Nations formulate doctrines that define and guide their relations toward other nations. The Monroe Doctrine, and the Truman, Carter, and Bush Doctrines are American examples. As nations in Christendom in the 15th century had the wherewithal to explore the world by sea, popes formulated a doctrine to shape their relations with the lands and people the explorers would encounter. This came to be called the Doctrine of Discovery. While this is a religiously based doctrine, it has been adopted as legal precedent in Europe and the United States.
In this essay I will explore the religious components of the Doctrine through the lens of what official statements of repudiation reveal, avoid, and deny as a type of risk assessment. Just as legal outcomes of the Doctrine remain in effect, so do the religious components, contributing to the ongoing risk of Christians violating human rights.
What Statements of Repudiation Reveal
Many Christians have moved along the moral learning curve to recognize some errors in its ways, from slavery and the treatment of women, to inequalities of all sorts, and the injustices of Christian conquest, colonization, and domination.
Nearly 20 Christian denominations and the World Council of Churches have made official statements of repudiation of the Doctrine. This has occurred in response to the voices of Indigenous activists and scholars, which we acknowledge with appreciation. In the most egregious case of avoidance, no statement of repudiation has yet been made from the source of the Doctrine, the Vatican.
Whenever there is repudiation or admission of guilt, it is important to listen carefully for what they acknowledged and what they do not. What they do not acknowledge obviously remains a threat, even with expressions of remorse, the moral equivalent of “mistakes were made.”
While a Vatican project, the gist of the Doctrine was carried out by nearly all Christian denominations represented on Turtle Island. This indicates that the popes who formulated it were not unique in their understanding. What they had in common was the Bible that provided the playbook.
My report is that while many churches humbly acknowledge their complicity with the Doctrine, they address little of its Biblical roots in their statements of repudiation. An ELCA social policy resolution calls it “European-derived,” not Christianity-derived. The Presbyterian Church USA does name it as having roots in European Christian behavior toward non-Christians as well as papal interpretations of the Bible. (pp.3-7) The Mennonite Church (USA) statement describes it as having been given “Biblical justification,” not being of Biblical origin. And finally, the Presbyterian Church in Canada describes the relationship between Scripture and the Doctrine as “complex.” p.6 of the full report)
Several of the statements follow the lead of the World Council of Churches in denying and deflecting while repudiating. These statements (such as the Anglican Church of Canada, Episcopal Church USA, Quaker Indian Committee, United Church of Canada, and the United Church of Sweden) assert that the Doctrine is incompatible with the Gospel (don’t blame the Gospel). They say nothing about the Old Testament role, as if Christianity need not take any moral responsibility for its influence on Christian colonization.
The statement from the World Council of Churches is that it:
“Denounces the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and as a violation of the inherent human rights that all individuals and peoples have received from God.” They do not identify specifically which parts of the Gospel are in fundamental opposition or which human rights received by God the Doctrine violates. The vow to do better does not make the non-Christian world safer from Christian domination.
The Gospel’s Great Commission
The Presbyterian Church in Canada does make direct reference to the role of the key Gospel basis for the Doctrine, the Great Commission. (p. 7 of the full report) The United Methodist Church statement refers to it only obliquely. (p.1) Yet Pope Paul III cites it directly in Sublimus Dei, “On the Enslavement and Evangelization of Indians,” When Christian nations had the technological and financial means to explore and exploit the world, the popes recognized this as an opportunity to expand the fulfillment of Christ’s order to his followers to “go into all the world…,” which was now well beyond the scope of the world that Jesus knew. Followers of Jesus understandably saw this as something they were obligated to do.
The purpose of going into all the world was to “make disciples of all nations.” This means to cause it to happen, not simply to invite nations to convert. To not convert, according to Christ, would lead to condemnation.
Go and Occupy; Go and Convert
The Evangelical Covenant Church statement points to the Old Testament theme of a chosen people with a promised land as being present in the Doctrine and in the belief in manifest destiny. (p.3) While this is true, it is subordinate to the Great Commission. This is clear when Pope Paul III learned that some of the conquerors were no longer fulfilling the requirement to teach and convert. Sublimus Dei, was meant to bring them in line, citing the Great Commission. Go, occupy, and exploit, yes, but only if they also went and attempted to teach and convert.
There is no doubt that the Old Testament theme was operative in the Doctrine and in Christian colonization. St. James UCC in Saline, Michigan gives this statement of its founding:
Our forefathers heard the call of the Lord “Get out of thy country and from thy kindred & from thy father’s house into a land that I will show thee and bless thee.”
They heard this call in far off Germany and came to America, even unto Saline, where they built an altar….
The reference here is to Genesis 12:1-3 (NRSVUE):
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Christians identify with the stories they read in the Bible. Their leaders encourage them to do so. They consider themselves to be descendants of Abram.
In 1819, the influential clergyman and educator, Rev. Heman Humphrey delivered a sermon in Massachusetts entitled “The Promised Land.” It was based on the passage in Jeremiah 1, that there was still much land left to rightly be occupied, meaning the westward expansion of American Christendom.
Jesus gave his own twist to the Old Testament command. God told Abram that whoever blessed him, God would bless and whoever cursed him, God would curse. Jesus reversed that. He said to his followers, in effect, whoever you bless, heaven will bless. Whoever you curse, heaven will curse. (Matthew 16:19, NRSVUE)
All Power in Heaven and on Earth
None of the statements call out this most decisive assertion of domination. After Jesus rose from the dead, he proclaimed that all power in heaven and on earth had been given to him. (Mathew 28:18, NRSVUE) This is quite the turnabout.
Earlier, soon after Jesus was baptized and experienced the blessing of God the Father, he went into the “wilderness” and experienced the great temptations of power. In one, (Luke 4:5-7, NRSVUE) he was on a high place and was told by the tempter that he could have power over all that he could see in a Devil’s bargain. All power. He refused the condition of worshipping the Devil. Now, Jesus embraced all power in heaven and on earth. Further, he transferred that power to his followers through his disciple Peter. The popes certainly claimed it, but also ordinary Christian colonizers did and many still do. Go into all the world, dominate and be the judge of those who are there.
This judging included, and still includes, not only matters of salvation, but also spiritual/cultural practices, beliefs, relationship to the earth for not extracting all it can reap for humans, and even sexual positions. All were and are regarded as open to judgement by Christians as if the souls of the Indigenous depended upon it. This, despite the fact that in another part of the Gospel, (Matthew 7:1, NRSVUE) Jesus exhorted his followers to not judge. The Bible, including the Gospels, is not known for its consistency.
With the belief that Christ had all power in heaven and on earth, and now his followers, we can get doctrines like that of the Doctrine of Discovery. A clear statement of this assumption of all power is Requieremiento, (Requirement: To be Read by Spanish Conquerors to Defeated Indians). Written in 1510 by the Council of Castille, it stated that what the conquerors were doing was ordained by God, and that the Church is “the Ruler and Superior of the Whole World.”
The Native peoples were informed that they were invited to voluntarily convert to Christianity. When they did, they would lose their autonomy and become “the subjects and vassals” of the Spanish crown. If they did not convert, as Christ warned in Mark 16:16, (NRSVUE) all hell, in effect, would be visited upon them.
“With the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”
Enemies of Christ
The Doctrine of Discovery thus contains a declaration of war against non-Christians, a war Christians had by then been waging for some time against Muslims and other non-Christians in Europe they referred to as pagans or heathens. In Dum Diversas, Pope Nicholas V referred to such people as “enemies of Christ” as if there can be no neutrality toward Christ.
Though none of our statements acknowledge it, this position is Gospel based. In Matt 12:30 (NRSVUE) and Luke 11:23, (NRSVUE) Jesus uses the polarizing binary that people who are not with him are against him. He may have learned this from his Jewish roots. The God of Israel had declared war against all other Gods. The Canaanites, for example, were routinely characterized as enemies of God. Their very existence was perceived to be a threat. One papal bull related to the Doctrine is called, Unam Sanctam (One God, One Faith, One Spiritual Authority). From the declaration that there is only one God, the very fact that people worship another God would be felt to be a threat that must be stamped out. Otherwise, believers are at risk of being led astray, as the followers of Moses were. The land had to be made empty of non-believers. There could be no spiritual authority from within Indigenous traditions separate from their God-given capacity to accept Christ.
Love Your Neighbor How? The Colonization of Consciousness
To believe that the Doctrine is fundamentally opposed to the Gospel presumably refers to the Great Commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Mark Charles and the CRCNA task force (p.18) explicitly state so. Many regard the Great Commandment to be the heart of the Gospel. So why did it not stop more ordinary Christians, teachers, and clergy from engaging in domination?
The Anglican Church in Canada statement of repudiation and confession is telling. “We tried to remake you in our own image.” Likewise, the Presbyterian Church in Canada confesses, “we presumed to know better than aboriginal peoples.” (Item #4) “If only they would be like us… they would know God and therefore have abundant life.” Such acknowledgements of colonization of consciousness reveal the structural flaw that Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself is, tragically, self-centered. It presumes our neighbor is or should be like us. So, missionaries could and did reason that if their souls were lost, they would want someone to do whatever it took to save them, even destroying their way of life or separating them from their parents at a young age. In 1892, Captain R.H. Pratt infamously coined the expression in support of forced boarding schools, “to kill the Indian in him and save the man.” (p.2) He also argued that to forcibly remove people from Africa saved them from a terrible way of life.
A related notion in the New Testament and elsewhere is the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This also has me at the center. This weakness is now understood, and a new alternative is being used, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. This would more reliably put the brakes on committing injustice. Love your neighbor as they wish to be loved. Many Indigenous peoples wished to be free to worship as their ancestors did. Parents and children wished to live together without the presence of colonizers or missionaries.
If Not the Gospel, what is the Doctrine at Odds With?
**Far from being at odds with the Gospel, then, the Doctrine is based on identifiable parts of it. It is, however, at odds with innate human rights, as the statements of repudiation recognize. What these statements do not do is connect the dots that the Bible led ordinary Christians to violate those innate human rights and still does so today.
Most obvious to our subject is the right to religious freedom. In contrast to the religious intolerance of the Christians, Christians were met with religious tolerance (p. 19, Errand to the World).
Several statements now call for respecting Indigenous spirituality, while not directly addressing “enemies of Christ” Biblical passages. The Evangelical Covenant Church asserts the principle of imago Dei, that all are created in the image of God, (Genesis 1:27, NRSVUE) from which it would follow that non-believers deserve respect. Let’s be careful, though. In the mindset of colonizers, they are referring to the image of their God, not the Gods of others. The assertion of sameness can be a subtle form of domination when you claim to hold the key.
The ELCA includes with repudiation the dropping of a missional stance toward Native peoples, which they will replace with the “practice of accompaniment.” This indirectly implicates the Great Commission. The Evangelical Covenant Church similarly commits to a change from mission to accompaniment. This, of course, presupposes the desire for such a relationship on the part of the Native peoples.
Full and complete repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery must include specifically denouncing Unam Sanctam (One God, One Faith, One Spiritual Authority) as the position of domination that it is. None of our statements does so. In essence, it asserts that there is only one God, and it is Christianity’s God, not yours. Also, any validity to your spiritual insights and practices can be judged by ours, such as those incorporated in Pope Francis’s 2022 visit to First Nations.
To the claimed authority of the book the Christians wished the Native peoples to embrace, many of the latter felt quite adequately guided by their own traditions, which they lived and reinforced daily with rituals and other practices. (See Philip P. Arnold & Sandra L. Bigtree, Ten Religious Themes of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DoCD) that Contrast with Indigenous Values) As tribute to their effectiveness, many Christians who lived long term with the Indigenous peoples left records of admiration for “the purity of Indian character,” (p.20, Errand to the World)
The right to live in peace, specified in at least one statement of repudiation, conflicts with the Biblically based notion of a chosen people with a promised land that informed the Doctrine and Manifest Destiny.
The Doctrine conflicts with the human right to freedom, autonomy, and liberty. These are consistent with the Indigenous value of non-domination. (See value #5 in Arnold & Bigtree) Being kind, it should be noted, is not the equivalent. In the art of domination, kindness plays the role of helping prevent rebellion.
The Doctrine as Lived Today by Christian Churches
The United Church in Australia takes the important step of having its repudiation include that of the “theological foundations” of the Doctrine, though those foundations are not identified, nor are the Biblical bases for them. To acknowledge in detail the religious components of the Doctrine leaves some challenging work ahead. Each component needs to be repudiated and corrective action taken. For example, if are no chosen people with a promised land, and there never were, then what?
Without the justification of “go and occupy,” churches are left having to acknowledge that they have no moral right to the ownership of property they possess and that their current ministries depend on. While the land back movement is gaining some traction among Christians as an ideal, it has mostly been applied to land they no longer use. In contrast, to transfer ownership of lands they actively use and depend on to the Indigenous nation who it was taken from and request a lease puts things in a more proper order in terms of respect for inherent rights.
Related would be to denounce the belief in the right of Christians to have majority domination in what feels to them like their own land. Instead of arguing over whether the U.S., for example, is or is not a Christian nation, the issue is that Christianity has no moral right to make such an assertion. The political founders and Christian colonizers may have had different ideas about religious domination. But this is not an historical question; it is a moral one.
As identified here, other parts of the theological foundation needing to be repudiated include the belief that non-Christians are enemies of Christ. And the Great Commission needs to be formally decommissioned to better protect non-Christians. The Great Commandment and Golden Rule similarly need revision to safeguard against doing harm.
This brings up the thorny problem of what to do with the Bible, which contains the dangerous passages identified here that led Christians to violate innate human rights and still do today. To simply say that popes and colonizers misunderstood or misused these passages does not increase the safety of non-Christians. We are talking about theologically trained popes and clergy as well as legions of ordinary Christians being led by the Bible to violate human rights over centuries.
The Bible must somehow be made safer as a playbook for Christian behavior toward non-Christians. The recent rise of Christian nationalism makes this need urgent.
Arden Mahlberg, Ph.D., "What Doctrine of Discovery Statements of Religious Repudiation Reveal," Doctrine of Discovery Project (31 January 2023), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/blog/what-repudiations-reveal/.