Report Asks Synod to Repudiate Doctrine of Discovery

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The 71-page Doctrine of Discovery Task Force report that is coming to Synod 2016 chronicles the history of a colonialist doctrine dating back hundreds of years.

According to the report, the so-called Doctrine of Discovery began with a series of papal pronouncements in the 15th century “that granted dominion over non-Christian peoples and lands.
“It evolved as a legal construct alongside colonial history, was encoded in the judiciary of settler nations, and continues to influence legal and policy decisions today.”

The report asks synod to repudiate the doctrine.

Among other issues, the report describes the formation of church-run Indian boarding schools in Canada, where many instances of abuse happened, and where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission worked to heal deep wounds.

Although the CRC did not operate boarding schools in Canada, it did operate a boarding school in Rehoboth, N.M. The report is critical of the Rehoboth boarding school. It says that Native children were punished for speaking their language and were forced to cut their hair and to wear non-Native clothing.

Rev. Al Mulder, a former pastor at Bethany CRC in Gallup, N.M., said the report serves the CRC well by digging into North America’s historical underpinnings.

But, he suggested, it would have been better to have withheld the judgment that “the CRC was wrong to establish and run a boarding school named Rehoboth. . . .

“The CRC sent its first missionaries to Arizona and New Mexico when a lot of people still thought that ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian,’” Mulder said.

“While we may cringe today at some of the language and methodology of these early missionaries, clearly their motives were to serve the Navajo and Zuni people in the name of Christ.”

Carol Bremer-Bennett, a Navajo who serves as director of World Renew-U.S., said she appreciates that the report helps to focus attention on the injustices committed when Europeans took the homelands of native peoples.

But it is important to understand the Doctrine of Discovery in the context of history, she added, noting that Native Americans also were guilty of wrongdoing, both before and after Europeans arrived, as were the Europeans.

“We need to realize that all of us are both victims and oppressors,” Bremer-Bennett said. “I need to be humble and admit I have done wrong, and need to forgive and be forgiven.”

She said the report relies too much on the European version of history and fails to fully express how God’s grace can work in the lives of all people.

"Anyone who has been to Rehoboth Christian School knows that God is strongly present there,” said Bremer-Bennett, who served as superintendent of the school before joining World Renew.

“We are called to confess our sin, but not to stay there,” Bremer-Bennett said. “God overcomes our failings, even using them to work his eternal good. I celebrate the reconciliation and healing that is possible through our Savior.”

Note: Rehoboth Christian School is still operating, but students are encouraged to explore their Native heritage and no longer live on campus.

About the Author

Chris Meehan is news and media relations manager for CRC Communications, and a member of Coit Community Church.

See comments (2)


Contrary to this report, the Doctrine of Discovery, a papal (Roman Catholic) pronouncement, does not continue to influence legal and policy decisions today.  This report succeeds only in beating to death a centuries old "doctrine," Roman Catholic no less, that the CRC, and CRCers, had absolutely nothing to do with.

On the bright side of things, Ms. Bremer-Bennett seems to be a remarkably balanced person as to this issue (whatever exactly this issue really is).


A couple of thoughts in response:

The report provides detailed documentation of the origin of the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD) in the 15th Century Papal Bulls and a worldview prevalent in Christendom - that non-Europeans and non-Christians were considered less than fully human.  As colonialism spread in North America that Euro-superior worldview was expressed in racist language directed toward Indigenous peoples - as backward, pagan, savage etc.  So the worldview and cultural trend expressed in the DoD came to influence well beyond the Catholic Church in the colonization and colonial culture of North America.  In the report, as you will note, we've termed this long arch and influence of the DoD as 'fallen thinking'  As a church that grew up in that cultural/worldview context, the CRC was also influenced by such fallen thinking. I encourage you to re-read section III B of the report for a more detailed understanding of the broad cultural reach of the DoD.

Secondly, the influence of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the "Marshall Trilogy" on settler land holding and the loss of Indigenous land rights is clear in scholarship.  I encourage you to re-read section II for a discussion on the lasting impact of the DoD on Indigenous law and policy in North America.