Churches repudiate ‘Doctrine of Discovery’

Legal framework has legitimized seizure of land, violations of Indigenous rights

Sep 29, 2014 by

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SAN FRANCISCO — Church leaders from across the U.S. and Canada strategized about engaging the Mennonite church in the ecumenical effort to dismantle the “Doctrine of Discovery” Aug. 21-22.

Participants at the meeting in San Francisco listen to Sarah Augustine make a point. — Tim Nafziger

Participants at the meeting in San Francisco listen to Sarah Augustine make a point. — Tim Nafziger

First Mennonite Church of San Francisco hosted the meeting.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal framework that defines Indigenous peoples’ individual and collective rights, as well as their access to land, water and resources. For centuries, it has served as the legal foundation that allows for the invasion and seizure of Indigenous lands, water and resources.

This doctrine was originally devised, affirmed and implemented by the Christian church, is based on Christian theology and pervades the Christian church to this day.

As gold mining, oil exploration and other forms of resource extraction continue to drive the economy in North America, Indigenous peoples bear the most devastating environmental impacts and adverse health effects.

“For centuries, the Great Commission, coupled with an understanding of Christian settlers as God’s chosen people, has justified the seizure and exploitation of Indigenous lands and the marginalization of Indigenous peoples,” said Sarah Augustine, one of the event’s planners and co-founder of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund. “Many of us individually and collectively have benefited from a history of settlement.

“As we strive to be faithful to the Creator according to the example of Jesus, it makes sense that we would join with Indigenous peoples now to dismantle destructive laws and policies that are based in Christian theology.”

Environmental impact

Augustine relates to the Wayana people of Suriname in South America. International conventions and policies make it possible for North American mining companies to mine the rain forest where the Wayana have lived for millennia.

The effects of mineral mining include the contamination of Wayana food and water by mercury, cyanide and other lethal pollutants; land seizure; militarization and the forced removal of Wayana people to urban slums.

On the Yakama reservation in central Washington, where Augustine lives with her husband and young son, concentrated cattle feeding operations dump large amounts of animal waste, contaminating ground water that local families depend on. As environmental regulations are strengthened in other parts of the state, corporate producers seek less regulated areas to dispose of waste, arguing that the low population density justifies this practice.

Similar environmental contamination through mining, logging, agriculture and other extractive industries plagues many Indian reservations in the U.S.

The 20 assembled leaders agreed to focus efforts on educating Mennonite Church USA about the Doctrine of Discovery as a first step. The United Meth­odist Church, Episcopal Church of the United States and several other denominations have passed statements repudiating the doctrine.

In addition, Augustine has worked with the World Council of Churches not only to repudiate the doctrine but also to establish an institutional commitment to address its impacts, including human rights abuses, environmental degradation of Indigenous lands and inequality within church structures.

Mennonite organizations partnering in this effort include Mennonite Central Committee Central States, Pacific Southwest and Pacific Northwest conferences of MC USA, Mennonite Creation Care Network, Christian Peacemaker Teams and Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries.


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