This special Sunday in the life of our church has its immediate origins in General Synod 29, the national gathering of the UCC that repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery (copies of the resolution are available on the table in the Narthex). This may be a new concept to many of us, so I wanted to take this opportunity to explain what the Doctrine of Discovery is and why its repudiation is just and vital to our calling as people of faith.
Many Americans grow up learning that this continent was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. The concept of discovery, as if the land was empty prior to European arrival, and its indigenous inhabitants were somehow “less than” the explorers is, at its heart, racism and cultural superiority.
The doctrine of discovery, a concept of public international law expounded by the United States Supreme Court in a series of decisions, originated from various church documents in Christian Europe in the mid-1400s to justify the pattern of domination and oppression by European monarchies as they invasively arrived in the Western hemisphere. It theologically asserted the right to claim the indigenous lands, territories, and resources on behalf of Christendom, and to subjugate native peoples around the world.
The U.S. Supreme Court used the doctrine to assert that the United States, as the successor of Great Britain, had inherited authority over all lands within our claimed boundaries. This decision allowed our government to legally ignore or invalidate any native claims to property and resources. To this day courts continue to cite this legal precedent. It is still being used by courts to decide property rights cases brought by Native Americans against the U.S. and against non-Natives.
Last summer, the Wisconsin Conference joined the national church in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. We believe this has provided an invaluable teaching moment for our congregation to understand the systemic and continuous impact of racism on the daily lives of indigenous peoples in the U.S.
Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides