Rejecting the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and Forging a New Relationship with North America’s Indigenous People

Rejecting the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and Forging a New Relationship with North America’s Indigenous People
A Sermon Preached by John Dieffenbacher-Krall at
St. David’s Episcopal Church, Barneveld, NY in the Central Diocese of NY
July 12, 2009

Good morning. I appreciate Father Taylor offering me the opportunity to preach this morning. Before beginning my sermon, I want to acknowledge the warmth and friendliness that I have experienced in every single communication with Father Taylor. As St. Paul says in First Corinthians, without love, I am nothing. St. David’s strikes me as a congregation striving to live out Christ’s call to us to love one another, a difficult task indeed.

My mother-in-law Jane Dieffenbacher has urged me to attend a Sunday service at St. David’s every summer that our family visits here. I must confess that one of my greatest passions, fly fishing on the West Canada Creek, has deterred me from previously worshiping with you. But I relish this opportunity to preach today as something is happening at our Church’s General Convention that unites the Dioceses of Maine and Central New York in a special way.

Our two dioceses passed resolutions at our respective diocesan conventions, Maine in October 2007 and Central New York in November 2008, which denounced the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and committed us to submit resolutions calling for the same action at General Convention. Many of you are sitting in your pews wondering the Doctrine of Discovery?

Pope Nicholas V first articulated the Doctrine of Discovery in the papal bull Dum Diversas in 1452. 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. For example, the papal bull Dum Diversas grants the king of Portugal the Pope’s blessing to go to the western coast of Africa, and 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.’”

Before we judge the papal edict too harshly, we need to know of the Anglican connection to this Doctrine of Discovery. In 1496, King Henry VII granted a patent to John Cabot and his sons to possess all lands in the New World not previously discovered by Portugal or Spain. It reads in part:

And that the before-mentioned John and his sons or their heirs and deputies may conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever such towns, castles, cities and islands by them thus discovered that they may be able to conquer, occupy and possess, as our vassals and governors lieutenants and deputies therein, acquiring for us the dominion, title and jurisdiction of the same towns, castles, cities, islands and mainlands so discovered;

Both Pope Nicholas V’s Papal Bull and King Henry VII’s Royal Charter sanction evil, horrific acts counter to our Christian faith and nearly any other accepted moral code or religious tenet based on people’s religious identity. Under the Doctrine of Discovery, if land in Africa or the New World has already been claimed by other Christian explorers on behalf of Christian monarchs, hands off. On the other hand, if the people residing in newly “discovered” lands comprise heathens, do with them what you will if they don’t instantly capitulate to your will.

Are you shocked? Does this sound unbelievable? How could the most powerful religious leader of the world bless conquest and genocide in the name of God? No justification exists for such actions, decrees, or thoughts. Yet how could we as educated 21st Century people know little to nothing about this evil doctrine that provided the legal and religious justification for the European invasion of the Western Hemisphere and other places around the world?

I have a possible answer – history. Sure, just like slavery, or the legal and political disenfranchisement of women, or the Japanese internment camps during World War II, or witch hunts, or the many other sinful actions of our predecessors, this happened long ago. Certainly no decent, thinking, Christian person in the year 2009 would assert that one people because of their religion could dispossess another people of their lands, resources, and freedom.

Before administering the salve of history and distant predecessors to our consciences, I have another shock for you – the Christian Doctrine of Discovery functions as the basis for US law as it pertains to the Indigenous People of this land. The most important Indian related case ever decided by the US Supreme Court, Johnson v. M’Intosh, cites the Christian Doctrine of Discovery as justification for Congress’ plenary power over Indian Nations.

The brilliant Native American scholar Steve Newcomb writes in FIVE HUNDRED YEARS OF INJUSTICE: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice 1992, “Writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that–upon “discovery”–the Indians had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,” and only retained a right of “occupancy” in their lands. In other words, Indian nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands.”

The precedent set by Johnson v. M’Intosh and the cases following it live with us today. Though Federal Courts recognize some degree of sovereignty for the 500 plus Indian Nations found within the borders of the US, Congress through its plenary power can remove portions or all of Tribal Governments’ powers at any time with the affected Indian Nation having little legal recourse. Justice demands that we reject Congressional plenary power over Indian Nations replaced by relationships based on mutual benefit and respect for the sovereignty of each party.
How do we overturn something as deeply ingrained as the Christian Doctrine of Discovery resting on a US Supreme Court decision issued in 1823? What did African Americans do to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 US Supreme Court decision that permitted separate but equal facilities for black and white Americans? First, we must understand the Doctrine of Discovery and declare its illegitimacy in every forum we can. Let’s start with our Episcopal Church.

As I preach, delegates to General Convention are considering Resolution D035. It states in part, “That 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.” The resolution also calls upon Queen Elizabeth II to “disavow, and repudiate publicly, the claimed validity of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery.” Finally, it encourages “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 nations 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.” The passage of the resolution will represent a victory for the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Sadly, Indigenous Peoples all over the world are struggling to have larger, more powerful nation states that surround them recognize the inherent sovereignty of their indigenous neighbors. As the Wabanaki, the Indigenous People who reside in Maine and Eastern Canada, say, the US did not confer sovereignty or the right of self-government on the Maliseets, Micmacs, Passamaquoddy Tribe, or Penobscot Nation. These Wabanaki Nations’ authority to govern originates from GheChe’Nawais, their conception of God. No nation, even our beloved US, should have the power to impose its will on another people based on a perverted understanding of Christianity.

Just as emulating Christ demands sacrifice from his followers, supporters of Tribal Sovereignty must be willing to risk some of their privilege and comfort to support the cause of Indigenous justice. White politicians easily spread resentment, hatred, racism, and even violence against our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Political success is often achieved by vilifying the local Indians. We must confront and denounce any and all people in authority who do this.

We don’t have to look very far for examples of Indian scapegoating and vilification. Only a few miles to the south right here in Oneida County, as well as in Madison County, the Oneida Nation struggles to place some 13,000 acres of land into Federal trust. At New York State’s northern border with Canada, a political standoff has reached its sixth week as the Mohawk People have demanded the Canadian Government abandon its plans to arm officials at the Cornwall Island Customs House located on Mohawk land.

The Rhodes Scholar, NY Knicks basketball star, and former US Senator Bill Bradley offers an insightful approach about how we should address our nation’s relationship with Indigenous People in his memoir Time Present, Time Past, saying “I know that an American living now is not responsible for wrongs committed more than one hundred years ago, but the nation itself is responsible. When governments commit crimes, they must make amends to those who are the victims of crimes. If they fail to do so, they live with guilt. Confronting the dark pages of our history is essential to getting beyond them. Americans cannot naively espouse ideals that our own historic actions refute. Failure to come to terms with having broken treaties and destroyed hundreds of thousands of people undermines our moral authority. How liberating it would be to escape the hypocrisy and become a society that lives by its professed ideals.” Amen.