A Episcopalian Sermon On Doctrine of Discovery
**How St. James’ Might Respond to General Convention Resolution D035
A Sermon Preached by John Dieffenbacher-Krall at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Old Town, Maine October 11, 2009**
Nearly three years ago something started here at St. James’ that has received international attention. On October 15, 2006, I preached a sermon titled “Remembrance, Recognition and Reconciliation: The Episcopal Church’s Call for Justice for Indigenous People.” In that sermon, I called upon St. James’, our diocese, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion to denounce the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and to forge a more just, mutually beneficial, and loving relationship with the Indigenous Peoples of this world.
Few of us knew anything about the Christian Doctrine of Discovery at the time. As a reminder and for those not here three years ago, the Doctrine of Discovery consists of the idea that Christians have a right sanctioned by God to take non-Christian lands and property and assert political control over the indigenous inhabitants. The Doctrine of Discovery emanates from a perverted understanding of God’s designation of a chosen people that has heavenly sanction to do un-God-like acts in the name of God.
Popes Nicholas V and Alexander VI imbued this evil idea with a religious sanction that eventually would become the basis of international law depriving Indigenous Peoples of their inherent rights to freedom and self-determination. Pope Nicholas V advanced the Doctrine of Discovery in his 1452 papal bull Dum Diversas. In this papal edict Nicholas V gives his support to King Alfonso of Portugal to “capture, vanquish and subdue the Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ, and put them into perpetual slavery and to take all their possessions and their property.” Pope Alexander VI followed Pope Nicholas V pronouncement 41 years later with the Inter Caetera papal bull which divides the New World between Spain and Portugal for their conquest.
Three hundred thirty years later Chief Justice John Marshall writing in perhaps the most important US Supreme Court case ever decided affecting US Indian law cited the Christian Doctrine of Discovery as the basis for asserting that the Indigenous Peoples of this land possessed only a right of occupancy and not title to this land.
On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all; and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency. The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity, in exchange for unlimited independence. But, as they were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle, which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.
So much for, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” By categorizing the Indigenous Peoples of this land as less than human, Chief Justice Marshall justifies taking their land and leaving them with nothing more than a right of occupancy. How does this comport with Jesus’ Great Commandment to us, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Encouragingly, our Church has recognized the reprehensible nature of the Doctrine of Discovery. At our General Convention this past July, the gathered delegates passed Resolution D035 titled “Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.” Resolution D035 states “the 76th General Convention repudiates and renounces the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our understanding of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God, and that this declaration be proclaimed among our churches and shared with the United Nations and all the nations and peoples located within the Episcopal Church’s boundaries.”
Resolution D035 also exhorts “each diocese within the Episcopal Church be encouraged to reflect upon its own history, in light of these actions and encourage all Episcopalians to seek a greater understanding of the Indigenous Peoples within the geo-political boundaries claimed by the United States and other nation states located within the Episcopal Church’s boundaries, and to support those peoples in their ongoing efforts for their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights as peoples to be respected.”
How should we as the people of St. James respond to the adoption of Resolution D035? What can we do “to seek a greater understanding of the Indigenous Peoples” within our midst and “to support those peoples in their ongoing efforts for their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights?”
Though we should be concerned with all of the many Indigenous Peoples living across the world as we are called by Christ to love all human beings, we as the people of St. James’ within the Diocese of Maine can make the greatest difference with our neighbors the Wabanaki. Our history with the Wabanaki contains many deplorable and unchristian actions. But the Episcopal Diocese of Maine has also demonstrated genuine leadership among all the faith communities in Maine in terms of solidarity with and support for the Wabanaki.
Let me assure you that the Wabanaki need our political support. Though I see ever increasing numbers of non-Indian people who appreciate and value Wabanaki culture, I also witness continued ignorance, hatred, and racism directed at the Wabanaki. In a Bangor Daily News (BDN) story published this past Wednesday about the Aroostook Band of Micmacs acquiring 1,200 acres of land, miah1620 commented, “Don’t the Micmacs get enough handouts?” Another person commenting on a September 23 BDN story concerning the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians receiving money for a domestic violence shelter wrote, “Why are we paying for their abuse prevention. Its their problem not ours…They are always blaming us. When will this bias against us end?” Demsuk64 posted a comment September 3 in reaction to a BDN article about the attempted selling of Indian scalps on Craigslist, “Enough with the crying, if Indian culture and civilization was so great THEY would have defeat[ed] the few Anglos who came here. No one likes to hear that they are the product of an inferior culture.”
If I searched more, I could have found even more offensive comments. I present those three examples to inspire us to become the light of the world when it comes to awareness of and solidarity with our Wabanaki neighbors. We can begin by educating ourselves.
Now we may have an advantage over some of our fellow Episcopalians because some of us know Wabanaki individuals. Some of us went to school with Penobscot Nation citizens. Other parishioners are fortunate and proud to call Penobscot Nation citizens our friends. We know from our direct experience that the false stereotypes repeated by some ignorant individuals don’t comport with our direct knowledge of the Wabanaki.
We can build on that positive foundation of direct knowledge by seeking opportunities to supplement what we already know with more information about the Wabanaki, especially their present day political situation. Our Diocesan Committee on Indian Relations commissioned an excellent film titled Invisible. We have never shown it in this church. When it is shown, I encourage you to view it.
This coming week the University of Maine at Augusta will hold a four-day event called Wabanaki Perspectives and Human Awareness created by Wabanaki representatives. It will consist of presentations, films, demonstrations, and cultural exchange. I encourage anyone able to travel to Augusta to give it serious consideration to experience what promises to be an excellent event.
For the parents of St. James’ with children in public schools, we can ask our kids’ teachers what they are doing to implement Maine’s law requiring teaching about the Wabanaki. The exciting news is the Department of Education created a new website this past June http://www.maine.gov/education/lres/ss/wabanaki/index.shtml) exclusively devoted to the law that suggests concepts and knowledge students should master at each grade level and provides free curricula and teaching resources all available at the click of a mouse. If your child attends private school, let the education director and teachers there know about the Dept. of Education website available to anyone with Internet access.
Seize teachable moments with our children. Tomorrow we observe Columbus Day. Our Diocesan Committee on Indian Relations formed in 1992 when our Diocese grappled with how to treat the 500th anniversary of Columbus so-called discovery of the Western Hemisphere. We can dispel many of the myths surrounding Columbus and the conventional history we learned in school.
The Thanksgiving holiday next month presents another teaching opportunity. I am not advocating a lecture during the turkey feast. But as parents we have all experienced those moments when our children ask us a question, sometimes an uncomfortable one. That is the moment when we can impart some truth and genuine understanding.
Next year the entire Maine Legislature will stand for election. We will also have a gubernatorial election. Let the candidates for these offices know that tribal-state relations matter to you. Ask the candidates their positions on questions dealing with tribal sovereignty. When they respond that they don’t know, offer to provide them with information. The Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission website can serve as an excellent source of information, www.mitsc.org.
Our state motto, dirigo, means “I lead.” Let’s make St. James a leader in supporting our Wabanaki neighbors. Christ told us nothing is more important than loving God and our fellow brothers and sisters. Amen.
John Dieffenbacher-Krall, "A Episcopalian Sermon On Doctrine of Discovery," Doctrine of Discovery Project (27 July 2018), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/doctrine-of-discovery-sermon-john-diffenbacher/.
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