The Doctrine of Discovery is the errant religious rationale for conquest, dispossession, slavery, and forced assimilation that serves as the basis for legal, political, and economic systems around the globe. This doctrine traces back to a series of papal bulls originating with Pope Nicholas V’s “Dum Diversas” in 1452.
“If you truly see yourself as a representative of Christ to this world, you absolutely not only can do better, but need to do better.”
A papal bull, an official letter containing directives, or important announcements, pronounced blessings upon the European plunder of African lands and the enslavement of African peoples, and curses on anyone who interfered. At the time, this papal bull primarily favored Portugal.
Shortly thereafter, other papal bulls followed, such as “Romanus Pontifex” (1455) and “Inter Caetera” (1493). The each provided similar impetus for christians inclined to go abroad and steal, kill, and destroy in the name of their savior.* Despite the proclamation of John 10:10 that would identify this behavior as anti-Christian, these bulls served as knives christian colonizers used to carve up the heathen/pagan lands they “discovered.”
This doctrine was first pronounced by Roman Catholic leaders, but soon saw exponential proliferation by Protestants. Rather than reforming this demonic doctrine, they incorporated its inhumanity into their developing orthodoxies almost as universally as the Nicene Creed.
Far from being a matter of ancient history, this doctrine was internationally recognized law (among Europeans) that formed the national boundaries of many modern nations and is embedded in their legal systems. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall invoked the Doctrine of Discovery in the 1823 ruling on Johnson v. McIntosh. More recently, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg upheld it in her 2005 opinion on Sherrill v. Oneida.
Admitting the Knife is There
On March 30, 2023, the Vatican finally admitted the Doctrine of Discovery is deleterious, not divine. Does the statement go far enough? Does it actually accomplish anything? Will nations whose entire existence is based on “discovery” change policies toward Indigenous peoples? What are Native Americans, whose land was “discovered”, saying about this?
Indigenous activist Sarah Augustine (Pueblo/Tewa) recognizes this as a “momentous acknowledgment.” Augustine, author of The Land Is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery adds, “I think there is still a ways to go.”
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) admits, “I just think it’s fascinating and it’s really great because what it does is it catapults the issue to the world stage in a very prominent manner.”
Newcomb, the author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, also expressed disappointment: “They haven’t even begun to come to terms with the true nature of what we’re actually talking about.”
Mark Charles (Navajo), co-author of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, further details the critiques of Augustine and Newcomb:
“In what could have been a groundbreaking and historic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican instead released a series of political statements that sought to rewrite history, shield the Catholic Church from legal liability and shift the blame for the Doctrine of Discovery to governmental and colonial powers.”
“If you truly see yourself as a representative of Christ to this world, you absolutely not only can do better, but need to do better. And, as a Native, Indigenous man, I will tell you wholeheartedly: Our people deserve better.”
When Will They Remove the Knife?
In 1964, Malcolm X responded a to a TV reporter’s question about racial progress in America with a knife metaphor:
“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even begun to pull the knife out, much less try and heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
The same knife of discovery used to steal lands, or carve up each colonial power’s share, is the same blade to steal labor from Africans to work the stolen land. It took 600 years to admit the knife is there and that it is harmful, even though the re is deflection about who the knife really belonged to and who wielded the weapon.
Will They Ever Heal the Wound?
If the knife is removed, what would repairing the wound of stolen land and labor look like? What would salvation for the house of bondage look like? What would it really look like for America’s moment to come to Jesus? What’s the price for liberty and justice for all?
When I entered a store the other day, I was confronted by a t-shirt that read, “Freedom Isn’t Free: Veterans Paid For it!”
We’re entering Easter weekend, a time when Christians are confronted by the paradox of grace being free, yet so very costly.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance. . . grace without the cross,” said Deitrich Bonhoeffer. . . . “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. . . it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son. . . and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
Church children sing about Zacchaeus being “a wee little man” who “climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” It ended with a joyful response from Jesus telling Zacchaeus to come down, “for I’m going to your house today!” Too bad the song ends where the main part of the story begins. Here’s the highlight:
“And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.’ And Jesus said unto him, ‘This day is salvation come to this house’” Luke 19:8-9, KJV.
Zacchaeus knew the grace of Jesus was costly. It required repentance, a removal of the knife he had plunged into the backs of his own people. He knew those he wounded needed their wounds repaired, that repentance leads to reparations. His spiritual transformation prompted material compensation for their pain. He didn’t negotiate the lowest settlement possible, but offered compound interest for their injuries. Salvation came to Zaccheaus’ house that day and he’ll live happily ever hereafter.
America dreams of happy endings whenever she sings, “America! America! God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!”
That will only come through costly grace.
*Where christians and savior were intentionally spelled with a lower case “c” and “s,” respectively, it is to indicate that these represented a counterfeit christianity worshipping a counterfeit savior.