Synodical Committee Rejects Doctrine of Discovery, Criticizes CRC Ministry to Navajo

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The Doctrine of Christian Discovery Task Force appointed by Synod 2012 asks the Christian Reformed Church to roundly condemn the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DOCD) and the negative effects it has had on generations of Native peoples in the U.S. and Canada. The committee also did not mince words in criticizing the CRC’s ministry to Zuni and Navajo peoples, established more than a century ago. Synod is the annual leadership meeting of the CRC. This report will be received by Synod 2016 in June.

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery was the belief that North American lands were uninhabited until Europeans arrived and placed white Christians in a position of power over non-Christian peoples and lands. The committee asserts that those beliefs, though now disavowed, continue to influence legal and policy decisions today.

The committee’s report provides extensive material on the history of DOCD and its effects on both Native and non-Native populations. It mined CRC archival documents and also captured stories of Native people who were placed in Christian residential schools.

The authors report that “belief in the inferiority of Indigenous cultures led to attempts . . . to wipe out Indigenous culture.” In both the U.S. and Canada, these attempts were facilitated most notoriously through the establishment of Indian boarding schools and legislation designed to force Indigenous cultures to adopt Western practices of land ownership and governance.

In Canada, those residential boarding schools have been the subject of hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It called the attempt to “civilize” Indian children “cultural genocide.” Those schools were run by mainline Christian denominations; the CRC was not involved. Many CRC people and churches are involved in the reconciliation work that has followed the TRC’s hearings.

In the U.S., the CRC was involved through its “Board of Heathen Missions.” It established Rehoboth, an Indian boarding school, in 1903.

The committee wrote that the CRC’s policies and actions concerning Indigenous peoples of the Southwest were directly shaped by the values and assumptions common to the DOCD. “The church made policies based on an understanding that they had an inalienable right to expand their church to Navajo and Zuni territory and that until they came there to save the local Indigenous population, the Navajo and Zuni were firmly in the grip of the devil.”

School officials cut students’ hair, replaced their Native clothes with Western dress, and replaced their Navajo names with “English” names, the trauma of which is recorded in the story of committee member Susie Silversmith. The authors cite the warfare imagery used by missionaries. Assimilation into Western culture was seen as the final victory of Christ over Satan. In celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the mission in New Mexico, Herman Fryling gave the following as evidence of their success as missionaries: “Their natural life has in many respects been so wonderfully changed these past fifty years that you would hardly know the present Indian being a descendant from the Indian fifty years ago.”

Many churches and governments have apologized for their actions. The Canadian government apologized to Native peoples in Canada in 2008 for the abuses that happened in residential schools. A number of churches have affirmed their own culpability in the legacy the DOCD has left in North America, including the World Council of Churches, the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ.

When the 100th anniversary of Rehoboth was celebrated, former students, representatives of the denomination, and teachers and staff both past and present participated in a process of healing and reconciliation. “But as truth and reconciliation projects have taught us,” the authors wrote, “confessions, apologies, and reconciliation must flow out of a sincere and rigorous search for truth. Hearings have not been conducted, and the search for truth has not been completed because not all people have felt safe to share their stories.”

“We cannot spread the guilt. And we cannot seek to justify our actions,” the report states. “The CRC was wrong to establish and run a boarding school named Rehoboth; the land the missionaries sought to conquer was not theirs to flourish in; it was wrong to punish students for speaking their language; our denomination was wrong to take children from their homes. The CRC Board of Heathen Missions initiated a lot of pain through its dehumanizing view of Native Americans.”

The authors wrote that the distance of years or lack of immediate responsibility for the actions taken a century ago does not excuse churches or its members today. They note that the CRC and the entire body of Christ in North America “drinks downstream” from that historical reality; the effects of that corporate sin linger today.

The committee made several recommendations to continue the CRC’s journey of reconciliation, starting with a repudiation of the DOCD as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Additionally, the recommendations include

  1. commitment to a long-term process of education, confession, lamentation, and repentance.
  2. acknowledgement of the CRC’s historical appropriation of a Euro-superior worldview and resulting trespasses against Indigenous peoples generally and, specifically, against the Navajo and Zuni peoples of the U.S. Southwest.
  3. holding, in due time, a CRCNA Prayer and Worship Gathering of Lament for “our corporate sins and moral wounds related to the DOCD” under the under the leadership of Indigenous Christians, because “corporate sins call for corporate lament.”
  4. establishing a commission, chaired and led by a simple majority of Indigenous persons, to design and implement a five-year process creating safe space for telling and listening to life stories of Indigenous brothers and sisters.

The full report is available on the CRCNA website and will be published in the Agenda for Synod 2016. Synod 2016, the CRC’s annual leadership meeting, will discuss the report when delegates gather in June in Grand Rapids, Mich.

About the Author

Gayla Postma retired as news editor for The Banner in 2020.

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