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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Denominations repent for Native American land grabs

PC(USA) joins ecumenical movement repudiating the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’

October 17, 2018

An elder burns copies of the Doctrine of Discovery at a Nov. 3, 2016 ceremony where faith leaders denounced the doctrine and apologized for its consequences. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

“You cannot understand our history as a country until you understand the history of the church.”

That’s how Mark Charles — a Navajo pastor, speaker and author — began his presentation to a room full of missionaries in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which gathered this past summer for their annual meeting.

He was laying out the origins of the Doctrine of Discovery, the idea first expressed in a series of 15th-century papal edicts that justifies the discovery and domination by European Christians of lands already inhabited by indigenous peoples.

In recent years, a number of mainline Protestant Christian denominations have passed resolutions repudiating the doctrine. Now they’re considering how to act on those denunciations.

Some are creating educational resources on racism dealing with the doctrine and related themes. Others are calling for “full disclosure” on their denomination’s involvement in land grabs and massacres of Native Americans. Some have even suggested returning church land to the indigenous people who originally lived there.

“I’m encouraged that more and more Christian people seem on board to at least raise awareness,” said Steven T. Newcomb, the Shawnee/Lenape author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute.

“I think we’re exploring this together in terms of where it can go and the kinds of healing activities that can take place, and the reset of an honor and a respect for the original nations and peoples.”

The way Newcomb describes the Doctrine of Discovery these days is “a claim of a right of Christian domination.”

It was first expressed by Pope Nicholas V in the 1452 papal bull “Dum Diversas,” which created a theological justification for Christian rulers seizing the property and possessions of non-Christians.

Protestant groups slowly have begun to wrestle with the doctrine and are awakening to the need to address its ugly legacy.

On the Sunday after Columbus Day 2006, John Dieffenbacher-Krall, now chair of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine’s Committee on Indian Relations, asked the rector of his church, St. James Episcopal in Old Town, Maine, for permission to preach about it, calling on the church, the diocese, the denomination and the entire Anglican Communion to renounce the doctrine.

“As we reconcile ourselves with the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere, we also do our part in helping to reconcile this broken world with God,” Dieffenbacher-Krall preached that day.

The next year, the Episcopal Diocese of Maine’s convention passed a resolution repudiating the doctrine, and the Episcopal Church adopted a similar resolution denomination-wide at its 2009 General Convention.

A number of mainline Protestant denominations since have approved similar repudiations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ and the Community of Christ.

The executive committee of the World Council of Churches — which includes 350 churches, denominations and fellowships around the world — also issued a statement repudiating the doctrine and calling on member churches to learn about the history and issues facing indigenous peoples in their areas.

“It’s not that denominations have thought of it, it’s that they’ve been called on by indigenous peoples to live out their faith,” said June L. Lorenzo, who is Laguna Pueblo/Dine and a ruling elder at Laguna United Presbyterian Church, part of the PC(USA).

Lorenzo was part of the team that wrote a report to the PC(USA) following up on its repudiation, detailing how the church played a role in creating and implementing government policies affecting Native Americans; how, because those policies largely were linked to land, the church’s work among Native Americans was, too; and how some Presbyterians throughout history have supported Native Americans’ sovereignty and can model this for the church today.

That report and another resolution expanding the PC(USA) response to the doctrine both passed this past summer. Among the actions they suggest: Each General Assembly meeting should begin with an acknowledgment of the indigenous people on whose land it takes place; the church also will encourage its seminaries to “give voice” to Native American theologies and direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency to create educational resources on racism dealing with the doctrine and related themes.

Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service

Today’s Focus:  Doctrine of Discovery

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Jennifer Barr, OGA
Andrew Kang Bartlett, PMA

Let us pray:

O Lord, you rule over all things. Uphold our brothers and sisters around the world who face oppression and injustice. Use them, and us, to proclaim the good news of your kingdom, that people may be set free from their bondage to sin, and victims of sin from its ongoing effects. In Jesus’ mighty name. Amen.

Daily Readings

Morning Psalms 15; 147:1-11
First Reading Hosea 13:1-3
Second Reading Acts 27:9-26
Gospel Reading Luke 9:1-17<
Evening Psalms 48; 4