Gospel of conquest

How shall we repent for the Doctrine of Discovery?

Mar 4, 2019 by

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The gospel of conquest goes by many names: Manifest Destiny. White supremacy. American exceptionalism. Within the past several years, Mennonites have learned to know it as the Doctrine of Discovery.

As we have begun to understand this 500-year-old heresy, the scales have fallen from our eyes. We now see more clearly how white Europeans and their descendants have distorted the Christian faith to dehumanize indigenous people and attempt to justify genocide.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a concept used by “Chris­tian” governments — and adopted by their people — to claim the right to invade and seize indigenous lands and dominate indigenous people. It is not a relic of history but a persistent way of thinking that undergirds racial injustice to this day.

As the word “doctrine” suggests, the church came up with this idea, and religious beliefs sustained it.

Today, Mennonites and other Christians have awakened to the fact that what has been done in the name of Christ must be undone in the name of Christ. This is one of the basic principles of Mennonite efforts to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. Because a distortion of faith has caused harm, our faith now compels us to repent and atone.

But how? An oppressive structure fortified by centuries of greed, racism and violence can’t be torn down overnight. Yet there will be turning points — actions that show it is possible to restore a measure of justice and begin to atone for sin. The donation by Florence Schlone­ger to the Kaw Nation after the sale of her family’s land is just such a moment.

“It restores my faith in humanity for something like this to happen,” Pauline Sharp of the Kaw Nation told MWR.

Such turning points of awareness and action are possible partly because of educational work by the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition (dofdmenno.org). Formed in 2016, the coalition has infused a historical concept with profound relevance.

The history is complex and tragic: Beginning with a papal bull, or edict, in 1455, white Europeans and their descendants have used the Doctrine of Discovery, explicitly or implicitly, to justify their claim to own any land they “discovered” and to kill, dominate or expel the people who lived there.

It was referenced as recently as 2005 in the Supreme Court ruling Sherrill v. Oneida, in which justices held that the repurchase of traditional tribal lands did not restore tribal sovereignty to that land.

The doctrine was thought to stand on biblical foundations, including the Great Commission and the presumed divine mandate to rule based on Romans 13. Perhaps most important, the concept of a racially and culturally superior people doing God’s will by taking land from those less worthy to possess it comes directly from the Old Testament.

Writing in a study guide of biblical reflections produced by the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, Katerina Friesen calls the Promised Land narrative “the theological bedrock beneath America’s faith in the divine right of Europeans to conquer indigenous lands and a warped quasi-Christian tenet of faith that is still deeply entrenched in the American psyche.”

From Pennsylvania in 1707 to the Great Plains in 1870s, Mennonites who settled in North America embraced the Promised Land narrative. Claiming a role in America’s Manifest Destiny, they “participated in conquest,” Friesen says, “follow[ing] closely behind the U.S. military, often tilling the soil where only a few years earlier, native homes and farms and hunting grounds had been.”

Guilt extended beyond the appropriation of land. In the decades that followed, Mennonites in Canada and the United States became complicit in attempts to erase indigenous culture through involvement in Indian residential schools.

How shall the descendants of European Mennonite immigration now judge their ancestors? Despite their own history of persecution and displacement, Mennonite settlers in North America joined the ranks of colonizers rather than identifying with the dispossessed. Could they have done otherwise? Had God not provided virgin land awaiting the plow?

“I don’t know what my parents would have thought,” Schloneger said of later ideas about land rights and reparations. “That was hard for me to think about my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my father. The land was extremely important to them.”

We can name our ancestors’ faults while admitting that their actions must have seemed culturally and religiously appropriate at the time. Now we must learn from their mistakes and repent of our own sins. One of our responsibilities now is to confess the times when, peaceful though we might be personally, we too have silently fallen in line with the forces of violence, racism and greed.

We can advocate for indigenous rights, as Mennonites did when they joined with Native Americans opposing an oil pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota in 2016.

In a time when Americans debate how many billions of dollars to spend on border walls or fences, do we show compassion to “the alien living with you” (Lev. 19:34)? In a time of rising white supremacy and racially charged political rhetoric, are we strengthening racial diversity in our churches and communities? The present evils of inequality and prejudice persist as legacies of the Doctrine of Discovery — which, says Randy Woodley in the study guide, “has its roots in the premise that the outsider, the cultural other . . . is somehow unfit to receive basic human rights and privileges.”

Some Mennonites ask: What can we do? We can’t just give the land back. Karin Kaufman Wall, peace and justice education coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee Central States, remembers former MCC Central States director John Stoesz saying: It isn’t possible to give it all back, but it would be unethical not to give some of it back.

The land claimed by white Europeans has yielded prosperity — wealth that was built on the backs of enslaved people and Native Americans, writes Iris de León-Hartshorn in the Doctrine of Discovery study guide. “We can continue to be blind about our wealth and its foundations,” she says, “or we can embrace the advent of God’s kingdom” by working toward right relationships with indigenous people.

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