Healing Wounds from the Doctrine of Discovery
In May 2020, our Northern Great Lakes Synod Council, on behalf of the synod, passed a resolution to establish a “Year of Discovery” through May 2021 “as a time of reflection, education, and conversation within our congregations and church communities regarding the historical content of the Doctrine of Discovery and the impact it has had and continues to have on the indigenous peoples of this continent.” You can read the entire resolution here.
What is the doctrine of discovery?
The Doctrine of Discovery is an early principle of international law that arose out of the church. As noted by scholar Tink Tinker:
“Discovery, in brief, is the legal doctrine that the first ‘christian’ explorers, who ventured away from Europe and landed on foreign soil unknown to european christian folk, had the right by Discovery to claim ownership of those Native People’s land for their own christian monarch. By law, then (i.e., by euro-christian law), that christian country had the sole right to negotiate with or conquer the Native People of that land in order to establish christian ownership of ‘property.’”
A Papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, decreed that that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered and claimed by Christian rulers, so that the Christian religion could be spread throughout the “new world.” This built on earlier decrees where Pope Nicholas V sanctioned slavery by the Portugese in West Africa. (More info here.)
What does this have to do with us in the U.S.?
The doctrine was incorporated into U.S. federal law in the 1823 case of Johnson v. McIntosh, establishing that the United States inherited all rights to lands conquered by the English. This law was further strengthened by the belief that God had ordained all American land to be claimed as the “manifest destiny” of the United States to grow and expand across the continent.
What has the ELCA said on this issue?
The 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted a social policy resolution to
repudiate explicitly and clearly the European-derived Doctrine of Discovery as an example of the “improper mixing of the power of the church and the power of the sword” (Augsburg
Confession, Article XXVIII, Latin text), and to acknowledge and repent from this church’s
complicity in the evils of colonialism in the Americas, which continue to harm tribal
governments and individual tribal members. Read the entire resolution here.
Why is this important for our congregation and the synod?
The Northern Great Lakes Synod occupies land originally inhabited by Native American peoples, ceded to the U.S. in the 1842 treaty, and has yet to join seventeen other ELCA synods in acknowledging the church’s part in this conquest and express support for the sovereignty of Native American tribes.
What does the synod intend to do next?
The short-term goal for this year is to invite our congregations and members to learn more about the doctrine and its impacts and then vote as a synod to formally repudiate the doctrine at the synod meeting in May 2021. However, that is not enough as Vance Blackfox notes:
“It would seem, then, that the ELCA has garnered overwhelming support in taking on the task of repudiating this damaging doctrine. However, it remains to be seen whether the church will meet the task at hand in word only, or in word and in deed.”
Thus, the long-term goal is to invite members and congregations to become allies in support of our indigenous neighbors.
What else can we do?
First, learn more about this doctrine and it’s continuing effects. A list of resources can be found here.
Second, take action. Many of the suggestions from the broader anti-racism work will apply in this area as well. If you were part of the study group for Ijeoma Oluo’s book “So You Want to Talk About Race,” review the last chapter for ideas (or see her article on the topic here). Broadly speaking, we encourage people 1) to share what they have learned about this history and its ongoing effects, 2) to get politically active and advocate for Native American issues, and 3) to support indigenous organizations and businesses, and 4) to fight racism and bigotry in everyday life.
Finally, feel free to join us in this effort. Contact any of the members on this task force:
Pastor Julie Belew – juliebelew@gmail.com, Pastor Bucky Beach – bsbeach@mtu.edu,
Pastor Melinda VanderSws – orlcrev@jamadots.com,
Pastor David Van Kley – wilsonmqtmich@gmail.com,
Jeff Henquinet – jeffhenquinet@outlook.com,
Assistant to the Bishop James Duehring – jduehring@nglsynod.org
Blackfox, Vance, 2017, “A Reflection on the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly’s Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, (accessed on October, 25, 2020 at https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/1202?_ga=2.211378261.1985872786.1592237917-1362125866.1503510635).
Johnson vs McIntosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543, 5 L.Ed. 681 (1823).
Tinker, Tink, 2017, “The Doctrine of christian Discovery: Lutheran and the Language of Empire”, Journal of Lutheran Ethics (accessed on October, 25, 2020 at https://elca.org/JLE/Articles/1203?_ga=2.165782782.1985872786.1592237917-1362125866.1503510635).