Culture

The Doctrine of Discovery and the Church’s Complicity

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Editor’s Note: We recently published an ebook titled Calling for a Kingdom Evangelicalism in which author, speaker, and presidential candidate Mark Charles contributed a chapter. In recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we are presenting an adapted excerpt from his contribution; you can read the chapter in full by downloading the free ebook here.


In 1452, Pope Nicholas the Fifth wrote the words “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, Pagans whatsoever. Reduce their persons to perpetual slavery. Convert them to his and their use in profit.” This Papal Bull along with other Papal Bulls written between 1452 and 1493 collectively become known as what we call the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery is essentially the church in Europe saying to the nations of Europe, “Wherever you go, whatever land you find not ruled by Christian rulers, those people are less than human, and the land’s yours for the taking.” This was quite literally the doctrine that let European nations go into Africa, colonize the continent, and enslave the African people. They weren’t believed to be fully human. This is the same doctrine that let Columbus, who was really just lost at sea, land in this new world already inhabited by millions and claim to have discovered it. You can’t discover lands already inhabited. If you don’t believe me, leave your smartphones and your car keys lying out in public; someone will surely come by and “discover” them for you. Clearly, this is not “discovery.” It’s stealing, it’s conquering, it’s colonizing.

The Implicit Racial Bias of the Nation

The fact that to this day we have monuments and history books that teach that what Columbus did was discovery reveals the implicit racial bias of the nation, which is that people of color and Native peoples are not fully human. This makes the Doctrine of Discovery a systemically racist and dehumanizing doctrine, the direct fruit of the church getting into bed with the empire, believing there was such a thing as Christendom, believing we could theologically make this abomination work as a church. Now the challenge is that this doctrine has been embedded into the foundations of our country. So even in the Declaration of Independence, 30 lines below the statement, “All men are created equal,” Natives are referred to as “merciless Indian savages.”

The fact that to this day we have monuments and history books that teach that what Columbus did was discovery reveals the implicit racial bias of the nation, which is that people of color and Native peoples are not fully human. Click To Tweet

The Constitution, which begins with this term “We the people,” defines a few lines later in Article I, Section 2 who is and who is not covered by this Constitution, who is not a part of this Union. Article I, Section 2 never mentions women, it specifically excludes Natives, and it counts Africans as three-fifths of a person. “We the people” literally meant white, land-owning men. We don’t ponder that enough. Today, women earn 70 cents to the dollar. This shouldn’t surprise us. The Constitution’s working. Our prisons are filled with people of color. This shouldn’t shock us. The Constitution’s working. In 2010 the Supreme Court sided with Citizens United and ruled that corporations now have the same rights to political free speech as individuals, creating an open door for super PACs and unlimited contributions to candidates. This should not shock us. The Constitution is doing exactly what it was designed to do, protecting the interests of white, land-owning men.

We tried to fix this. Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. But it didn’t abolish slavery. Slavery and involuntary servitude were allowed as punishment for a crime, so slavery just became redefined and codified, and perfectly legal under the criminal justice system. When you look at our incarceration rates, we are off the charts compared to most nations around the world. Six hundred and ninety-three per 100,000 of our citizens are incarcerated in the US—five times more than in most other countries around the world. And if we break that out by race:

  • 450 white Americans are incarcerated per 100,000
  • 831 Hispanics and Latinos per 100,000
  • 895 Native Americans per 100,000
  • 2,306 Black Americans per 100,000

The Fourteenth Amendment, which was passed in 1866 as a direct response to Article I, Section 2, extended the right of citizenship to anyone born on this continent under the jurisdiction of the government. Section 2 of this amendment still excludes women, still excludes Natives, and still bases male citizenship on the criminal justice system. We can’t forget that it was after this amendment that Jim Crow laws were written, Indian boarding schools were opened, and ethnic cleansing of natives happened. Segregation took place, mass incarceration, internment camps, and in 1970, that very same amendment was used in Roe v. Wade, which now concluded unborn babies weren’t human, and therefore they could be aborted. What this demonstrates is at the heart of the Constitution, there’s not a value for life. The value is for exploitation and profit, and the practice is of dehumanization. This makes the Constitution of the United States a systemically racist and sexist document that assumes the white, land-owning male has the authority to decide who is, and who is not human.

At the heart of the Constitution, there's not a value for life. The value is for exploitation and profit, and the practice is of dehumanization. Click To Tweet

In 1823 there was a Supreme Court case, Johnson v. M’Intosh, in which two men of European descent were litigating over a single piece of land. One of them obtained the land directly from a Native tribe, the other one claimed the land was theirs from the US government, and now they wanted to know who owns it. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which determined that the principle for land titles was discovery. Then they referenced the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal instrument and concluded that Natives who were here first, but are less than human, only have the right of occupancy to land, like a fish would occupy water or a bird will occupy air, while Europeans have the right of discovery to the land and therefore the true title to it.

This case, during the era of Chief Justice John Marshall, along with several other cases, created the legal precedent for land titles. This precedent and the Doctrine of Discovery are referenced by the court in 1954, 1985, and 2005. This means that to this day, the United States Supreme Court is a systemically racist court, that has legal precedent based on the dehumanization of people of color.

The Complicity of Early American Christianity

Initially, the Protestant church pushed back against the Doctrine of Discovery; this was the Catholic doctrine, they didn’t fully buy into it. But the Reformers’ emphasis on the doctrines of selection, election, and predestination created great fertile ground for a Doctrine of Discovery to grow and flourish.

In 1630, John Winthrop was in the Boston Harbor and preached a sermon called “A Modell of Christian Charity.” In this sermon, he referred to the colonists planting the Boston colony as a “city on a hill.” He was borrowing from the images from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount–to be a lamp on a stand, a city on the hill, shining good deeds into this dark world. He went on to exhort them “to all patience, gentleness, liberality; to mourn together, labor together, suffer together.” Then at the end of his sermon, he began quoting from Deuteronomy, chapter 30, to convince them to obey his commands.

Deuteronomy 30 is the passage in the Old Testament where the people of Israel are standing at the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over and take possession of their promised lands. And God is reiterating his threats and promises of his land covenant with them. Winthrop quoted from that passage, “But if our hearts will turn away and we worship other gods, and we will not obey, we shall surely perish out of this good land, that we have crossed over this river, to take possession of.” But in his sermon, instead of “river” as is mentioned in this verse in Deuteronomy, John Winthrop said “vast sea.” Why would he say “vast sea”? These Puritans had not crossed a river, they had crossed an ocean. So what was Winthrop implying?

Based on the model of Old Testament Israel, based on the exhortation from Jesus to be a city on a hill, he was saying that they were at the shores of their Promised Land, ready to take possession of it. What are God’s commands to the people of Israel in the book of Joshua? Kill everybody, leave no man, no woman, no child, no animal left alive. Promised lands for one people was literally God-ordained genocide for another. I call this sermon the birth of American exceptionalism. That idea percolated for about 100 years, then in the mid-1700s our nation began moving past the Appalachian Mountains, past the Mississippi River, as we began expanding further and further west.

At the end of the 1700s, the Second Great Awakening took place, resulting in church growth as well as denominational renewal. In the early 1800s, the term Manifest Destiny was coined, a belief that this nation had the God-given right to rule these lands from sea to shining sea. And this completely colors the way we think about, talk about, and teach the nineteenth century.

We refer to the nineteenth century as our century of expansion. This is the century when we added 30 new states to our Union. But for 80 to 90 percent of the years of the nineteenth century, we were in a declared state of war against Native peoples. It was in the nineteenth century we passed the Indian Removal Act, which allowed for the Trail of Tears in the long walk for the Navajo. In the nineteenth century, we started operating Indian boarding schools. Since the nineteenth century we have had the massacre at Sand Creek, the massacre at Wounded Knee, as our nation continued onward. It was not a century of expansion; it was a century of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

All of this has huge implications upon the way the church thinks and operates. How it does its theology, how it does its missions, how it does its church structure. All of these are influenced by this history that we never talk about. So there is a lived theology among the church, that we are living on our promised lands.


To read the full chapter from Calling for a Kingdom Evangelicalism from which this article is adapted, click here to download the full ebook for free.

Featured image by Ronald van der Graaf used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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