Monday, March 5, 2012

Rejecting the Church's Colonial Past

I grew up in an era when Columbus was still considered a hero by most. Every October in school we would make ships out of construction paper, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, to commemorate Columbus' "discovery" of America. Sometimes we would do little skits reenacting Columbus' journey across the flat earth as he searched for the route from east to west. I remember drawing a picture of Columbus standing up to a mutinous crew who wanted to turn back and him asking for just three more days by which time he did in fact "discover" land. And the best part? We got a Monday off from school.

Only later in life did I find out that Columbus did not land in what is now known as North America. In fact, he landed somewhere in what we now know as the Bahamas. It was also later that I learned that he was probably not the hero I thought he was. I remember first being aware of protests over Columbus Day in the 1980's. The protesters did not think that Columbus and his crew were heroes, but rather invaders and thieves who robbed natural resources from the local natives and in return brought small pox, slavery and domination. For the first time I began to think about the situation from another angle. What was it like to be "discovered" when you had already lived in your homeland for hundreds if not thousands of years? For the first time I was made aware of how Europeans and Americans view history through a lens that considered "discovered" lands and the people who lived there as part of the west's reward for exploring and civilizing the world.

Later I learned how the Church helped support these "discoveries." As Europeans began to move throughout the world and conquer other lands and peoples the Church saw this as an opportunity to spread the gospel. This included a series of missions movements too numerous to recount here. Now some might read the last line and ask "What is wrong with that? Why not spread the gospel?" Because the situation, like so much in life, was far more complicated than it seems.

During the 15th century the Church issued a series of Papal Bulls allowing for and encouraging the conquest of people and lands "discovered" in the name of Christian monarchs. And the people who already lived there could be spared if they converted. If not, they were to be enslaved or killed.

If you have never heard of this before it is called the Doctrine of Discovery which includes a series of Papal Bulls and treaties that provided theological underpinning for the colonial movement. This doctrine was also cited in an 1823 decision by the US Supreme Court concerning native lands in North America. Needless to say, the injustices committed against indigenous peoples, sometimes in the name of the Gospel, were historic in their scope and effects.

Recently, however, awareness of this has been growing. In biblical studies post-colonial studies have helped us to read and interpret the Bible differently. And the church at large is also beginning to come terms with
its complicity.

In recognition of this, the World Council of Churches has posted a statement rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery. Here is some of the statement as reported by the Native News Network.

The origin of the doctrine goes back to the papal bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 and 1455 respectively, allowing the invasion and killing of the Indigenous Peoples.These historical church documents titled "Dum Diversas" and "Romanus Pontifex" called for non-Christian people to be captured, vanquished and to have their possessions and property seized by the Christian monarchs.
On basis of the same historical precedence the statement points out that, "Christopher Columbus was instructed, for example, to 'discover and conquer,' 'subdue' and 'acquire' distant lands."
European countries like Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland used the doctrine. The doctrine was introduced in the law of the United States and was referenced in the United States Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 US in 1823, which in turn has been cited by courts in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Therefore the Executive Committee statement points out that the "current situation of Indigenous Peoples around the world is the result of a linear program of 'legal' precedent, originating with the Doctrine of Discovery and codified in contemporary national laws and policies."
The statement rejects the idea endorsed by the doctrine that "Christians enjoy a moral and legal right based solely on their religious identity to invade and seize indigenous lands and to dominate Indigenous Peoples." 

This is good news as many peoples seek reconciliation with each other. And it helps bring awareness to the church. If you are interested in learning more about the topic you can visit the web site Doctrine of

I would also like to remind you of an upcoming conference at Ashland Theological Seminary that is close to this topic. On April 16-18 we will host Created in God's Image: Seeing Christ Through Native American Eyes. See my earlier post on the topic.


  1. Excellent article John. In a time when Dominion Theology is becoming a tangible factor in current elections it brings me hope that some Christians are recognizing that they share the world with others. I wonder though if Christianity with its evangelical imperative to "go out into all the world" can maintain its current identity and also leave behind its imperialistic past. Missionaries have been the shock troops of Conquest for centuries. Is Christianity ready to change? It may have to change much of its perspective to do so. The doctrine of a "fallen creation" along with an exclusive path to salvation leaves Christianity without much option to fulfill its altruistic motivations. Perhaps it is time for the faith of Jesus of Nazareth to rethink itself and its place in the world. To love ones neighbor as one's self one must see one's self as a neighbor , not the mayor. It is a shared world , full of a rich diversity of perspectives. The narcissism of exclusivity is an adolescent trait that Christianity is due to grow out of. It is my hope that thoughts like those you expressed in this article is an indication that the time has come for the Faith of Jesus to reach adulthood.

  2. This is a very good thing, though the impact of the misguided doctrine is irreversible. Hopefully we can act for a better future.