When Columbus “discovered” North America, there were already people here, millions of Indigenous peoples in hundreds of diverse cultures. So why do we often speak as though Columbus encountered an empty land? The answer resides in the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, a papal pronouncement that ranked Indigenous peoples as “pagans” and less human than Europeans (assumed to be Christians), and that, on the basis of that ranking, gave Europeans the right to take Indigenous lands. The papal proclamation gave a theological stamp of approval to an attitude of cultural superiority that was already prevalent—that Europeans were made in the image of God, but Indigenous peoples were somehow lesser. This pronouncement, its integration into our legal structures, and the attitude of cultural superiority it expressed laid a foundation that has far-reaching effects still today.
We don’t know our common story on this land, and we don’t know our neighbors. Community is broken.
This disconnection from our neighbors and the legacy of colonization have allowed many social ills to plague Indigenous communities in both the U.S. and Canada—lack of access to safe water, high incarceration rates, low educational achievement, high rates of violence against Indigenous peoples. A key piece of our common story that we must seek to understand is residential schools -- how they tore generations of children from their parents in order to “civilize” them, in both the U.S. and Canada. The Church participated in colonization, and particularly in residential schools, in many ways. As the body of Christ, we have largely missed out on the richness we could have enjoyed together, as Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, from the contributions of Creator God’s gifts to Indigenous peoples.
Why we care
We care because the Doctrine of Discovery and the widespread racist assumptions to which it gave voice deny the image of God in Indigenous peoples.
Mark MacDonald, a Mi’kmaq leader and the National Indigenous Bishop for the Anglican Church in Canada, has said, “Theologically, the Doctrine of Discovery has been the handmaid to the idolatrous assumption that God’s presence has been confined to Western civilization – an idea that has all but destroyed the capacity of the major denominations to grow in Indigenous communities.” In other words, acknowledging the gifts that Creator God has given to Indigenous peoples, recognizing the signs of common grace in their cultures, and overcoming our sense of cultural superiority is about the integrity of the gospel. This is about the integrity of the church and of our worship of God. It is about honoring the image of God as it is uniquely displayed in Indigenous peoples.
As God says through the prophet Isaiah, our offerings and prayers are meaningless unless we “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed” (Isa. 1:17).
By acting as though Western culture is superior to Indigenous cultures, Europeans and their descendants have often slammed the door of the Church in the face of Indigenous peoples, or asked them to leave their cultures at the door, forgetting that our understanding of Christianity is also shaped by our cultural contexts. By imagining that the gospel belonged to and that God approved of one culture over another, we used it as a tool of domination and power.
We need to live more truly as the body of Christ, together as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. As Scripture teaches in 1 Corinthians 12, no part of the body is more valuable than another. Each makes its own distinct contribution.
We care because Indigenous peoples are made in the image of God.
What restoration looks like
Respect. Listening. Learning our common story. In Canada, this process has begun through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where thousands of Indigenous survivors of residential schools told their often painful stories. The CRC in Canada has committed to learning from that truth-telling through an “Action for Reconciliation” statement. In the CRC as a whole, we are working for reconciliation by learning how our own history has been affected by the racist assumptions of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery through a task force appointed to report at Synod 2016.
Where Europeans and their descendants have dismissed Indigenous gifts, those gifts must now be recognized and celebrated. Where we suffer from the legacy of colonization, where some among us do not have access to the same quality of life because of their race, we must work together to right those wrongs.
[Header image photo credit: Melissa Blunden]