The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA met in Portland June 16-23 and voted to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. It also voted to develop recommendations of how Presbyterian congregations “can support Native Americans in their ongoing efforts for sovereignty and fundamental human rights.” It was part of the Church’s broader work on racial justice.
The Presbyterian Church joins a growing list of denominations which have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, which has old roots but an ongoing impact. The Doctrine refers to a series of 15th Century papal edicts that gave the religious and legal justification used by Europe’s colonial powers to claim lands occupied by indigenous peoples. It allowed colonizers to seize Native property and forcibly convert or enslave the people. The Doctrine was the forerunner to the concept of Manifest Destiny, and supported the thinking that led to Native American genocide. Later, the “Discovery Doctrine” was adapted into U.S. law through a series of 19th Century Supreme Court decisions justifying U.S. land claims. Those rulings still apply today.
Other denominations that have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery include: the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalists, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the World Council of Churches, and most recently the Community of Christ. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is scheduled to take up this issue at its Churchwide Assembly, Aug. 8-13 in New Orleans. The Healing Minnesota Stories website has a list of denominational statements.
Here is the specific language the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly approved:
Call the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to confess its complicity and repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly, in consultation with ACREC [the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns], to
a. Initiate a process of review of the Doctrine of Discovery that would commence at the end of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) and that would
i. include a comprehensive review of the history of the Doctrine of Discovery;
ii. include a review of actions taken by other denominations and religious groups to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, including the explanatory and educational materials created and recommendations developed by these groups related to the Doctrine of Discovery;
iii. include contacting Native American tribes and individuals in order to understand how this doctrine impacts them.
b. Prepare a report that
i. describes the Doctrine of Discovery and explains its history;
ii. makes recommendations of how congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PC(USA)] can support Native Americans in their ongoing efforts for sovereignty and fundamental human rights;
iii. describes how relationships with specific Native American individuals and tribes can be developed;
iv. suggests specific ways in which congregations may recognize, support, and cooperate with Native American individuals, tribes, and nations who reside within their communities.
c. Engage in dialogue with ecumenical partners concerning the doctrine.
Locally, Elona Street-Stewart, the Executive of the Presbyterian Synod of Lakes and Prairies, has worked on these issues for a long, long time. (Many will recall her as a past member of the St. Paul School Board and the first Native American person elected to that position.) She cares deeply about these issues and her passion dates back to 197os when the nation was celebrating the Bicentennial and the “discovery” and “civilization” of this land. Even back in the 1970s, there were calls for the church “to join tribal leadership to examine the root causes of the poverty, racism, and invisibility of our communities,” she said.
Street-Stewart called the General Assembly’s actions “important but not conclusive.” The task ahead goes beyond approving the motion, she said: “The real work has just begun.”
Street-Stewart is a member of the Delaware Nanticoke Nation. The Synod of Lakes and Prairies she directs covers a multi-state region which includes Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota and part of Nebraska. She is the first Native American to lead a Presbyterian Synod. She spoke to the Presbyterian USA General Assembly in June, saying in part:
Our church roots and the history of this country, from colonial settlement to the present day, are a mixture of religion and politics steeped in racism and white dominance. In fact, from the beginning of the age of exploration, established in the Doctrine of Discovery of 1453, the displacement, genocide and enslavement of indigenous natives and Africans became an inextricable part of this nation and Christendom.
Reinhold Niebuhr expressed, “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” Paradoxically, the same powers that maintained order in the world also introduced injustice into the order by governing through that power. It’s time now to confess that the enforced separation of people and erasing their identities perpetuates a myth that people from a great diversity of ethnic and political histories have enjoyed the same relationship to the church, its institutions and resources.
Click here for the full text of the Street-Stewart speech to the General Assembly.
The Presbyterian Church General Assembly’s decision to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery was part of a broader racial justice agenda that grew out of its 2014 National Racial Ethnic Ministries Task Force Report. The Task Force’s report and recommendations are “grounded in the biblical understanding of difference and diversity as God’s will, and a gift instead of a problem.”
According to a General Assembly report, the work goes beyond reconciliation to the framework of repair:
Reconciliation has provided the dominant paradigm for understanding race relations in the Protestant mainline church. In the 1960s, the Black Power Movement began to understand the problem of race relations in the U.S. as exploitation of people of color and unequal access to power and resources, not de jure or de facto segregation. The reconciliation paradigm was no longer understood to be effective by power movements of people of color. Resistance to this paradigm was embodied in the presentation of the Black Manifesto at Riverside Church, a document outlining the specifics of what repair was requested by black/African American people, which was resoundingly rejected by Protestant mainline churches in 1969. Reconciliation would be effective if the only problem were misunderstandings between two equal groups. …
In 2015, racial differences remain in unequal standing, embodying unjust relationships between white people and people of color in the U.S.