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Beyond Disavowing the Doctrine of Discovery

Steps for Christians to Dismantle It

I. Doctrine of Discovery: Steps to Dismantle Beyond Repudiation & Disavowal

Many Christians are ready to address what remains of the Doctrine of Discovery that continues to cause harm. Beyond simply disavowing or repudiating it, they want to help Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, recognizing the ongoing harm that it does.

Several congregations and denominational bodies have taken steps to repudiate or disavow the Doctrine of Discovery. Through this doctrine, Christianity, in the 15th century, enlisted the cooperation of European nations to further its goal of converting the entire world to Christianity. This was done when European nations had become capable of global travel by sea. The motivation of the nations was to acquire more wealth and claim more land. Popes decreed it was right for them to do with the condition that they attempt to convert whoever was on that land who was not Christian, which was pretty much all of the world outside Europe.

Previously, Pope Boniface VIII, in his bull, Unam Sanctam, (One God, One Faith, One Spiritual Authority) had declared the authority of the church over political authorities. In the 1530’s, Pope Paul III learned that some of the conquerors were no longer holding up their end of the agreement, arguing that the people across the sea were devoid of the humanity necessary to be Christian. Pope Paul III would have none of it and reasserted the need for the “Indians” to be Christianized, citing the Great Commission, which we will address shortly.

The Papal Bulls referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery made a moral enterprise of taking the land and its resources from non-Christians. As we will see, it authorized such brutality that it is easy for caring Christians now to disavow the doctrine. Some Christian bodies have gone beyond that disavowal to also address the ongoing benefits Christians derive from what was done to Native peoples. Some are keeping the situation in their awareness by identifying whose ancestral land was taken and made ultimately available to the congregation. Individuals are doing the same with the location of their homes, businesses, and farm properties. Educational institutions are writing land acknowledgement statements to post prominently on their campuses and read when they have formal meeting so the reality of their relationship to the land is kept forefront. As a result of this process, some individuals and organizations are deciding to return land to those it was taken from or give financial compensation.

Unfortunately, Christianity has yet to identify, acknowledge and disarm the elements within its scripture, its narrative and its theology that led to the Doctrine of Discovery. Those elements were activated by the popes and led to the widespread participation by ordinary Christians in the harm that it justifies, even today. That is the purpose of the current effort, to identify key elements within Christianity out of which the Doctrine of Discovery was hatched, acknowledge them, and consider steps Christians and their churches can take to defuse those harmful features. Until that is done, non-Christians around the world continue to remain at risk.

II. Do We Have a Right to the Spoils of Conquest?

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