Understanding & Responding to the Doctrine of Discovery

DoDBy Will O’Brien, executive director of Project H.O.M.E. in Philly and the curator of the Alternative Seminary

*This Saturday, September 29, the Alternative Seminary and a group of Mennonite pastors are hosting a gathering in Philadelphia to deepen understanding and discern a call to respond to the Doctrine of Discovery

Of the many crimes perpetrated through history in the name of an imperialized Christ, one of the most pernicious is also one of least known.

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 continues to impact political and economic policies and practices. Its legacy is the contemporary global systems of domination. Obviously, it had the immediate impact of justifying the European takeover (often coupled with brutal violence) of indigenous lands throughout the “New World” as well as the next three centuries of global colonization. Today, these very teaching is giving free reign to western corporations acting on the same fundamental ideology of entitlement by plundering indigenous lands and resources.

Fortunately, an increasing number of Christians are seeking to grapple with this painful legacy and find faithful ways to 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. If you are in the Philadelphia area, please join us for what will surely be an illuminating and challenging gathering.

We can and must act in repentance and faith. Working with native communities, we can being the hard but critical work of reversing the sin that our church has bred.

One thought on “Understanding & Responding to the Doctrine of Discovery

  1. Oscar (Oz) Cole-Arnal

    Once again, as a Lutheran, I must turn to my Mennonite sisters & brothers to see, hear & discern the truth. Please don’t get me wrong. My own eastern synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) is long on rhetoric but horrendously short on action, whereas (as I have discovered in 31 years of teaching church history at our Waterloo Lutheran Seminary) that my Mennonite students & academic colleagues at Conrad Grebel College join remorse to action via non-violent strategies whereas we Lutherans are just beginning to put our toes in the water. I am passing on this material to the one person within our establishment that I feel is truly focused on said issues & perhaps prepared to take action. I will help as health allows (I have Parkinsons & am 77 but am prepared to do what I can). So, please do send me the results of your Sept. 29th. gathering & how best we might link up to this work & Gospel call.

    With commitment of head, heart & feet (as I am able),
    Oz (Oscar Cole-Arnal)

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