with the Peru Joining Hands Network. “To that end, it is important that we see more clearly how the doctrines continue to influence us as a church so that we can more faithfully come alongside those in the world fighting for survival in the face of [the] modern-day empire.”

The workshop organizers are part of PHP’s Global Solidarity Network, “a movement mobilized by PHP’s Joining Hands Initiative that brings together Presbyterians in the United States with partners and allies from the global South to decolonize the global economy and to promote harmonious ways of living together in our one common planet,” according to the Together for Justice blog.

Koball said many of the crises that the world is facing today, from financial to environmental, are rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery.

For example, it “sought to eradicate Indigenous spiritualties, which are often rooted in living in harmony with nature, and replace them with spiritualities that prioritize private property, view nature as a resource to be exploited for prosperity and development, and foment racial hierarchies,” he said.

Also, it “ushered in and opened the doors to white supremacy and a global economy to sustain it, spread it and perpetuate it — a global economy that has grown over the centuries and has generated immense wealth for some, massive poverty for others, and overall destruction of the Earth, which puts everyone at risk, especially those on the margins,” he continued.

Making those connections for people is part of the reason for the book study. “The sins committed in the name of the doctrine aren’t only those that are centuries old,” Corell said. “Its tenets are part of U.S. law that continue to impact Indigenous lands and the people who live on them. As members of the Church, we have a unique opportunity to study past sins and examine ways we can work ecumenically to dismantle it.”

To register for the book study and access a study guide, go here.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Its work is made possible by One Great Hour of Sharing.

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