Somewhere along the line I missed the knowledge regarding the Doctrine of Discovery. Even catechism scrupulously ignores that history.
The Doctrine is a 1493 papal bull (proclamation) following Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World. Back then the line between emperor and pope was a lot fuzzier.
It directs any Christian explorer who discovers non-Christian lands has the right and duty to claim them for the Christian potentates they serve. If the natives resist, they are obligated to overpower them by force, extermination and slavery.
That has been and remains one of the “lawful” foundations to colonialism to this day. In fact, it was not new to the period of Columbus.
Going back to 1455 Pope Nicholas V wrote a papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, which reaffirmed its even earlier Dum Diversus sanctioning the seizure of pagan lands (non-Christian Turks, Arabs, Asians and Africans) and the enslavement of such peoples as the will of God.
The concept can be further traced back to the time of Abraham (Genesis 15: 1-21) when he claims that God made a covenant with him to title all of the lands of the Canaanites to “his seed.” The ultra-right political Zionists of Israel are avidly pursuing that same quest to this day.
Church-state partnerships invented and use these theological codes to justify their perfidy. I don’t know how much they believe their own bullshit, but they’ve never lost a moment using them. Calls for their repeal by indigenous nations continue today.
(In fact, the “new Israelites” (self-appointed, of course) are the Mormons. Under this covenant there is no crime too great that they can’t commit against non-believers. But shhh, don’t tell anyone before their stealth candidate gets in the White House.)
Previously, I had assumed that private profiteers and state enterprises, during the so-called Age of Discovery, destroyed other cultures in their routine quest for personal wealth arbitrarily.
The idea that the theft and genocide of the native population and African slavery was lawful didn’t enter my mind. But of course for those who rule and write the laws it stands to reason that they would find the means to justify their crimes.
Today, the plunder of masses of peoples, their labor and their natural resources for the wealth of a few (wage slavery, if you will) is routinely accomplished by corporations with practically no regard for any law…theological or otherwise.
Only when people are stirred into rebellion do their quasi-representational gov’ts act on existing laws and/or create new ones to ameliorate this plunder. Even then, gov’ts usually act first against any democratic resistance long before they’re moved to reign in the rapacious appetites of the wealthy elite.
This article is prompted by a good friend of mine of the past 46 years, Dr. Jan Garrett, a professor of philosophy and religion currently at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Jan is also a distinguished member of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
UUA just held their 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix, AZ, on June 23-25. In addition to support for immigration justice and the affirmation of women’s choice and freedoms regarding reproductive justice, the Assembly took up the question of the Doctrine of Discovery.
This comes in response to the 2007 repudiation of that pernicious doctrine by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was signed by 144 nations. Only four voted against it: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Understandable I suppose, given their respective histories.
A Parliament of the World’s Religions, which convenes every five years, last met in Australia in 2009 and issued a variety of calls, including an Indigenous Peoples’ Statement to the World for the Pope to repudiate the 1493 papal Doctrine of Christian Discovery.
In 2010, the National Congress of American Indians convened and issued a call for the US to endorse that 2007 UN Declaration.
Gradually, various religious groups are supporting this call. To date that includes the Episcopalians, the Quakers, Anglicans, the American Friends Service Committee, and the World Council of Churches.
America itself became one of the foremost examples for the Doctrine of Discovery. As Dr. Garrett points out, aside from the conquest of the entire Western Hemisphere, when President Thomas Jefferson bought the vast Louisiana Purchase (1803) from France, by what “right” did France “own” it in the first place? By the Christian claim of the Doctrine of Discovery?
This was also the state/Christian theological foundation for African slavery. While Jefferson and most of the Founding Fathers were Deists not Christian, it certainly suited their claims under such law. In this sense, America can be considered to be a “Christian nation.”
If this legal fiction was suspect in any way, then the Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, put the argument to rest (at least as concerns any Indian claims). In Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), Marshall sua sponte added “Discovery” language into his decision.
In fact, a Court clerk did much the same in the original corporate-as-person argument in the 1886 case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad.
The fact is, when fundamentalists make the claim that America is a Christian nation, they’re correct…but hardly in the sense that they realize.