The Enduring Effects of the Doctrine of Discovery

The Enduring Effects of the Doctrine of Discovery
Junipero Serra

For five days this September, the excitement over Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. was palpable. Many in the U.S. waited with great anticipation for a papal visit that coincided with the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The Pope’s visit was an especially important event for those involved with environmental justice. The much-anticipated papal encyclical Laudate Si’: On Care for Our Common Home had just been released in June. For those concerned about the connection between environmental degradation and economic impoverishment, the encyclical provided critical guideposts for the world’s governments as they negotiate their roles in combating climate change this coming year.

A Controversial Canonization

But for some, the arrival of this Pope was disappointing. Despite great outcry from Native American communities, the Pope canonized Junipero Serra — a missionary to California in the 18th century who played a significant part in eradicating the culture and traditions of our native brothers and sisters who once lived there. Catholic advocates for indigenous peoples around the country are asking the church to recognize this terrible history in the church’s past and to understand the concern native peoples have for the canonizing of such a figure.

The Doctrine of Discovery

The controversy around the papal canonization of Junipero Serra gives us a chance to once again look at the justification for this historical trajectory which continues to plague our country and the world: the Doctrine of Discovery. The Discovery Doctrine did much more than subjugate indigenous peoples, their land and its resources. It also legalized land rights in the U.S. in the first 200 years of the founding of this country as the legitimate right of Christian white men. The Doctrine of Discovery jettisoned white, Christian men and their families into leadership roles in the new resource-full European colony, legitimized their political power, and established an economic system dependent on the extraction of resources. Those who were not Christian white men had no rights to property and the resources that lay underneath the land. This was perceived as God’s divine blessing on white people. Along with inheritance rights, the doctrine thus set in motion an economy dependent upon land and resource rights, with the extraction of resources tantamount to one’s status, wealth, political and economic power. These land rights were inaccessible to people of color, including Native Americans. Junipero Serra and the church directly benefitted from the enslavement, imprisonment and subjugation of the Native People in California as well as across the country.

In 2012, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church called upon all levels of the Church to condemn the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal document and as a basis for seizing native lands and abusing the human rights of indigenous peoples. The only way to eliminate such a doctrine is to name the violent history and the enduring effects on Native Nations and Peoples and to reverse the power and privilege of the church in response to Native American communities.

A Devastating Effect

In addition to the subjugation of indigenous peoples, the Doctrine of Discovery also had a devastating effect on the environment. The Discovery Doctrine legally exiled those who had been stewards of their ecosystems for thousands of years and brought in people who had no knowledge of how to care for this land, and who based their economy and system on resource extraction. During the Trail of Tears — the military order of President Andrew Jackson that displaced all Native American Nations in the Southeast to Oklahoma — extremely valuable knowledge was lost to not only those Europeans in the Southeast about how to care for the land, but also to the newly settled Native American Nations. As they were trying to adapt to new lands, many of them starved.

The European migrants stripped their new terrain of indigenous forests, fenced their property lines so their livestock would not wander, and planted what they could, often without knowledge of the land. They simply did all they could to set up a home like they had dreamed about in their home countries. With the support and blessing of laws, and a government in favor of their ownership, the new burgeoning country became a “rich country.”

Today, after the rise of the U.S. as a world economic power, many of our global environmental concerns can be traced to this understanding of land ownership and an economic system based on resource extraction.

Four Priorities of United Methodist Women

The 2016-2020 four “issue” priorities of United Methodist Women — mass incarceration, climate justice, economic inequality and maternal health — can be seen as consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery. All grow from a doctrine that declared that some could have full rights to ownership and the political, social and financial power that came with it, while others could not. All four of our 2016-2020 issue priorities disproportionately affect people of color.

For example, mass incarceration often happens to those who exhibit even the smallest amount of resistance to this system of land ownership and resource exploitation. Even when resource exploitation affects the viability of our land to plant food, access clean water to drink or clean air to breathe, persons who resist are often incarcerated, disappeared or threatened, in the U.S. and around the world.

And environmental destruction creates climate change, which leads to increased migration, refugees, maternal health disasters, impoverishment and more mass incarceration.

Confronting the Doctrine

We say we need to “condemn the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal document and basis for seizing native lands and abuses of human rights of indigenous peoples” (The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 3331). But what do we really mean? What do we say about who is politically, economically and socially supported  and who is not? I pray we will all think about this in the coming year of international climate negotiations. And as Pope Francis joins us, I pray that church leadership around the world will understand the need to condemn this doctrine and the impoverishment it set in place. Both the Catholic Church and the Protestant leadership supported a system of exile, enslavement and murder with impunity for any who did not profess a European form of Christianity. This moment,  when there is so much anticipation about the Pope’s leadership alongside an outcry from Native Americans, is the time for us to speak loudly and ask that our churches confront the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Posted or updated: 10/11/2015 12:00:00 AM
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