Let’s Create a New Family: Adopting the Doctrine of Discovery Task Force Report

Let’s Create a New Family:

Adopting the Doctrine of Christian Discovery Report

In June 2016, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), of which I am a member, will consider the report Creating a New Family: A Circle of Conversation on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery from its Doctrine of Discovery Task Force. The report recommends that the CRCNA acknowledge the historical role of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DOCD), repudiate the Doctrine, and commit itself to restore relationships with Indigenous peoples. The key recommendations of the Task Force are to:

  • Acknowledge the DOCD and its legacies as systemic sin and moral wounds with wide effects on life and ministry among both Indigenous people and settlers;
  • Confront the legacy of the DOCD in a denomination-wide commitment to learning, prayer, confession, lament and repentance;
  • Direct agencies of the CRCNA to: build substantive dialogue and relationships with Indigenous Christian leaders; to asses and build sound mission practices and; develop congregational learning and action resources on the legacy of the DOCD;
  • Acknowledge the CRCNA’s historical appropriation of a Euro-superior worldview and resulting trespasses against Indigenous peoples…; and
  • Make safe space and provision for the sharing of stories about the legacy of the DOCD in CRC ministries (Executive Summary, 8).

The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) should adopt these recommendations as a step towards healing the relationship between the Indigenous people and the CRCNA and other “settler” churches and the “settler” peoples of North America. If adopted and implemented, these recommendations could change the culture and worldview of the CRCNA in significant ways and encourage the church and its members to engage in further work to help heal the injustices against Indigenous peoples that persist to this day in both Canada and the United States (US).

The Doctrine of Discovery began in the sixteenth century, the age of exploration, when European nations began exploring and colonizing other countries. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church had a great deal of power over kings and rulers and was the source of law for “Christian” countries. King Alfonso of Portugal sought from the pope legitimacy for his conquests and trade rights in Africa and elsewhere. In the bull Dum Diversas of 1452, the pope granted him “full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be…and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.” After Columbus’ discovery of new lands, the bull Inter Caetera of 1493 gave the same rights to Spain; in effect, it essentially gave the right of new lands to whichever Christian European land was the first to “discover” them; this right of first discovery became known as the Law of Nations. The right of the Christian nations to take over new lands and to enslave the non-Christian inhabitants was readily taken up as international law and came to be called the Doctrine of Discovery; it became the underlying rationale (or rationalization) for further European conquests.

This doctrine was used in the 1496 Patent granted by the British King Henry VII to Cabot giving him the right to claim lands in North America. A brutal use was made of it by Charles I of Spain in his 1514 Requerimiento: it was to be read to peoples in the new world to inform them that they were subject to the king and queen of Spain because the pope, the heir of Christ, had given the king and queen these lands; therefore the Indigenous peoples had to submit on penalty of subjugation and death. The British Crown’s Royal Proclamation of 1763 declared that only the Crown could take or buy lands that lay west of the Appalachians from the Indians in North America. This ‘right’ passed to the United States government after the War of Independence; in Canada, it was exercised by the government of Canada. In both Canada and the US, therefore, the Indigenous peoples were only “occupiers” while the governments were the legal owners of the lands.

The United States Supreme Court used this Doctrine of Discovery in several decisions written by Chief Justice Marshall between 1823 and 1832, legalizing the taking of Indian lands because the Indians had lost their rights to complete sovereignty upon discovery by Christian nations. Justice Marshall specifically used Cabot’s Patent as proof that England had recognized and used the Doctrine of Discovery. Further court rulings said that Indian peoples might be “domestic dependent nations” but were always subject to the federal government’s legislative authority.

Canada used the Royal Proclamation to assert its ownership of all lands that the Indigenous peoples occupied; these peoples were wards of the state and the Crown was the legal owner of the lands on which they lived. The Indian Act of 1876, the first consolidation of the government’s previous decisions, considered the Indians to be “minors” with the government as their guardian. The federal government, through its agents, controlled all Indian lands, property, and funds. This basic relationship, based ultimately on the Doctrine of Discovery, continues even today. Furthermore, the Indian Act aimed to end the “Indian problem” by assimilating the Indians into the dominant white culture. The most serious attempt to do this was the residential school system which took children from their parents; starting in 1883, this system was copied from the earlier model of residential schools in the United States.

The task force report examined the relationship between the CRCNA in both the United States and Canada. In the US, the main interaction was in the mission that the CRCNA began among the Navajo and Zuni peoples in the US Southwest. In 1888, the Board of Heathen Missions bought land and built a boarding school which they named Rehoboth. They cut students’ hair, dressed them in Western clothes, and replaced their Indigenous names with English names. These practices and the language they used in describing these missions and these peoples reflected the assumptions of European cultural and religious superiority: to be Christian meant you were western; to be Indigenous meant you had no knowledge of God and were not made in his image. The effects were cultural genocide: Children were robbed of their language and culture, their native spirituality, their self-respect, and—most of all—were robbed of their parents. They did not learn how to raise their own children but treated them as the missionary teachers had treated and abused them. The trauma is still felt to this day by both the Indigenous children who attended these schools, and to a much lesser extent, by some of the adults who thought at the time that they were following God and the church obediently, but now realize their sin. The same cultural genocide and trauma were experienced in the residential schools in Canada, as is evident in the 2015 report of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The history of relationships between the CRCNA and the Indigenous peoples in Canada is different, probably because most of the Canadian CRCs came after 1945. The CRCNA started no schools in Canada, but in 1968, the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada (CCRCC) developed a plan for work among Indigenous peoples. In 1976, it started the first Urban Aboriginal Ministries (not missions) “integrating indigenous teachings and Christianity in frontline ministry.” This integration was questioned by some, up to the point of asking Synod whether this was syncretism (an unwarranted blend of Christianity with pagan elements). This questioning clearly showed some suspicion of Indigenous expressions of Christianity.

It is time for the CRCNA to build better relationships with the Indigenous peoples of North America. The beliefs and principles which the CRCNA confesses and holds dear are in themselves sufficient reason why it should adopt the recommendations of this report. First of all, the Bible clearly teaches that all humans are descendants of one pair of ancestors, Adam and Eve, and that all humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1). Nowhere does the Bible teach that some humans are less than others; all are equal in the sight of God. The church, the new humanity in Christ, is also one body, as Paul teaches, and we are called to be one as Christ prayed we would be in John 17. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 that many different parts make us strong as one body should encourage us to welcome those who add differences to our current composition. Our confessions teach that all were made good by God, that in Adam all have sinned, and that all are called to come in faith to Christ to be saved and made new. Our Contemporary Testimony also speaks to the issues in this report very clearly: We are all made in God’s image and are called to care for creation and love our neighbours (Art. 10); “no matter what our age, or race, or color, we are the human family together” (Art. 12); “we grieve that the church which…spans all time, place, race, and language has become a broken community in the world” (Art. 43); “we call on governments to do public justice” (Art. 54); and “we are called to be peacemakers” (Art. 55). To adopt the report’s recommendations would also be a follow-up to the church’s adoption in 2012 of the Belhar Confession as an Ecumenical Faith Declaration, essentially a call to lament and reject forced racial segregation on the grounds that it is unbiblical. We are called to make all of these fundamental beliefs and principles a reality in our relationships with our Indigenous neighbours.

The devastating effects of the Doctrine of Discovery that persist to this day should arouse each church member to agree that it is our problem today: as the report says, we “drink downstream” from this history even today. To help heal ourselves and our neighbours and country, the CRCNA should whole-heartedly adopt the recommendations of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery Task Force. Then we will embark on a new stage in the healing of relationships with the Indigenous peoples of our countries. From them, we can learn new ways of healing our lands and we can be a better witness to our governments about the need to heal our relationships with our Indigenous citizens on national levels. As we stand together with other church denominations on these issues, we may also develop better relations with them. Together we may help to heal the reputations of churches in our countries, reputations damaged by years of oppression and abuse. Above all, we will be obedient to our Lord who calls us to be one in him, to love him, and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

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